Information Desk

Robyn Schiff

 
 
 

…. There was a cart
     we used to transport brochures 
from a storage closet
     to the Desk. You had to steer it 
back through the Renaissance
     into a passage that 

opened in a dark medieval hallway 
    through a door without a handle 
you backed into after opening 
    one-handed with a key called 
the Number Two that was 
    hanging from a 

ball link chain around your neck. We 
    talk a lot about death, 
my husband and I. I want to add to 
    the utter absence 
of the weight that once seemed everlasting 
    of the child asleep 

upon me that 
    I can feel not feeling, 
which is the overtaking void circumscribed exactly, 
    the pressure at my nape 
of that ball link chain when I 
    bent down to insert the key, 

turned it, pushed the door open, 
    and then the glimmering, insignificant beauty 
of the release 
    of my neck as I withdrew key from lock,
stood up, and entered.
    My mother swam in 

a man-made body called the Delta Reservoir 
    near the Mohawk River
outside Rome, New York 
    that was the intentional result of 
the engineered flooding of 
    a village called 

Delta 
    that had been developed 
into something more than just 
    acreage by two men named Stark and Prosper. 
You are an American Girl. Here you are in 
    an American Poem 

getting in the American 
    water. Let’s go under 
together. “I used to get 
    nose bleeds from the pressure. I don’t know 
that I want to get in the poem—” 
    There is a ladder. 

Itself a salvage. 
    Let’s back down it slowly 
deep in the quiet American 
    Wing of the Museum 
in darkness toward a new closet—not for storage 
    but installed for public 

viewing, a woman’s 
    wardrobe. Private, 
folded things, ironed, crisp 
    as peeling an orange in sunlight. Lit 
like a refrigerator in a dream, 
    with almost nothing in it, who can 

stand before it and not 
    divest? 
Stark and Prosper. Starched and Proper. Stiff and Angry. Forced and entered. 
    Sorted and counted. Stored and forgotten.
A pull to bottom I 
    associate 

with dream ending before  
    awakening. Not “thoughtless”; 
beyond thinking. End-of-recording 
    sound of the needle 
dragging the void. Why should I, we, be 
    afraid? Human consciousness far 

predates me 
    oiling the mahogany handrail 
with my mere presence. Rembrandt
    Not Rembrandt
1995, was the first special exhibition 
    I attended as museum 

employee; paced it with the proprietary edge 
    of a paid informant. Submit 
everything to the binary. 
    It had the stiff, infrared soul 
of connoisseurship; 
    Rembrandt

Not Rembrandt, that’s the question; 
    posed it like a strobe 
with the typesetter’s solidus, the 
    forward slash, a force field between 
who did and who did not make it, 
    without that indecisive 

human “Or” Milton imposes 
    between the given and the made— 
Eve withdrawing from Adam 
    with such gardening tools as are yet rude, 
guiltless of fire had formed, or angels brought.
    Choose 

a side, poet, which is it—Eve or God 
    who forged the hoe? Forgery, forgery,
forgery, flash, flash, flash. I said to myself, 
    if you have to ask …
but I stood before each 
    painting 

eating half-shadow, umber, and ocher 
    every day for a month 
of lunch hours trying to know. “The handling 
    of the built-up impasto 
is itself a valid argument 
    against,” 

writes the curator, Walter Leidke in the 
    exhibition catalog, 
        <FORGERY>  
    and yet, a few paintings over—Portrait 
of a Man (The Auctioneer)—“it is 
    surprising how 

successful the unknown 
    painter was 
at imitating Rembrandt’s manner   
    in the light effects on the sitter’s 
left cuff….” And so I came to love that 
    cuff, its lace and dust, and loved the 

wrist that cuff suggests, obscured here in the painting 
    by the ledger 
the auctioneer is holding 
    on which the trembling value of what—some cows? 
suggests a field, in mind, 
    where a calf moves 

in the shadow of a barn. 
    The hot smell of manure 
and mulch. A bull. How much is it all worth? 
    Self portrait of the young artist as 
auctioneer with your check list and radiant 
    left 

cuff that Rembrandt couldn’t have 
    better lit, I see you; I think I touched that cuff and more 
at a keg party in Slonim Woods 
    and sensed 
its tragic aptitude,
 
    counterpart to your dull right 

wrist 
    lacking the vision of an artist’s truth. Is that 
the word? Truth?
    Follower of Rembrandt, 
I followed you into the blue woods, but I changed my mind. 
    There was a museum guard who would 

not leave me alone in the Rembrandt
    Not Rembrandt 
show. Like everyone, 
    he used his breaks to flip through 
the large black binder of better jobs 
    Human Resources left out on a table 

for us, and was eventually transferred 
    to the department of design to 
walk the collection with a power drill 
    tightening the Lucite fixtures 
that held brochures. 
    He was 

peculiar, and I was afraid of him. 
    When he asked if he could sit beside me 
in the employees’ cafeteria, 
    situated down a 
private-access stairway 
    beneath 

the small-scale models 
    of a prosperous and tedious imagined 
hereafter of a Middle Kingdom 
    civil servant served by 
a labor force of affectless 
    miniature 

ghosts trapped
    in menial afterlives on boats, in gardens, 
slaughterhouses, cattle stables, 
    and a cramped granary 
divided into two tight rooms separating 
    those hoisting sacks 

from scribal clerks squatting on the granary floor 
    recording each ounce of grain, 
I could not find my no. So down he put 
    his tray and we talked a while. 
 He did something 
    obscene, I 

don’t remember what, 
    with a red cherry tomato. Two months later 
he was led out 
    of the museum on a date 
rape charge in cuffs, which seemed so new then, 
    but as a phrase was coined in 

1973, 
    so technically is as old as 
me. We grew up together 
    in the semi-finished basements 
of the suburbs 
    listening to the upstairs plumbing rush the 

shit of our fathers 
    into the earth. Rembrandt
Not Rembrandt was a show about the audacity of 
    no. It either is or it isn’t. Rembrandt 
or not. But we both know,
    though I 

have to say it, there can 
    be truth without vision—call it 
competence—you follow it out onto the ice 
    with confidence 
finding purchase on the surface 
    in the boot-ruts left by 

others, but it will never 
    get me across 
a lake this size. My mother, a teenager, 
    more than half a century ago 
on the telephone with a friend on 
    a day like this— 

crystalline, indifferent—heard his 
    little brother through the black receiver 
run panting into the house 
    yelling that a littler sister yet 
had broken through. 
    The ice was a 

figure when I started that thought,
    but it transformed to ground,
which is the beginning of disaster, 
    as ground gives
way to the natural transitions of 
    the states of matter, in this   

case, just above the solidus,
    the temperature below which
a given substance—lake water, or my will— 
    is solid. As a mark
of punctuation— / —
solidus descends toward 

us from the
    imperial Roman coin of
(nearly) solid gold, also called a solidus, 
    on the same downward spiraling staircase
that brings sold to soldier—one who serves 
    for pay. 

Such coins are on 
    display today in gallery three oh one   
right outside the gift shop, but a debossed glass weight 
    one could use to gauge debasement
is too far away 
    to help debate 

the worth. Did you 
    consent in basements? Yes/no. Circle one.
I didn’t no.     And under the Information 
    Desk? Did you no? I would
now. But I didn’t how 
    so long ago. Rembrandt, 

Rembrandt, Rembrandt, not, 
    not, not. From slurry to slip
and back we go. Stand up, visitor. This is your hour. 
    Here is your map.
Choose your cradle. Ancient Egypt to 
    the right. Ancient Greece to

the left as the crow flies, if the crow flew, 
    but construction obstructs
its course so you’ll see it 
    strutting around, lost, making self-important caws
at the temporary walls 
    of empire. 

What do I mean: “crow”? The boy from SVA? 
    The tourist? The teacher? The dramaturg?
School girl to whom the world has given such 
    a small skirt and such a tall
cold stool? Who 
    converges

in the Great Hall with me today? Sometimes 
    I worked the lines
handing out floor plans 
    just to get out from inside
the fact, but Information is a moveable 
    Desk. John F. Kennedy

Jr. asked me late one afternoon, “What time is it?” 
    and I had to tell him, “not much left
now”; we were 
    closing soon. He stood
there throbbing 
    like a metaphor. Son of the 20th 

century whose vehicle 
    was powered by props. 
The Great Poet once admonished me, 
    “You are reducing history to anecdote.”
“That’s more than you ever did! 
    Stop raising it 

up to myth!” I would have liked to have stood in front   
    of Washington Crossing the Delaware
holding John-John by the hand 
    and told him  
I once saw it carved 
    in a grain of rice.

Afterward I’d tuck the Stoic 
    in 80 yards of wine-dark imported
European textile in the low, 
    down bed in Gallery seven
oh nine, salute good night Medieval 

America, and close the high-post 
    night curtain. In this/ lucid/ state of/
poem, /I ad/mit I’m/ having/ trouble/ 
    envi/sioning/ the age/ of
John-John. Mother or 
    liaison; boy 

or man. Thomas Hart whose bed we’re 
    in arrived on this land on a ship named
Desire. Who would identify 
    with the mother country or
dour country mother 
    variety of 

Massachusetts witch, living 
    apron she who used her hands to wipe her
hands on, practical Ipswich wife to whom
    this bed was left,
in this home, 
    willed father-to-son, out from under her? 

Lying on the bed
    I can feel the room’s dependency, its depth,
a percussive 
    loyalty stomping out a fire. And with
a little reach I can use my foot 
    to twitch the awful  

oaken four-centuries-old cradle situated 
    beside me. Imagine   
the oak tree overcoming the acorn-tragic 
    hunger hoarded by
a rodent. 
    Every tree is an 

exception. The sturdy wood
has the self-regarding gloss   
    of old cabinetry turned
in anger, 
    contrived squarely in defiance, in the proportions
of a coffin; worse, this so-called 

cradle 
    has a hood that leans a shadow
on the empty. 
    Every child thrives at the expense of someone
else’s. Though this is just a poem on the 
    subject of exhibition—a 

double-blind 
    protection from statistics—here
I sing to John-John inside the cradle 
    inside this primary Period inside  
the Period Rooms inside 
    the American 

Wing inside this Museum. I am mothering a small man/
    wifing a tremendous potential
child/ ovulating in the period room 
    and full of it:
Lust. Avarice. 
    Spite. 

Destiny. Dynasty. Lice. 
    John-John John Kennedy Jr. wants to know
what time it is! 
    That’s the 20th century behind you, child man.
You can hide inside my skirt, 
    but it’s 

a mini. What’s coming’s coming for you 
    from the sky.
There’s a luminous noonday shine 
    on the Information Desk
but it’s artifice: the Trustee’s Dining Room, 
    glows above like an  

expensive, minor afterlife. 
    This morning I awoke to pounding deluge—
a furious heavenly manual type- 
    type-typing
outside my window that turned out 
    to be just 

ice on the roof thawing 
    but I still call that rain, if from a lower
ceiling than I thought, and I can lower 
    my thinking yet,
to the museum subbasement 
    where rats mount a 

rotating permanent exhibition 
    of excrement
among the white marble B-side nudes and 
    dated marble satyrs
that may or may not 
    ever see restoration or be 

seen above again.
    On the same topic of being,
“Wash me” 
    in the dust on the back fender of a moving car
is a traveling exhibition, 
    and of the several ways a tree
disperses seed 

including: by wind-drift as an arrow or parachute or powder; 
    germinating afloat
upon water 
    in pockets of air
like naturally occurring 
    versions of the 

pontoons that land the De Havilland Otter, 
    ready to root  
riverside 
    where  
the river takes them; clinging in infested feathers and matted 
    or glossy or soft or not soft fur 

with the sad, dignified, 
    free-loading no-regret
barbs that inspired 
    the marvels of Velcro; ground under the hooves and paws
of anything that charges, 
    burrows, claws, herds, stampedes, is 

led, leaps, or wanders 
    alone across or through or around rivers and ponds,
woods, fields and yellow acreage; 
    Dickensian or like
wired-martyrs, self- 
    detonating “in circumstances 

beyond 
    the limits of acceptable fiction,”1
and then dispersed further, as in the case 
    of common dog violet, whose small shrapnel
gets scavenged by ants who spread it 
    incredible 

relative distances 
    away from the places the seed pods exploded
by dropping a few here and here en route
     to their hills, blazing
the earth 
    in inadvertent pathways of dog 

violet further 
    inadvertently on-goingly dividing
through I don’t know how many ages 
    of home-going delegates of I don’t know
how many 
    ants; by the hoarding, 

aforementioned, of acorns
    by rodents or jays who are hunted
by predators, or by the scattering 
    of acorns
by my son and his friends 
    in circumstances that sometimes shock 

me, send me running outside to ask them 
    to calm down, play gently, respect
one another as girls seem to— 
    though my sister and I were certainly
cruel to 
    each other and sometimes 

strategic, when we played with acorns 
    play had to do with dolls serving
dolls from beautiful earthenware 
    art nouveau game dishes
fabricated in the acorn shape 
    of acorns, and 

was never just 
    play with acorns themselves; some birds
in the thrush family 
    eat a kind of vivid berry
encapsulating a tiny adamantine 
    seedcase requiring 

a hard-grinding gizzard 
    to wear it down and passes through
the mill of the thrush 
    as through history
belittled, belittled, and belittled 
    until belittlement is the freedom 

awakening each seed in shit   
    in the alert procreative natural state
of revenge by which we will 
    outnumber you;
time is the best maneuver. 
    No better craftsman than 

the clock inside heather, 
    a seeding that insinuates into the future
by investing in soil 
    and being turned on
by the temperature 
    of fire rolling above the moors 

like a hell bent 
    plow. Overwhelming
undergoing, what infrastructure shifts 
    under this one?
When I slowly crossed the park after work at the
    Information Desk my compass was

the Dakota where Polansky shot
    the exteriors of Rosemary’s
Baby, but the interiors were shot brightly
    inside my head.
Confused 
    museum goers sometimes asked, “Where

are the dinosaurs?” Depending on my mood: 
    “Across the park not
far away” or “That’s a good question,
    they used to be
right here.”


1 George Lewes


Robyn Schiff is the author of three volumes of poetry, including A Woman of Property. She is a co-editor of Canarium Books, and a professor at Emory University, in Atlanta. Her poem in this issue is excerpted from Information Desk: An Epic, forthcoming in 2021.