This week in the PEN Poetry Series, guest editor Robert Fernandez features a poem by Robyn Schiff. About Schiff’s work, Fernandez writes: “Robyn Schiff is as formidable of a poet as you will see in this day and age. ‘The sun drips fire.’ Yes. It drips fire in the foyer of Robyn’s house; it drips it in her tastefully appointed dining room. Robyn’s young, but she speaks with the voice of authority that transcends the voice of authority, i.e., she speaks with the voice of wisdom; she’s brilliant, has a brilliant mind, and uses it to crack open or deftly scrimshaw the traces of the world in the most difficult and hardest of stone; she’s both serious and playful, and that’s because she knows that at any moment a stray celestial object is on its way to get us—shines all around us, in fact. All to say that—like Antigone, like Judith—she’s fearless, ‘shot through with energy,’ agile and, in sum, gifted (see how reality and the imagination, sonics and syntax, and form and content come together so effortlessly in the poem that follows: ‘I have a // dream that comes to me in nothing but voice.’) Not only voice. The violence of form. Of escape and reentry. Of anything goes, indiscriminately.”


The Houselights

“Anyone who doubted its existence
              could walk into the backyard just after
sunset and see
              it,” so it was said of the original, but
to view Sputnik in my dining
              room I’d have to first invite you
to dine with us, and I probably will

              not, such is my reluctance to try to
entertain you. I was saying a few
              days ago to
a friend who said he never really uses his
              living room that he does when he
entertains when Entertainment
              struck me as the most desolate word I

ever said, that ever could be said. But
              I do not think it has come between us,
except how a
              ghost does when it appears to only one guest at
dinner. Macbeth is the famous
              example here, but he was the
host and hospitality and enter-

              tainment are not the same thing. I just broke
a word in half; what was it Macbeth said
              about the last
syllable of recorded time? That a severed
              flatworm who grows back its head keeps
all its old memories, even
              the ones that seem to signify nothing.

Apropos of that kind of nothingness,
              I remember wanting to board the black
conveyer belt
              in the stockroom at the Medimart my father
managed and ride it back to its
              origin. I did not think the
loop began a few feet away, behind

              the strip mall, where the makeup girl who let
me apply all the lipsticks to my mouth
              at once, mud, rust,
and gold, each smudge a revision of the brick wall
              I was led to lean against, leaned
against the wall flirting with the 
              truckers of PepsiCo. Now there’s a free 

man, said my father once, who owns his own
              truck and drives it on his own account. I
want to know is 
              the soul free? A loop has no beginning and what
the makeup girl did on break is
              between her and the brick wall. Her
“break” reminds me that a few sentences

              ago I made the crass point of breaking
“entertainment,” at “enter,” opening
              the word to all
I do not want to go into, furthermore I
              said “Macbeth” in the surgical
theater, where endless dissection
              of regenerating shapes writhing on

the plates inserted beneath the lenses
              rotating clockwise above the rising
              stage is just the first microscopic violence. Blood
instructions, as Macbeth put it,
              which, being taught, return. Cells, ghosts.
The flatworm remembers itself. It is

              immortal. Macbeth plagues himself. Is this
as close as we get to the Globe when by
of the King it was closed during the Black Death? I
              want to get closer. The closer
I get the more it is closed to
              me. No empty empty as a
stage unentered unexited, except

              an empty house. There is no roof, but the
heavy door is locked. Ramon Fernandez,
              tell me, if you
know, why, when the interminable show we caught
              at the Globe in City Park paused
for intermission we didn’t just 
              go home. Fleas were eating us alive, time’s

dumb couriers of plague and death. Tempis 
              Fugit. Fuck it we said, we’re already
here. Sacha and
              Nick were playing with a beach ball just outside the
theater. I don’t remember where
              Mary was or who blew up the
ball but whomever of us it was will

              never get that breath back. Later, when Nick
and I switched places, as legend has it
              Shakespeare did with
a boy who grew fevered playing Lady Macbeth,
              the beach ball rolled over a dead
squirrel, and I had no recourse but
              to kick it in the road where my son could

not touch it. The ball or the squirrel? Only
              syntax remembers; it’s out of my hands
now. What is it,
              is one question. The other is where is that child
actor’s mother, about which the
              legend of Macbeth says nothing?
She was beside him. She was backstage. She kissed

              him. She thought he had a soul. She knew he
didn’t. He’s not in the folio. His name
              was “Hal.” I do
not think he was a real boy, but he had a real
              mother. She was bored sometimes and
sometimes shot through with energy
              of such force she thinks she’s God. I have a

dream that comes to me in nothing but voice.
              Imagination enters darkness while
my body rests.
              A scholar-monk could make a word like prepare glow
in the dark by suggesting it
              derived by way of pre-paired beasts
milling knowingly near the forlorn dock

              because each entry in the lexicon
is a live wire whose root is charged by a
              holy fire, as
when a canon shot in a play really burns the
              theater down. God, I love when the
wall breaks. No one has to get hurt
              means someone is going to get killed. Come,

let’s go in together. The houselights are
              flashing code at us. It’s like being winked
at by Bacchus.
              Yes or no? Yes. That’s what entertainment is. When
something is between us; holding
              it there. We will go to terra
with it among us. Something held under,

              something interred. You’ll be lonely if you
say no in a crowded theater. Try to
              go along with
it. Just go along with it. Entertainment means
              yes in the dark. It’s the curse of
Macbeth. Believe it until the
              lights come back up and the theater throws us

up, out the vomitoriums carved like
              mighty intestines with archways like hell
mouths through which we
              exit Giants MetLife Stadium, funneling
out ninety-million customers;
              what customer service, what crowd
control, but there is no such measure out

              the 42nd Street, Broadway theater
at the site of the old Apollo and
              Lyric where I
caught 42nd Street on September 15th,
              2001. The Saturday
after that Tuesday, that’s right; I
              had tickets. The show, as all shows are, is

about how the show must go on. It was
              sold out in advance; what are the chances:
not an empty
              seat in the house. Between acts we roamed the lobby
preparing for something. I am
              not patriotic, but even
the chorus girls, the ushers, those of us

              in the Dress Circle, all cried when the girls
mounted their huge dimes, each on her own tin
              stand about the
size of the drums upon which elephants balance,
              and sang “We’re in the Money, We’re 
in the Money,” because enter-
              tainment is unbearably sad and so

unlikely, and the human spirit is,
              and has terrible, gorgeous gams kicking
and kicking in
              unison. I think you understand I felt sick
telling my friend he entertains
              in his living room and why I
hate poetry and having depicted

              this nothing life I live in a field of
mortgaged dust as one in which we drift through
              rooms with nothing
to discuss but rooms themselves. My house stood for a
              long time before I came in and
tried to make it stand for something.
              The sun drips fire. I want to hold steady

in mind, entertain an idea without
              it having to arrive. I do not want
you to go, which
              is just to say, I hope you won’t even come. I
dine beneath the chandelier called
              Sputnik alone. Voyager 1 
exits and enters in the bedroom farce

              that is the universe out the solar
system into interstellar space, but
              Sputnik, in a
blast of obsolescence, the planned kind, gone in a
              ball of flame upon reentrance
into the atmosphere of Earth
              from its pulsing orbit through the nothing

that surrounds us from whence my commitment
              to atmospherelessness in my dining
room where, as on
              the moon, because there is no atmosphere there at
all, no wind, no stirring weather,
              first footsteps of men still emboss
the chalky lunar dust, I must

              leave all marks for all time untouched; ruts where
the legs of chairs slide through the floor polish
              some former home-
owner first measured into the bottle cap then
              poured into the bucket and walked
a mop through underscore the deep
              intentional neglect with which I tend

my Sputnik. You want to know my design
              taste, House Beautiful or Elle Decor, both
of which I sold
              subscriptions to as a telemarketer in
the Midwest in a call center
              with a giant blackboard where our
names were scratched in chalk beside daily sales

              figures? It’s pre-reentry dawn, pre-bust.
The show, which has been thrillingly boring
              about to come
to nothing all the time. The Metropolitan
              Opera House is not more true.
That hot house raises its ghastly
              Sputniks up slowly as its crystals dim.

Dramatic. But not how it’s done in space.
              There is one great lowering. A blast as
silent as the
              silence before and after it. Even fire can
not find its voice in space. All it
              says to me is prepare for more
silence. I’m not special. It says that to

              all the girls. I was prepared to attend
a performance of La Traviata
              by a public
high school music teacher who lived at the tip of
              Manhattan in a borrowed house
so stately its staircase served as
              the stately staircase set of a private

school in a Woody Allen film about
              private boredom, because her husband, a
higher-up in
              the church, received the house as part of his holy
compensation. Preparing for
              attending La Traviata
at the Metropolitan Opera

              House involved two points: an understanding
that midcentury home design is based
on the principle of moving swiftly so as
              not to be seen awaiting a
destiny better than this one,

              followed by the vow to excuse ourselves
if we should find ourselves in a fit of
              coughing to a
dark recess behind the seating where we were told
              marble fountains stood waiting for
us, dispensers, too, dispensing
              conical paper cups you can’t put down

that turn a moist white vortex you can crush
              with one hand, very fulfilling. Who would
believe me? I
              did have a coughing fit and was grateful for the
preparation to stand excused
              in the corridor. I stayed there
until the strayed woman died and had to

              push against the tide of everyone who
was then exiting the theater to get
              my bag out from
under the seat that had been in front of me. I
              might be confusing this part with
a flight I once took that made an
              emergency landing back at the same

airport I departed from. I love you.
              Do you love me? It will be hard for you.
Everything Goes.
              I saw that at the Vivien Beaumont across
the plaza from the Opera House
              the day a singer there, someone you have
never heard of, backed off the balcony

              like a scuba diver into the sea
during intermission just after the
              haunted banquet
where Lady Macbeth sang fill up this cup beneath
              the implicit light of Sputnik
in retrograde. I think Sputnik
              is the moon of an unnatural world,  

or a god we caught and dangle in a
              cage above our drama, but demanding
the attention
              of a god commands the room. This is all I know:
its name means companion. When my
              family came out the other
theater humming, we saw the lights of the

              emergency, TV crews, we didn’t know
what had happened yet, not until later,
              after dinner
where roller-skating waiters served us desperately.
              I was embarrassed. Ill with it.
Back at the Wall Street-money black
              glass apartment of my uncle to which

I’d never been before and to which I
              never would return—this was the leap year
nineteen eighty-
              eight, January 23rd, I had just turned
15—we turned on the news. I
              meant to say Anything Goes. Not
Everything. Anything. (Painted portholes)

              (beyond which) not everything, anything
(the horizon, imagined) Anything
              Goes. It goes in
dis          crim  in         at       ely.      The rest           of it       is true. 


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