Information Desk: An Epic (Penguin Poets) (Paperback)
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Reading this collection is like walking through a museum with your smartest friend, who also happens to speak fluently in poetry. If you're like me and you love to read every placard in an art museum, nerd out on obscure historical facts, and wish you could write this beautifully about cockroaches and wasps, Robyn Schiff's Information Desk is for you.— Lindsay
A book-length poem set in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, from a writer whose work offers “something few poets ever discover: a vision of the whole world” (Dan Chiasson, The New Yorker)
Robyn Schiff’s fourth collection is an ambitious book-length poem in three parts set at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s information desk, where Schiff long ago held a staff position. Elaborately mapping an interconnected route in and out of the museum through history, material, and memory, Information Desk: An Epic takes us on an anguished soul-quest and ecstatic intellectual query to confront the violent forces that inform the museum’s encyclopedic collection and the spiritual powers of art.
Novelistic in its sweep, frantically informative, and deeply intimate in its private recollections, Information Desk: An Epic wayfares with riveting lyric intensity through an epic array of topics and concerns, including illusion, deception, self-deception, complicity, lecherous coworkers, the composition of pigment, the scattering of seeds, ideas, and capital, and insect infestations spreading within artwork. Along the way, Schiff pauses to invoke three terrifying muses—parasitic wasps—in desperate awe of their powers of precision and generative energy. Information Desk: An Epic undertakes a hemorrhaging ekphrastic journey through artifice and the natural world.
“A searing yet reverent book-length poem, containing as many jokes as it does social critiques, odes to forgeries and furious passages about goatish colleagues.” —The New York Times
“An encyclopedic poem that captures the immense experience of working, and being, at the Met . . . Information Desk is wide-ranging . . . an effluvial rush of memory, desire, data, and metaphor . . . wryly funny . . . What is consistent across Schiff's books is an interest in the historical vignette and the artifact, their involvement in a web of social and economic relations, all of this expressed through a vocabulary and syntax that match these artifacts in elaboration and craftsmanship. It's bracing to encounter a mind so voracious, so unapologetic in its intelligence and finical grammar.” —New York Review of Books
“There is quiet humor, alongside a whiff of defiance, in Information Desk’s subtitle: 'An Epic.' An epic poem, of course, calls to mind the Greeks, the Romans, all those illustrious examples—The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, etc. The journey portrayed in Information Desk may initially appear to be more inward, but it’s no less transformative . . . Schiff turns the oft-forgotten worker behind the counter into an opportunity to ask deeper questions about the historical relationship between creativity and economics . . . Who says that the life of the woman behind the counter is not equally adventurous as an epic hero’s?” —Poetry Foundation
“A study of memory as much as of art . . . Schiff orchestrates an engaging drama of consciousness that lures the reader down each page, capturing the mind’s quicksilver leaps from past to present and back again as it pings in Proustian fashion from sensory trigger to anecdote to meditation on history, science, and a panorama of other subjects treated with a mix of vulnerability and wit.” —Poets & Writers
“Schiff’s attention to class and cultural formation [...] is part of a welcome return of class-based discourses to the world of American poetry . . . ranging in intellect, gorgeously slow in its development of thought and feeling . . . [Information Desk] is so faithful to itself, so admirably assured in how it presents us its information.” —Preposition Magazine
“[A] breathtaking sweep through personal and public history . . . Schiff has composed a fascinating poetic study of the ways that art relates to its audience.” —Publishers Weekly
“Ecstatic, propulsive, and novelistic, Robyn Schiff’s Information Desk is a tour-de-force epic on the intricate structures of knowledge, aesthetics, and labor. Astonishingly sibylline with her syllabic constraints, Schiff is one of our most formally brilliant poets writing in American letters today.” —Cathy Park Hong, author of Minor Feelings