Women of Property / Ann Keniston

A Woman of Property. Robyn Schiff. Penguin, 2016. 96 pp.

My Private Property. Mary Ruefle. Wave, 2016. 126 pp. 

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Capitalism, as Karl Marx was among the first to notice, imbues our relation to the things we buy with intense feelings, enabling us not only to love our purchases but to believe, or at least half believe, that they can love us back. This sense that our belongings are at least partly alive, which Marx called commodity fetishism, has another important effect: it lets us forget the actual humans whose labor created the commodities we choose among. Related dynamics of animation and deanimation, and the strong feelings that accompany them, extend still further in the contemporary era of autotrading, data tracking, and the like. Increasingly, the market itself seems like an autonomous, almost sentient entity able not only to fulfill but anticipate our desires in ways that leave us euphoric, if sometimes spooked. 

Feelings have long offered strategies for women writers, from nineteenth-century American sentimentalists to latter-day memoirists, to enter public life. It therefore isn’t surprising that two recent poetry collections, Robyn Schiff’s A Woman of Property and Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property, explore the seemingly private feelings associated with property ownership. In both volumes, these feelings are mixed: a sense of giddiness often collides with what Sianne Ngai calls “dysphoric affects” (among them “envy, anxiety, paranoia, [and] irritation”) that themselves contribute, according to Ngai, to “the psychic fuel on which capitalist society runs.” Lauren Berlant has identified a related paradox. The collision of American “fantasies of the good life” with a contemporary reality characterized by “postindustrial[ism], the shrinkage of the welfare state, [and] the expansion of grey (semi-formal) economies,” she claims, has created what she calls cruel optimism, a recurrent “desire” for what is “actually an obstacle to [our] flourishing.” 

Objects, otherwise known as images, are essential to poems. But when these objects become commodities—when they are bought and sold—they change. Keats’s nightingale and Shelley’s skylark are unpossessable and ethereal, but Keats’s Grecian urn, which belongs to someone, impels the poet to try to animate the figures represented on its surface. Many subsequent poems imbue objects associated with the marketplace—from Eliot’s oyster-shell-strewn restaurants to O’Hara’s bargain-priced wristwatches to Ginsberg’s lushly provisioned supermarket—with strong feelings. But Schiff and Ruefle go further, juxtaposing a wish to animate property with mundane details about its acquisition and transfer in ways that evoke the negative feelings that Marxian commodity fetishism normally suppresses. Shifting between what Berlant calls “wandering absorptive awareness and . . . hypervigilance,” both Schiff and Ruefle emphasize not only feelings—including “ugly” ones associated with contemporary capitalism—but what Ngai calls a related (if paradoxical) “failure of emotional release,” sometimes evident as “ironic distance” and sometimes as “innervated ‘agitation’ or ‘animatedness.’” 

The property on which Schiff and Ruefle’s volumes focus is often ill-gotten, provisional, or both; it incites not only pleasure but boredom, fear, and shame. The tension between these feelings is often evident as an incongruity between the first-person speaker’s ecstatic experiences of property and the poet’s seemingly ironic or critical evaluation of them. The reader, that is, senses the speaker working extra-hard to put on an entertaining show in ways that reveal an underlying sense of futility. This often excessive, useless effort is formally evident both in Schiff’s use of syllabics and in Ruefle’s verbose, prosy explanations of ordinary phenomena. (All the poems in My Private Property are in prose.) It’s even more apparent in Ruefle’s inclusion, following a series of poems that carefully taxonomize different kinds of sadness, of an endnote explaining that if the word sadness in these poems is replaced with happiness, “nothing changes.” 

A perhaps more ordinary cruelty is evident in recurrent allusions to the passage of time in both volumes. At one point, Schiff riffs on Wallace Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West,” whose speaker asks his interlocutor Ramon Fernandez to tell him why the natural world has been changed (“mastered,”  “portioned out,” “order[ed]”) by an overheard song. But Schiff is stuck in the ordinary world:  

                                              . . . 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. Tempus
               fugit. Fuck it, we said, we’re already
here. . . . 

Though the play seems to last forever, the fleas offer sordid reminders of death’s imminence: time, while malleable, never inspires hope, which may be why the speaker and her companions are unable to rouse themselves to leave at intermission. Or the paralysis is a symptom of something else: here, as in Berlant’s cruel optimism, “the object that draws your attention actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially.” Because the performance disappoints, the speaker can’t abandon it.

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Schiff’s poems are often ungainly, their stanzas disorderly on the page, their sentences clogged with qualifications and subordinate clauses. They juxtapose deadpan classical references and analogies and poetic allusions (not only to Wallace Stevens but other canonical poets) with descriptions of ordinary twenty-first century transactions and abstract meditations on beauty, infinity, memory, and the like. The title A Woman of Property seems defensive: these poems enumerate the different kinds of property possessed by the speaker even as they emphasize property’s provisionality: “I live in a field of / mortgaged dust”; “I have a / habitat that possesses / me”; “Every time I descend the stairs I / trespass what I already own.” 

That commodities can’t protect their owners against existential threats is the paradox of “Siren Test”: a life organized around domestic routines featuring “the Rubbermaid containers” and “the Bosch clothes dryer” is easily upended by the threat of a devastating public emergency signaled by the titular siren. (A vulnerable young son appears intermittently throughout the volume.) In a world defined by property—the speaker acknowledges “the woods / behind my house,” though they “only go back a few feet”— domestic tasks forestall fear: “Do not ask if this is / practice, just get in the / basement and load some laundry.” But the siren also affirms the immateriality and impermanence of the speaker’s possessions, their status as “unaccountables” she nonetheless tries to count. In fact, her “unbearable / affection for my glistening property” heightens her vulnerability, or at least her “fear it will be unborne”—lost, made unbearable, and perhaps made never to have existed at all. Her property, after all, includes not only the accouterments of ordinary life but memories, including that of a “crying boy,” both the one in “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” another tale of irrational fear, and her unprotectable son. 

A similar structure—in which a mundane situation opens into a meditation on abstract ideas—is evident in “Nursery Furniture,” as is a syntax that juxtaposes the superficial with the profound. The poem begins by describing the speaker’s anticipation of the delivery of “a new chair” from a children’s furniture store called the Land of Nod following the discovery of a detached screw in an earlier chair she reports to Alison, “the manager who deals with me”; the chair’s return, she notes, is one of “four this year / already.”

Nod does mean sleep,

but only as a pun on the state Cain
fled to after slaying
Abel—a waking sleep part
denial, part self-righteous,
a neutralizing hallucination of
North Carolina I rock in-
to inhaling the off-gassing batting . . .
. . . . . . . . .
. . . where
an involuting spring grinds the
slow industrial rattle I recorded for
Alison and played back over
the telephone. 

This list—which includes an account of fratricide, a reference to the site of the chair’s manufacture, a reference to the chair’s dangerous components, and an association of the chair with the “industrial”—offers an almost textbook set of obstacles to a wholly affective, fetishized relation to commodities. The chair, that is, keeps exposing its raw materials, origin, and construction process, all of which signal danger. 

But then the poem swerves: the rocker’s sound is compared first to an “estate / sale auctioneer’s lamentation,” then to “water wind riving,” an ambiguous “keen of first material,” wood, and “the ax; the altar; / the kid,” the latter objects also associated with Biblical sacrifice.  After the call with Alison disconnects, the language becomes philosophical: “Later via text: r u / more afraid of beauty or / infinity? Did u come up here 4 the / view or the drop?” Other leaps follow, including one to a memory of a childhood fish caught and released from “My / Compassion, a transparent / craft I steer in memory” and meditations on “Justice” and “the soul and / body.” These transformations evoke not (only) the violence underlying capitalist transactions but an unmoored, near-ecstatic prolixity. The interaction with Alison—or its interruption—enables a sense of transcendence, though we, and indeed the poet, don’t seem meant to take it seriously. At the poem’s end, following a memory of the speaker’s childhood belief that both parts of cut-in-half worms can “grow back,” the poet asks the reader to “imagine with me splitting and / splitting each living fork.” Then she turns to the imperative: “Think it / with a real blade, now.” But to do so, as Schiff has demonstrated in reference to the previous “ax” and “kid,” is impossible: these objects, along with the delusions and violence that surround them, exist only in and through language. 

Or perhaps it’s the threat of violence—the cruelty concealed by capitalism’s optimistic refusal to disclose how commodities are produced—that impels the speakers of Schiff’s poems to insist on their status as property owners in the first place. Alison’s observation that “I talk to / a lot of new mothers” and “There is / something you can take for that” associates the speaker’s customer dissatisfaction with something like postpartum depression. Her comment is followed by this fragment: “When / the lyric makes me sing what I did not even / want said, to get to stop having / to keep thinking // it.” Here, Schiff seems to be implicating—but also celebrating—lyric poetry’s capacity to make the poet “sing” what she’s afraid or unwilling to “say” but also its function as a defense against “thinking” about the unsayable. We don’t learn the effect of this compulsion (the independent clause is missing), but this and the volume’s other poems reveal, among other things, the (poetic) power that comes from articulating tensions between smugness and terror, what’s avoided and acknowledged, and what’s spoken and sung. That the volume itself veers so rapidly between these opposites exposes the often hidden underside of property ownership, the psychological cost of maintaining an optimistic relation to property, which is itself an antidote for (or means of denying) property’s inadequacy.  

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In A Woman of Property, theatrical and other performances often express the vulnerability underlying property ownership. In Ruefle’s My Private Property, feelings—especially sadness, happiness, boredom, shame, and exhaustion—are more explicitly identified, but rather than performing them, Ruefle tends to describe them in deadpan and reductive terms. The volume is affectively flat, relying on the paratactic and and but; the diction tends to be defiantly unpoetic; and the tendency to moralize evokes vignettes or fables more than lyric poems. The sense of distance, even dissociation, is intensified by Ruefle’s tendency to describe and define familiar actions for an interlocutor (“you”) who at times resembles a visiting space alien, as in “Observations on the Ground”: “The planet seen from extremely close up is called the ground . . . we bury our garbage, also called trash.” Similar language recurs elsewhere in the volume, from the redundant, literalizing “An accident is when something happens that is not supposed to happen and you don’t want it to but it does anyway” to elaborate descriptions of the processes of head-shrinking and pottery painting to the epigrammatic “Menopause is adolescence all over again.” 

The volume mostly focuses on ordinary objects, including a “Little Gold Pencil,” a finch the poet makes speak, a scarf that emblematizes a love affair but also has particular dimensions and geographical provenance, and an overpriced (“$86.20”) “large gift box of glacé apricots from Australia” the speaker purchases despite being short on money. Sometimes these objects are animated (“Poor little keys! . . . All that can be done is to rescue a solitary individual [key] now and then, and try what care and kindness may make of him”); sometimes the speaker expresses strong feelings about them in ways that reveal their simultaneous position as commodity, metaphoric vehicle, and exemplar of the workings of the market. In “The Gift,” for example, the speaker includes with her apricot order “a gift card that said from Mary to Mary” but also worries, as Schiff’s speaker does about the rocking chair, about contamination—have the apricots in the catalog been treated with “hairspray”?—and whether those who answer the phones “have enough to eat.” But the apricots also transform her living room (“my habitat”) into an exoticized “village of sticks on the banks of a rising river, where trade winds blew and the rains came,” a triumph of the colonialist fantasies she elsewhere in the volume condemns. 

Feelings enumerated in “The Gift” include “terror and boredom,” “uneas[iness],” anticipation, “love,” “happi[ness],” “worr[y],” and shame. Their range seems to help the speaker distract herself from the fact that even beloved objects are “covered with . . . loose, disintegrating matter—detritus, I believe it is called.” The recurrent flatness of this and other poems in My Private Property signals a dissociation from painful experiences. “Pause” makes this disconnection especially evident: the poem immediately follows and comments on a reproduced page entitled “April’s cryalog,” which the poem defines as an account of the “number of times [the speaker] cried” daily for a month. “Pause” acknowledges that at the time the cryalog was composed “I wanted to die. Literally, to kill myself” but also that “The saddest thing is, I now find the cryalog very funny, and laugh when I look at it.” The deadpan explanation—“This was not depression, this was menopause”—only partly explains the incongruity, one associated throughout the volume with death and decay, the too-fast passage of time, and the contingency of the happiness granted by the titular “private property,” which can abruptly turn to sadness, guilt, and self-recrimination. 

In the one-paragraph, sixteen-page title poem, these tensions are explicit. The poem describes “a mausoleum commonly called the Congo Museum” outside Brussels repeatedly visited by the teenaged speaker, in which she “fell in love” with an exhibited shrunken head. What she loves most, she says, is the fact that the head isn’t a fake or facsimile (as are the Christmas decorations the speaker elsewhere identifies as “pretend” but not “real pretend”) or even an ordinary doll but instead is “as close to a real doll as one could every come . . . it’s another person after all. . . . He was particular and unique and human and utterly real.” This not-quite act of animation enables reciprocity (“he possessed me as I possessed him”; “We stood facing each other . . . as if [we] were sharing the same set of eyes”) but also affirms the speaker’s power: he is “my man.” Though the head, which remains in the museum, isn’t really her “private property,” its presence lets her “daydream of having twelve shrunken heads, each one belonging to someone who has passed through my life, touching me in deep and unforgettable ways,” which she imagines storing in a custom-made “egg carton” for easy personal access. “I am ashamed to think of the baby [shrunken] heads as my private property, but I do,” she asserts, though she later admits she is the one who “gave life to [the] inanimate [museum head],” an assertion that both incriminates her and affirms her power as life-giver. 

Ruefle as protagonist-poet here appropriates an actual fetish object: shrunken heads were venerated as emblems of the dead and also, as the poem indicates, functioned as a kind of currency. But the poem places this ethnographic concept of the fetish as an (almost-)living version of the dead into a capitalist context by tracing the process by which shrunken heads “became . . . commodit[ies]”; the “market for shrunken heads,” the speaker claims, though “illegal,” was a way “people” made “their living.” This process of commodification was, she makes clear, an effect of colonialism (“the white man”) and explicitly involves “rape and plunder and pillage and oppression” and confirms that “everything in [the museum] was stolen.” But although the speaker criticizes the colonialist acquisitiveness of “the King of Belgium[, who] declared a vast territory [the Congo] as his private property, and all the heads within it,” her insight into this practice doesn’t mitigate her own desire to possess “as my personal private property, twelve human heads.” 

As Schiff’s narrator includes Alison’s suggestion that her consumer dissatisfaction is displaced and therefore treatable with “pills,” the speaker of “My Private Property” raises the related possibility that her love for the head displaces a secret (“private”) distress: “It occurs to me I wanted to die that day [I went to the museum]. Why else would I have skipped school and wandered off alone and found a friend among the dead?” That her wording (“I wanted to die”) is identical to that in the flippant “Pause” (about menopause) recalls the substitutability of “sadness” with “happiness” in the volume’s note: here, too, feelings, and the language they are described in, seem interchangeable. Yet, as in Schiff’s “Nursery Furniture,” this acknowledgment doesn’t convince Ruefle’s speaker to give up her fantasies. Instead, the poem ends with an apostrophe to the speaker’s imaginary “pantheon of shrunken heads,” whom she asks to “comfort me” in various imaginary (and poetically ambiguous) situations (“when my waters are high . . . when my waters are gone”): “I can almost hear you breathing.” Almost, but not quite: even more directly than Schiff’s overdetermined command to her readers “Think it with a real blade, now,” Ruefle’s impulse to animate the inanimate (or formerly animated) head is revealed to be a fantasy necessary to sustain the illusion of animation itself. While this moment seems to have little to do with capitalist transactions, Ruefle also claims that the head is able to “comfort me in moments of dearth” only “in exchange for my infinite love.” 

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It’s significant that both poets describe the transformation of an everything associated with capitalist excess into an anything associated with limitlessness and transgression. The situations are different: Ruefle’s “Recollections of My Christmas Tree” proclaims that the capacity, during the Christmas season, of “Everything . . . with the greatest of ease, [to be] changed into Anything” “always makes people happy,” while Schiff’s “The Houselights” misrecalls the title of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes as Everything Goes, a confusion juxtaposed with a disaster witnessed by the speaker near the theater, which she understands only “later,” after several acts of conspicuous consumption. In both cases, and both volumes more generally, acquiring stuff transforms material excess into possibility and the reverse, though traumatic experience, or at least an underlying ugly truth, is always threatening to seep through. 

Both these scenes involve performances of different kinds, a theme that recurs in both volumes, whose poems are often set in confined spaces (houses, museums, theaters), which in turn enable fantasies of a (perhaps phantasmagorical) outside. Because this slippage is mostly pleasurable, it allows both volumes (and their readers) to dispense with moralizing and ultimatums. Sober judgments are further forestalled by the pleasures that come from reading these performative, verbally prolix poems. In fact, both Schiff and Ruefle keep considering the status and value of literary creation, which functions as a not-always-material form of property. In Ruefle’s “Old Immortality,” literary materiality is the theme: the poem recounts an earl’s 1815 “plan” to ensure his immortality by hand-modeling the words of a poem he wrote onto a series of numbered dinner plates, then holding regular parties during which it was read aloud. But, “Alas,” the “debauched” guests of a grand-nephew shattered not only the plates but “Immortality” itself into “cold, cruel shards.” Tempus fugit indeed.

Similar moments—hilarious, mock-tragic, and extreme—reverberate through contemporary poems, many of which express a similar zeitgeist: recent volumes by turns oversell the joys of shopping and gambling (in Denise Duhamel’s Ka-Ching!), document the imbrication of the economic and the bodily (in, for example, Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Sarah Vapp’s Viability), and animate the market itself (in Susan Briante’s The Market Wonders). Many recent volumes also juxtapose the burnished glow with the obsolescence of old-fashioned ideas of integrity and creativity in a global economy that keeps manipulating and redefining them. As Schiff’s and Ruefle’s volumes in particular suggest, this contemporary condition is characterized by, and also seems to require, sometimes whiplash-inducing shifts between apocalyptic terror and a boredom derived from having nothing useful to do, interrupted by the transient sublimity of acknowledging the global—and also immaterial—processes through which our stuff comes to be ours. Even when we pay attention—the very phrase evokes economic exchange—to the latest catastrophes, we still have to decide what to pick up for dinner, a calculus that is both psychological and economic. It’s exhausting to imagine, as Marx predicted, all the human hands and bodies that planted, harvested, and fabricated the products we absentmindedly drop into our shopping carts, much less the lives of those whose labor put them there. That Schiff and Ruefle have impelled their readers to think about just these situations is no doubt good for us. That they make doing so not only disquieting but funny is an added bonus—a kind of freebie—though our pleasure in what we’ve got, these volumes keep reminding us, offers yet more proof we’re stuck in dynamics we cling to not despite but because they make us sad.