Pity the American cockroach. Though it is the largest of cockroach species (averaging about 1.6 inches long), is one of the quickest insects on its feet, and can fly when it reaches maturity, it is mostly harmless and hapless. Also misnamed: native to Africa and the Middle East, it arrived on our shores in the seventeenth century thanks to the slave trade. When it encounters the emerald cockroach wasp—also known as the jewel wasp—it is stung, stupefied, and dragged to a burrow, where the wasp lays eggs on its body and then inters it. Over the course of a few days the hatched larvae eat their way through the living host to its internal organs, when it finally dies. Then the larvae pupate in the corpse.

The emerald cockroach wasp, which probably made its way to North America via ports in Brazil, is unique in that it knows exactly where to deliver its venom to the cockroach brain to disable only certain functions, sedating and subduing it but not killing it. In this way it is able to break an antenna and drink its hemolymph, taking refreshment before walking the mutilated cockroach, which is almost twice its size, to its burrow.

We call it the jewel wasp because it rivets the eye with a metallic teal body and vermilion pointillism on its thighs. It recalls the virtuosic millefiore enameling one might see on jewelry or vessels in a museum—say, gallery 301 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Late Roman and Early Byzantine Secular Objects)—forged of copper alloys, inlaid with multicolored glass, with ingenious interlockings.

Robyn Schiff, who worked at the information desk at the Met off and on for some years after college in the 1990s, has written a long poem grounded in her experience there, and yet she treats us first to an engrossing description of the jewel wasp parasitizing an American cockroach, a lurid set piece that will offer itself as a metaphor for the way information parasitizes our brains, the way the wealthy parasitize the planet’s resources, and perhaps the way artists parasitize the wealthy even as the wealthy dominate the art world. Art may even parasitize us, invading our brains, targeting, like the jewel wasp, specific ganglia to lull us. That the wasp is a female driven by her breeding instincts (the male is smaller and has no instantly allegorical behaviors) also forms part of the fun:


satisfying I’m finding it
to say “cock” as often
as I have had the
occasion to here; “American cock,” in

Information Desk is wide-ranging: Schiff’s menial employment at the Met is only the starting point for an effluvial rush of memory, desire, data, and metaphor. It is her fourth book, following Worth (2002), Revolver (2008), and A Woman of Property (2016). Each bears the hallmarks of her style—long, syntactically intricate sentences, sometimes written in free verse, more often draped cunningly over a scaffold of unrhymed syllabic stanzas; arguments that proceed by digression; catalogs of curated objets that point beyond themselves to the intersection of culture and nature—as in this poem from Revolver:


you lost an eye in World War
II you would have been fitted
with a glass ball made in a
marble factory in Lau-
scha, Germany, and seen the
new world from the point of view

of one globe knocked from orbit
in a game of marbles.

At times it all looks like highbrow froufrou—less Song of Myself than Song of My Stuff:

Might I, if there’s one in stock, be sent the
Ralph Lauren Winchester Tote
                       …As you
know, the weave of the wool
of the Winchester Tote

is gun-check plaid, so please don’t confuse my
order with permission to
perform the background check you would need were
you selling me a gun, Ralph Lauren…

Worth contains a good many poems on couture houses and luxury brands, and personages ranging from Marie Antoinette to Empress Elizabeth to Gypsy Rose Lee. Revolver counterpoints frippery with gadgetry, contemplating a number of inventions exhibited at the first world’s fair, in Hyde Park, London, in 1851: “Colt Rapid Fire Revolver,” “de la Rue’s Envelope Machine,” “Singer Sewing Machine,” “Eighty-Blade Sportsman’s Knife, by Joseph Rodgers & Sons.” A Woman of Property is her most personal collection (and has the fewest endnotes), where new motherhood conjures a host of anxieties—“H1N1,” “Siren Test,” “Amerithrax.”

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. Inevitably, the dense accretion of stuff, of facts, of anecdotes, sounds a note of apocalyptic alarm, or anxiety bordering on paranoia. It’s no accident that Schiff found herself writing about H1N1 and anthrax in A Woman of Property: there, information is seen as a form of contagion. She can’t stop herself spinning from association to association—a casualty in an age of overproduction and cacophony. (Part of Information Desk, she makes clear in the poem, was written during quarantine.)


Information Desk, then, is the perfect synecdoche for Schiff’s concerns, and it takes us to the cradle of her obsession, which happens to be mine, too, and perhaps yours: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, encyclopedic museum par excellence for those of us born to—or doomed to—this continent. I was seventeen when I signed up for a spot on a chartered bus going to “Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers” at the Met. I dragooned a friend—we were the only kids on this senior citizen excursion from Pennsylvania—and saw the museum and The Starry Night for the first time. The docents in my life were few and far between, but in 1967 E.L. Konigsburg published the Newbery Medal–winning children’s book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, about siblings who run away from home and hide in the museum. Growing up with this classic surely helped fix my generation’s idealization of the Met as sanctuary-cum-labyrinth. You could never come to the end of it. This fantasy of not owning it but being owned by it dwarfed all other fantasies of consumption and possession: Borges, not Borghese.

Schiff’s great good luck in touching the hem of this ambition, by actually working at the Met, is not all it seems to be: like any low-level, public-facing job, it came with a sizable dose of tedium and occasional harassment. It was also an interment:

I used to man the Information Desk in the center of the Great Hall

of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Bull’s-eye of that octagon
was an immense urn of flowers
arranged in silence by florists on
multiple ladders
each Monday

when the Museum was closed,
reminding us
that art is mourning.

It is also wryly funny, as when visitors stop by the desk to ask how to get to the Elgin Marbles or the dinosaurs, or to protest the entry fee.

In 1995, when Schiff began working there, the museum mounted an exhibition titled “Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt,” and this coin toss between being and nothingness haunts Information Desk. Ostensibly the show is about forgery and authenticity, but it ramifies in Schiff’s hands into a subtheme on disappearance—evoked, for instance, in the “invisible dog” she tried to win at the boardwalk when she was a girl (a leash and muzzle suspended from wires); the “empty doll crib,” a devotional object in the medieval wing that was crafted in convents and served to assuage the nuns’ thwarted motherhood; or a memory of the magician David Copperfield, who “disappeared the Statue of/Liberty on TV, concluding, ‘…I thought if we/faced the emptiness….’”

This vanishing is also exemplified in a pigment Rembrandt used: “bone black,” concocted from animal bones charred in an airless crucible and ground into a powder that was mixed with oil. It was the blackest black, and stank up the studio. “The smell/of color will bother you,” Schiff quotes the artist. The image recurs toward the end of the book after a glancing reference to the Shoah and Hitler’s obsession with porcelain:

“White porcelain
is the embodiment
of the German soul,” he continued, took
Poland, and also made the Meissen porcelain factory

the expressive tool of the Reich with satellite operation
in Dachau by Dachau labor.

The fear of annihilation is the flip side of the abundance proffered by the encyclopedic museum. Yet paradoxically, in its preservation of the past, it focuses the present moment and makes us more fully aware of ourselves as living, perceiving, sensual beings. Not for nothing does Schiff echo T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: the viewer of an artwork looks

into the past of the
future, which is the same as the past of the present,
but also contains the very moment
of looking, as

a mirror does.

And indeed you could say that this is less a poem about art, or work, than a poem about braided time: the time of her employment at the Met, the time of her writing this poem some thirty years later, the arrested temporality—call it eternity?—represented by artworks, and the historicity embedded in trivia, like this tidbit about the virgule that separates “Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt”:

                          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.

Schiff’s discursive flights, held in suspension by long-winded sentences, are driven by self-interruptions: an esoteric fact interrupts a history, a history interrupts a memory, and then perhaps her husband comes into the room or the Amazon delivery arrives (a “handheld vacuum,” as it happens). “The ice was a//figure when I started that thought,/but it transformed to ground,” she explains. The confusion of figure and ground, or foreground and background, or their modulation back and forth, is a helpful metaphor for the vertigo her work produces. But it can also resemble the symptoms of our collective attention disorder. Why can’t we tell a story, or see an argument, to its end? Is it a sign of our colonization by parasitic discourses? Are we, like the cockroach, in thrall to some wasp that diverts us from our own thoughts—our own lives?


Honoré de Balzac is one of the totemic figures in Information Desk. Schiff is reading his novel Lily of the Valley when she first arrives at the Met, and she contemplates the many portraits of him, for instance a study by Rodin

elsewhere, naked,
steadied by his

own isosceles
which is the negative space between his legs
and reaches all the way down to the
circular base he stands on as if
straddling a sundial.

It’s only toward the end that we are given the explicit reason for Balzac’s shadow over the whole book: “Balzac wrote,/Behind every great fortune/is a great crime.” This is already a commonplace, and Schiff’s de rigueur references to “slaughtercash” and “murderwealth” only underscore the obvious: “An old/tradition to wash money in fine art.” This was one of the moments I thought back to the parasitic wasp: that’s where the stinger goes these days, to the area of the brain that stimulates hand-wringing. Apparently, when the jewel wasp stings the cockroach brain, it starts grooming itself obsessively.

Which is not to detract from some interesting associations and anecdotes, as when a descendant of the Princesse de Broglie, whose portrait is in the Met, came to Schiff at the information desk and asked to see it. Schiff contemplates it with her and acknowledges her own ressentiment:

                 I want to love you, too,
but I’m too jealous
of how your opera gloves,
nonchalantly filled with
having just been to the opera, are slung
over the arm of the chair you’re leaning

on to reveal how your elongated
ungloved fingers taper
into tips so attenuated
you could pick a different
lock with each
and simultaneously enter ten different

exclusive realms of being,
unlimited by time, gravity,
birth, or money.

Fair enough. But to be staff—or staffage (OED: “subsidiary or peripheral items in a picture, esp. figures or animals in a landscape painting”)—in the temple of art, as Schiff was, is to be of a priestly caste. In his memoir of working in the antiquarian book trade, Marius Kociejowski remarks, “Scarcity and value have never intrigued me as much as the improbable directions things go.”* History is nothing if not a lesson in falls and reversals: sheer serendipity. Whose fault is it when fortunes and reputations wax and wane, one artist is forgotten and another is remembered?

Ask the wasp. There are a total of three odes to wasps—the jewel wasp, the oak gall wasp, and the cuckoo paper wasp—in Information Desk. They are all ghastly; their oblique relation to the main narrative will keep readers guessing as to their true meaning. For what it’s worth, I like to think of the wasps that Botticelli painted around the sleeping god’s head in his Venus and Mars at the National Gallery in London. The common interpretation is that it is a rebus of his patrons, the Vespuccis—from the Italian for wasp. One of the Vespuccis, Simonetta, is thought to be the model for the blond beauty who recurs in his paintings, most famously The Birth of Venus. Another, Amerigo, voyaged to the New World after Columbus and by an accident of history lent his name to America. The divagations of history, including art history, provide a fascinating portrait of ourselves as a species—but it is unknowable in its totality. We can only pick out trivia and hold them to the light, marveling.