Throughout her 30-year career, Gjertrud Schnackenberg has written poems of ornate splendor, erudite wit, and high formal gloss. At the same time, her major subject has been what Donne called “absence, darkness, death: things which are not.” This dual tendency toward elegance and elegy has unsettled some critics. In a generally positive review of her latest book, Heavenly Questions (2011), Dan Chiasson wrote:
[It’s] a book-length elegy for her husband, the philosopher Robert Nozick, who died of cancer in 2002. If we expect grieving to be primal and direct, Schnackenberg is the American poet perhaps least suited to expressing it. She writes in a style that would please a pre-Raphaelite, were it not for the occasionally baffling mention of subatomic particles or interstellar phenomena. Hers is an heirloom style started from old stock, bypassing, it would seem, every development in prosody and poetic diction of the last century.
The impression this gives is of a poet stuck in Newton’s universe—her emotions tightly corseted; her meter so strict, Paley’s God could set his watch by it—give or take a few concessions to modernity. It’s not a total caricature, but it raises questions. What would it mean to express “primal and direct” grief in poetry? If you’re grieving primally, why would you—how could you—write a poem at all? On the other hand, if you’re grieving through something as indirect as a poem, why not make it emphatically artificial, like a fanciful death mask that only accentuates the blank stare behind it?
Following a logic of this kind, Schnackenberg’s best poems play form against theme, to the point of subverting form altogether. They are virtuoso creations that mock their own virtuosity, exposing the hollowness beneath the dazzle. They remind us that even in a postmodern, post-Einstein world, the norm in our lives is an illusory order: a coherence we construct and believe in until tragedy gives it the lie.
In this respect, her work itself is impressively coherent. “Nightfishing,” the first poem of her first volume (Portraits and Elegies, 1982), marks out a stretch of waters in which she’s been casting nets ever since. An elegy for her father, it begins by describing a scene painted on a clock:
The kitchen’s old-fashioned planter’s clock portrays
A smiling moon as it dips down below
Two hemispheres, stars numberless as days,
And peas, tomatoes, onions, as they grow
Under that happy sky; but though the sands
Of time put on this vegetable disguise,
The clock covers its face with long, thin hands.
Another smiling moon begins to rise.
Here we have, literally, a clockwork universe, whose cheerful abundance is artificial: a “disguise.” Yet the face of the clock can hide only behind “thin hands”—an inadequate disguise, which seems the projection of some fear or grief on the part of the speaker.
From the kitchen we are transported to a remembered childhood scene: the speaker on a rowboat with her father. They fish. He smokes. A bat flies by; she shrieks. For the first time she associates a “thought of death” with him. The moon falls. They twirl their oars. Finally we’re back in the kitchen, and he is “three days dead”:
A smiling moon rises on fertile ground,
White stars and vegetables. The sky is blue.
Clock hands sweep by it all, they twirl around,
Pushing me, oarless, from the shore of you.
For all the speaker has lost, the poem has never abandoned its composure. Its intricate conceit is perfectly orchestrated from start to finish; the young Schnackenberg has already announced herself as a modern metaphysical poet. The verse runs like clockwork. So does the painted world on the clock. So does the real world of the speaker—except for the bat. And the death.
What if the form of this poem had rebelled against the clock’s sinister precision? What if Schnackenberg had roughened the meter or broken a line or two in half? In that case the poem would have taken a stand against artifice, made a good-faith attempt to embody the messy reality of death. Instead it maintains a sort of complicity with the clock, which never misses a beat. It’s as if the poet were saying: here is a small, perfect work of art. It neatly, even wittily encapsulates the experience of losing my father. And in its very perfection, it is a terrible lie.
From “Nightfishing” onward, Schnackenberg’s poems are as composed, as self-contained, and as ominous as that scene on the clock. Like her aging scientist in “Darwin in 1881,” she conjures intricate miniature worlds that turn out to be anything but escapist:
Outside, the orchard and a piece of moon
Are islands, he an island as he walks…
Different islands conjure
Different beings; different beings call
From different isles. And after all
His scrutiny of Nature
All he can see
Is how it will grow small, fade, disappear…
This island fixation is surely a trope for Schnackenberg’s own art (as well as a nod to Elizabeth Bishop’s “Crusoe in England,” whose hero experiences similar visions). But around Schnackenberg’s islands, storms gather; through her immaculate craftsmanship, the stain of something unspeakable shows. “Two Tales of Clumsy,” a dark-comic masterpiece from The Lamplit Answer (1985), begins with idiosyncratic charm:
When Clumsy harks the gladsome ting-a-lings
Of dinner chimes that Mrs. Clumsy rings,
His two hands winglike at his most bald head,
Then Clumsy readies Clumsy to be fed.
He pulls from satchel huge a tiny chair,
And waggling his pillowed derriere
He hitches up his pants to gently sit.
Like two ecstatic doves his white hands flit
Tucking his bib in quickly, then, all thumbs,
They brush away imaginary crumbs…
Charm soon turns chilling, however, as poor Clumsy is persecuted by the villain No-No, whose name evokes death, transgression, and nihilism all at once. In the first “Tale” No-No does away with Mrs. Clumsy and dons her clothing; Clumsy realizes what’s happened just as they’re about to kiss. In the second, No-No impersonates a professor (a “Doctor of Philosophy”) and tricks his slow-witted pupil, who has been trying to compose a paragraph about God, into signing a Mephistophelian contract:
And then, his page two inches from his nose,
He copies out in crooked uphill rows:
“I, Clumsy, hereby give and wittingly
My soul to No-No for Eternity.”
And there the poem ends! Unlike Faust, Clumsy doesn’t even get anything in return for his sacrifice. Given that Schnackenberg’s husband was a philosopher, we might speculate that her “Tales” dramatize a double dread: of losing one’s spouse, and of abandoning one’s philosophical affirmations to nihilistic despair. If so, they stop short of confronting that dread directly (the poem was written years before Nozick’s illness), instead channeling it into an exuberant cartoon. Clumsy’s humiliation and loss, apparently senseless, make a deep psychological sense. His ordeal is a Kafkaesque nightmare rendered in Warner Brothers style, a mad fragment with the integrity of a complete vision.
If Schnackenberg’s work gives elaborate form to emotional chaos, her most recent book, Heavenly Questions, represents the logical extreme of her project. As a meditation on fate it has some precedent in her previous book-length poem, The Throne of Labdacus (2001), which reworks the Oedipus story. But it is even more ambitious. As the poet bids good-bye to her husband, she raids the whole store of philosophy, literature, and science in an effort to understand his death from a truly cosmic perspective.
In Heavenly Questions worlds and ocean waves “materialize, and dematerialize.” The moon revolves; DNA spins its double helix; a seashell spirals according to mathematical formulae. The Ship of Theseus replaces itself, piece by piece. Lord Krishna plays out infinite scenarios on the chessboard of destiny:
And all in play
he set the pieces out…
He swept them off,
then set them out again...
In the midst of all this, a man dies. At times the fog of erudition threatens to obscure the tragedy, yet there’s a real desperation to the poet’s intellectualizing. She is grasping at everything she knows, everything her husband knew, for consolation—and finding none. The more she situates his death within a vast cosmic cycle of creation and destruction, the more we feel, defiantly, that he was unique, is irreplaceable.
Again the smoothness of the verse is remarkable—and eerie. Much of Heavenly Questions is framed as a lullaby, with the refrain: “And hush now, all is well now, close your eyes.” If the sleepiness occasionally gives way to actual tedium, it also sets us up, along with the speaker, for awakening jolts. (Almost all of the great long poems in English require forgiveness on similar grounds. The lulls here are certainly no worse than those in, say, The Prelude.) In the most devastating moment of the book, the speaker glimpses her distorted reflection on the ceiling of a hospital phone booth:
Hanging in mirror-black, lit from above,
My frightened face, kneaded in violet wax.
My face, hanging above my lap, streamed out.
I tried to press it back with clumsy gloves.
Notice how, in the third line, the meter staggers just a little. Then there’s that word clumsy. I think immediately of the white-gloved martyr of “Two Tales”: for this poet of consummate poise, clumsiness seems to carry a special kind of horror. And what makes us feel more inept than a loss we can’t reverse? In “Sonata,” a deceptively playful composition from The Lamplit Answer, the speaker declares that life without “you” (a dead or departed loved one) is like:
…a single point withdrawn from Space,
It’s like a physicist who cannot trace
The ultimate constituents of matter—
There is no evidence Matter exists.
Thus do I introduce Theme Number Two.
And I can’t prove it, but I know it’s true:
The physical eludes the physicists.
They’ve chased down matter past atomic rings
Into small shadows, and they’ve lost it there.
It seems that they can’t find it anywhere.
They stalk imaginary floating things
Like amateurish lepidopterists
Round babbling brooks and mossy fairy knolls.
Their net strings map out squares of empty holes.
This is a wicked joke on science, but it speaks to a real anguish. Ever since Keats half-jokingly accused Newton of “destroy[ing] all the poetry of the rainbow,” poets have been wary of scientists’ efforts to demystify nature. Here Schnackenberg finally scores one for the poets as she sends her physicists bumbling around a Keatsian visionary landscape. (“Irritable reaching after fact & reason…”) Yet she’s able to pull off the satire because she speaks as a disappointed believer. She wishes science had a reassuring handle on the world; instead it has proved helpless, like everything else, in the face of her loss. Again her verse conspires in the illusion of control, but it can’t patch over the flaw that has opened in the cosmos.
Likewise, all the scientific jargon in Heavenly Questions (William Logan complained that the poet seems to be trying “to versify a microbiology textbook”) joins the wealth of allusions in a futile evasion. The camera of Schnackenberg’s verse zooms in on chromosomes and atoms, zooms out on whole continents, dollies through dream labyrinths and pans over mythical battlefields, but only rarely draws in for a human close-up. When it does, its godlike objectivity collapses. Schnackenberg portrays her husband as a saint through and through—that is the book’s greatest weakness. But she portrays herself, unsparingly, as a terrified, awkward figure, and that is the source of its power.
Heavenly Questions is an uneven and sometimes dissatisfying read, but it’s one I’ve found myself returning to over and over. It’s a work of grave doubt, given to posing questions like “The universe is where? Is hanging where?,” even as its dominant tone, not to mention its technique, remains tremendously assured. It reminds me of the “supreme fiction” Wallace Stevens ambivalently dreamed of creating: a lush, abundant world that has “stopped revolving except in crystal.” The universe of Schnackenberg’s magnum opus—with its ideal forms and formulae, its perfect pentameter and perfect husband—hangs in something like that icy suspension; but it’s the cracks in the crystal, the urgent vulnerabilities, that reveal themselves as the essence of their creator’s design.