By Gjertrud Schnackenberg b. 1953 Gjertrud Schnackenberg

More loudly to inveigh against your absence,   
Raising the volume by at least a third,   
Humbly I say I’ve written this immense   
Astonishing “Sonata” word by word,
With leitmotivs you’ll wish you’d never heard,   
And a demented, shattering Cadenza.
I’m pained to say that scholarship insists   
Cadenzas are conclusion to Concertos,   
Not Sonatas—true Sonatas close
With what pedantic musicologists,
Waving their Ph.D.s beneath my nose,   
Persist in calling Recapitulation.
My double ending is a Variation:
I couldn’t choose between them once I chose   
To write two endings, so, because I wrote a   
Recapitulation and Cadenza,
My piece concludes two times—and then it ends   
Again because I’ve added on a Coda.

To brush up on Sonata structure: first,   
The Exposition sounds two melodies,
Deeply dissimilar, in different keys,
Major and minor. Part Two is a burst
Of brainstorms scholars call Development,   
In which the two themes of the Exposition   
Are changed and rearranged past recognition,   
Distorted, fragmented, dissolved, and blent
Into chromatic superimposition,
Till, imperceptibly, two themes unite.   
And then, if everything is going right,   
The piece concludes in Recapitulation.


Theme One: My life lacks what, in lacking you?   
Theme Two: Does the material world exist?

(Ideally your neurons should resist,
As yet, connecting Numbers One and Two.   
But note the skill, the frightening mastery,   
The lunatic precision it entails
To merge these separate themes, the way train rails   
Converge as they approach infinity.)


I dreamed that an encyclopedia
Opened before my eyes and there I found   
Analogies to sort of stack around
My what-is-life-without-you-here idea:

Like nous detached from Anaxagoras,   
Like cosmic fire glimmering without   
A Heraclitus there to find it out,
Like square roots waiting for Pythagoras,   
Like One-ness riven from Parmenides,   
Like Nothing without Gorgias to detect it,   
Like paradox sans Zeno to perfect it,   
Like plural worlds lacking Empedocles,   
Like Plato’s chairs and tables if you took   
The furniture’s Eternal Forms away,   
Objects abandoned by Reality
Still look the same, but look the way things look   
When I behold my life without you in it:   
A screwy room where chairs and tables lack   
Dimension from the front, the side, the back,   
Like finity without the infinite,
Where tea parties are held without the Hatter,   
It’s 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.   
Behold them snatching something in their fists:   
Their fingers uncurl, cautious, on the sight   
Of Nothing crushed against the sweaty hand.   
But then I’m prejudiced, you understand.   
Not everyone on earth believes I’m right.   
But lest you think I’m kidding, or perverse,   
I went to hear a Lecture just last year
About some things which I hold very dear:   
The smallest pieces of the universe.
The Lecturer referred to them as Quarks.   
He seemed impervious to the mystery   
Surrounding their invisibility.
I asked, when he concluded his remarks,   
“But are Quarks physical?”
                                        You’d think that he
Were someone nearly martyred and I’d said   
Our duty’s to die peacefully in bed.
He took his glasses off and blinked at me.
Were I John Milton, I would now destroy   
This moment of high drama and deploy   
A thirty-line Homeric simile.
But I’m not Milton, nor was meant to be.   
He put his glasses on, and said, “Of course.”

Now, I may be the south end of a horse,   
But logically and analogically,
And physically, and metaphysically,
And, if it gets to that, religiously,
And absolutely scientifically,
I don’t believe that Quarks can pass the test   
Of Being There, and since they’re fundamental,
Why, then, the world’s a dream, and dreams are mental,   
And since in mental matters East or West   
I need you for this dream’s interpretation—

Stop looking at your watch, for I’ve divined,   
With these two themes uncomfortably combined,   
It’s time now for the Recapitulation.


Frankly, I’m disinclined to reassert   
The themes my Exposition indicated.
Stuffed shirts there are, and hordes of overrated   
Experts who would slay or badly hurt   
With airy wave of hand my insights; no,   
I will not play to them, I’ll not rehash   
My song though they with hard and cold cash   
Should bribe me, or should tell me where to go.   
My complex principles are explicated   
Under “Development.” So let them laugh:   
I’ll not permit this section to be half   
So convoluted as anticipated.


Sing, Heav’nly Muse, and give me lyric flight,   
Give me special effects, give me defiance   
To challenge the Academy of Science
On fundamental points, and get them right;   
Give me the strength to can the Latinisms,   
To forge analogies between the thing
Nature abhors and my apartment; sing   
To vanquish literary criticisms
If possible and literary sharks.
And even if you feel submicroscopic
Elements exceed me as a topic,
Please try to back me up regarding Quarks,   
Thereby to advocate my metaphor
(Absence the vehicle, physics the tenor)   
So that the Universal Void coincides
With showing—I daresay, with showing off—
The consequences of his going off;
By showing everything, in fact, but slides.


Me heart detests, reviles, denounces, loathes   
Your absence with a passion like a furnace.   
The shirt of love, said Eliot, will burn us;   
And normally I’d add, “Love’s other clothes   
Burn just as badly”—but, because I’ve bent   
A rule or two, I won’t extend this figure;
Good taste prevents this piece from getting bigger;   
Please see above for everything I meant.

Gjertrud Schnackenberg, “Sonata” from Supernatural Love: Poems 1976-1992. Copyright © 2000 by Gjertrud Schnackenberg. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, All rights reserved. Caution: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Source: Supernatural Love: Poems 1976-1992 (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2000)

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Poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg b. 1953

Subjects Music, Arts & Sciences, Relationships, Sciences, Philosophy, Love, Break-ups & Vexed Love, Realistic & Complicated

Occasions Farewells & Good Luck

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza

 Gjertrud  Schnackenberg


Gjertrud Schnackenberg was born in 1953 in Tacoma, Washington. She began writing poetry as a student at Mount Holyoke College and as an undergraduate earned a reputation as a poetic prodigy, twice winning the Glascock Award for Poetry. Her first two books of poetry, Portraits and Elegies (1982) and The Lamplit Answer (1985), established her as one of the strongest of the New Formalists and confirmed her early promise. Reviewing . . .

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SUBJECT Music, Arts & Sciences, Relationships, Sciences, Philosophy, Love, Break-ups & Vexed Love, Realistic & Complicated

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza

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