Pacific Rim Review of Books

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“A Magnificent Flowering” The Poetry of Gjertrud Schnackenberg

essay by Doug Beardsley

It was at the Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle in the mid-1980s where I first set eyes on the poetry of Gjertrud Schnackenberg. Several friends had journeyed there to attend a weekend retreat conducted by Robert Bly.
The city was a virtual paradiso for book lovers in those days; one felt like some early 15th century bibliomaniac traipsing from bookstore to bookstore to see what he could find. But no bookstore offered an enormous downstairs café and the wealth of books that Elliott Bay conjured up. Several tables of ‘Recent Arrivals’ were carefully positioned throughout the store and on the large literary table I chanced upon The Lamplit Answer, Schnackenberg’s second book of poems published in 1985 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

I was attracted by the other-worldly, starry night of the soul quality of the cover painting of “The Wedding of the Deer” and by the poet’s unusual name – the only other Schnackenberg I had ever encountered was the noted 20th century German theologian, Rudolf Schnackenberg, when I was doing my theological studies.

Back in the hotel room I read through The Lamplit Answer, dazzled by the poet’s prodigious technique, her iambic pentameter line, her use of rhyme, and her ability to convey deeply-felt emotion within a formalistic approach that felt natural –never forced or strained in any way.
As I made my way toward the fourth section I came upon a poem in six-part sonata form and “Darwin in 1881,” a five-page narrative detailed evocation of the English natural historian and geologist, “The seeds gathering on his trouser legs/ Are archipelagos, like nests he sees/ Shadowed in branching, ramifying trees,/ Each with unique expression in its eggs.” I was taken with her daring repetition of even the most obvious word – four times in three lines: “Different islands conjure/ Different beings; different beings call/ From different isles…”. And then there are the last eight lines that illustrate her magnificent, formal, imaginative invention:

He lies down on the quilt.
He lies down like a fabulous-headed
Fossil in a vanished riverbed,
In ocean drifts, in canyon floors, in silt,
In lime, in deepening blue ice.
In cliffs obscured as clouds gather and float;
He lies down in his boots and overcoat,
And shuts his eyes.

Her technique is so masterful here the reader barely notices the repetition of “in” eight times in five lines.

The final grouping consists of three of the greatest poems Schnackenberg has penned. Here she achieves a rare and genuine thing: a poetry of belief in which both poetry and belief are perfectly fused in a unity of expression, not consciously biblical, that contains a kind of liturgical authority coupled with the resonance of faith.

“The Heavenly Feast” is an elegy dedicated to Simone Weil, who starved herself to death in a sanitarium in England in 1943. Weil refused to eat more than what was available to her comrades in the French Resistance behind the lines and in the camps: (“Father, I cannot stand/ To think of them and eat./ Send it to them, it is theirs”). It is a holocaust poem that cuts straight to the human heart.

“Advent Calendar” is based upon a German Lutheran tradition from the mid-19th century. The poem is a childhood celebration of “Open paper scenes where doors/ Open into scenes,” (usually 24), in anticipation of Christmas, a counting down of the days. One door is opened daily to reveal an image connected to the Nativity. Schnackenberg’s poem is a distillation of her childhood experience, capturing the air of expectancy and openness that she has fought to maintain as an artist, despite the overwhelming pressures of free verse in our modern age. Its elegiac tone and meter brought to mind Auden’s masterpiece, “Musee des Beaux Arts.”

However excellent these poems are, the poet achieves the apogee of her art with “Supernatural Love,” an elegy in Dantean triplets written in iambic pentameter. Here the perspective is through the eyes of a four year old child doing cross-stitch in her father’s study while he pores over his dictionary examining the roots of such words as “Carnation…Beloved…and Clove” in the context of Christian theological doctrine. The poem blossoms into the love felt by a four year old for her father, and is transformed from a lyric-narrative piece into a magnificent metaphysical meditation on the relation between human and divine love. Nadine Gordimer said of The Lamplit Answer that it contained “poems that move me in a way that I don’t really think I have experienced since I first read Rilke at 16 or 17.” In our Seattle hotel I visited the rooms of my friends at midnight to awaken them to the sheer joy of “Supernatural Love.”

Later that memorable weekend, I discovered a copy of her first book, Portraits and Elegies, which also contained “Darwin in 1881”. Published in 1982 by David Godine in Boston, the slim volume is dedicated to her mother and in memory of her father, who was Professor of History at Pacific Lutheran in Tacoma. She received an education in life from her father: a love of history, Christian charity, Van Gogh, Bach.

From him she inherits a sense of Debussy, Scarlatti, Brahms. From him she learns that “man is not a god.” She is writing elegies and highly sophisticated portraits drawn from her ancestral Nordic origins. She also displays a delightful sense of humour:

And Esmerrianna Knott
Listened, then calmly bent to close
Her hem up with a gathering thread
So sinners left on earth could not
Look up her dress as she arose.

Religious images come naturally to her; they emanate from the life she has learned to live. Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s first poems date from 1976. She is 23. She is writing way beyond her years.

The revivial of traditional forms that came to be called “New Formalism” occurred about the time that Schnackenberg published her Portraits and Elegies. Her antecedents in American poetry would be Ransom, Tate, Hecht, Nemerov, Justice and, in particular, Richard Wilbur, whose memorable “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” has long been a favourite of mine. A 1996 anthology, Rebel Angels, edited by the Americans Mark Jarman and David Mason and including Dana Gioia, Paul Lake, Brad Leithhauser, Molly Peacock, Mary Jo Salter, and Marilyn Hacker, has been influential. But Schnackenberg remains a solo star ascending in the starry night.

Supernatural Love, published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux in 2000, is an exemplary book, a collected poems of her first three volumes, with two exceptions. One is the removal of the obvious repetition of “Darwin in 1881”, which is in both Portraits and Elegies and The Lamplit Answer. The other is the omission of “Love Letter”, a clever but bitter response to being jilted by a former lover. Clearly she heeded her own advice in the poem to the effect that “these quatrains should be burned.” The poem is written in her style, but its tone is out of character with hers and with her work, and so deserved to experience an editorial death. It is like one of those angry, rant letters that we feel needs to be written in the heat of the night but never mailed. Or, in this case, published. Rereading these poems for this review, I once more “flamed amazement,” filled with joy at the majesty of her art. No words are sufficient to encompass the brilliance of her trained brain, her philosophical intelligence, her unique attention to detail, and her psychological depth.

A Gilded Lapse of Time appeared in 1992. The title is taken from her long poem that opens the book. ,The volume is bookended by two extended poems: the opening, an account of a visit to Dante’s tomb in Ravenna (as a child, Schnackenberg copied out Dante in the original), and a latter piece, “A Monument in Utopia,” in honour of Osip Mandelstam, in which Schnackenburg imagines a Russia after the terror where,

…there will be time
For uninterrupted study
At the once desolate kingdom
Of your desk, where you escape
Everything and everybody,
Where the only thing you surrender to
Is a paper world….

Like every true believer, a confessional note of doubt is experienced from time to time: “My heart still struggles with, and still cannot/ Surrender up to you, Messiah.” Though, at an earlier stage she claims that she “cannot discern/ The guilt of our callings” she soon becomes “able to ascertain/ The guilt of poetry.” Schnackenberg refuses to shy away from the central contradiction that bedeviled Thomas Merton and many other religious poets who attempted to integrate these two incompatible callings or vocations, one given over to humility and obedience, the other devoted to the worship of the personal self and worldly fame. However, from time to time in this book, Schnackenberg’s experiential detail becomes too dense, her associations obscure.
The fulcrum of this volume consists of seven lyrics called “Crux of Radiance” that extend her poetic exploration of the development of the image of God and His world-making juxtaposed against historical narrative, the work of the human and the divine, of secular and supernatural love, and a synthesis of the past as a fundamental part of the future that results in imaginative leaps that truly astonish the reader.

And yet, the seven narrative lyrics in “Crux of Radiance” do little to reinforce Schnackenberg as one of the finest poets writing today.

The notes to “Annunciation” serve to inform us of her sources: Josephus, Thucydides, Ecclesiastes, the Babylonian Talmud and Suetorius in that order, a further illustration of what a good grounding in theological and classical formation can achieve out of this “gravel of ritual objects.” “Soldier Asleep at the Tomb” is based upon a self-portrait of Piero della Francesca that fuses the past and present in a future dream of an utopian sensibility where history presses “…toward you/ From the other side.” The next poem describes this process in a different way:

…in other eras
A shovelful of dust

Now blowing into your eyes,
As if a storm wind from Paradise

Blew the rumors of this death
So hard you must cover your eyes

Before the museum case.

“The Resurrection” and “The Dream of Constantine” also are dedicated to Francesca. The latter is a study of “the void at the heart of power” in Rome at the time when “the Messiah’s men have entered/ Every room in the city.”

The poem “Angels Grieving over the Dead Christ”, which receives its impetus from Byzantium, a book by Paul Hetherington , describes a state where death becomes “only a flash of worlds...” while “Christ Dead” is based upon Mantegna’s famous painting. Here, once more, one hears the echo of Auden’s great poem, with the use of the word “something” when, on the road to Calvary, “one man turns “to look back/ Over his shoulder several times,/ Struck by something he couldn’t say.”

And “Tiberius Learns of the Resurrection” tells of the legend recorded by Eusebius in his History of the Church and first recounted by Tertullian, one of the earliest Church Fathers, that the Roman Emperor “sought the Senate’s approval… to admit Jesus as one of the Roman gods. It is a fascinating and little-known myth, but Schnackenberg’s obsession with detail and her overwhelming number of historical images draws the air out of the poem and serves to suffocate the reader. This feeling occurs from time to time throughout A Gilded Lapse of Time and makes the book less successful than its predecessors.

Published in 2000, The Throne of Labdacus (who was Oedipus’s grandfather) further compounds the falling away from her first two collections. Taking the myth of Oedipus beyond Sophocles’s play, Schnackenberg assigns Apollo — the god of poetry, music and healing — the responsibility of setting the playwright’s text to music. Schnackenberg’s meditational variations on this child, born in defiance of the oracle, maimed and left to die on a hillside is the result. Sometimes her ambition seems to know no bounds. But even a god (or goddess) can be consumed by riddles, obscure allusions, vaguely-defined images and heavenly questions. The reader comes to feel like Apollo did: that the task of understanding lies beyond us, the distance between the classical past and the modern present is too vast to be bridged. Packed full of allusions, her language dense, compressed, even at times involuted, the poem becomes a learned text for scholars rather than readers. The complexity of her work can be overwhelming, all lamplit without an answer. Like Apollo, I feel the reader becomes increasingly isolated from the language of the poem and becomes mentally exhausted. Or have I simply become yet another blind man, unable to see the text in front of me?

My initial reaction on hearing that Schnackenberg had won the 2011 International Giller Poetry Prize for Heavenly Questions was two-fold: My selfish ‘Damn it, now I’ll have to share her with the world,’ was immediately followed by ‘what took you so long?’

The book is a cantata of love, a lamentation, a requiem lullaby to her late husband, the philosopher Robert Nozick, her “magic stag…beloved body’s beauty lying still.” Schnackenburg has given us permission to listen in on her raw anger and deep compassion as she sings him to his final sleep.

A chain of six extended poems linked by rhyme-rich blank verse with densely-packed images and apparently effortless shifts from mellow line to mellow line, melodic stanza to melodic stanza, are conceived in an unfolding rhythm, an exultant music for her “magic stag.” Drawing on the writings of Qu Yuan’s unanswerable questions, the legends surrounding Hagia Sophia, and the “Mahabharata,” Schnackenberg combines Classical and Buddhist mythologies with a private despair of disbelief that results in compassion – indeed a nobility – of expressive power rarely seen in modern poetry. All her talented being is brought to the fore in these poems: her intellectual powers, her aesthetic sensibility, her technical innovation, her magisterial control, her compassion, her intense love for this man, all combine in a perfect marriage of form and fury that is a joy to behold.

However, I regret I feel the need to ask a heavenly question and, I hope, a fair one. Schnackenberg’s finest poems in The Lamplit Answer and A Gilded Lapse of Time come out of the Christian tradition she was brought up in by her beloved father. In a recent interview she spoke of “the way lines and stanzas come directly out of the religious music I have heard all my life, in the polyphonic harmonies of the great Lutheran composers, especially Bach – the ‘Fifth Evangelist’ – and Handel,” and goes on to say: “I love the St Matthew Passion more than I love any other work of art.”

Be that as it may, at a time of major crisis in her life, the six interrelated poems of Heavenly Questions contain little reference to the Christian life. While it is true that truth often comes from unexpected places, if there is any truth anywhere, the Holy Spirit inspires it. But what we have in Heavenly Questions are references for an evolutionary universe which result in a kind of pantheism, a geo-politics, a worship of Creation rather than the Creator. This approach seems to abandon Christianity. One can only presume that Schnackenberg has been writing out of the Christian tradition, and tradition does not necessarily translate into belief. Academics are quite capable of this intellectual approach but academics do not write “Supernatural Love.” Given the strength of her finest poems, I couldn’t help but notice the absence of her Christian sensibility.

Heavenly Questions opens with “Archimedes Lullaby.” The apparently effortless unfolding (but oh what effort, what talent, what technique!) of line after iambic pentameter line, sublime beauty of cadence and end rhyme to enhance the symphonic effect that sets the stage for the final stage of her husband’s impending demise:

And all is well now, hush, now, close your eyes,
And one…by one…by one…by one…by one
The flakes of mica gold and granite crumbs
Materialize, and dematerialize.

Note the comma notation in the last line. And the bitter irony of the consolation of the repetition that occurs throughout the six poems: “And all is give-and-take, all comes and goes,/ And hush now, all is well now, close your eyes.” She makes her loss our loss, her husband’s death in the end brought to light in a sophisticated cantata of love overflowing with compassion. We are at the beginning of a magnificent flowering.

The following “Sublimaze” is a 16-page of one of the many nights she spent in the hospital by his side but it is so much more. No quotation can do it justice. What catches the eye and the ear is the way she employs repetition as pulse or pattern (dare I say heartbeat?) in lines that move from poem to poem as a kind of refrain. It is a technical achievement of the first order.
In the third poem, “Venus Velvet No. 2” her pencil writes:

The surgeon, seeking only my surrender,
Has summoned me: an evening conference.
We sit together in the Quiet Room.
He cannot ask for what I’m meant to give.
No questions anymore. Just say he’ll live.
…Smell of sweat embedded in my clothes.
The surgeon says” we’ve talked with him; he knows.
A seraph leaning near: Oh say not so.

Do we need to know the cause? Dear Reader, we do:

A pinpoint leak of blood that can’t be traced.
A mass embedded underneath the heart.
Hepatic portal vein that routes the blood
Throughout the tract of the intestine maze
And soaks the liver’s capillary beds.
The intima. A bleeding deep inside,
Something smaller than a grain of sand.

The questions continue to come. “The universe is where? Is hanging where? “Is matter the enchanted lathe? Or mind?/ But which one spirals from the other’s blade?” In “Fusiturricula Library” the repetition of certain lines (“and all’s well now, hush now, close your eyes”), images and words (lullabies, sand, water-ceiling, play, materialize) all contribute to the symphonic nature of these truly amazing poems.

The genesis of the penultimate piece, “The Light Gray Soil”, comes as Schnackenberg sits on a park bench three months after his death, still “…seeking the house/ Where no beloved person ever died,” one of several reoccurring images that haunt this lovingly polished work of art.

The finale of this requiem in six parts entitled “Bedtime Mahalabharata,” is an imaginative re-creating of the Sanskrit epic where Schnackenberg sees the great battle fought by her and her husband as “a tale about the origins of chess.” The heavenly questions exhaust themselves:

What makes the indivisible divide?
… What is it binds us to our deeds? What is
The sacrifice that can’t be asked of us?
Unbidden universe, what summons us…?

And all ends when “…the god of writers broke his pen.” Heavenly Questions is an elegy of a love that is unsurpassed in its compassion, detail, and depth. To reiterate the words of Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s late husband, “Nothing can conquer her.” Nor I might add, her art. It takes a long time of dedicated work to achieve such eloquence. Eight years in the making, 61 pages of poetry. There is so much to celebrate here. The last heavenly question: Why is there so little room in our world for such an exquisite gift?

Doug Beardsley is the author of eleven volumes of poetry. He studied at Sir George Williams University where he came under the poetic tutelage of Irving Layton, with whom he corresponded until Layton’s death in 2006. He lives in Victoria.