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Heavenly Questions’

In response to:

Consolations from the June 9, 2011 issue

To the Editors:

I am puzzled by Dan Chiasson’s puzzlement over Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s lines on a dead coral reef [“Consolations,” NYR, June 9]. For “ex-mosaics,” look at the fate of the mosaics in the Hagia Sophia. For the noun that “In violet-blue,” etc., modifies, look at the apposition with “sand,” and in nature at the colors of grains of sand. Two marvelous structures, a living coral reef, the mosaics of the Hagia Sophia, one from nature, one from art. Both destroyed.

Nor do I find Schnackenberg’s The Throne of Labdacus monotonous. I find it almost unbearably tense, a Cassandra foreseeing doom, the doom that has arrived with Heavenly Questions. For an elegy with the more immediate effects that Chiasson favors, see her early elegy for her father. For another variety of voice (“one-size-fits-all,” fiddlesticks), see “Love Letter,” some parts very funny.

Eleanor Cook
Toronto, Canada

Dan Chiasson replies:

I admire Eleanor Cook so much I almost want to wave the white flag. I know that grains of sand come in many colors and that the Hagia Sophia used to have colorful mosaics, but that doesn’t settle the matter in favor of Schnackenberg’s descriptions, which seem so purple and gloppy as to describe only themselves, or her syntax, which often contorts itself to fit a meter too regular to be very pleasurable. I am far from preferring, in poetry, “immediate effects,” Cook’s term, not mine. I just like effective effects. This is a matter, finally, of taste, and my review grants that Schnackenberg is outrageously gifted at what she does. “Love Letter,” the poem Cook mentions, sounds too much like Anthony Hecht, to me the most wearisome of plausible poets.

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