Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s Heavenly Questions is 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. This is from a long prayer to the moon that Schnackenberg inserts in the poem, after she bids final farewell to her husband:
Blue circular gorges, hanging overhead,
And heaven’s hanging rivers gently wind
Along the rilles of lunar magma-flows
And shadow massifs, scattered bright debris,
Steep cliffs and winding valleys, peak by peak,
And chains of peaks extending out of sight….
The geology (rilles, massifs, and magma) is up to date, but the syntax vaults over a hundred years of poetry’s impressive gains on rank-and-file American English, gains won not only by free-verse poets like William Carlos Williams but by formalists like James Merrill, whose own formal poems were gossipy, full of mental pivots and leaps, and deviously self-aware. Merrill was consummately what Robert Frost said a poet should be: a person “of prowess.” Schnackenberg’s somnolent effects are deliberately closer to hypnosis than prowess.
This faux-finishing is gorgeous, but often it masks the substance underneath. And so it is fascinating to watch Schnackenberg deal with material that falls outside her hothouse of impressive effects. I read her for the moments things go haywire, not unlike the way you would watch a hockey game hoping for a brawl. I know of no contemporary style more beholden to itself, more confined by its language. I actually scan her for unsanctioned effects—the odd moment of clarity, the telling intensity, perhaps unintended, like a snag that threatens to unravel the entire sweater.
Schnackenberg is credited with a gift for visual imagery, but I usually can’t see what she wants me to see. Even if I knew the words, I don’t think I could make a mental picture of rilles or massifs. In a generally unfavorable review of Heavenly Questions, William Logan (whose praise of Schnackenberg’s early work helped put her on the map) noted the “visual precision and leaps of perception” in the following lines:
A bleaching coral reef with pockmarked walls
And shining heaps of gouged-out tesserae—
Like seashell litter, slowly ground to sand,
In violet-blue, in white, in basalt green,
Vermilion, mica leaf, along the floors
Like ex-mosaics chiseled from the walls….
I’m lost. If it’s the “tesserae” that are “gouged out” of the wall, then shouldn’t the wall get the modifier, not the tesserae? (We talk about “picked” apples, meaning apples that have been picked; but “gouged-out tesserae” sounds like somebody took the tesserae and gouged …
'Heavenly Questions' July 14, 2011