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 out parts of them.) The colors are all the ones we would expect to find, not on the floor of a coral reef, but, alas, in a poem. And what do they modify? (“In” suggests that the colors will describe an object to follow: in violet-blue piles or grains or hues or something, anything.) And the logic here is totally confounding: the seashells are like tesserae, which are like “seashell litter,” which are again like tesserae, “ex-mosaics.” (And what an odd phrase: “ex” in colloquial English usually refers to a lapsed or forfeited status—ex-wife, ex-con—not a part broken from a whole.)
If you were to make a case for these lines, it would go something like this: Schnackenberg, inspired by Wallace Stevens, does not believe in a language-less world, a world apart from her imagination of it. It is Stevens who thought poetry should make “the visible a little hard to see.” The poem enacts the trouble it has constructing a world outside of itself, always falling back, after its failures of reference, on its own sumptuousness, its own verbal bounty: in Schnackenberg as (according to this caricature I am drawing) in Stevens, language is the only real compensation for our failures to grasp the world. Thus the “visual” passage of poetry that fails as description becomes, again to quote Stevens, “pure sound.”
But Stevens’s stylistic range is vast, from impasto to flat and back again, often in a single line. This is not the case with Schnackenberg, who makes all the choices in her poems ahead of time, so that when she wants to seem flat and without flourish, she has to write an entire, rather monotonous book in that tone (I mean her retelling of the Oedipus story, The Throne of Labdacus, in chastened and wised-up unrhymed couplets). This one-size-fits-all style suits some subjects better than others. It is good at moons and reefs, illuminated books, candelabra. It manages human loss with (to me) off-putting mastery, almost nonchalance, as in her early poems about the deaths of Chopin, Darwin, and Simone Weil.
“Ask the fact for the form,” Emerson counseled. The fact of Schnackenberg’s catastrophic loss would seem to demand a new form; it is a demand she cannot fully fulfill, but her failure makes Heavenly Questions her best book and one of the most interesting books in recent American poetry. It is a book about its own failures to conjure the lost beloved, and about its own temptation to offer, and to accept, false consolation. The six poems are linked by aspects of narrative, recurrent images and refrains, and the governing presence of the “Heavenly Questions” of the ancient Chinese poet Qu Yuan. They are all in highly regular pentameter, dense with end rhymes and internal rhymes, choices that feel in this case driven by a specific aesthetic necessity, rather than (as is too often the case with this poet) general aesthetic preference. The book introduces its own rich conflicts in the opening lines of its opening poem, “Archimedes Lullaby”:
A visit to the shores of lullabies,
Where Archimedes, counting grains of sand,
Is seated in his half-filled universe
And sorting out the grains by shape and size.
Above his head a water-ceiling sways,
Beneath his feet the ancient magma-flows
Of metamorphic, underearth plateaus
Are moving in slow motion, all in play,
And all is give-and-take, all comes and goes,
And hush now, all is well now, close your eyes,
Distant ocean-engines pulverize
Their underwater mountains, coarse to fine,
In granite crumbs and flakes of mica gold
And particles of ancient olivine;
And water waves sweep back and forth again,
Materialize, and dematerialize,
Retrieving counted grains and dropping more
Uncounted grains in heaps along a shore
Of granite-particled infinities,
Amassing shores for drawing diagrams.
These are comforting thoughts only if every other source of comfort has been withdrawn: those “distant ocean-engines” “pulverize” every particular, even this particular life and grief. There is enough leftover music in the phrase “hush now, all is well now, close your eyes” that it provides, despite the harrowing information that surrounds it, consolation. But the grounds for being consoled, highly dubious, are more or less these: “don’t worry dear, whole mountains are getting pulverized underwater, unbeknownst to us.”
A poet who writes this way hears literary English as simply more “real” and alive than colloquial speech. Her classic sound is not really the result of conscious literary allusion, but usually with a little paring and pruning an ancestor poem can be easily uncovered. In this case, it is Arnold’s “Dover Beach”: “the grating roar/Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,/At their return, up the high strand.” The play of vast and small, the plangent rhythms garnered from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 60, the illogical turn to human intimacy as a defense against annihilation (Schnackenberg’s “hush now” line recalls Arnold’s “Ah, love, let us be true/to one another”), poignant because pitiful: part of Schnackenberg’s power, and part of her appeal, is to found her own language on literary terra firma even as she explores the shifting sands of mortal life.
In complex and beautiful ways, poems like this can make us aware of the very immensities that paradoxically diminish them. Heavenly Questions is full of self-canceling rhetoric, marked as such, though even at its grandest, Schnackenberg too often fills out her meter with needless modifiers: I suppose you could justify “water waves” to differentiate them from subatomic waves—there are, after all, “particles” nearby—but it still feels like filler). The struggle is to counterpoint these passages full of myth and molecular science, the Hagia Sophia and the history of chess, with quotidian reality: not to privilege the ordinary, but to allow it to set the scale. This struggle makes the simplest language in this book also the hardest won, the saddest and most affecting. Sitting vigil by her husband’s hospital bed is ineffably real, a flat fact that resists metaphorical transformation:
The morning nurse arrives,
All gentle comfort, asking how he feels,
And hangs a vacuum sack of liquid drugs
Above his head, and double-checks the line,
And brings fresh ice with soaking sponges fixed
To plastic wands for me to swab his lips—
And says: No sips allowed. And says that we’re
Awaiting lab results, no word so far;
And scribbles notes; and says: he’s doing fine.
This is powerful writing, mainly for its air of suppressed fancy: Schnackenberg is hewing close to the contours of what happened, even, as is unusual for her, of what was said. Those minimal verbal gestures—“no word so far,” “awaiting lab results,” “no sips”—are, to me, more profound than all the tesserae and massifs elsewhere. “Lip” and “sip” is the most devastating rhyme in this book.
Writing on grief always risks succumbing to the imitative fallacy. Grief “is” this or that: shiftless, feckless, thrashing, flummoxed, formless; for writing to capture it, it has to follow suit. We know what a hospital room is like; we know how language is reduced to its rudimentary functions there, joining the chorus of humming, buzzing, and boinging machines. So, what should a poem about a hospital room sound like? There have been, in fact, very few; I know of no elegy that lingers so long at the dying person’s bedside, inventorying its outrages and humiliations: the “toxins [that] dripped how many times/Into his bluest veins from hanging tubes/With hypodermic fangs,” a silhouetted head on a pillow, the eerie surrounding world of hallways, elevators, and waiting rooms:
the double doors,
Fluorescent mazes, frigid corridors,
Polished linoleum, arena sand
Where hope is put to death and life is lost
And elevator doors slide open, closed.
The towers of the teaching hospital.
Like a pump that keeps losing its prime, Schnackenberg’s language in these passages will momentarily stir into figure then slacken into plain description: the “mazes” conjure the story of Theseus, which runs through the entire poem; the “bluest veins” recall Cleopatra, and so on. But the energy in this book is precisely in that forfeiting of figure to accord with the rock-bottom wish that denies all fancy: “Just say he’ll live.”