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.”
Schnackenberg’s almost calligraphic style is an overcommitment; perhaps all style is, but at this extreme of ornament, the ordinary worlds of language and perception—things right before our eyes—force in her the most violent accommodations. It makes the bits of the world we do see in her poems, all by themselves, profoundly moving: a phone book, still listing Nozick among the living, or the couple’s chess set, “forgotten in the shock…/Shut in the dark, behind the cabinet doors.” Schnackenberg then goes on for page after page of commentary about the origins of chess, moving on to the Mahabharata, the djinns, Scheherazade, and Tamburlaine. The writing is impeccable and virtuosic. But it cannot compete with the image of that orphaned chess set, whose plight it rushes past. I wish somehow Schnackenberg would linger longer, with her huge gift and huge integrity, on what Stevens called “The Plain Sense of Things.”
Though they share enormous learning, a passion for traditional forms, and, in their new books, the subject of personal loss, Rosanna Warren is in some ways the opposite of Gjertrud Schnackenberg. No poet of comparable achievement so courts total stylelessness. I don’t mean plainness: Warren’s poems are not plain, though they can be arrestingly plainspoken, within the shimmering shapes she devises. Warren is not as well known as she should be (when she is known, too often she’s known as the daughter of two other writers, Robert Penn Warren and Eleanor Clark). I think the reason is that her style is internally so various (she has no predictable range of diction, no consistent plan of attack on experience), her poems so different from one another. The consumption of poetry, like that of visual art, in part depends on saving time; every Rothko does more or less what every other Rothko does—every Ashbery, too; the pleasure in viewing “a Rothko” or in reading Ashbery is often in appreciating how this one specimen conforms to the species. This is how we make it all the way through the museum in an afternoon. Warren’s poems, their surfaces turned down to low, demand our lingering attention or none at all.
Yet Ghost in a Red Hat reminds us of a central paradox of lyric poems, that they demand our absorption even as they scatter: the many poems throughout history about birds, skittering animals, dusk, dawn, the seasons, the vagaries of the moods, the inconstancy of women—whatever their differences, they all share this one obsession with the fickleness of felt experience. We cannot, by slowing ourselves down, stop time, or slow down activity within time. Time flies: “that is what the poems/keep discovering.” “Mediterranean,” a poem about the vanishing trace of Warren’s mother, opens with the poet “lean[ing] against a twisted oak” (Whitman’s “I lean and loafe and observe a spear of summer grass” leaps to mind, followed by important acts of leaning in Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” and Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died”) where, she writes, “all I saw was evening light where she had been”:
gold dust light, where a moment before
and thirty-eight years before that
my substantial mother strode before me in straw hat,
bathing suit, and loose flapping shirt,
every summer afternoon, her knapsack light across her back,
her step, in sandals, firm on the stony path
as we returned from the beach…
there was something I wanted to say, at the age of twelve,
some question she hadn’t answered,
and yesterday, so clearly seeing her pace before me
it rose again to the tip of my tongue, and the mystery was,
not that she walked there, ten years after her death,
but that she vanished, and let twilight take her place—
In language utterly continuous with ordinary spoken language (“the tip of my tongue”) and casual perception (nothing remarkable in the decriptions: a “light” knapsack, “firm” steps, a “stony path”), a kind of majesty gathers: the mother’s substance mingles with the “gold light,” and when the light goes, it dies: the twilight replays the mother’s death “ten years before” as well as her effaced presence those thirty-eight years earlier. It is a poem about being fifty (if you do the math) and returning to the consecrated landscapes of childhood (this is France, where Warren spent time while growing up). The power here is not present in any one phrase or turn of mind; like the image it describes, it is both everywhere and nowhere, a presence in matter that makes the matter itself feel oddly flimsy or subdued.
Warren’s Orphic lament in this book is that we keep, with the dead, open accounts, unfinished business. The poet David Ferry, the translator of Virgil’s Georgics among many other classical texts, is thanked in the acknowledgments: “Mediterranean” feels like a very personal gloss on Georgics IV, in which Orpheus is described as “having so much left to say” to the vanishing Eurydice. In a moving series of elegies for Warren’s friend the writer Deborah Tall, illness and death interrupt the ongoing “gossip and palaver” of two old friends standing “shoulder to shoulder…at the sink//washing grit from beet greens, our palms magenta”:
the plane tears towards the lowest cloud bank
and again I am making my way towards you
from the far country of my provisional health,
towards you in your new estate of illness, your suddenly
costly, irradiated expertise.
The beet greens, the gossip, the grit—these are friendship’s common currencies, suddenly debased by one party’s “costly, irradiated expertise.” Illness upsets the commerce between intimate friends, turning the sick friend into a kind of burgher looking after her own grim “estate” (Warren can pun without depleting her gravitas), making amateurs specialists and novices experts.
The bitter taste of that word “expertise” conjures the sweet experiences and sensations this book often celebrates (or whose absence it laments): one’s own dignified, gradual growing old; the devastating but cosmically just experience of seeing one’s parents age and, in the fullness of time, pass away; the comforts of cooking, of art, and especially of music; and the pleasures of poetry itself, pleasures handed down through the ages (as poet inspires poet) yet with wide social and even political distribution (for Warren is an unflashy but profoundly political poet). The first kind of link, along the Y-axis of history, often feels uncanny: writing a poem about her mother, Warren suddenly finds herself wandering in the terrain of Virgil, or Dante, or Hardy, or (he is a guiding presence in this book) Whitman, who, in “A Kosmos,” leaves a portent for Warren on the day of her friend’s funeral:
And when, weeks later, we gathered
again at the house to say those formal farewells,
I went up to your study looking for Leaves of Grass
and found, instead, your orderly desk, unused,
your manuscripts neatly stacked, the framed
photographs of your girls, and, like a private message
from Whitman, who saw things whole, the small
dried body of a mouse. A kosmos, he too. He too, luckier.
In the rigorous logic of this book (a logic often cloaked in very casual, even faintly comic, perceptions), books and bodies are always replacing one another: you look for Whitman in a book, but you find him, right where he predicted you would, under your boot soles. You look for your friend; you find, instead, her poems (a memorable epigraph from Deborah Tall graces “Aftermath”: “Dawn. The moment it was/it was over.”) This rich traffic between bodies and books, the one turning up where you expected to find the other, derives in part (I would guess) from being the daughter of now-dead writer parents, whose minds are still robustly present in the works they left behind; but much more deeply, it derives from Warren’s rich metaphorical understanding of literary elegy, where (in every case) the waste body of the beloved is transformed into a new symbolic body—the poem itself, as Allen Ginsberg put it, “good to eat a thousand years.”
Everything I’ve noted about Ghost in a Red Hat thus far risks making it sound like a private, even self-protective, performance. In fact this book represents a significant contribution to the national imaginary, with two fine short lyrics about Hurricane Katrina, among the most affecting poems I have read on the subject. All of these poems meditate on the meaning of the wilderness, the ways wilderness and nature can and cannot be tamed, and whether poetry should be understood as a form of culture or a form of nature (of course it partakes of both). From “After,” one of the poems about New Orleans:
In the concrete barracks nursing home all the old ones drowned
trapped in metal beds. A pink-flounced girl
floated for a week in sludge, legs apart, face down.
Write an inventory, make an index, stutter a psalm.
Raw sewage piped from trailers chokes the bayou
and I am thinking how to say “and” and whether “and”
is the word for the way, beyond the swamp, the ghosts of pines
and skeletal cypresses march for miles in haze….
That “and” marks a crisis in representation, a crisis with strong moral dimensions. If we allow the two scenes (one with human carnage, the other with cypresses and pines) to sit side by side, should they be connected by an “and” or perhaps a “yet,” or a “but” (or a temporal word like “meanwhile”—or perhaps “After,” the title of the poem). These words all imply different kinds of certainty about the way the world is ordered, with nature in the foreground or the background, as precursor to human suffering or as ghostly survivor and witness to our destruction. Warren deliberately avoids the Whitmanian word “catalogue” among the possible actions appropriate to the scene, suggesting—and then canceling—instead “inventory” and “index” (horrific reminders of how anonymous, almost like items in a book or products on a shelf, these lives are) and “stuttered” (and thereby deeply compromised) prayer.
“And” is the favored conjunction of Whitman, but Warren isn’t Whitman, and anyway Warren’s America is no longer a plausible object of unranked Whitmanian celebration. Her remarkable long poem “Earthworks” therefore chooses as its inspiration, not Whitman, but Frederick Law Olmsted, at the time of the planning of Central Park. Its innovative prosody weaves facts from Olmsted’s life into quotations from a wide variety of sources that inspired him (Emerson, Edward Kemp, Ruskin, William Gilpin, Sir Uvedale Price), as in this long passage from section 1, “Shadows”:
The shadows press
child after child into the shale pages
of the Book of Earth Charlotte measles, aged four Owen
aged two Ada aged six of bilious colic “Her moans and cries
have been heartrending” writes young Fred
Anthologist of shadows “The great principle of art,
breadth of light and shadow” counsels Sir Uvedale Price
for whom the eye should not be “stopt
and harassed by little disunited, discordant parts”
Nor is Democracy little discordant parts Rhododendron,
Azalea, rhodora, sweet gum, spice bush, green ash,
cucumber magnolia, Siberian elm “The essence”
says Price “is connection”
It is hard to give a sense of the texture of the whole poem, but even in so short a quotation you see the mingling of personal loss, aesthetics, civics, the names of plants and shrubs, and (elsewhere) passages about the Civil War and slavery that give this stirring poem its breadth.
The problem in “Earthworks” is how to represent the peril of American life, which threatens at every point to splinter into those “discordant parts,” while also proposing means of connection that carry persuasive power. The choppy, unpunctuated lines of this poem give to every phrase and image cluster a unique identity, as though straining against the regular lines and stanzas. Democracy, like a park, like a poem, depends on the vitality of its constituent parts as well as the coherence of its larger orders and patterns. “Earthworks” handles these tensions internally, but Warren’s career—in the range and diversity of her poems, as well as in the overall commitment to an American demotic that unites her with non-poets—is itself a great example of how a contemporary life might be construed in the broadest terms: of art and citizenship, loss and pleasure, language and silence.