It is a truism to say that our culture is both unable and unwilling to cope with death. Divorced from religion and the saving myths of art, delivered to a medical empiricism ever more miraculous but ever more insistent, and brought up close with the end of things, we find there is nothing to contemplate but the grim facts. Nor do we look for greatness any longer in poetic elegy, though it has yielded some of the landmarks in our literature. The genre is made even more inaccessible by its contradictory demands, for an elegy must be driven by anger but be capable of tenderness; it must allow for the obsessiveness of its own grief but also be informed by a more universal intelligence, if it is not to induce in the reader a certain emotional boredom. Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s new book, Heavenly Questions, a set of six linked long poems inspired (the word must be carefully considered, in this context) by the illness and death of her husband, the philosopher Robert Nozick, achieves this conflicted balance. It is perhaps the most powerful elegy written in English by any poet in recent memory, and it is a triumphant consummation of Schnackenberg’s own work. In it, a poet of wide learning and traditional poetic form has been hurt into outraged and incandescent song.
It is possible to read all of Schnackenberg’s work as embodying a balance between Apollonian learning and Dionysian feeling, with the balance shifting inexorably toward the latter over time. In her first book, Portraits and Elegies, we find a 1977 cycle of 12 poems that constitute an extended elegy for her father, who was a historian. Adrienne Rich famously describes having to take off the “asbestos gloves” of traditional poetic form in her own work in order to grasp any emotional or sexual or historical truth. And in this first book, with its individual lines reminiscent of Robert Lowell’s mordant historicizing or Richard Wilbur’s effortless grace, there is a sense in which prosody and learning are insulating the poet from an uncontrollable emotional content. In Schnackenberg’s new book, by contrast, all learning and all form serve the poet’s emotion, rather than the other way around. The excruciation is that there is no merciful distance of time; the horror and the rage of death are not past. Indeed, the most important lesson the poet has learned from her historian-father may be that “men trying to think about themselves/ Must come to grips with grief that won’t resolve,” as she says in another poem in Portraits and Elegies.
Schnackenberg’s next book, The Lamplit Answer (1985), enlarged the canvas of her engagement with history without consistently achieving a more direct emotional engagement with her subject matter. Her poem “Supernatural Love,” however, is a kind of small Christian masterpiece about the love between a father and a daughter, and a lengthy version of “Sleeping Beauty” called “Imaginary Prisons” contains lines that resonate with significance for Schnackenberg’s new book: “I’ve learned to make a study of the hour/ When grander schemes that mock our calculations// Reveal that we’re the emblems standing for/ The consequence of what we cannot master.” Even through her supreme formal control, the poet is aware that life, and perhaps poetry itself, have agendas that are emotionally uncontrollable.
The widening scope of Schnackenberg’s poetic ambition and intellectual reach were realized in her most visionary volume, the beautifully-titled A Gilded Lapse of Time (1992). Here three linked poetic sequences contemplate first Dante’s life and work and his tomb in the city of Ravenna, then multiple experiences of the Christian godhead in history and art, and, finally, the fate of Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, lost in Stalin’s camps. Here, too, one feels at times an excess of information. (The book includes 12 pages of notes.) And yet the reader is moved by a sense that the mystery of religious faith must always return to the human life we all know: “Oh, slam this book shut! God, do not show us!/ But the angels do not look, scrupulous in/ Honoring the law in Paradise that no one may/ Observe the suffering of humans here below—.” Led to the brink of spirit and beyond, the poet must relinquish such visions and attend to the mortal body.
The developing notion of our spiritual loneliness takes a different form in Schnackenberg’s The Throne of Labdacus (2000), a highly original and sensuously realized meditation on the Oedipus myth, done all in stark unrhymed couplets. Schnackenberg’s gods differ from humans, not in any moral way, but only in the fact that they will never die. The final revelation is that man must “sit in judgment on himself.” And the world, in this book, is a stubborn quiddity, refusing ever to offer explanations. In Supernatural Love: Poems 1976-1992, published the same year, Schnackenberg confirmed her status as a poet in whom an exquisite sensibility and wide Eurocentric learning often accompanied a commitment to traditional patterns of rhyme and meter. She had also established her ability to think, poetically, at book-length, in work that was conspicuous for its ability to imagine godhead amid the thingness of the world. The sense of spiritual loneliness at its elegiac core was unmistakable. The way was clear for the achievement of Schnackenberg’s new book, though one could never have wished for her the suffering that brought it into being.
In Heavenly Questions, the effects of rhythm and rhyme are felt less as a product of conscious pattern and more as the pedal-point of emotional bereavement and obsession. Imagination, brooding on loss—these no longer depend on form. The five-beat pulse of the lines is that of iambic pentameter, but there is no rhyme scheme, other than a broken and episodic one. Indeed, the rhyme in these six long poems is less conspicuous than the compulsion with which certain entire lines repeat, like refrains, both within poems and between poems. These refrains make the perfect formal and rhythmical counterpoint to the obsessiveness of grief itself, in its inability not to revisit the past, its unwillingness to accept the present reality.
The very first such repeated lines—”And all is give and take, all comes and goes,/ And hush now, all is well now, close your eyes”—combine the hopeless mutability of the natural world with the false comfort of a lullaby. This is, in fact, an “Archimedes Lullaby,” incorporating into its music details from the life of the famous mathematician of Syracuse (287-212 BCE), including the challenge he set himself to calculate the number of grains of sand in the universe: “And myriads appear, self-multiply,/And multiply again: Let this be X,/ Let this be X times X, and let there be/ More myriads of zeroes grain by grain. …” As Schnackenberg observes, “It never ends, this dire need to know,” and the sand-grains bring torment if they are thought of as human souls: “One and the Many. Many and the One.”
In earlier books, Schnackenberg has been driven by a “need to know”—but perhaps only now is that need recognized as being “dire.” The other poems in Heavenly Questions are titled “Sublimaze,” after the surgical narcotic analgesic fentanyl citrate; “Venus Velvet No. 2,” which seems an invitation to Eros but in fact describes the common pencil with which the poet records her husband’s final illness; “Fusiturricula Lullaby,” named for the sea snail; “The Light-Gray Soil,” which appears to be composed of human ash; and, balancing the book’s opening “lullaby,” a “Bedtime Mahābhārata,” a fantasia incorporating details from the Hindu epic and from the invention of chess. We recognize the wide intellectual range as Schnackenberg’s, but the balancing of this against the relentlessness of grief and remembering is something new. Now, diverse subject matter is compelled by the sheer force of emotion to reveal its common themes. The plural “heavenly questions” of this book’s title in fact boil down to just a single question, the question asked of all gods (including that modern god whom poet James Merrill called “God B,” i.e., biology and the natural sciences), in all ages, by all mortals: Why must there be death and suffering in the world?
The question particularly obsesses composing mortals, whether the sage Vyasa dictating the Mahābhārata to Ganesha or Scheherezade prolonging her life one story and one night at a time, or Gjertrud Schnackenberg at her husband’s bedside with that No. 2 pencil, accounting for “the names of each and every one who died,/ Ashes impregnated with human souls/ Who couldn’t save each other or themselves.” The gods never answer the questions asked of them, of course. Real or mythical human wars rage—Archimedes was slaughtered by a Roman soldier during the Second Punic War, and in his epic, Vyasa describes the Kurukshetra War—and Lord Krishna’s transcendental message, delivered at the end of Schnackenberg’s poem, seems especially unconvincing: “My deeds of wondrous love I here reveal:/ There are no slayers here, there are no slain./ The conquered and the conqueror are one./ All come to me, all are accounted for—.” Individual anguish, in Heavenly Questions, is placed in a context of universal human suffering. The resonances of the personal, the historical, and the mythical thus powerfully amplify each other. The poet, pushed beyond her role as a careful student of art and history, has been liberated by loss to speak for all of us.
The only human responses, both to the cruelty of a death by cancer and to the deities that countenance such a thing, are outrage and anger. These emotions are certainly present in Schnackenberg’s book, often transmuted to irony, and heard in refrain lines such as “And all in play, and everything in play,” or the doctor’s comfortless bromide, “And all that could be done has now been done,/ And all is well and nothing left to do./ All is well and hush and never mind.” But outrage quickly becomes shrill, and anger burns itself out. Balancing these stridencies is an extraordinary tenderness. There is the vulnerability of human pleading, of bargaining with death. (“Just say he’ll live,” goes one repeated line.) But no elegy succeeds unless it is also a love poem, and with astounding dignity Schnackenberg calls up the physical and emotional intimacy that can exist between lovers.
Once again, this is often accomplished by means of refrains or by threads of image and language that recur from poem to poem and reinforce the impression that Heavenly Questions is in fact a single long poem. Thus the line “My bluest veins to kiss,” from Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, is paired with its “defeated Antony” elsewhere in the poem. Its echo is heard, both in the lovers’ bed (“To find each other’s spirit’s melting point/ And changing states, never such nakedness/ Between such two, my bluest veins to kiss”) and at the hospital bedside: “I pressed his hand’s blue veins against my lips.” Those readers who crave less fragmentary and more conventional romantic portraiture will also find it here, but always in tones of wonder at the privilege that love can be: “And never lost his gentle ways with me./ And wanted power over no one else,/ But master of his heart, and of himself,/ A mind that never darkened. …”
The story goes that, when his pen broke, the elephant-headed god Ganesha broke off one of his own tusks, so that the dictation from Vyasa of the divine text would not be interrupted. But the last line of Schnackenberg’s book, which like so many others is a refrain, is “Here the god of writers broke his pen.” White space follows on that last page. For this poem has been produced by a mortal, albeit a supremely talented one, and the mortal realizes, past the power of all human learning, that the story will have no miraculous sequel.