Gjertrud Schnackenberg's angry, tender Heavenly Questions.

Gjertrud Schnackenberg's angry, tender Heavenly Questions.

Gjertrud Schnackenberg's angry, tender Heavenly Questions.

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 17 2011 6:49 AM

The God of Writers Broke His Pen

Gjertrud Schnackenberg's angry, tender Heavenly Questions.

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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.

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Karl Kirchwey is the author of six books of poems, most recently Mount Lebanon, and of a translation of Paul Verlaine's first book of poems, as Poems Under Saturn. Professor of the Arts and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Bryn Mawr College, he is serving as Andrew Heiskell Arts Director at the American Academy in Rome from 2010-13.