Six Long Poems of Grandeur and Oceanic Sweep

[Heavenly Questions, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010, 64pp]

There is a predilection among American poetry editors for commemorating and sometimes spinning the mundane. Nothing wrong with that, unless it becomes a kind of esthetic nationalism.

After three months of immersion in Heavenly Questions, six long poems by Gjertrud Schnackenberg that are as lyrical as they are narrative, I find myself caving in to the wrongheaded impulse to begin an appreciation of her book by remarking on the mundane, because that is so much what her poems are not.

If there are contemporary poems of greater grandeur and intellectual aspiration than these I haven’t encountered them. If there are better poetics and rhymes I haven’t encountered them, either. They contrast with a vogue that looks to the ordinary, like Shaker furniture, for its grace. But they are not, for so doing, more European. The critical call for objectivism, examination of the ordinary and simplicity of language were rooted in the need to invigorate and purify a language that had grown stale and prissy, but the canonization of this call has over time become tedious itself, pleading for a kind of pretentious ordinariness often masquerading as something more than it is.

These 64 pages present six poems: Archimedes Lullaby, Sublimaze, Venus Velvet No. 2, Fusiturricula Lullaby, The Light Gray Soil and Bedtime Mahabharata. It should be noted that the Archimedes of the poem’s title is not possessive and that the 24 opening lines of the poem appear on the back of the book jacket, giving the reader a far better idea of what is to come than any blurb might have done.

There have certainly been ambitious volumes of poetry in recent years. [My mind turns to Tony Barnstone’s Tongue of War.] But the philosophical and metaphysical depth and reach of Heavenly Questions call to mind the Elizabethan George Chapman and his Shadow of Night, Giacomo Leopardi, and Giordano Bruno, among them. Indeed Chapman and Bruno, who was for a while of a member of the court of Elizabeth I, had much in common.

You don’t need the erudition that illuminates these poems to enjoy them, although they constitute lovely invitations to the uninitiated to discover that fusiturricula is a genus of sea snails and that Lord Krishna set out to learn why wars happen and what might be done to end them. What better invitation to learning than such musicality as this:

Oh no, I couldn’t bring an end to war; I can’t untie the immaterial cords That bind us to our deeds; nobody can; Intangible the strands that tie themselves In transitory knots of “who” and “where”- And then untying of their own accord- But all that could be done has now been done.

These lines from Bedtime Mahabharata reveal the poet’s gifts of inquiry and speculation. Their poetics reveals a formality and rhetorical precision married to vernacular, plain speech. Schnackenberg observes such conventions as capitalizing lines and adhering to meter. She will use a Latinate word, such as immaterial, when nothing in the Anglo-Saxon lexicon will quite convey the meaning and sense she wants. I admire this intellectual integrity, this engagement of a fluid mind with granitized notions of modern poetry. It’s not fustiness, it’s exactitude. She will use the conversational mode when it suits her purposes, but not because contemporary criticism calls for it.

Her characteristic line is the iambic pentameter, but because her references are often classical her lines are redolent of the dactylic or antique pentameter. Her rhymes are sure and symphonic, often more polished than Hart Crane’s or Sylvia Townsend Warner’s. Witness this opening stanza from 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.

This tidal sensibility, created by the uses of the ‘o’ and ‘a’ sounds, is marvelous in its simplicity. ‘O’ suggests rowing, ‘a’ suggests the returning tide, ebb and flow, making us exquisitely conscious of Archimedes sifting grains of sand.

I had already read Heavenly Question’s when I discovered in a web search that it had won the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize and had been widely acclaimed in the most influential literary journals. What could I possibly say that would shed any light on this already famous work? And yet I felt compelled to write about Heavenly Questions. To do so, I had first to ask myself why. If her peers had already praised it, how should I reach out for the bandwagon? The answer came to me during my third reading-the oceanic swell of the language deserves a reading aloud-her poetry flies in the face of a great deal of what we have come to regard as the modern canon. It’s classical, unafraid of arcana and reference. It takes back ground lost to what has become a rather knee-jerk insistence that we find our meanings-and our mysteries-in the mundane. It is unabashedly informed, unreservedly refined, and so in its very creation it gives scholarship an immediacy and credibility that has been somewhat marginalized. There’s no conflict between scholarship and plain speech, between the mysterium and Anglo-Saxon, but it has come to seem so.

Was it decided in the wake of William Carlos Williams’s little red wheelbarrow and all that depends on it that a lively knowledge of the classics should be considered arcane, pretentiously referential, and even fancy-schmancy? Some of us, after all, consider it a good bit less than extraordinary.

And yet at the same time it seems to me that Heavenly Questions, rooted in an ancient Chinese poetic inquiry, holds up to us the question of whether our learning is to certify ourselves in a world of credentialism or rather is to show us every day of our lives how much we don’t know, how vast is the universe, and how exhilarating is our ignorance. I don’t know if Schnackenberg would agree with this attribution, but surely one of the functions of poetry is to loose our muse and license our conjecture.

At a time when our culture is asking itself questions about the very nature of books, this elegant production, designed by Jonathan D. Lippincott, reminds us that the book can be not merely a conveyance but an object of art in its own right. The production values here are impeccably subdued in deference to the majesty of the poetry, and that is the measure of an admirable esthetic. I think in the either-or discourse about traditional paper books and e-books we have obscured the idea that exciting esthetics can be brought to bear on both.

When finally I took Heavenly Questions out of my briefcase and set it into a bookcase I suspected that even in my old age I would read it again. Certain books should be installed on our walls like Joseph Cornell boxes. I do have an Emily Dickinson volume sitting on its pedestal in a room. Why not heavenly questions?

Del’s book, Far From Algiers:

New review of Far from Algiers:

Artists Hill, Literal Latte’s fiction first prize:

His blog:

His mother’s art:

His aunt’s art:

Djelloul Marbrook
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook, born in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter grew up New York, served in the US Navy. His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University. His story, Artists Hill, won the Literal Latte first prize in fiction. He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.