Saturday 20 April 2013

Heavenly Questions by Gjertrud Schnackenberg

The iambic pentameters of this book-length poem are catching – after reading a few pages, I start thinking in them.  Of course Shakespeare taught us how much of common and uncommon speech there is in the form.  This book contains both, mostly the latter, worked with great skill.  Here is the second paragraph (verse? paragraph seems more appropriate) of ‘Archimedes Lullaby’*, the first of six poems that make up the whole.

Distant ocean-engines pulverise
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.
Behind him, on the shores of Sicily,
His legendary works accumulate:
Discarded toys, forgotten thought-machines,
And wonder-works, dismantled on the sand:

How easy this looks, long words and metaphysical thoughts of infinity, change and decay brought into the lines’ smooth, not-much-enjambed rise and fall.  The parts are perfect, the whole is clear, digestible and rhythmically mesmerising.  There’s more end-rhyme in this section than in some; it’s as if Schnackenberg sets up an expectation of rhyme at the beginning, and periodically, to sensitise our ears to its echo, so that they are then satisfied with less, once attuned. 

At this stage, all one knows of the subject is Archimedes, and lullaby.  By the end of the first poem, counting grains of sand in vigintillions has become cyclical, repetitive, a device for sleeping.  We don’t know who is being reassured by the recurring line,

And hush now, all is well now, close your eyes,

until the second poem, ‘Sublimaze’, named after a very strong pain-killer, where we are in a hospital, at a bedside vigil, and the sense of loss in the first poem turns specific.  The lullaby line acquires a recurring counterpart:

And all that could be done has now been done.

Heavenly Questions is an elegy for Schnackenberg’s husband; the title is the title in English of a very early Chinese poem, “A series of unanswerable cosmological, philosophical, and mythological questions which, according to a legend from the second century BCE, the banished poet wrote on the walls of temples during his wanderings”.

Much of the poem is set in hospital, while her husband is dying.  How to address such a situation, both commonplace and terrible, so as to make it new?  Schnackenberg overwrites her scene with imagery of doors and locks; escape-doors to recovery, doors in a searched-for house where no-one has ever died, doors imagined when imagination is near exhausted.

Then we two, reunited and marooned.
A door drenched radiant orange beyond the bed
Appearing in a wall of cinder blocks
Lit dimly gray. Then gone. And evening came
And took the door, frame, handles, latches, locks,
Even the black cube buried in the frame
With chisel marks around the mortise box;
Then took the wall away..     

Schnackenberg flies most free when she riffs and riffs, as she does for two pages on the legendarily uncountable (like the sand) doors of St Sofia in Istanbul:

Another door was always added: one

Among the doors that lay under a spell:
Some scraped the floors, with dark-rubbed radii
On marble thresholds, tilting underneath
The distant dome’s transferred weight-bearing load..

Such passages both are, and are not about what they describe.  The narrator’s longing, hoping against all hope, underlies everything. The extended imagery earns Schnackenberg the personal:

I reasoned that if someone swept a hand
And all the locks fell open all at once
And all the doors fell open, he would live..

The sort of mind-game one plays, when there is no way out – she is good at conveying how the mind behaves in this extreme situation.   And here she riffs on medicine and mortality:

I felt the opiates touch his bluest veins:
At one a.m., at two a.m., the hour
The weightless, phantom images inside
Another’s mind dissolve inside one’s own:

The apparition of the body scan,
An apparition from Vesalius,
The Fifth Book of Anatomy, laid bare:
Beloved body, lit in blacks and grays,
Black-soaked, and streaming in eternity,
The resurrected cavity of Galen,
In anti-particles. In gamma rays.
A visionary study of the veins,
Merely a blurry shadow on a scan;
And overhead a surgeon turns a page:

Black curtains sewn from bolts of consciousness
Are held aside by seraphs in black corners:
A stream of flowing atoms, held aside.
The presentation of a hidden sight:
Anatomy, which means the “cutting open,”
From atoms, meaning the “uncuttables,”..

I’d better stop!  There’s another dozen or so lines of this, and I want to go on typing them, because my interest is caught and held – by the emotion, the argument, the references and the rhythm that grabs me and won’t let go. 

The real-life hospital scenes are moving, but often lack the energy and force of such wider-ranging passages.  And there are parts of the book, mostly later on, including most of the final poem, ‘Bedtime Mahabharata’, in which Schnackenberg tells her husband a bedtime story from the epic and philosophises on war, that don’t grab me.  There’s a section where she praises her husband as he used to be, with many lines like “How could I memorize his gentle ways. / The way he mingled friendliness with passion..”  Why, oh why is this so hard to do well?   

It’s as if it’s intellectual speculation, prompted and underpinned by intense emotion, that sets Schnackenberg the poet on fire and brings out such rich imagery and multiple frames of reference.  And all of it shaped by the form.  If one held a world-wide iambic pentameter contest for living poets (this would be fun), she’d soar straight onto the short-list.    
Heavenly Questions is published by Bloodaxe.

*Note for fellow pedants: there’s no apostrophe after Archimedes.

Death of Archimedes, while drawing diagrams in sand


  1. Thanks for the reminder that I bought this book last year in a fit of enthusiasm, and have not yet paid it the attention it deserves!

    1. Ah... I'll be interested to hear what you think about it, when you're over here.

  2. Dear Fiona,

    I run a mothly poetry event in Reading and would like to invite you to come do a guest reading for us. Could you e-mail me at