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

Sunday, 7 April 2013

From poems to pamphlet: putting a poetry pamphlet together

My pamphlet, The Only Reason for Time, is out from HappenStance Press.  There’s a link on the right-hand side.  First pamphlet.  It’s a strange feeling.  Lying awake the other night I decided it’s like being a character in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, putting out branches or growing scales or feathers.  Feathers as a metaphor for the oddness – nothing at all to do with poetic flight.

I wanted to write an account of the pamphlet-making process, but kept hitting a brick wall.  So instead, here are some of the things I remember about it.

*** Most useful resources:
(a) the Aldeburgh advanced seminar. They are holding another one, again led by Michael Laskey and Peter Sansom, to coincide with this year’s Aldeburgh poetry festival; see here.  It was wonderful, I wish I could do it again. 
(b) a Poetry School download by Pascale Petit called ‘Towards a collection’, still available here, which contains lots of good advice on ordering poems, titles, editing individual poems, etc.
(c) a short Poetry School course on pamphlets with Roddy Lumsden, which made me realise how many aspects there are to a pamphlet beyond the poems, from endpapers to ISBN number to page length; and also had good advice on content and ordering, eg put a good poem on the third page.
(d) the HappenStance booklet, How not to get your Poetry Published, which is both illuminating and very funny, with good examples of how not to go about it; and their download, DOs and DON’Ts of Poetry Submission. 

*** Worst moment: July 2011.  My SAE from HappenStance thudded onto the doormat well before the end of their month-long submission window – so surely it must be a rejection. 

*** Best moment: 10 minutes later, when I opened the envelope.

*** Biggest problem: not knowing what impact the poems might have, collectively, on other people.  I’d had plenty of feedback on individual poems, at workshops or in exchanges with friends.  The only collective comments I’d had were at an Aldeburgh seminar (see above) on a small group of poems.  This was very helpful for preparing the HappenStance submission a few months later, but didn’t answer my main concern, whether the overall effect was heavy – too many poems about my partner’s death – because I’d only included two such in the Aldeburgh dozen.

When I started to think seriously about pamphlet contents, a year ago, I sent around 35 poems to two poetry friends (yes, that’s a lot of poems, fortunately I’d done the same for them). Their responses had both differences, and points in common; the former were mostly matters of taste (which poems to leave out).  They reassured me on the death question.  But: they were friends, and friends tend to be supportive about such things… 

So when I sent Helena Nelson (HappenStance publisher) the first draft pamphlet, I asked her the same question.  She said that love and loss are the only two big themes anyway.  But, said my inner demon, she’s my publisher, what about everyone else.  And of course I still don’t know the answer.  When Nell sent me the blurb for the back cover, I got a (very nice) shock; I couldn’t possibly have written it myself. 
*** Where I spent most time: sitting on the floor, surrounded by poems, laying them all out, swapping ones in and out, changing the order, looking at shape and size and tone. 

*** Most frustrating aspect: waiting to get published.  I knew about this before I sent poems to HappenStance.  Many poetry publishers have a queue.  It wasn’t any longer than expected.  But in 2011, it was hard having to say, I’m going to have a pamphlet with HappenStance… in 2013.  Especially as I thought I was ready to do it then.  Last year, saying Next year was much easier. 

In fact, I wasn’t ready to do it in 2011.  I wrote the last two poems in the pamphlet around a year ago – without any intention, but with the strong feeling that that’s what they were. 

*** Most enjoyable aspect: the experience of being edited – having a dialogue about my own poems with someone very discriminating and perceptive.  A dialogue that could never be quite that sharp, if publication wasn’t the end goal.  That covered everything from ordering to first and last lines and the occasional comma.  I was very aware that this is a luxury not everyone gets – not all poetry publishers edit. 

*** Most difficult decision: the title.  At the Aldeburgh poetry festival last year, I spread titled slips of paper on cafĂ© tables, and got friends to sort them.  Various people offered advice and ideas.  The final choice was one I’d thought of early on, and some people liked, others said, ‘The what?’  Which is a fair question.  It’s half of a poem title, which is a quote, supposedly by Einstein.  It’s all over the internet as Einstein, and occasionally people recognise it as his, but I haven’t been able to track down a source.  I asked a couple of scientist friends, and the hunt continues.  As one of them pointed out, he may well have said it in German. 

*** Irrational obsession: the endpapers (HappenStance does them in lovely colours, whatever the printer has available, to offset the cream paper).  I longed for orange, because both the first and last poems, and two others, have orange in them; failing that, something dark.  I could SEE my pamphlet in orange.  Nell wasn’t so keen; and of course the design is up to her.  The printer did have orange, a rather bright one, which takes me to the –

*** Biggest thrill: opening the envelope that contained a lone forerunner pamphlet.  It looked so elegant (there were some poems inside, but never mind them).  The cover design is lovely and endpaper colour gorgeous, though perhaps I’m a little biased.  If you’re wondering what colour the endpapers are, you know what to do…