Heavenly Questions

by Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Winner of the 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize,
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Paperbacks, 2011,
80 pages, paper, $13,
ISBN: 9780374533045
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Heavenly Questions: Poems Present Yet Outside the Grief

If fortune bygan to dwelle stable, she cesed[e] an to ben fortune.

If Fortune’s wheel spins too many times, it ceases to have Fortune’s power.                       

                                Chaucer’s Boethius

Poetry has a long history of being able to console its readers.  After my stay in the hospital last summer, with plenty of illness and grief to go around, I revisited the question of whether a private illness or grief can be shared in a public way through poetry.

Usually, the more regular the verse or meter, the less I feel part of that public grieving.  However, with the first poem in Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s beautifully constructed philosophical poems, the regular meter becomes a lullaby that intends to console the patient.  As with many lullabies, a story is shared; in this case the subject is Archimedes, philosopher and inventor of ancient machines.  She sings:

A visit to the shores of lullabies,

Where Archimedes, counting grains of sand,

Is seated in his half – filled universe. . . .

The rocking, lulling iambic lines mime the first of many heavenly questions that this volume will pose.  The cycles of the sand, water, earth, and waves frame a scene that we somehow know is a sickbed or a hospital room:

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

And one . .. . by one . . . by one . . .. by one . . . by one. . . .

The flakes of mica gold and granite – crumbs

Materialize and dematerialize.

Here Schnackenberg uses Archimedes’ work as an extended metaphor for medical technology and its limits, and the effect is like that of a medieval manuscript found in the middle of a modern hospital.  The poem partially removes us from the scene of the dying in the clinical way, but it doesn’t yet console any more than the “pastoral services” that modern hospitals still may offer.  The patient is only illuminated in an imagined corner of the text.

Eager to find more of Schnackenberg’s work, I did not have to look far to find a beautiful short poem called “Night Fishing,” which opens her selected poems in the volume Supernatural Love.  This poem metaphorically embodies the first signs of illness in a muted voice, less heightened than the hospital poems but just as distinct:

Just as a fish lurks deep in water weeds,

A thought of death will lurk deep down, will show

One eye, then quietly disappear in you.

Not since Amy Clampitt’s “A Silence Opens” do I feel so much humanity and tact in poems that hover around the idea of death, materializing and dematerializing it without violating the patient’s privacy and sense of self.

Why do Schnackenberg’s poems console me ?  A lot of poems that used to console me do not.  I’ve read over Milton’s “Lycidas” and Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” — poems that once consoled but no longer have that effect.  The poems that console me these days seem to operate by how effectively they remove us from the scene of grief.  Paradoxically, the poet or the speaker, however removed, remains present.  Such a poem is Szymborzka’s “A Cat in An Empty Apartment”:

Die ?  One does not do that to a cat.

Because what’s a cat to do

in an empty apartment ?

Climb the walls.

Caress against the furniture.

It seems that nothing has changed here,

but yet things are different.

Nothing appears to have been relocated,

yet everything has been shuffled about.

The lamp no longer burns in the evenings. . . .

What more is to be done ?

Sleep and wait.

Let him return,

at least make a token appearance.

Then he’ll learn

that one shouldn’t treat a cat like this.

He will be approached.

as though unwillingly,


on very offended paws.

With no spontaneous leaps or squeals at first.

This poem lets me grieve for Szymborska, who died recently at age 88.  I can enter her Warsaw apartment through the cat in this poem.  The observer, who is located close to, yet outside of, the human scene, personalizes the grief.

“Sublimaze,” the second poem in Heavenly Questions, picks up the bedside vigil in a hospital.  Unlike the first poem in Heavenly Questions, which is furnished only with the ancient machinery of Archimedes, the new machines of high – tech medicine are part of the scene:

The door I crazed with knocking reappeared.

A transitory door, lit on the wall,

drenched radiant orange, ablaze beyond the bed. .. . .

In the presence of such machinery, the nurse has “materialized and dematerialized” as the metaphors trace the progress of the disease.  This is no mere hospital visit, though.  These poems bear witness to an illness and a death in much the same way as Auden’s and Stevens’ great hospital poems visit Yeats and Santayana.

Schnackenberg succeeds in locating herself outside the grief in her final poem in the collection, “Bedtime Mahabharata.”  This poem effectively closes off her Heavenly Questions collection not without the possibility of heaven or spirituality, but outside of it. The poem is a retelling of a dog – eared paperback that the poet and the patient have shared in their lives.  This final retelling gets outside both the grief and the medieval manuscript that Schnackenberg has lovingly created in the previous poems.

In her retelling, the poet of the Mahabharata speculates on the moment when the writer breaks his pen, and the beautiful exit from story within story.  We finally share in Schnackenberg’s grief as the patient squeezes her hand.

In northern India —

He squeezed my hand:

What sentence was he writing when it broke ?

A smile, in such a night, with weeks to live.

Pajamas fever – soaked, trying to stave

Annihilation off another night.

The gentleness that nothing could repay.

I pressed his hand’s blue veins against my lips.

A bedtime story, all that we had left,

And mirror – image towers moving off. . . .

Clearly this retelling suggests no ordinary bedtime story, but rather a final meeting.  The poet and the patient become integral to the tale being told.

For all of the above reasons, Heavenly Questions is a book I would freely give to console a patient or a poet.  These poems understand that what makes us feel grief is the uncertainty, as how she here suggests but does not describe final moments:

In wars we can’t say where, we can’t say when,

Their stories broken off, the fragments fused

Mid – genealogy, mid – epitaph,

Annihilation gusting nearer, here —

Here the god of writers broke his pen.

M. A. Schorr