Heavenly Questions, by Gjertrud Schnackenberg. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 64 pp., $23.00.
This year, two of our most classically oriented poets have released books of mourning and elegy. But whereas Anne Carson, in Nox, her memorial to her late brother, drew on her long-standing interest in the broken, the partial, the fragmented, Gjertrud Schackenberg in Heavenly Questions does almost the opposite, offering poems in a meticulous blank verse that gives them the stately power and authority of Chapman’s Homer and its legions of descendants. And whereas Carson’s obsession with the fragment points to the inevitable, irrecoverable deterioration of our classical inheritance, Schnackenberg–whose map of the ancients is not limited to Greece and Rome, but takes in China, India, and more–focuses instead on the remarkably unbroken skein of knowledge and inquiry that links us to those long-gone ancestors.
She opens the book with one of those ancients. In “Archimedes Lullaby,”
Archimedes, counting grains of sand,
Is seated in his half-filled universe
And sorting out the grains by shape and size.
Archimedes is building, making, thinking, affording us our first glimpses of the secrets of the universe:
The wondrously unlocked square root of 3;
And 3.141 . . . : a treasure-store
Marcellus cannot plunder; cannot use;
And 1.618 . . . : the weightless gold
No scales are needed for, no lock and key,
Ratio divine, untouchable in war.
Faced with the impossibility of counting the grains of sand, Archimedes is undaunted:
Let this be X
Let this be X times X, and let there be
More myriads of zeroes grain by grain
In sacks of sand where one by one by one
More sacks of sand are filled with other grains,
Let numbers coalesce and re-emerge
Unharmed by coalescence and unchanged;
And always let a higher number form
And every single number have a name.
On the beach with Archimedes, Schnackenberg lets us see, for a shimmering, breathtaking moment, a long-lost time when discovery after discovery of the mathematical underpinnings of the universe began to suggest that understanding might be in our reach—that we could conceivably organize, classify, and even explain the universe.
Yet even as we’ve built the whole of science, and much of our society, on that foundation, and that hope, that ultimate sense continues to elude us. Even as Schnackenberg ties our restless inquisitiveness and understanding to the ancients, she is forced to acknowledge that when we are faced with the largest questions of life and death all that ancient knowledge, and all our myriad contemporary advances, are as sand through our fingers. The harder we try to hold on to something definite, some unimpeachable truth, the more quickly we are forced to confront our ignorance. The heavenly questions of the book’s title, “a series of unanswerable cosmological, philosophical, and mythological questions” posed by Qu-Yuan more than two millennia ago, remain unanswerable. We may be aware, as she put it in her previous book, The Throne of Labdacus, that
When a human is conceived
Far, far in the distance there appear
The figures of shovelers,
but the whys and the wherefores remain forever out of reach.
And after leaving Archimedes on the beach, we soon learn why that failure is so important: the grim shovelers born with the poet’s husband have begun to measure out their task. He is dying:
The demiurge that forged the nucleus
Had set an injured molecule aside
That broke away midstream, autonomous,
And copied out its secret injury.
A break-site underwent a subtle change,
A hidden break-site in a chromosome;
A break, without apparent consequence,
And no one knew. And no one could have known.
The hospital, simultaneously a place of hope and a place of resignation, becomes, as the poet drowses and dreams and dreads in her chair, only the uppermost manifestation of the long centuries of transmitted knowledge:
The apparition of the bodily 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.
But all that knowledge avails us not; after the “fifth surgery / of five, the final one I argued for,” she learns that he is at the point of death:
A bleeding deep inside.
Something smaller than a grain of sand.
Mechanisms poorly understood.
All that could be done has now been done.
I write the words, with vitals liquefied.
A page is turned above: it did no good.
A page is turned again: it did no good.
Then fingers touch a page that can’t be turned.
As the reality of her husband’s fate becomes inescapable, Schnackenberg turns to elegy, crafting lines whose piteousness trembles beneath their controlled, funereal surface:
How could I memorize his gentle ways.
The way he mingled friendliness with passion,
Plain dealing, open-handed, unafraid.
The swift, reflexive generosity.
His striking conversation, magic ease
In seeking what the other could, then more,
In understanding, warmly understood;
A quest for truth but not for certainty.
And the integrity I idolized:
Another’s mystery never trifled with
No one was belittled in those eyes.
There is an astonishing, fierce power in that control, the lines—with their shifting rhymes and confident, striding meter—moving us even as their author strives to remain unmoved, at least long enough to get it all down. They call to mind the simple force of William Cory’s “Heraclitus,” or Donne’s “Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” a voice of authority, almost pre-modern, speaking of things it knows; I don’t think I’ve ever felt so strongly a loss experienced only through verse.
All of which makes Schnackenberg’s broader vision even more impressive. Heavenly Questions is centered on, and powered by, the aching loss of her husband, but her reflections on that loss spiral out into larger realms of thought. For even as she hymns this single man, irreplaceable (“Let nothing more be ever dear to me.”), she knows that he is at the same time merely one of Archimedes’s grains of sand, a part of the universe, no more or less important than any other. We cannot even grasp the universe’s immensity, let alone begin to understand how or why it works,
How atoms in the ancient paradox
Can pass from unseen particles to seen
Or why a chain of atoms interlocks.
Those atoms, in “Fusiturricula Lullaby,” become a shell, built on a mathematical formula that we can scry out but not understand, for a purpose we can’t know:
And all that could be done has now been done;
And all is well and hush now, never mind;
Fusiturricula slowly withdraws
Its being; self-enfolding, self-enclosed;
And all it toiled for turns out to be
No matter—nothing much,nothing at all—
Merely the realm where “being” was confined
And what was evanescent evanesced
And then a spiral shell washed by a wave
Is carried forward in a foaming crest;
But that was long ago and far away,
It doesn’t matter, really, when it was,
And close your eyes now, hush now, all is well.
It is Schnackenberg’s great achievement to have revealed how, in the dark of the hospital night, the small and the large, the personal and the impersonal, the purposeful and the pointless, all collapse into one, the universe, still inexplicable, still impersonal, reduced for that moment to the force of a simple, urgent desire:
All questions put aside, perhaps for good,
Questions, O monks, that lead not to salvation.
I turned my back on heaven once and for all,
No questions anymore. Just say he’ll live.
All we have is love; when love is all we have, we create memorials to help us hold on to that love, to say to an indifferent universe that, results be damned, it existed and had potency. Heavenly Questions is that memorial, and, as such, the answer to its own questions.
Levi Stahl is the poetry editor for The Quarterly Conversation.
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