Poetry remains an art of elders, by which I do not mean a bourgeois art of old men in dry months, but an art that—unlike the youth culture around it and the pervasive cultural Alzheimer's—still values the slow accretion of wisdom across a career, the ripening, as Rilke once wrote, in the blood. The publication of Gjertrud Schnackenberg's Supernatural Love: Poems 1976–1992 and The Throne of Labdacus allows us to consider her distinctive trajectory, one that is punctuated not by the stylistic newness of fad or by the superficial novelty of elliptical ploys, but by a newness that reveals itself through content, through the scrupulousness of the ideas. And these ideas, confronted and considered with a rare seriousness of purpose, concern nothing less than the nature (and the super-nature) of fate.
Schnackenberg's work is distinguished by her consistent resistance to the confessional and all its trappings. While she began her career with an elegiac sequence for her father, she has never returned to outright biography. And, for all of her fascination with historical figures (from Dante Alighieri to Charles Darwin), her poems repeatedly avoid the persona poem and the dramatic monologue. They also resist the postmodern antidotes to confessionalism that would seem to strip the poem of the "I," but in fact magnify the "I" in so doing.
Like T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets, which begins in personal time ("Burnt Norton") and widens the gyre through historical ("East Coker") and geological time ("Dry Salvages"), each collection shows Schnackenberg expanding her work beyond the cult of personality and the confines of humanism. In "A Monument in Utopia," she exposes the dangers of that obsession when the communist chorus says: "We'll prove beyond a doubt that the world is man's, / A monument to us, a monoglobe." She has sought to transpose the same depths and surfaces, remoteness and manifestation that have been accorded to human personality onto a more impersonal, supernatural plain:
If I could begin again,
I would measure time in the generations of
Roses, and not the succession
Of rulers of men….
Schnackenberg's strategy—if such a word can truly be applied to poetry—is to begin her sequences in a recognizable human construct and subtly shift the poem to the brink of the inhuman. As she writes in her sequence "Imaginary Prisons" (1985), these are the "schisms" where "being and non-being break apart." Perhaps the most evident example of this is "19 Hadley Street" (1976), a poem that manages to span two hundred years of New England history within a single structure. Schnackenberg balances each section on the cusp between the domestic and the cosmic. In the section called "Dusting," the mundane act of dusting becomes metaphysical. Only at the end of the section does Schnackenberg hone the poem down from the music of the spheres to the more palpable sphere of a doorknob:
Bits of planets, burst stars have sifted down,
Dust from remote globes of the universe
The windowpanes, what ghosts? I count even
The doorknob in my hand among the living.
Of course, each poet must decide for him/herself the limits of what he/she is going to consider "the living." For Schnackenberg, the limits of existence are always being surpassed; "the living" are bound together in a chain of being that does not end with humanity but incorporates planets and dust, panes and stars, a kind of crescendo that keeps on calling. She writes in A Gilded Lapse of Time (1992):
I hear a rope wobble, lashing
The globe back and forth in a scourge of gold snow
That parts on the sight of other ceilings,
Other chains, other heights from which
Other worlds hang….
While Schnackenberg resists the confessional and the identification of her poems' speakers with her historical self, her work nonetheless embodies the contingency and shifting focus of an unabashedly human perspective. She is capable of a Dickinsonian coyness and intimacy, which helps to localize the great gamut of her subject-matter. For instance, she interrupts her own abstractions with this aside:
If you think "nothingness" goes way too far,
If "history" is the word that sets you crowing....
Like Eliot's "that was a way of putting it," Schnackenberg frequently combines her exceptional heights and breadths with a healthy humility (if not skepticism) about them. This skepticism is crucial to her work and to its awareness. In A Gilded Lapse of Time, she describes how Isaiah looks down from a height, panoramically: "from a gold-leafed tower ... from the heights of his poetry," and in a poem as early as "19 Hadley Street," she reveals the reifying dangers of her own vantage point. "Symbols," she writes, "the world a symbol from her height." Elsewhere in A Gilded Lapse she scrutinizes not only the often elevated and lofty nature of poetry, but "the walls of poetry" and "the guilt of poetry," which has "gilded" over any possibility of accessing the truth:
Our fault has aged you, driven you off, our fault
Has pressed you into this inaccessible vault....
It is hard to think of another poet who would put the inaccessibility of poetry on such an extensive trial, who would assume the very gilded and mandarin style that she will proceed to dismantle.
Schnackenberg's most recent book-length poem, The Throne of Labdacus (2001), is her most exceptional and integrated to date. It shares much in common with her previous sequences. Here, however, the constant is not a location, but a different kind of construct, a still-to-be-solidified text: "the Oedipus text." The Throne of Labdacus returns to the time when the Sophocles play had not yet premiered, when the tragedy had not yet been cast in stone by scribes and was still mutable in the mouths of rhapsodes and messengers. As readers, we are invited to feel that we have the fatalistic advantage over the text, since we know the core of the Oedipus narrative and how the drafts will finally coalesce into a single definitive play. But Schnackenberg would have realized that our knowledge of Sophocles is also a kind of impediment to the possibilities, our knowledge has an ossifying effect. We predetermine the text instead of letting "what comes next, come next."
As in her earlier poems, she plays relentlessly on perspective, and the proximity that the gods hold among the humans in Grecian myth permits Schnackenberg to shift effortlessly between poles: the near and the far, the nameless and the famous, mortal time and eternity, the blind and the prophetic. In the opening lines, we witness an incredible escalation, a classic Schnackenberg gesture, which rises from a housefly to a tyrant and then returns to the rim of a human eye:
The first warning passing through Thebes—
As small a sound
As a housefly alighting from Persia
And stamping its foot on a mound
Where the palace once was;
As small as a moth chewing thread
In the tyrant's robe;
As small as the cresting of red
In the rim of an injured eye….
"Typical" of Schnackenberg, we might say, but The Throne of Labdacus breaks from her previous work in several radical ways, the most evident of which is the matter of form. The dense blank-verse stanzas that bloated A Gilded Lapse of Time are chiseled down to minimalist couplets—as if they could be etched on tablets, like Apollo who "told the whole story of Oedipus / In one flashing sentence" or as if they were "the maimed feet still moving / Among the disjointed oracles." The language is concentrated into more and more amalgamated units. One thinks of recent translations of Paul Celan by Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh—the curious hyphenates like "God-far"—when one reads Schnackenberg's "miles-away miniature king," "mountains-away Olympus," "Sphinx-poetry," and "dried-red icicle-oracles." Perhaps the most fascinatingly ramified word is "see-saw"—a word that contains the present and the past tense of "to see" and suspends the reader in the very threshold of Oedipus's blindness and insight.
But do not be fooled by Schnackenberg's free verse. As with the consciously adopted gilt style of A Gilded Lapse, the freedom of these couplets is a part of a larger argument. The free verse is constructed in such a way as to be constantly in tension with the not-free, the contingent, or what Schnackenberg calls in the poem "the piling-up of consequence." Like the tension between free will and fate in Sophocles's tale, Schnackenberg's poetic sequence is in tension with its own (con)sequence. While each of the sections appears to be free of the other—"mutable and multivalent," as Schnackenberg writes in her footnotes, and at liberty (as the poets in Greece were) to draft the tale of Oedipus from a different vantage—a "core identity" repeats itself throughout the sections and begins to solidify.
The tragedy that Schnackenberg would have us experience is not merely that of Oedipus himself, but the tragedy of language, which was once "sculpted in water" and is now "cast in stone." The "alphabet enters Greece" and the language of oracle and riddle, which kept certain facts amorphous and occluded, is supplanted by the definitive written word. Even the gods are perplexed by the capacity of words to bind people: words are "sequences of knots they [humans] cannot undo."
But written in Greek: the continuum of sound
That once streamed from the god's lips,
And the question Oedipus once brought tothe god,
Now broken off and shut into the silence
Of written-down words….
Greek language is not the word of a god, but is broken off from the deity. As Schnackenberg tells us in her copious, Marianne Moore-like notes: "Greek was considered to be a human language (in contrast to the belief in ancient Israel that the Hebrew alphabet was God-given.)" The Greek alphabet was also rumored to have been invented in Oedipus's native Thebes. Like the messenger who brought Oedipus a scroll upon which was inscribed his fate, written language is itself fatal, an end of the possible, an end of the draft. As the sardonic modern thinker E. M. Cioran has written: "An idea, a being, anything that becomes incarnate loses identity…. Never quit the possible … forget to be born." But Oedipus is born, and the final draft of the play is premiered:
There is no refuge for what-is-born,
Humans or gods.
It was too late, before this chain of worlds began.
Always too late. When a human is conceived
Far, far in the distance there appear
The figures of shovelers ...
Then humans and the gods are shoveled under
A core identity emerges in Schnackenberg. A poet who is capable of the fierce vicinity of the lyric and the extended trajectory of the epic. A poet who writes in the very eloquence she would subsequently disintegrate and undo. A poet who chooses landscapes and subjects that seem to overlook us, but in fact attend to something central. As she writes in "A Monument in Utopia": "Topics gliding over your life and mine / but lighting upon the destiny." •
Christina Davis's poems and articles have appeared in the Paris Review, the New Republic, New England Review, Gettysburg Review, and Poets & Writers.