Gjertrud Schnackenberg is more powerful at writing poetry than at being a poet. How refreshing. Her specific poetic gravity appears uncertain and changeable; as if, lying abed in the morning, her questions were not what shall I write today and what shall I wear; but what will I be today and what face will I have.
Her voice can be breathtaking and lack breath. She will consider things outside her: Chopin as an exemplar of artistic ensnarement, Simone Weil and the quality of sacrifice, and the changes that can be rung on Sleeping Beauty. Then, when she leaves off these remarkable explorations and flies within range of herself, her light bends, prism-like, and breaks into fragments. She is a seriously enchanting singer who may squeak unpredictably when she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror.
In "The Lamplit Answer," Schnackenberg's second collection of poems, the three finest explore history, myth and the artistic and moral universe. They are the most abstract, yet they don't seem so. Their spaciousness allows their author to demonstrate her winged-horse qualities, prancing and soaring at the same time. The weakest are a group of rueful and whimsical love poems that give the effect of a winged horse pulling a bakery cart.
"Kremlin of Smoke" depicts Chopin, who burned to see Poland free, as the pampered darling of a Royalist Paris salon, where he plays nocturnes and flirts with the women while the men puff cigars. The "Kremlin of Smoke" on the ceiling recalls another oppressor class: the Russian viceroys who ruled Poland and who, when Chopin was a boy, treated him as their prize prodigy. It snows outside; as a child in Warsaw, he thought of the snow as Russian.
The five-beat blank verse has a deliberate rhythmic constraint, with a pause at the end of most lines and an occasional stiff enjambment. It renders Chopin's sense of being corsetted while cossetted. His nationalist Polonaises notwithstanding, his piano-playing was always at the service of the powerful. He recalls his music teacher talking of art for art's sake:
'\o7 'Larks, for example--what do they care who deposes
The King of all Poland? . . .
And what are their motives for singing?"--turning his hand
Slowly over to empty out nothing--\f7 "\o7 Precisely none.\f7 "
Quite beautifully, Schnackenberg has Chopin see in himself a likeness to the flowers in the salon, severed from their roots and already turning brown. There is more than politics; there is a suggestion of the artist cut off by the virtuosity of his art from its sources:
\o7 . . . Flowers, because
I too am an outcome withering from my cause.
\f7 "Imaginary fantasies" is the longest of the poems, a 362-line re-imagining of "Sleeping Beauty." Part fantasy, part reflection, it is a lovely and witty series of variations on the theme of stopped time.
The garden is paralyzed, the gardeners stand with their shears open; only the peacocks move,
\o7 Malicious as a troop of evil fairies
Who pace and lash the brickwork with their feathers.
\f7 She inventories the household; from which all sharp instruments had been vainly banished to try to thwart the wicked fairy's curse. The kitchen boy dreams he is opening a box of forbidden knives; the astronomer dreams of discovering Heaven after a lifetime of boring calculations. The poet has been arrested for sharpening his pencil; the bird-keeper, arrested for importing birds with sharp beaks, dreams that the jailer's keys "chirp in the locks of manacles and fetters." And the family insomniac dreams, of course, that he can't sleep.
It is a comical and magical city, this sleeping castle. And the poet concludes that the present, stopped, is the only reality we can grasp:
\o7 All time stops in a face we've held as dear
As she is held who's overcome with roses,
... the time that's set apart
For you and I to stand and sightless stare,
As gardeners gazing through their open shears
Stand in the shadows of the promised briars.\f7
'The Lamplit Answer'
\o7 Continued from Third Page \f7 Sometimes, Schnackenberg's wit gets away with her. There is a loaded and, to me, rather obscure fable about a very fat man named Clumsy. And there is a virtuoso effort to join two themes--what life is like without her lover, and whether the material world is real--by using the equivalent of the sonata form. The effort more or less succeeds with an infinite expenditure of ingenuity, but the poem really doesn't.
She recognizes as much, here and in another poem telling of her love for a man who has left her, perhaps temporarily. She uses an intimate, jaunty style, referring to Shakespeare as "William S. the Bard," and making wry fun of her pangs while seeming to display them as a plea to come back.
Even these poems have a number of winning things to them, but their author seems to be awkwardly in disguise. She is not, by main pallet, a confessional poet. She speaks most for herself when she is not speaking directly for herself, but on behalf of some part of the human condition that moves her. As, for example, in the best parts of her poem in memory of Simone Weil, who starved herself to death in England during World War II as a gesture of solidarity with all those who were suffering. With simple four-line trimeter stanzas, she writes of dry grass clinging tenaciously to a rocky hill, as Weil, starving, held to her link with the starving of the world. "It is theirs," she would say of the food she refused. Schnackenberg, in an extraordinary echo, writes of the dry hillside resounding with bird cries:
\o7 It is theirs, it is theirs . . .
Send it to them. It is theirs.