I first heard Gjertrud Schnackenberg's particular name uttered aloud in the one-room office of The Paris Review. During the late 1990s, I worked as an associate editor at the literary magazine and as assistant to its co-founder, the late George Plimpton. On most days, "work" was a generous term for what we did. We stumbled to the office after 10 in the morning and left before the evening's first party began. If there was tennis to play (however poorly), we closed shop even earlier.
Despite this atmosphere of youth and mirth, there were a small handful of things about which the editorial staff was deadly serious. Language, the rigor and talent to wield it, was tantamount. Only a short list of living artists merited highest praise.
Among fiction writers, this meant David Foster Wallace. Among poets, none was more respected than Gjertrud Schnackenberg.
As a young poet, I picked up her third book, A Gilded Lapse of Time, opened it, and read:
When love was driven back upon itself,
When a lapse where my life should have been,
Opened like a breach in the wall. ...
I was hooked. Here was an unflinchingly courageous woman willing to look with open eyes through "the breach in the wall" and into her inner world no matter what she saw. This proved as inspiring to me in the writing of nonfiction as it did in the writing of poetry. Like nonfiction, poetry requires its author to pay close attention to internal and external landscapes. Yet Schnackenberg does this one better: She weaves the worlds of art, history, and classical and Buddhist philosophy into her working mind. These strains are very much alive as she lays out the meticulous argument of each poem. This is what great writing of any kind can do.
Schnackenberg is best known for her stunning command of prosody. She is the most accomplished master of blank verse on the planet. Her poems are also studded with all manner of rhyme. Despite their highly wrought nature, these poems are neither self-conscious nor pretentious.
They are also never decorous -- Schnackenberg never attempts to get the music right at the expense of meaning. Hers are poems that employ language in the service of truth, rather than in the service of itself. Yet, to get at this kind of truth, she must use language as precisely as a human being can. It's odd to say, perhaps, but she would make a fine underwater welder: She could withstand the blowtorch's heat, the delicate metalwork bubbling before her, and the pressure and proximity of death under 80 feet of water.
Schnackenberg's new book, Heavenly Questions, is a collection of lullabies and lamentations. These are love poems to her late husband, the American philosopher Robert Nozick, who died in 2002 after a long battle with cancer. In short, these new poems are marvels, and they are intimate songs about putting a beloved to sleep after a long and losing battle with a fatal illness.
Yet they also continue a conversation between the poet and her brilliant, missing partner -- a conversation that ranges between philosophy, history, intellect, and illness. After his death, she talks to Nozick about the dual nature of the world in which cells divide, double helixes unwind, waves toss unevenly between peak and trough, and armies clash on battlefields and chessboards.
Seraphim flip pages of her notebook. The graphite of her pencil bears down on the paper. The door between life and death refuses to open. This is a world at war with itself -- caught up in the perception of its own differences, including the chasm between death and life.
Nozick, the philosopher, is everywhere: in the figure of the Greek mathematician Archimedes, counting endless grains of sand; dozing under the haze of the painkiller Sublimaze; in Schnackenberg's coat pocket in the form of a forgotten penny.
As with her five earlier books of poems, she builds these poems on repeating patterns. Returning again to lines and phrases -- "With everything in play, and all in play" and "All that could be done has now been done" -- she enacts the mind's patterns of obsession, reassurance, celebration, memory.
Her dream songs remain both impossibly intimate and formally perfect: a double monument to love and to grief. Here is the most powerful love poetry of our time, rooted in the fact that it is in the past:
Possessed, but not in order to possess;
Selfsame, self-owned, self-given, self-possessed,
And all in play. But conquered nonetheless.