I’ve been reading a wonderful book of poetry by the American poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg: The Lamplit Answer. This collection was first published in 1982, and later included as part of the collection, Supernatural Love . I discovered it when a friend advised that it included a series of poems on Simone Weil.
It’s a slim volume, full of poems of vigour, wit, and easy intelligence. Easy in the sense that her poems do not strut: the poet’s intelligence, her interest in history and ideas, is worn easily, gracefully.
The book includes a series of poems informed by historical figures: Chopin, Darwin, Weil, the Croatian naive art painter Ivan Generali?. There are also poems that imaginatively and perhaps critically engage with other stories: ‘Imaginary Prisons’ is a sustained meditation bringing together the narrative of Sleeping Beauty, and the imagined prisons of Battista Piranesi.
Her poetry is muscular and musical; she places the words on the page just so. The lines are pressurised, releasing steam from the compression of image and idea, movement and moment. She employs the arts of the poet with sharp grace. The lines flow across the page, the words often seem perfectly-chosen in terms of meaning, intimation, sound and rhythm.
My favourite poem so far is ‘Darwin in 1881’ – no surprise, as I’m a bit of a Darwin fan. In this elegant poem, Schnackenberg brings together with details of the late life of Darwin with Ovid’s Metamorphois and Shakespeare’s Prospero. Darwin appears to have had a long-standing interest in both Ovid’s work and The Tempest. Both Prospero – the fictional seventeenth-century magician – and Darwin, the real scientist – travelled to the islands – magical places – where they had visions of the metamophosing of living creatures while looking backward into “the dark backward and abysm of time” (Tempest: Act 1: Scene 2). As Schnackenber observes, both created tempests with their books, and expressed a desire to throw their works overboard. Both withdrew from the public world- the world of politics – into the seclusion of their studies, their homes.
‘Darwin in 1881’ is a long, eloquent poem, replete with the kind of images and the kind of seemingly seamless control of language’s meaning and texture that take my breath away with their sense of rightness, proportion and grace.
Darwin in 1881
by Gretrud Schnackenberg
Sleepless as Prospero back in his bedroom
In Milan, with all his miracles
Reduced to sailors’ tales,
He sits up in the dark. The islands loom.
His seasickness upwells,
Silence creeps by in memory as it crept
By him on water, while the sailors slept,
From broken eggs and vacant tortoise shells.
His voyage around the cape of middle age
Comes, with a feat of sight, to a close,
The same way Prospero’s
Ended before he left the stage
To be led home across the blue-white sea,
When he had spoken of the clouds and globe,
Breaking his wand, and taking off his robe:
Knowledge increases unreality.
He quickly dresses.
Form wavers like his shadow on the stair
As he descends, in need of air
To cure his dizziness,
Down past the shipsunk emptiness
Of grownup children’s rooms and hallways where
The family portraits blindly stare,
All haunted by each other’s likenesses.
Outside, the orchard and a piece of moon
Are islands, he an island as he walks,
Brushing against weed stalks.
By hook and plume
The seeds gathering on his trouser legs
Are archipelagoes, like nests he sees
Shadowed in branching, ramifying trees,
Each with unique expressions in its eggs.
Different islands conjure
Different beings; different beings call
From different isles. And after all
His scrutiny of Nature
All he can see
Is how it will grow small, fade, disappear,
A coastline fading from a traveler
Aboard a survey ship. Slowly,
As coasts depart,
Nature had left behind a naturalist
Bound for a place where species don’t exist,
Where no emergence has a counterpart.
He’s heard from friends
About the other night, the banquet hall
Ringing with bravos—like a curtain call,
He thinks, when the performance ends,
Failing to summon from the wings
An actor who had lost his taste for verse,
Having beheld, in larger theaters,
Much greater banquet-vanishings
Without the quaint device and thunderclap
Required in Act 3.
He wrote, Let your indulgence set me free,
To the Academy, and took a nap
Beneath a London Daily tent,
Then puttered on his hothouse walk
Watching his orchids beautifully stalk
Their unreturning paths, where each descendant
Is the last—
Their inner staircases
Haunted by vanished insect faces
So tiny, so intolerably vast.
And, while they gave his proxy the award,
He dined in Downe and stayed up rather late
For backgammon with his beloved mate
Who reads his books and is, quite frankly, bored.
Now, done with beetle jaws and beaks of gulls
And bivalve hinges, now, utterly done,
One miracle remains, and only one.
An ocean swell of sickness rushes, pulls,
He leans against the fence
And lights a cigarette and deeply draws,
Done with fixed laws,
Done with experiments
Within his greenhouse heaven where
His offspring, Frank, for half the afternoon
Played, like an awkward angel, his bassoon
Into the humid air
So he could tell
If sound would make a Venus’s-Flytrap close.
And, done for good with scientific prose,
That raging hell
Of tortured grammars writhing on their stakes,
He’d turned to his memoirs, chuckling to write
About his boyhood in an upright
Home: a boy preferring gartersnakes
To schoolwork, a lazy, strutting liar
Who quite provoked her aggravated look,
Shushed in the drawingroom behind her book,
His bossy sister itching with desire
To tattletale—yes, that was good.
But even then, much like the conjurer
Grown cranky with impatience to abjure
All his gigantic works and livelihood
In order to immerse
Himself in tales where he could be the man
In Once upon a time there was a man,
He’d quite by chance beheld the universe:
A disregarded game of chess
Between two love-dazed heirs
Who fiddle with the tiny pairs
Of statues in their hands, while numberless
Combinings on the silent board remain
Unplayed forever when they leave the game
To turn, themselves, into a king and queen.
Now, like the coming day,
Inhaled smoke illuminates his nerves.
He turns, taking the sandwalk as it curves
Back to the yard, the house, the entrance way
Where, not to waken her,
He softly shuts the door,
And leans against it for a spell before
He climbs the stairs, holding the banister,
Up to their room: there
Emma sleeps, moored
In illusion, blown past the storm he conjured
With his book, into a harbor
Where it all comes clear,
Where island beings leap from shape to shape
As to escape
Their terrifying turns to disappear.
He lies down on the quilt,
He lies down like a fabulous-headed
Fossil in a vanished riverbed,
In ocean-drifts, in canyon floors, in silt,
In lime, in deepening blue ice,
In cliffs obscured as clouds gather and float;
He lies down in his boots and overcoat,
And shuts his eyes.