Heavenly Questions, Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s recently published sixth book of poems, is a remarkably moving and, perhaps surprisingly, exhilarating work, given that it is an elegy for the poet’s late husband, the philosopher Robert Nozick, who died in 2002. In the exchange that follows, I ask Trude to talk about some of the sources and inspirations that inform this complex and deeply beautiful book.
-Jonathan Galassi, President and Publisher of FSG
Galassi: Your new book, Heavenly Questions, is one of the most powerful elegies in recent poetry. It represents loss—anticipated, arrived at, and lived with—with a directness and at the same time with a universalizing reserve that are unlike anything I can think of. It seems almost an assault to ask you to talk about work that is motivated by such extreme experience from a critical distance. And yet I feel the work also demands this. How do you think we should begin talking about it?
Gjertrud Schnackenberg: Maybe we could begin by talking about the iambic pentameter line, and what it means, and what it does, and why it’s there. I know that poetry isn’t music, and that the rhythm-sound of a poem is secondary—by which I mean that poetry is not primarily a soundscape. But we can’t gainsay the emotional meaning—sometimes corroborative, sometimes opposing—of its rhythm-sounds. Many of our contemporaries believe that the five-beat line is an invention rather than a discovery, but I believe that the iambic pentameter, which your assistant Jesse Coleman once described to me in conversation as “propulsive,” is innate to English poetry (it won’t always be innate, as the language continues to change and evolve—but so far it hasn’t loosened its six-hundred-year-old grip).
Two aspects of the pentameter line obsess me. The first is the underlying buoyancy, the intimated joy, of the unsinkable four-beat line, ever present and truly cheerful, beneath the graver and heavier pentameter. It is a weird truth that the five-beat line can almost always be read also as a four-beat line. The five-beat line is the standard, I think, because in English the four-beat line is a little too short to write all the poems that need writing, although its manifest halfway pause is invaluable, whereas, in my hands at least, the six-beat line is too long—it breaks in two, and the second half sinks away, like a sack of stones. And second, I am preoccupied with the pauses the meter gives (and I am completely obsessed with semicolons).
Lineation in poetry is of course a form of punctuation. Punctuation is silence—laden, rhythmic silence—as in Mozart’s purported remark (which I cannot find in any of my Mozart books) that the most important part of music is “no music.” The caesura for us in English is an immensely abbreviated version of what the Selah was to the psalmist: Pause here. Weigh this. (Sometimes the caesura isn’t all that brief: most readers of English poetry know the percussive fountain-jets of silence separating the phrases in John Webster’s “Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young.”) I remember that when I first read Yeats’s saying that passion is in the syntax, I didn’t understand what he meant, but I think I do get it now, and would add that punctuation too is one of the most emotional instruments poets have (and that not all punctuation has been invented yet, I am sure).
When I gave a reading of some of the poems from Heavenly Questions in Seattle recently, Andrew Feld asked me afterward if I had any elegiac models in mind as I was writing the poem. I couldn’t think of any poetic models, but I did realize that the way I write lines and stanzas comes directly out of the religious music I have heard all my life, in the polyphonic harmonies of the great Lutheran composers, especially Bach—the “Fifth Evangelist”—and Handel. Historically, for a member of the Lutheran church, sacred music is worship, doxology, veneration, and prayer, and is, to a great degree, not only the very sound, but the sounding, of religious emotion. The first poems I wrote were in quatrains, which I am certain came out of those indomitable Lutheran chorales and the massive foursquare tetrameter hymns (and I believe that anyone writing poetry can learn a great deal about resolution and endings from this music—about how and where and why to end a poem); I love the St. Matthew Passion more than I love any other work of art; and I feel the melodic influence of the liturgy as well, especially in the tenth-century plainsong of the Nunc Dimittis, and in S. S. Wesley’s setting of the Magnificat, these chants often given to a solo soprano voice, floating down toward the congregation from the balcony (and a nearly audible rustle of wings).
This treasury of baroque religious music is a phenomenon of spirituality, giving perpetual proof that art is meaningful and heart-begotten, and that music, among all the arts, is most truly the Holy Spirit—invisible, intangible, yet present and laden, intimately communicative, equally as exalting as it is here-and-now centered. And the magnificent harmonic structures of these composers reach back through the cantus firmus of Renaissance motets into the medieval and ancient Gregorian chants which, in turn, reach back into the earliest liturgies of the church which, in turn, reach back into the ancient Hebrew collective worship in melody to the accompaniment of strings and horns and bells and drums, all the way back to the list of musicians in 1 Chronicles 25, where the Davidic musicians are gathering with their instruments—this music of the church takes us all the way back to David himself. Make a joyful noise indeed. But again, the sound is only a facet of poetry’s spirituality, and poetry is much more than sound.
Galassi: You seem to be saying that buoyancy and joy inhere essentially in the pentameter line, and I am convinced of this when I read Heavenly Questions. Though the poem is a song of the deepest grief, it is also undeniably “propulsively” buoyant, and hence joyful. How do you experience elegy as praise?
Schackenberg: There is a phrase in Psalm 77: “I remember my music in the night.” If I may offer an unauthorized and subjective paraphrase, I would write it this way: “In the darkest place, my music recalls itself to me.” Gradually the psalmist recollects what his life is for, long after entreaty and petition apparently have fallen away in a comfortless night, in an autonomous surge of praise that recalls his God into the dark sphere of his desolation. Nearly three thousand years later, in the 1930s in Stalin’s Soviet Union, in circumstances comparable in hardship to the biblical anguish recorded that night in ancient Israel, the Russian poet Mandelstam put it this way: “Poetry is an autonomous force in the universe.”
Significant poems usually are embedded in a cosmology, assumed or implicit (the Iliad, the Psalms, the Mahabharata) or sometimes explicit (none more explicit than Dante’s Comedy). In the modern world, the cosmologist Carl Sagan described one of the most brilliant facets of the modern scientific universe-picture, in saying that “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” The strangeness of this insight has never been far from my thoughts, no matter where my thoughts have gone, since I first read it more than two decades ago: that consciousness is a latent property of matter, that the inorganic and the inanimate as such are mysteriously laced with what is potentially animating (and is indeed, in us on earth, already animated). I need to say, perhaps, that this is not the same as “animism” (the belief that souls or spirits exist in all things, and that souls travel and transfer from one object to another) and not the same as Thales’s inspired statement that “all things are full of gods”; this is an insight, rather, about an attribute that material existence possesses—a latency, a dormancy, a potentiality—which somehow has manifested consciousness here on earth, in us, and is presently studying itself.
What is even more striking about Sagan’s sentence is the implication that the cosmos desires to know itself, has sought and found a way to know itself, that the knowing and being known is necessary, intrinsic, embodied, felt, built into the matter of existence and the existence of matter (suggesting also that the source of our compulsion to know is aboriginally of a piece with the jolting power and intransigence of the life force).
At around the same time as I encountered this sentence in the 1980s, I was also reading—I still am reading—the scholarship of Gershom Scholem, whose brilliant explications of the medieval and later Jewish mystics have exerted a constant gravitational pull on my thoughts (and in whose work I found, by the way, that in this mystical Jewish world, the Holy Spirit is female). The sixteenth-century mystic Isaac Luria discerned that, as a consequence of the tsimtsum—God’s self-withdrawal and self-exile, which allowed a primordial space where the universe would be enabled to exist—our cosmos came into being as a residue of light, and that “the sparks of the Shekinah [the Holy Spirit] are everywhere, scattered among all the spheres of metaphysical and physical existence . . . they disperse, fall, go into exile” (fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion); and that “the world of nature and of human existence is the scene of the soul’s exile” (cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap / May who ne’er hung there. Nor does our small / Durance deal with that steep or deep . . .).
There is a Greek word, pleroma (my favorite word), which is a word for the cosmos as the divinity-permeated totality (but the word has myriad definitions and is used in quite different ways in early Christianity, in gnosticism, and in medieval Jewish mysticism, to mean the cosmos as God’s wholly manifested habitation, or to mean a spiritual universe residing above the physical realm, or to mean the divinely shed residue of light in the primordial space). In fact, I have to telescope the word’s multiple meanings and definitions until an image emerges, the pleroma as I am able to understand it: the fully divine cosmos, here and now, or the divine and supernatural fullness of all that exists, here and everywhere. I believe that what is, is divine; that is, that being, existence-in-itself, is divine; I believe that, in effect, nature is supernatural. Jesus said the kingdom is here and now, if only we can know it. So much follows (worlds follow): I understand this to mean that acts of perception take their place alongside acts of mercy and compassion, that to perceive that the kingdom is here and now is in itself, in the language of mysticism, a force for the ingathering of what is exiled, and for the recovering of what is tragically lost or separated. According to Scholem, the medieval mystics interpreted such acts of perception, as well as acts of mercy and compassion, to be the work or destiny or purpose of each and every one of us.
I understand this to mean also, especially in light of Jesus’s conversation with Pilate in John 18, that we have a responsibility to seek, know, and tell the truth, if we are able to do so (and that to not seek the truth if we are able to seek it, or to deny it, or to pretend to it, or to not tell it, is nothing less than to sever the cosmos from one’s self). It follows too that if, from a mystical viewpoint, existence is itself divine, and nature is itself supernatural, then it does not need to be transcended, transformed, overcome, fought off, superintended, cut to size, regarded as fallen, or changed into something else, but only to be met where it is, here and now, its totality and thereness an ever-presence, a waitingness. Richard Strier gave his book about George Herbert’s theology and poetry the title Love Known, and for me these words are enough. I know nothing about an afterlife, but the thought that we have come from this and that we return to this—this thought, in the face of our pressing, one-by-one mortality, is to me indescribably consoling.
Perhaps I am simply trying to say that I know that poetry is not a diversion but a calling back (Emily Dickinson’s epitaph: Called Back), a recalling of ourselves to what we are made of, a reminder that we are made out of this.
But how poetry can touch this utmost experience of being, before which language falters, I do not know, and can’t know, I am unable to know—unless I turn to poetry again, and then I need only to read one stanza of—to take an unparalleled example—”The Wreck of the Deutschland” to experience the potential of poetry’s contact with this imminent truth, to experience how electrifyingly total this contact can be. Although Gerard Manley Hopkins’s words seize upon terror and grief, his instressing-inscaping phrases embody the context, the pleroma, the spiritual universe of the tragedy—the spiritual universe of the Knower and the Known, where, beyond grief, a loving promise is lovingly claimed, and it is this context that evinces the depths of his praise, adoration, and love. Elegiac praise, like sublime music, and like the joy we puzzlingly take in tragic poetry, calls us back, relocating us in the ground and source and cause for praise—and recovering for us again, by the way, the reason for reading poetry in the first place.
Galassi: Please tell us something about the texts—from very different traditions—that directly inspired parts of your poem, how you came to them and how they function in your own work.
Schnackenberg: I first encountered Buddha’s parable of the arrow, and his view of certain kinds of metaphysical questions, about thirty years ago. Buddha tells the parable of the arrow (which appears, paraphrased and altered somewhat, on page 15 of Heavenly Questions) after he is approached by a disciple-interlocutor, who seizes upon him in order to plaster him with metaphysical questions—when did the universe begin? when did time begin? what is eternity? how long is time? is there an afterlife?—and Buddha refuses to answer, saying such questions are useless in the face of our urgent need to seek salvation. To paraphrase:
“You remind me,” he says, “of a man who has been shot by an arrow, but who refuses emergency medical treatment until he can find out what kind of arrow has injured him, from what wood the shaft is carved and from what metal the point is forged and from what kinds of birds the shaft feathers are taken, and who is the archer, and what is his caste—while you lie dying, refusing treatment, at the feet of your doctor.”
Buddha compares our physical existence—our bodies—to a suppurating wound, and he says plainly that no questions, heavenly or otherwise, should distract us from our pressingly immediate need for attendance, cure, and salvation. To put it another way, he believes that all of us are arrow-struck, that we all carry an arrowhead within us (my telling of the parable says that the arrow can’t be dislodged, although Buddha’s original parable implies that it can be removed, and should and must be removed; I also added the question of whether the arrow struck randomly or intentionally).
When we read this parable in our own times and places, we may read this as an arrow of mortality, or necessity, or fate—or it could be the arrow of mortally wounding love, or it could be a divine arrow striking home in a mortal body, or it could be the arrow of a lethal disease (this is the case to which I have applied the parable), the diagnosis of which is usually enough to provoke floods of questions, many of them unanswerable or useless. The image of the arrow from Buddha’s parable is among the first images that began to catalyze other images in the poem, and it led me, gradually, backward, to the archer at the opening of the Bhagavad Gita.
This is the archer who understandably balks when he sees, in the battlefield, that the opposing army advancing on him is populated with his own family members and spiritual teachers. He lowers his bow and arrow and refuses to fight, sinking down in his chariot, paralyzed and despondent. Krishna, his companion and guide in battle, admonishes him that it is his duty, and his fate, to take up his bow and arrow and to fight back (Heavenly Questions does not tell about Krishna’s own fate, which is to be struck and killed, in the distant future, by an arrow). Krishna says as well that the battlefield is an illusion (that all is an illusion), that this is not a killing field, that no one here is a killer, and that no one is being killed. Krishna’s assertions about illusion and non-consequence are shocking, and I wanted to try to absorb the shock of this tremendous Hindu vision into the comparatively understandable battle on a chessboard, chess having been developed in India. The archer, eventually persuaded by the god’s revelation—the Bhagavad Gita—will pick up his weapons again. As I wrote this poem I could feel and hear the tension, the energy, and the implied momentum and reverberation of the archer’s bowstring being drawn back, and I wanted the poem’s lines to try to register that sensation.
Certain religious texts are difficult to disentangle from poetry. Poetry and religion are not the same thing, but they speak in the same language, dialect, vernacular, and idiolect, and often they are speaking synchronously and having the same visions and telling the same tales: human-centered stories which are simultaneously divine-centered (the Iliad, the Mahabharata, the Psalms, the Homeric Hymns, the Greek tragedies, Dante’s Comedy). Again, the records of mystical experiences which have been among the most significant to me are the medieval Jewish mystics—my own upbringing is Christian, my personal religious experience is Protestant, Nordic, auditory (listening, listening)—but I want to read what I can of the mystical and religious texts from other vast traditions (Hindu, Buddhist, pagan Greek).
But having said that I am unable to disentangle religious texts from poetry and poetry from religious texts, I should say also that my poems think their own thoughts, evolve along their own paths, believe their own beliefs, exist in their independent existences, and are, in my opinion, thoroughly out of control, and decidedly out of my control. It bewilders me that my poems continually double back to the subject of fate, about which I know little and have no beliefs, and that furthermore an aura of fate is often emphasized in what I write by the presence of rhymes, which are intrinsically consequence-emphasizing, and which seem to make themselves felt as auditory counterparts to fate, at least insofar as fate and rhyme reveal themselves in retrospect. More bewilderingly, my poems seem to return, as if galvanized, to the subject of reincarnation, although I know next to nothing about reincarnation. I have no such beliefs, yet it appears that my poems do believe these things.
My father believed that mysticism is nearly valueless or at least morally pointless unless its insight is returned (if it can be expressed, and accepted) to the human community from which it came, for the good of others. Many years ago, I read that in ancient Mesopotamia there was a legend that writing was invented in order to record the fates of human beings. It seems to me that “to record the fates of human beings” is a devout act as well as an act of poetry. If this ancient legend has any truth to it, then perhaps poetry can indeed be the kind of offering my father meant.
Galassi: How does science function as a source for your poem? Do you see science as, in effect, another sacred text that the poet somehow “reads”?
Schnackenberg: Oh, yes, indeed. When I said that poetry tries and wants to make contact with reality, that is, with uttermost-being (truth, God, whatness, somethingness-nothingness, chaos-order)—to the Veda seers, the vibrating void; to the eighth-century Chinese poets, that-which-is-self-engendering; to mathematicians, a veil of numbers; to the Jewish mystics, the En-Sof; to Christian mystics, the indwelling of God and emanation of Christ in all things; to the animal kingdoms on earth, the starry night; to contemporary physicists, the excitation of superstrings; to cosmologists, the residue of an explosion of something to whose pre-explosion existence there is perhaps, as my friend Elaine Scarry once said to me, “no door”—I am referring very specifically and particularly to the material we are made from, this animated-in-us matter which we, in turn, express such a passionate drive to know (and which, in turn, has evolved a way to be known, through us, and is the source and object of our wonder and compulsion). But if it is the case that poetry is in pursuit of truth, still, poetry can give us only something which we feel to be true, with our emotions and our envisioning and embodying imaginations, without opportunity or latitude (or need) for proof beyond the imprint that our subjective passions receive from it.
But scientists, in making contact with reality, describe a very different relationship to what may be true, and in so doing provide poets with a crucial missing piece: an agreed-upon, although provisional, objectivity. Although scientific truths are tentative, contingent, ever open to modification and sometimes drastic revision, and not demanding of faith although seeking proof—even as science aspires to objectivity rather than to the subjectivity poetry embodies and intensifies (or, to turn this inside out, does the objective universe vanish unless or until there is a subjective viewpoint?)—still, science is mentally touching and scrutinizing the same material which poetry mentally touches, the same bolt of cloth.
I think of Darwin’s vision of the preeminence of the ever-freshly emerging, mutating individual entity as the power and engine of evolution, while at the same time, Hopkins (who would have trembled at Darwin’s probing of time and evolutionary genesis as evidenced in variations among tortoises) was describing his similar but independently arrived at perception of “selving” as the foundational and surpassing truth about created existence, its purpose and destiny, a vision elaborated from Jesus’s overpowering response to Pilate: “For this I came . . .”
In truth, the scientists are presenting the rest of us with descriptions of the material of reality which far exceed the images recorded in even the wildest, most far-out tracts of historical religious visions, poetries, fabulations, and prophecies—with the exception of ancient Hindu cosmology, which apparently is not only wild but wildly accurate.
What the scientists have come back from their scrutinies and experiments to tell us—again, not as a matter of faith but with all due and trained skepticism, and provisionally—is flabbergasting. Can it be that, when we look “in” past subatomic particles, we are not able to find a finally smallest entity, that there is no end “inside” and that matter-energy is somehow infinitely deep? Foundationless? That superstrings may exist “above” an underlying “foam” which is the “texture” of space-time? That what is perceived is “there” only when perceived? And when perceived, is an illusion? Amassed how?
And looking in another “direction”—”out”—is it so that our world is populated with innumerable imperceptible parallel universes? Multiverses? Which are entangled? In infinities of deaths and rebirths of infinities of multiverses? The bolt of fabric that scientists have been slowly and collaboratively unrolling before us is infinitely bigger-smaller, and incalculably more flamboyantly beautiful—its time scales and space ideation more extreme, its forces more creative, its order more charged, its fabric more buzzing and beguiling, and its allness-in-allness a still more intricate and seamless continuum—than our emotions, intuitions, experiences, and poetries have been able to tell us, and more than our envisioning imaginations have been able to encompass. The pleroma. But again, I think that poetry tells us, intuitively, insufficiently perhaps, but compulsively, that we are made of this. As does science. And my own belief is that this material is divine. And, by the way, that it suggests not so much the Creator’s “inordinate fondness for beetles” as it suggests an inordinate fondness for explosions.
Galassi: We’ve talked at length about so much that flows “through you,” as it were, into your book. I’m tempted to ask you now about what flows “out of you” into it, what attaches itself to these vectors of inspiration. Your work has always been intensely personal. But as you’ve progressed as a poet, you have made use of other artworks, other texts, and visual art as well, to inform and give shape to your inward directions.
And yet there are stylistic aspects of your work—repetition, for one, and also the insistence of your intensely regular pentameter—that seem to me to show pressure points in your feeling and thinking. I guess I’m asking you to do something rather difficult, to look at how you write and see what you can tell us what it says about your desires and intentions as a writer. In Heavenly Questions you have written a great book of grief—with great dignity, openness, and still a certain impersonality. Can you talk about this paradox, this duality in the book?
Schnackenberg: Let me try to answer three aspects of this complex question: first, the on-and-off presence of impersonality in Heavenly Questions; second, the source of the insistent meter I use; and last, the purpose of repetition in the lines I write.
First, as for the coming-and-going presence of impersonality in Heavenly Questions: probably I consider these things—the personal and the impersonal—to be facets rather than paradoxes, or a Möbius strip more than a duality. Poetry is primarily emotion, feeling, sensation, passion, but it has to alternate between, to interleave, the personal and the impersonal, subjective and objective—partly out of respect for sheer common sense; and partly because in most of us there is an inner necessity to seek perspective, connection, objectivity in tragic circumstances; and partly because it’s when passion has hurt us most that we learn the meaning of dispassion, and learn to pray for detachment. But there is also an always present moral principle that cuts poetry into facets both personal and impersonal, depending upon which way we turn it and which angle we hold to the light, this principle being—to paraphrase a sentence of the sixteenth-century mystic Moses Cordovero—that one’s self has something of all other selves within it, and that other selves have something of one’s self within them. This could be poetry’s motto. And again it reminds me of Gershom Scholem’s comment about the spiritual universe, that “the sparks of the Shekinah are everywhere, scattered among all the spheres of metaphysical and physical existence . . .”
Second, as for the insistence of meter in the lines I write, meter is pure emotion (technique, for artists, is an emotion, a passion—technique means only the way a thing is done, and the way a thing is done is one of the most passionate preoccupations an artist can have—not separable, despite critical habits of discussion, from what is being expressed). Meter’s energy and urgency, its redoubling emphasis of the way thoughts feel, is like a wordless vow underlying the words, perhaps translatable into words as: So help me God (four stresses in a row there, and no pause). And this trait of insistence you mention, the tenacity, relentlessness, is personal; I don’t give up, and in Heavenly Questions the more so, since its another’s life that I can’t give up on.
And last, as for my use of repetition: repetition can be a prodigious, last-ditch effort to remember what happened, in circumstances of pain or panic, here on earth in “the scene of the soul’s exile,” among the cliffs of fall; or an effort to find, or to establish, a pulse; or to try to create a pattern—as if to arrange a chain of molecules which, if lightning strikes, could become animated. Or it can be a magic spell, when all else fails. Or repetition can be a way of saying: I will keep telling this until I get it right; or until I have made this thing that must happen, happen; or until this prayer is answered; or until the tale I am telling has come to its own end, or has come true; or if nothing can come of this tale, then at least I will keep saying it until I know that the tale has been heard, whether here on earth or in the upper spheres—so help me God.
At the end of his 1941 lectures on Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem tells a story, which was told to him by the novelist S. Y. Agnon, about repetition:
When the Baal Shem had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire, and meditate in prayers—and what he had set out to perform was done. When a generation later the maggid of Meseritz was faced with the same task, he would go to the same place in the woods and say, “We can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayers”—and what he wanted done became reality. Again a generation later Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov had to perform this task. And he too went into the woods and said, “We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayer, but we do know the place in the woods to which it all belongs—and that must be sufficient”; and sufficient it was. But when another generation had passed and Rabbi Israel of Rishin was called upon to perform the task, he sat down on his golden chair in his castle and said, “We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of how it was done.” And, the storyteller adds, the story which he told had the same effect as the actions of the other three.
Gjertrud Schnackenberg reads Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “Encounter”:[audio:https://fsgworkinprog.wpengine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/encounter-milosz.mp3]