Almost alone among contemporary poems I've read, the title poem in Gjertrud Schnackenberg's book A Gilded Lapse Of Time, and to a slightly lesser degree, the second work in the book, the seven part-series "Crux Of Radiance," not only has drawn me to read it again and again but it actually has compelled me to. It's not only that the poem is complex, so that no matter how much I wanted to I could not, in one or two readings, completely grasp it-- though this is the case; nor is it also how often I found myself being moved, despite the fact that I was only slowly finding my way into the poem, though this also is the case; nor is it also the imaginative way the narrative unfolds, so that with each re-reading it continued to hold my interest, though this is true as well; nor is it only the poet's voice and technique, and the way she did not shrink from putting on the page the long arc of her "thought," but went with her own sense of "breath" and "timing", let her "mental ear" and not the conventions of a school determine the form the work would have, though this also is the case; but the poem deals a range of matters: the problems of how to write poetry today so the poet knows it possesses some of the qualities of great poetry of the past and problems of faith being two among a number of inter-related themes, which made me want to understand what Ms. Schnackenberg had concluded about those matters, how she resolves them or--if she fails to--why she fails, for by the evident mastery her writing displays, the sharp thinking that's obvious on every page of the poem, it was clear this was a poet worth listening to on these questions.
Stated simply this mid-length poem in 20 sections, is the story of a quest, one which takes place in a number of sites, some historically and ecclesiastically important, including Dante's tomb, in Ravenna. It's a quest taken out of an inner necessity, closely tied up with Dante's life and writings, with some of the reasons sounded in the opening lines.
Because I've long had strong reservations about the "persona" theory, which is often used to deny with one hand what an artist in his work clearly has affirmed with the other, I will deal with this work the way I feel when reading it, as an actual and deeply important episode in the poet's life. This has nothing to do with the fact that the poem is written in the first person because, of course, the narrative parts may not have happened literally as stated. No theory of "persona" can shake me from my feeling that, just as Schnackenberg was being autobiographical in the very moving sequence of poems about her father, "Laughing With One Eye" in her first book Portraits And Elegies, as she also was in the brilliantly conceived and executed "neo-formalist" poem, "Supernatural Love," in her second The Lamplit Answer, here the poet also is being autobiographical. But though the thematic content may be "personal", to talk in such terms in no way is to diminish the work because the way this poet deals with her material, the cultural and historical parameters in which she frames her content are very large indeed, as she constantly juxtaposes periods of history, invokes and meditates upon people and events from the biblical, classical and medieval worlds etc., that is to say she uses such a wide array of references with such a tremendous number of objective details, that anchor the work in the real world, in a way that is so much closer, at least in spirit, to the way that Dante deals with his subject, also written from autobiographical imperatives, that this in itself makes the vast majority of personal/confessional poems we're all so familiar with seem less than trite by comparison.
In the middle of a discussion I recently had with two poets about the dismal state of the art I insisted on reading to them the first section of this poem. First and foremost I wanted them to hear a poem that was (to make use of a certain term) expansive--and not only in length that narrative necessitates but more importantly in vision, one radically different from the vast majority of poems written now: so short that even when their themes were trenchant, because they were conceived and developed as short lyrics, were almost always over before they had fairly begun--so that what was possible in them seldom got realized. I purposely didn't preface the reading with editorial comment but hoped they would respond to the rich panoply of possible avenues of development the thirty seven lines of this opening section were setting out in what was a contemporary idiom of carefully wrought but metrically relaxed lines.
Some of the stated content was: the unfortunate pass the poet finds herself in, phrased in a way that hints of the Fall; a condition that has brought her to a "standstill"; the mysterious possibility, though we may never know why, that the "other world" can impinge on us; the setting, whose first details are enigmatical though we feel they carry some as yet unknown, symbolic meaning; though this quickly develops into something quite specific. We are standing before an ancient mausoleum, near a famous church, located in what had been the Byzantine Empire but crowding up against it is a modern industrial zone, so that we know we are at an intersection, and implied opposition of, two worlds--the old and new but also the spiritual and secular, hence of two possible modes of being. It's at this point the poem had suddenly come alive to me because we are told the building had been built in the fulfillment of a vow and then of the humble way some of the ancient worshippers would enter the place (leaving their musical instruments outside, to enter the sanctuary "unaccompanied") so that as I read those lines I wondered if my friends were hearing what I had: that in our time, when words often were used so cheaply, this poet was calling attention to what words, in this instance a vow, exacted of a person who took them seriously--surely an implicit statement of how seriously this poet felt about the words she would use; and the stark but simple truth that in a time when one was up against it, nothing--no thing --would aid you, that you only had yourself to work with. And when I read the lines:
The inflooding realm we may only touch
For one instant with a total leap of the heart
I wondered if that powerful word "inflooding" and the leap would resonate in them as it does in me. I wondered if they believed that unless such a leap, of ultimate commitment of some kind were taken, first-rate poetry could never be written. In fact, I wondered if they even thought about the relevance of such matters to creative concerns because in our time formal and technical matters seem to occupy poets far more than matters of theme and content. And then a totally unexpected kind of sequence appears, seemingly out of nowhere, as happens often and so enriches the work, seven lines about bees--out of the book of Isaiah, the symbolic significance of which Ms. Schnackenberg explains in a note at the back of the book. It starts with a reference to the first book of Samuel involving King Saul's son Jonathan who eats honey he didn't know had been forbidden by the prophet but having consumed it "...his eyes were enlightened". Then Ms. Schnackenberg continues: "In classical antiquity, bees and honey were associated with poets and poetry-making, as in Plato's Ion, and with gifts of divination, prophecy, song, eloquence and truth-telling. Bees were thought to embody the souls of the dead....It was thought they could impart gifts of poetry to those whose lips they touched with honey...." I read those final lines and was done--but whether the two heard all, or any of what I had hoped, I never learned--as I likewise never learned what they thought of this kind of material in a poem , because the conversation simply picked up from where it had left off as if I had not read at all.
Now I wonder if their reaction would have been different had I interjected at least one "editorial" comment and read that note because I'm sure it would have had a powerful effect. I even began to wish the author would have found a way of incorporating its content into the body of the poem at this point, where we meet the theme of bees and honey for the first time, instead of where she does get it in, near the end. It's powerful there but I believe it would have been far more so in the first section itself rather than in a note. This was a small lesson to me of the importance of "plotting" in a narrative poem and from this example I can say pretty confidently it's more important in a poem than in a work of fiction.
Earlier I used the phrase "the long arc of her thought". Though it isn't possible to quote an example of what I mean by it, because it would be too long, I'll only mention the rhetorically marvelous and rhythmically sustained thirty eight lines of section two where the first full stop doesn't come until the end of line twenty (though there are other sequences as wonderfully sustained over many more lines even than this one). Here the poet is beckoned into the tomb by a tour guide, the theme of Dante and his quest, in life and in art, is mentioned for the first time, and to show how the first line of the poem, whose key word is "love," is picked up and developed, it seems to the poet, from what she sees all around her in the ancient building
> As if embers.... Had breathed behind the walls, were breathing From the sphere where love is kindled, Even if the that sphere had broken long before Our births...
so we learn that what may have seemed the purely personal dimension of "love" there is put into a context here which makes it almost as large as it could be (and of course re-enforces the contrast of "then vs. now" already established).
Yet having said all this, it must also be said that as often as I've read this poem there are parts even now remain obscure. (William Logan, quoted on the back of the paper edition calls it "one of the most difficult... books to appear in recent American poetry.") But more puzzling to me are certain sequences which seem straightforward enough yet in the context of the whole raise a string of questions recur every time I read them. An example are these lines: "Lord, we cannot discern/ the guilt of our callings/" and more specifically a few lines later, "...I am unable to ascertain/ the guilt of poetry..." (section nine). Whenever I come on them I am totally stumped. This is stated as a "fact" but what culture or belief system can this "guilt" come from: Christianity?--surely impossible in a poem where Dante's life and work play such an important part. And just to think of the roster of Christian poets who rank with the world's greatest makes such an answer seem silly. From its parent religion Judaism?--when just a few lines earlier we read, about a depiction of Isaiah in the church's mosaics: "He gazes down from the heights of his poetry". I can't believe "heights" here refers only to the elevation of the figure in the architecture and is not the poet's opinion of the loftiness of the prophet's poetry--especially when the poem mentions the cleansing coal (of Isaiah 6) imagery which is centrally important in the final, highly charged and complex, though to me ultimately ambiguous conclusion of this poem. The fact is in Judaism The Fall, theologically speaking, is almost of no account whatever and "guilt" as we think of it in the West, is almost totally absent--despite what might be commonly thought. Perhaps my problem here is that I don't really understand, as a Christian might, all the levels of meaning of the word "word," as in the lines that come a little further on: "You are the God/ Of a word we have not learned/".
But easily as perplexing as these are some of the lines from a later sequence. We are in the final section. A bell rings, announcing Dante's tomb is closing for the day. The poet goes back to the hotel room and in her imagination is shocked when a terrible accident happens (directly related to earlier sections of the poem which deal with the experience Dante has in canto thirteen of the Inferno, which involves tearing of limbs and speaking but only through blood) and then we read: "...I had meant only/ to open your book, to study poetry's empty beauty". It's here my questions multiply rapidly indeed. Just how are we meant to take those two words "empty beauty"? Can it actually be that to this poet the enterprise of poetry (at its deepest levels) comes down to mere esthetics? Is that, when all is said, what Dante and Isaiah--and all the other greats of spiritual poetry: the authors of Psalms, Job, Ezekiel, Milton, Hopkins etc, accomplished--they composed verbal "structures" admittedly beautiful but at the end are only that? So that if in fact, of his quest, Dante did "...intuit the sound of the spheres..." (section 11) and thus, perhaps, influenced countless readers through the centuries to do the same, is that also only empty beauty? Or is this the poet's judgement or feeling now, when the matters brought her on this journey still remain unresolved? Perhaps the answer to my dilemma is in the word "study"--meaning: at this moment the poet is dealing, not with the deepest matters of poetry but only with technical elements of versification, those formal matters that help the poet achieve the element of beauty in a poem? Or should I read this "talmudically" and come out with those lines saying that poetry, when it is merely beautiful, or is read merely for its aesthetic dimension then it is, in fact, empty? Perhaps my difficulty here is that I've missed or dropped a thread earlier in this complex work which I'll find or retrieve or better understand in a future reading. But whatever the answer might turn out to be, to have seen, the words "poetry's empty beauty" in a poem that includes that note about bees, honey etc. I quoted earlier is positively startling.
At the very end of the poem, with details that seem to be a combination of something golden, perhaps honey or broken-off pieces of a honeycomb, but whatever it may be is hot and smoking, the poet (we are still in her imagination) is wounded on her mouth, and the poem concludes with "...I turned my back//On the source of poetry, and then I woke."
That back turning on the source of poetry leaves me as baffled as any of the puzzling parts of this poem. While it's true in section 17, with the lines "I heard a deeper set of doors slam shut,// A sound reverberating outside the walls of poetry,/ As if the doors of the kingdom had closed..." we'd been prepared for a possible negative outcome to this quest. But as we get caught up in reading the concluding sequence, it feels positive, as if some kind of grace is being conferred. Yet what are we to make of the back turning--and not merely on poetry but on the source of poetry? Is this a willing renunciation of poetry and of the creative life itself, perhaps of "guilt", or of not having "learned the word"? Or alternately, of the line "Then I turned to my God/" (section 19) something greater has been arrived at? Will the "golden smoke," perhaps of the injury it caused, poetically speaking "open" her mouth (this theme of "opening" connected to a mysterious word from the gospel of Mark mentioned in section 11)?
But no matter. Though I have yet to get to the bottom of these kinds of questions I still have about the poem, (and even, in the end, if I can't) the work is so rich and deeply engaging in so many ways that I wish I had a few dozen such contemporary poems to wrestle with. If I did I would have a very different opinion about the present state of the art.