Austin Allen on Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Poetry, and Grief

What would it mean to express “primal and direct” grief in poetry? If you’re grieving primally, why would you—how could you—write a poem at all? On the other hand, if you’re grieving through something as indirect as a poem, why not make it emphatically artificial, like a fanciful death mask that only accentuates the blank stare behind it?

Following a logic of this kind, Schnackenberg’s best poems play form against theme, to the point of subverting form altogether. They are virtuoso creations that mock their own virtuosity, exposing the hollowness beneath the dazzle. They remind us that even in a postmodern, post-Einstein world, the norm in our lives is an illusory order: a coherence we construct and believe in until tragedy gives it the lie.

In this respect, her work itself is impressively coherent. “Nightfishing,” the first poem of her first volume (Portraits and Elegies, 1982), marks out a stretch of waters in which she’s been casting nets ever since. An elegy for her father, it begins by describing a scene painted on a clock:

The kitchen’s old-fashioned planter’s clock portrays
A smiling moon as it dips down below
Two hemispheres, stars numberless as days,
And peas, tomatoes, onions, as they grow
Under that happy sky; but though the sands
Of time put on this vegetable disguise,
The clock covers its face with long, thin hands.
Another smiling moon begins to rise.

Here we have, literally, a clockwork universe, whose cheerful abundance is artificial: a “disguise.” Yet the face of the clock can hide only behind “thin hands”—an inadequate disguise, which seems the projection of some fear or grief on the part of the speaker.

From the kitchen we are transported to a remembered childhood scene: the speaker on a rowboat with her father. They fish. He smokes. A bat flies by; she shrieks. For the first time she associates a “thought of death” with him. The moon falls. They twirl their oars. Finally we’re back in the kitchen, and he is “three days dead”:

A smiling moon rises on fertile ground,
White stars and vegetables. The sky is blue.
Clock hands sweep by it all, they twirl around,
Pushing me, oarless, from the shore of you.

For all the speaker has lost, the poem has never abandoned its composure. Its intricate conceit is perfectly orchestrated from start to finish; the young Schnackenberg has already announced herself as a modern metaphysical poet. The verse runs like clockwork. So does the painted world on the clock. So does the real world of the speaker—except for the bat. And the death.

What if the form of this poem had rebelled against the clock’s sinister precision? What if Schnackenberg had roughened the meter or broken a line or two in half? In that case the poem would have taken a stand against artifice, made a good-faith attempt to embody the messy reality of death. Instead it maintains a sort of complicity with the clock, which never misses a beat. It’s as if the poet were saying: here is a small, perfect work of art. It neatly, even wittily encapsulates the experience of losing my father. And in its very perfection, it is a terrible lie.

— from "Elegance in Elegy" by Austin Allen