After a hiatus of nearly ten years, during which she published no poems that this reader could find, we receive this searing, soaring new book. As always Schnackenberg’s poems are meticulously constructed and ornately referential: they inhabit their metaphors like a mote suspended in air. But in Heavenly Questions Schnackenberg’s poems achieve a new degree of human intimacy as a result of their staggering encounter with death. From the lonely park bench to the celestial interrogation, these poems follow an aggrieved lover as she battles her incomprehension and exhaustion. It’s as though the renewing faith in the power of beauty that has always animated Schnackenberg’s work were itself mortally wounded; as we watch it struggle to regain its footing, we gaze more and more deeply into its striving heart.
Regard the opening lines of the heartbreaking “Light-Gray Soil”:
Shambles of grief in daylight under heaven.
I sit among the living, in a park,
Three miles from where he’s laid to rest, three months.
Foot traffic dimly swirls around me, throngs
Of the unbidden pass me, the unburied.
I sit inside a coat he gave me once.
Systole and diastole. Not knowing when
I halted at this bench, not knowing when
I ceased to stalk the sidewalk, came to rest,
Not knowing, since it doesn’t matter when.
My heart-walls moving of their own accord.
A helpless deed, systole and diastole,
Two halves carved from a pre-existing whole.
Contracting, and the chambers fill with blood.
Dilating, and the blood is surging through.
Five heaps of being, five, the beggar said.
O beggar, I have seen the mound of earth
When all the rivers call their fountains back.
I wore my shoes away, I wore away
The stockings from my feet, seeking the house
Where no beloved person ever died,
No father, mother, husband, wife, or child.
Earth’s crust diminishing beneath my feet.
Buy Heavenly Questions here.
UPDATE [September 23, 2011]: Heavenly Questions out in paperback this week.
Read Schnackenberg’s signature poem, “Supernatural Love,” here
Only one of the poem from Heavenly Questions has appeared outside its covers: “Sublimaze,” covering six packed pages in the July issue of Harper’s, is available on line only to subscribers. (An excellent summer for Harper’s! They also published a section of Little Star’s Padgett Powell story in June.)
Sadly, Glyn Maxwell’s definitive appreciation from The New Republic also is not available on line. It appeared on December 11, 2001.