Discandied: On Women and Elegy
The book’s third section, “That This,” is composed of seven brief lyrics, all but one in bifurcated quatrains, in which Howe reflects on the conditions of her book’s making:
Is one mind put into another
in us unknown to ourselves
by going about among trees
and fields in moonlight or in
a garden to ease distance to fetch home spiritual things
By “spiritual things” Howe means her devotion to certain practices of representation. Despite the book’s concisely minimal visual form, That This is not a work of ekphrasis or animation. Instead, the mourner carries the absent loved one within as conscience, beyond the need for manifested presence. Mourning is given form, and eventually closure, as words and phrases, fragmented and deliquescent, gradually echo and respond to one another, their slow cohesion an antidote to death’s apparent suddenness. Howe’s repeated images of mirrors are not only metaphors of being’s relation to appearance but also explorations of love’s capacity to “mirror” even vanished objects. Increasingly, Howe expresses a desire to penetrate the phenomenal—to grasp what existed before the organization of perception. Such penetration is, of course, impossible, but if she could close the gap between the dead’s “that” and the living’s “this,” then the tragic, incommensurable separation between presence and absence would finally be breached and mourning no longer necessary. In the end Howe’s is a secular heaven of love’s connections, no less moving for having been homemade through her elegy.
* * *
Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s Heavenly Questions traces, with a hallucinatory tenderness, her efforts to draw significance from the final phases of the long illness, hospitalization and death of her husband, Robert Nozick, who was also a philosopher. To do so she turns to the most archaic resources—the relentless bodily rhythm of grief, drummed through six poems of unabated iambic pentameter:
And nothing lost, but found and found again;
And not conquest, but everything in play
Given, not taken; taken anyway,
And not to keep in any case; but kept;
Possessed, but not in order to possess;
Selfsame, self-owned, self-given, self-possessed,
And all in play. But conquered nonetheless.
“Given, not taken; taken anyway”: Schnackenberg subjects key terms—“taken,” “found,” “possessed”—to the possibility of negation. The effect is like desperately trying locks or searching for a hidden door.
The pattern of breakdown and recombination also shapes the book’s narrative, as Schnackenberg turns to religious traditions to find some means of coherence in things at once split and gathered. Looking to the fifth, fourth and third centuries BCE, she draws on various kinds of Buddhist, Hindu and Greek wisdom literature and a number of later literary texts. The narrative is framed by an image of the ancient Syracusan inventor Archimedes working on his “Sand-Reckoner,” a mathematical experiment to determine how many grains of sand would be needed to fill the universe. His labors are recounted as a lullaby:
And water waves sweep back and forth again,
Materialize, and dematerialize,
Retrieving counted grains and dropping more
Uncounted grains in heaps along a shore
Of granite-particled infinities,
Archimedes’ grains gather toward a conjectured, mathematical whole that can be grasped only by the mind. In a companion piece, “Fusiturricula Lullaby,” Schnackenberg writes that “In violet-brown across a spiral shell: A record of volutions fills a scroll/[…] As X goes to infinity.” She seeks comfort and sleep, and the end of suffering, as she is lulled by these marvelous accounts of infinity. They protect her against the claustrophobic confines of the hospital, the telephone booth, even her winter coat, as, during her husband’s last days, her mind races between hope and despair.
Though armed with enduring and farflung metaphysical allusions, Schnackenberg records many of the brute facts of her beloved’s illness and death, including his doctors’ use of the absurdly named narcotic analgesic Sublimaze. Taking up her pencil, a “Venus Velvet No. 2,” she stages a kind of war between writing and ending—a war she cannot win but can at the least narrate and shape. In the middle of her book she eulogizes her husband, noting first his spiritual characteristics:
Nothing denied, held back, or kept apart.
And never lost his gentle ways with me.
And wanted power over no one else,
But master of his heart, and of himself,
And then his physical ones: “His profile marble-carved, noble, sun-warmed,/Even at night, in winter, ruddy-tinged./…The red-lit aureate curving of his ear,/Warm-blooded velvet, made for lips to find.”
She recounts, as the sequences come to a close, the self-reflexive story from the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata of the composition of the Vedas. When Vyasa, the scribe of Hindu Vedas, dictated the epic to the elephant deity Ganesh, Ganesh’s pen stopped working, so he broke off one of his tusks and continued writing with it. In Schnackenberg’s account, this god of writers rushes to record the names of the dead, the stories of wars and the origin of chess. The poet analogously seems to force herself to keep writing: the game, the play, of life must be sustained, as steadily as a heartbeat or the beat of her pentameter, and she links this persistence to the death-defying chess games of lovers fending off assassins, the storytelling of Scheherazade and the moonlit verbal dueling of Jessica and Lorenzo at the end of The Merchant of Venice as they survey the tragedies of lovers who have lost a love to death. The heartbreaking conclusion to Heavenly Questions will inevitably be the end of its heartbeats. Writing cannot stave off death, and an elegy can never do enough to conjure up the departed:
I stood, barefoot and powerless, and heard
The distant drum in heaven begin to beat
That takes up when a heart falls motionless.
I stood instinctively to hear the call.
Beyond the muffled noise of our goodbyes,
The bindings falling from the swaddled drum