Of Painters and Poets : A GILDED LAPSE OF TIME, <i> By Gjertrud Schnackenberg (Farrar Straus Giroux: $19; 143 pp.)</i>
In “Resurrection,” one of the poems in her new collection, Gjertrud Schnackenberg imagines Piero della Francesca, old and blind, being led up to his great painting of a gray-faced Christ who rises above the soldiers sleeping before his tomb. The painter
. . . stands sightless with his empty hand
Outstretched at the rough edge of the sepulchre
Recently broken open, before which
Jesus has turned to Piero, holding out to him
Death’s unraveled, pitiful bandages.
Artists receive a kind of permanence from work that outlives them, but it is a frail and chilly permanence that almost excludes them. A painting that proffers grave-wrappings to its dying painter is but one image in the cycle of frailty that this sorrowful and lustrous collection presents. Schnackenberg, still thought of as a dazzler among our younger poets, has gone through a five-year silence and come into a darkly lit maturity.
In a way, one of the main themes in “A Gilded Lapse of Time” is the silence, and the break between what preceded it and what follows. Its first section centers around Dante. At the start, Schnackenberg places herself in Ravenna, where Dante died in exile, and in the kind of internal point of passage (“In the midst of life’s road . . .”) that begins the Divine Comedy.
When love was driven back upon itself,
When a lapse, where my life should have been,
Opened like a breach in the wall, and I stood
At a standstill before the gate built with mud . . .
Later, she hints at the nature of the standstill. Perhaps it had to do with growing older. The fervor that demands a poem was less like a geyser and more like an underground pool; a descent was required:
When I thought poetry was love, and I had
Sickened of poetry.
. . . Years I could only thumb the page
Into featureless velvet, unraveling the bleary gilt
Where the kingdom had glinted but guttered out . . .
Unable to write, she practiced descent by copying out portions of Dante. It was like the apprenticeship of the Renaissance painters who are evoked in the second part of the book; it was also a tactile communication with a poet who wrote out of the different silence of exile. At Ravenna, Schnackenberg laid her palm on the glittering Byzantine mosaics in the Galla Placida Mausoleum.
To the touch they were winter-desolate
. . . The hammered gold in rooms all through
Byzantium conceals the pictureless underworlds
Of mortar slathered by the workmen’s trowels . . .
All three parts of “Gilded Lapse” are set at the borderline between the unearthly mosaic and the crumbling mud that carries it, between the artist’s art and the artist’s mortality, between the freedom of a design and the recalcitrance of its materials. Sometimes, as in “Resurrection,” a painted figure will move out toward the painter; sometimes, as in “Christ Dead,” the painter--Mantegna--will move into the painting. Schnackenberg walks in the suicides’ wood of the Inferno’s Canto XIII. In Ravenna, she communes with Dante: poet in her hotel room to poet in his tomb.
Rich, even ornate at times, Schnackenberg’s poetry carries its weight as if it were no weight at all, partly by its thematic intensity and partly by the sheer beauty of its imagery. In the second section, which evokes different aspects of Christ’s life, there is a stunning presentation of the shock of His coming. “Annunciation” begins:
Rumors lash the angel’s robes
Into transitory statues
But they disappear without breaking.
The grasshopper standing near the wall
Like a remnant of the plague
Has turned her face away . . .
It builds into images of monuments toppling, of King Herod and the Emperor Augustine as beggars, of the crumbling of Rome. Here and there, a line flashes out. On the destroying ax wielded by the archangel Azrael:
The vine blossoms still gasp
Along the blade.
Mantegna’s “Christ’s Death” provides one of the finest poems in the book. He had intended it for his own burial; instead, it was sold. Schnackenberg imagines herself into the dying painter’s vision of entering his own paintings:
He turned his back a last time
On his room above the street,
And began to toil up the side
Where the cross, looming above,
Was empty now. No one was there.
And at the very end he bent to leave
“Christ Dead” behind,
Propped at the foot of the cross
Of his last breath.
The final section, “A Monument in Utopia,” is another variation that interweaves the mortality and immortality of the artist and his work. Its meditations on the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who died in the Gulag, contain some of “Lapse’s” loveliest and most tender passages.
The first poem evokes Mandelstam’s sufferings by imagining a time when they would not exist. A time, she writes:
. . . When poetry will be filled
With a peripheral fleet of swans
Glimpsed in the heavy, carved mirrors
That bring the willow park
With its long, statue-ringed green ponds
Through the window pane
Into the drawing room
So that, even standing inside,
We seem to look outdoors
Into a room of green rain . . .
It would be a time “when poetry will no longer / Be a door fallen open upon / A dangerous conversation.” When “a notebook may be allowed to lie / Abandoned on the outer stairway, / Its pages turning freely back and forth / In the breeze, as if a spirit were reading . . . “
Contrasted with these images--one imagines a dreamy Russian child at the turn of the century, when poetry was still innocent--is one of Stalin sitting among mountains of papers and signing the orders for Mandelstam’s deportation:
Documents leading to a man
Pushing a wheelbarrow of stones
Along a path near Vladivostok, as if
Illustrating an axiom as yet unpropounded.
There is a poem about the books in Mandelstam’s library, with his annotations on their pages. His wife bartered them for food parcels; the parcels arrived after his death. There is an image of him in the Siberian camp, talking angelically and delicately licking a few grains from a pound of sugar for which he’d traded his overcoat:
You, with your heart still set
On impossible things
Touching the top of your head absently
Like the Pharaoh’s baker trying to explain
His dream that there were birds
Devouring cakes from a basket on his head . . .
The Mandelstam poems are both thematic and evocative. Sometimes Schnackenberg’s theme seems forced, as in a sequence that pictures a Utopia where time would be measured in roses instead of generations of men. Oblique, she arouses us more, with her images of innocence trampled and beauty lost. Here is an early winter evening in St. Petersburg:
And through the streets of the city, the cold pink cliff
Of afternoon’s glacier will press its path
Dropping at its forefront the crumbling
Particles of twilight’s mauve . . .
At the beginning of the Mandelstam section, Schnackenberg quotes from the Talmud: “When a word is spoken in the name of its speaker, his lips move in the grave.” Weaving lines and images of Mandelstam into her own lovely and sometimes astonishing lines, Schnackenberg makes his lips move; she writes poems as a resurrection.