Gjertrud Schnackenberg (1953-)

Darwin in 1881

Sleepless as Prospero back in his bedroom
In Milan, with all his miracles
Reduced to sailors’ tales,
He sits up in the dark. The islands loom.
His seasickness upswells,
Silence creeps by in memory as it crept
By him on water, while the sailors slept,
From broken eggs and vacant tortise shells.
His voyage around the cape of middle age
Comes, with a feat of insight, to a close,
The same way Prospero’s
Ended before he left the stage
To be led home across the blue-white sea,
When he had spoken of the clouds and globe,
Breaking his wand, and taking off his robe;
Knowledge increases unreality.
He quickly dresses.
Form wavers like his shadow on the stair
As he descends, in need of air
To cure his dizziness,
Down past the ship-sunk emptiness
Of grownup children’s rooms and hallways where
The family portraits stare,
All haunted by each other’s likenesses.

Outside, the orchard and a piece of moon
Are islands, he an island as he walks,
Brushing against weed stalks.
By hook and plume
The seeds gathering on his trouser legs
Are archipelagoes, like nests he sees
Shadowed in branching, ramifying trees,
Each with unique expressions in its eggs.
Different islands conjure
Different beings; different beings call
From different isles. And after all
His scrutiny of Nature
All he can see
Is how it will grow small, fade, disappear,
A coastline fading from a traveler
Aboard a survey ship. Slowly,
As coasts depart,
Nature had left behind a naturalist
Bound for a place where species don’t exist,
Where no emergence has a counterpart.

He’s heard from friends
About the other night, the banquet hall
Ringing with bravos–like a curtain call,
He thinks, when a performance ends,
Failing to summon from the wings
An actor who had lost his taste for verse,
Having beheld, in larger theaters,
Much greater banquet vanishings
Without the quaint device and thunderclap
Required in Act 3.
He wrote, Let your indulgence set me free,
To the Academy, and took a nap
Beneath a London Daily tent,
Then puttered on his hothouse walk
Watching his orchids beautifully stalk
Their unreturning paths, where each descendent
Is the last–
Their inner staircases
Haunted by vanished insect faces
So tiny, so intolerably vast.
And, when they gave his proxy the award,
He dined in Downe and stayed up rather late
For backgammon with his beloved mate,
Who reads his books and is, quite frankly, bored.

Now, done with beetle jaws and beaks of gulls
And bivalve hinges, now, utterly done,
One miracle remains, and only one.
An ocean swell of sickness rushes, pulls,
He leans against the fence
And lights a cigarette and deeply draws.
Done with fixed laws,
Done with experiments
Within his greenhouse heaven where
His offspring, Frank, for half the afternoon
Played, like an awkward angel, his bassoon
Into the humid air
So he could tell
If sound would make a Venus-flytrap close.
And, done for good with scientific prose,
That raging hell
Of tortured grammars writhing on their stakes,
He’d turned to his memoirs, chuckling to write
About his boyhood in an upright
Home: a boy preferring gartersnakes
To schoolwork, a lazy, strutting liar
Who quite provoked her aggravated look,
Shushed in the drawing room behind her book,
His bossy sister itching with desire
To tattletale–yes, that was good.
But even then, much like the conjurer
Grown cranky with impatience to abjure
All his gigantic works and livelihood
In order to immerse
Himself in tales where he could be the man
In Once upon a time there was a man.

He’d quite by chance beheld the universe:
A disregarded game of chess
Between two love-dazed heirs
Who fiddle with the tiny pairs
Of statues in their hands, while numberless,
Abstract, unseen
Combinings on the silent board remain
Unplayed forever when they leave the game
To turn, themselves, into a king and queen.
Now, like the coming day,
Inhaled smoke illuminates his nerves.
He turns, taking the sandwalk as it curves
Back to the yard, the house, the entrance way
Where, not to waken her,
He softly shuts the door,
And leans against it for a spell before
He climbs the stairs, holding the banister,
Up to their room: there
Emma sleeps, moored
In illusion, blown past the storm he conjured
With his book, into a harbor
Where it all comes clear,
Where island beings leap from shape to shape
As to escape
Their terrifying turns to disappear.
He lies down on the quilt,
He lies down like a fabulous-headed
Fossil in a vanished riverbed,
In ocean drifts, in canyon floors, in silt,
In lime, in deepening blue ice,
in cliffs obscured as clouds gather and float;
He lies down in his boots and overcoat,
And shuts his eyes.

Supernatural Love

My father at the dictionary-stand   
Touches the page to fully understand   
The lamplit answer, tilting in his hand

His slowly scanning magnifying lens,   
A blurry, glistening circle he suspends
Above the word “Carnation.” Then he bends

So near his eyes are magnified and blurred,   
One finger on the miniature word,   
As if he touched a single key and heard

A distant, plucked, infinitesimal string,   
“The obligation due to every thing   
That’s smaller than the universe.” I bring

My sewing needle close enough that I
Can watch my father through the needle’s eye,   
As through a lens ground for a butterfly

Who peers down flower-hallways toward a room   
Shadowed and fathomed as this study’s gloom   
Where, as a scholar bends above a tomb

To read what’s buried there, he bends to pore   
Over the Latin blossom. I am four,   
I spill my pins and needles on the floor

Trying to stitch “Beloved” X by X.
My dangerous, bright needle’s point connects   
Myself illiterate to this perfect text

I cannot read. My father puzzles why   
It is my habit to identify
Carnations as “Christ’s flowers,” knowing I

Can give no explanation but “Because.”   
Word-roots blossom in speechless messages   
The way the thread behind my sampler does

Where following each X I awkward move
My needle through the word whose root is love.   
He reads, “A pink variety of Clove,

Carnatio, the Latin, meaning flesh.”   
As if the bud’s essential oils brush
Christ’s fragrance through the room, the iron-fresh

Odor carnations have floats up to me,   
A drifted, secret, bitter ecstasy,
The stems squeak in my scissors, Child, it’s me,

He turns the page to “Clove” and reads aloud:   
“The clove, a spice, dried from a flower-bud.”
Then twice, as if he hasn’t understood,   

He reads, “From French, for clou, meaning a nail.”
He gazes, motionless. “Meaning a nail.”   
The incarnation blossoms, flesh and nail,   

I twist my threads like stems into a knot   
And smooth “Beloved,” but my needle caught
Within the threads, Thy blood so dearly bought,

The needle strikes my finger to the bone.   
I lift my hand, it is myself I’ve sewn,   
The flesh laid bare, the threads of blood my own,   

I lift my hand in startled agony   
And call upon his name, “Daddy daddy”—
My father’s hand touches the injury   

As lightly as he touched the page before,   
Where incarnation bloomed from roots that bore   
The flowers I called Christ’s when I was four.  

The Paperweight

The scene within the paperweight is calm,
A small white house, a laughing man and wife,
Deep snow. I turn it over in my palm
And watch it snowing in another life,

Another world, and from this scene learn what
It is to stand apart: she serves him tea
Once and forever, dressed from head to foot
As she is always dressed. In this toy, history

Sifts down through the glass like snow, and we
Wonder if her single deed tells much
Or little of the way she loves, and whether he
Sees shadows in the sky. Beyond our touch,

Beyond our lives, they laugh, and drink their tea.
We look at them just as the winter night
With its vast empty spaces bends to see
Our isolated little world of light,

Covered with snow, and snow in clouds above it,
And drifts and swirls too deep to understand.
Still, I must try to think a little of it,
With so much winter in my head and hand.