Wednesday, February 22, 2017

"Nightfishing" with poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg

Gjertrud Schnackenberg was born in 1953 in Tacoma, Washington. She began writing poetry as a student at Mount Holyoke College and, as an undergraduate, twice won the Glascock Award for Poetry. Her first two collections, Portraits and Elegies (1982) and The Lamplit Answer (1985), confirmed her early promise. In 2000, Schnackenberg’s Supernatural Love: Poems 1973–1992 was released as well as the book-length poem The Throne of Labdacus, a retelling of the Oedipus myth from the points of view of Apollo and a slave. The latter won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry. The poet’s sixth collection, Heavenly Questions (2011) won the Griffin International Poetry Prize. 

Schnackenberg’s many honors and awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Radcliffe Institute. She is the recipient of the Rome Prize and an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She currently lives in Boston.

The following Schnackenberg poem challenges our notion of ekphrasis because the image is not, as in most art poems, a celebrated work, but the clock in the speaker’s kitchen. A planter’s clock is reproduced to show the various elements she mentions.

Nightfishing

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.

We drift in the small rowboat an hour before
Morning begins, the lake weeds grown so long
They touch the surface, tangling in an oar.
You've brought coffee, cigars, and me along.
You sit still, like a monument in a hall,
Watching for trout. A bat slices the air
Near us, I shriek, you look at me, that's all,
One long sobering look, a smile everywhere
But on your mouth. The mighty hills shriek back.
You turn back to the hake, chuckle, and clamp
Your teeth on your cigar. We watch the black
Water together. Our tennis shoes are damp.
Something moves on your thoughtful face, recedes.
Here, for the first time ever, I see how,
Just as a fish lurks deep in water weeds,
A thought of death will lurk deep down, will show
One eye, then quietly disappear in you.
It's time to go. Above the hills I see
The faint moon slowly dipping out of view,
Sea of Tranquillity, Sea of Serenity,
Ocean of Storms... You start to row, the boat
Skimming the lake where light begins to spread.
You stop the oars, midair. We twirl and float.

I'm in the kitchen. You are 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. 


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