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Heavenly Questions: Poems Hardcover – October 12, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Admired during the 1980s and 1990s for her glittering way with traditional forms, Schnackenberg (Supernatural Love) published very little for almost a decade: this sometimes heartbreaking, always ornate sixth collection will please her admirers, though it may not add to their number. Just six poems make up the whole, each one a long composition in fluent blank verse: as before, Schnackenberg bestows her gifts of diction on scientific wonderments, on the horrors of history, and on the religious and philosophical texts of the past: a pencil contains œThe vein of graphite ore preoccupied/ In microcrystalline eternity,/ In graphite's interlinking lattices : on September 11, œthe heads of drums/ Exploded outward into gaping stars/ And bloodstained towers dematerialized.  That vision and others throughout the book lean on excerpts from the Bhagavad-Gita and on the Chinese classic poem from which she takes her title, as the poet seeks (but does not find) a way to explain the evil and pain in this world. Schnackenberg's husband, the philosopher Robert Nozick, died in 2002. Most of the poems (however grand their speculation) also recall the terminal illness of an unnamed beloved: œHe tugged my face to his, as if he took/ His own life in his hands... and won't let go/ Unless you leave your fingerprints on me. 
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“What a superb poet she is, and what a range of original sensibility, what private music, in the less well-worn emotions.” ―Nadine Gordimer on Gjertrud Schnackenberg

“This sometimes heartbreaking, always ornate sixth collection will please [Schnackenberg's] admirers … as before, Schnackenberg bestows her gifts of diction on scientific wonderments, on the horrors of history, and on the religious and philosophical texts of the past.” ―Publisher's Weekly

“Gjertrud Schnackenberg's new book, Heavenly Questions ... is perhaps the most powerful elegy written in English by a poet in any recent memory, and it is a triumphant consummation of Schnackenberg's own work. In it, a poet of wide learning and traditional poetic form has been hurt into outraged and incandescent song.” ―Karl Kirchwey, Slate

“Schnackenberg is best known for her stunning command of prosody. She is the most accomplished master of blank verse on the planet… Her dream songs remain both impossibly intimate and formally perfect: a double monument to love and to grief. Here is the most powerful love poetry of our time” ―Eliza Griswold, The American Prospect

“Schnackenberg has written nothing less than a Miltonic book-length poem on eternity, infinity, and the meaning of life, and it is ... unarid and fleet. She mills her ponderous themes, by imaginative inhabitation and force of skill ... into fairy dust. I wonder who else would try such a thing as Heavenly Questions, and how far back you would have to go to find someone who could even fail at it.” ―D. H. Tracy, Poetry

Heavenly Questions ... is a fascinating invocation of the wonders of eternity, and a human relationship to eternal questions. Schnackenberg pursues these wonders on all fronts--in mathematical iterations as well as references to science and philosophy, and it is this integrated approach, along with the sheer density of her imagery, that characterizes her compelling new poetry collection.” ―Aisha K. Down, The Harvard Crimson

“Gjertrud Schnackenberg is a pillar of American poetry.” ―Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

“Gjertrud Schackenberg in Heavenly Questions . . . offer[s] poems in a meticulous blank verse that gives them the stately power and authority of Chapman's Homer and its legions of descendants . . . I don't think I've ever felt so strongly a loss experienced only through verse . . . It is Schnackenberg's great achievement to have revealed how, in the dark of the hospital night, the small and large, the personal and the impersonal, the purposeful and the pointless, all collapse into one, the universe, still inexplicable, still impersonal, reduced for that moment to the force of a simple, urgent desire ... All we have is love; when love is all we have, we create memorials to help us hold onto that love ... Heavenly Questions is that memorial, and, as such, the answer to its own questions.” ―Levi Stahl, The Quarterly Conversation

“There is no one in her generation to equal Schnackenberg's control of the blank-verse line, nor to match her technical abilities ... In Heavenly Questions, the sounds are what she herself describes as 'bindings falling from the swaddled drum.' The transfixed speech is Una's from Spenser's Faerie Queen.” ―Cynthia Zarin, The Yale Review

“[Heavenly Questions] tell[s] a story of epic scale … This magic comes to us in a great upheaval of brilliant prosodic rule-breaking and reinvention … Reading this book is like reading the ocean, its swells and furrows, its secrets fleetingly revealed and then blown away in gusts of foam and spray or folded back into nothing but water. Heavenly Questions demands that we come face to face with matters of mortal importance, and it does so in a wildly original music that is passionate, transporting, and heart-rending.” ―Judges' Citation, Griffin Poetry Prize 2011 International Shortlist

“In Heavenly Questions Schnackenberg's poems achieve a new degree of human intimacy as a result of their staggering encounter with death... 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.” ―Ann Kjellberg, Little Star

“Gjertrud Schnackenberg's new book, Heavenly Questions . . . invokes the power of numbers, to build a memorial . . . in scrolling pentameter; but Schnackenberg approaches form as a generative as much as a limiting force. The momentum of her lines suggests grief's endless reprisals and perpetuations, and the rhythms of an infinite, recombinant universe. In six long poems, which constitute a single integrated work, Heavenly Questions guides us through the transformations of bereavement. The effect is immersive and utterly compelling . . . As the soft graphite shears off, and life and love break midway through, so the book ends: 'Here the god of writers broke his pen.' The ambition and ingenuity of Heavenly Questions reminds us of what it is possible for elegiac poetry to achieve, particularly given a longer form; but the courage at its core, the tremendous, vulnerable dignity, the refusal to seek easy consolations, or depict such a grief in familiar terms, are what hold the most power to enchant and impress, and make these poems resonate long after the book has been closed.” ―Frances Leviston, The Guardian


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 80 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (October 12, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374283079
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374283070
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.3 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,229,115 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Bruce B Anderson on December 7, 2010
Format: Hardcover
If you're weary for a while of slams, bashes, -a-thons & the like, take up Schnackenberg's "Heavenly Questions". Best read at a single sitting, these few ample poems offer the whispered solace of incantation against loss, grief, rage, & the horrors of history ancient & current. Here again we are reminded of the lineage of poetry written in English, the frayed but inescapable fabric of the iambic line, the grace possible in long persistent effort. Here again is the "intelligence of love".
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Frances Haas on January 20, 2015
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This poet was able to express how the death of her husband occurred and to do him justice as a beloved person. The setting is the hospital where he died after several operations. She describes the process of mental resistance, the recurring hope, the longing for a better outcome. It is a very spiritual account, but does not sugar coat the harshness of separation and how her mind kept bargaining. At the last she staggers from the hospital and sinks into a telephone booth. There she looks up her husband's name, still among the living. This is the best poetical account of the death of a loved one that I've ever read. She did not write it right away. There are several years between his death and this book.
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Format: Hardcover
I got this book as a gift from my sister, who doesn't particularly like poetry. I don't know how she found it, but I keep coming back to these haunting lines. I find some parallels with the work of Denise Levertov. These poems make me think of ocean waves, flooding in, pulling out. The sound of the water sizzling across sand and rocks. Some kind of life form in the water. Her tribute to her lost partner:

"I sit among the living, in a park...
I sit inside a coat he gave me once.
Systole and diastole. Not knowing when
I halted at this bench, not knowing when...
My heart-walls moving of their own accord..."

This makes me think of Denise Levertov's Childhood's End:

"The world alive with love, where leaves tremble,
systole and diastole marking miraculous hours,
is burning round the children where they lie
deep in caressing grasses all the day,
and feverish words of once upon a time
assail their hearts with languor and with swans..."
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By Marion VINE VOICE on September 19, 2015
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I can't recall when I ever sat down and read a book of poetry straight through, but I did (listening to Philip Glass) with this magnificent little book. It ripped my heart out...I wanted to weep, pray and sing all at the same time before finishing half the book. I'd read the poem 'Sublimaze' in a magazine and was completely hypnotized by Ms. Schnackenberg's vivid imagery and perfect timing. It was like reading a dream under water. If you love words and poetry, then you'll devour this book. It's as simple as that. I'm eager, now, to read every poem written by this amazing woman who truly has her fingers on the very pulse of life, even in the midst of death and tragedy.
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