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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

Portraits and Elegies

Gjertrud Schnackenberg

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To purchase Portraits and Elegies

Title: Portraits and Elegies
Author: Gjertrud Schnackenberg
Genre: Poetry
Written: (1982)
Length: 56 pages
Availability: in Supernatural Love: Poems 1976-1992 - US
in Supernatural Love: Poems 1976-2000 - UK
  • Portraits and Elegies is also included in both the British and the American edition of Supernatural Love (see our review)
  • Includes:
    • 19 Hadley Street (1976)
    • Laughing with One Eye (1977)
    • Darwin in 1881 (1978)

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Our Assessment:

B : decent little collection, some nice ideas

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Antioch Review . Summer/2001 Carol Moldaw
The New Republic . 12/11/2001 Glyn Maxwell
The NY Rev. of Books . 29/3/2001 Daniel Mendelsohn
The NY Times Book Rev. . 29/10/2000 Adam Kirsch
Poetry . 11/2001 Christian Wiman
TLS . 8/2/2002 Ruth Fainlight

  Review Consensus:

  An impressive debut

  From the Reviews:
  • "Portraits and Elegies showed a young poet still enthralled by her newfound ability. It has the successes and the failures of early work -- the freshness and the impact, along with the overgrown lines (...) and hasty closures, often in the sequence of poems to the poet's father, as if the packed and polished squares of verse were not quite ready to open further, to expose or to be wounded." - Glyn Maxwell, The New Republic

  • "Gjertrud Schnackenberg's best book is her first, Portraits and Elegies (.....) If the implicit judgment here is harsh -- the latter work doesn't measure up to the earlier -- I would immediately temper it by saying that some of the earlier work seems to me a substantial and rare accomplishment. I think people will be reading some of these poems for a long time." - Christian Wiman, Poetry

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Portraits and Elegies has three sections. The first, Laughing with One Eye, is dedicated to Schnackenberg's father (Walter Charles Schnackenberg, Professor of History), and the twelve poems are very paternally focussed, portraits, elegies, and remembrances of the man who died in 1973.
       Episodes and scenes are recalled, of a man who could sideswipe a bicyclist: "And inspire him, somehow, to thank you for it." History and learning also figure prominently, Walt Schnackenberg living up to the somewhat absent-minded, unworldly academic ideal, as in "Walking Home", which begins:

Walking home from school one afternoon,
Slightly abstracted, what were you thinking of ?
Turks in Vienna ? Luther on Christian love ?
       In this poem she projects a very specific picture of the man, and even as he is vaguely brought down to earth -- a bird shits on his head, there is a dying acknowledgement that "the world was in a mess" and so is he -- she never allows for even the possibility that mere mundane thoughts might ever run through (or even enter) the beloved professorial head.
       There are some very nice touches in these poems -- "a smile everywhere / But on your mouth" is enough to excuse much that follows -- and it all seems very heartfelt. But the idolization also leaves one uneasy. The effort at a proper memorial for the father-figure seems to obscure the truly personal. The poems seem sincere but not completely honest.
       The next section, Darwin in 1881, is a single poem of the old Darwin (he died in 1882), a nice summing up of a life at a stage where that idea of summing up also preoccupies the subject. In some respects it's not that different from the first cycle, again focussed on an old wise man, retrospectively oriented.
       With a shifting rhyme she neatly summarizes this life -- and this end-of-life -- too. It is more of a success.
       19 Hadley Street is a neat sequence of sixteen poems moving back in time, from a contemporary "Dusting" all the way back to 1725, each poem a step further. Of varying interest, it still works quite well as a sequence, and there are some nice touches to it.

       A decent, small collection, showing considerable promise.

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Reviews: Other books by Gjertrud Schnackenberg under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Poetry under review

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About the Author:

       American poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg was born in 1953. She has won many awards, fellowships, and grants.

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© 2002-2010 the complete review

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