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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry


Heavenly Questions

Gjertrud Schnackenberg

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To purchase Heavenly Questions

Title: Heavenly Questions
Author: Gjertrud Schnackenberg
Genre: Poetry
Written: 2010
Length: 64 pages
Availability: Heavenly Questions - US
Heavenly Questions - UK
Heavenly Questions - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine elegiac poems

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Harvard Crimson . 26/10/2010 Aisha K. Down
The LA Times . 9/1/2011 Susan Salter Reynolds
The New Criterion . 12/2010 William Logan
The NY Rev. of Books . 9/6/2011 Dan Chiasson
Poetry . 11/2010 D.H.Tracy

  From the Reviews:
  • "They are abundant with sensuous imagery as well as some more unexpectedly scientific diction -- the Latin name of a nautilus, or a description of the logarithmic spiral of a seashell. As Schnackenberg alternates between the vast environment of the sea and the enclosed space within hospitals, she creates a touching exploration of the idea of eternity." - Aisha K. Down, The Harvard Crimson

  • "There is a new DNA in this collection, in the spiraling self-creation of shells and also in the portrait of grief as the poet finds herself weeping in a phone booth, looking up his name, "still listed with the living." But most important, the re-creation of love for our benefit" - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Heavenly Questions is a book of grief and the ways of grief. The poems return again and again, in harrowing detail, to the scenes of his illness. Schnackenberg is a poet richly drenched, even drowned, in the classics; but, however much her mind strays to the myth of Theseus or the battles of the Mahabharata, the battleground here is the operating theater and the recovery ward. (...) The poems are moody, dyed in grief, burdened with sorrow, and unutterably dull." - William Logan, The New Criterion

  • "The faux-finishing is gorgeous, but often it masks the substance underneath. And so it is fascinating to watch Schnackenberg deal withmaterial that is outside her hothouse of impressiveeffects. I read her for the moments things go haywire (.....) Schnackenberg's almost calligraphic style is an overcommitment (...) The writing is impeccable and virtuosic. But it cannot compete with the image of that orphaned chess set" - Dan Chiasson, The New York Review of Books

  • "You could certainly call the book, Schnackenberg’s sixth, an elegy, but it is one of an intellectualized kind, where lament becomes an imperative to at least adumbrate philosophical, narrative, and scientific understandings of existence and nonexistence. (...) (T)he remit of Heavenly Questions is indeed immense, with the kind of ambition perhaps only possible when you have nothing to lose. But, line by line, the book invites." - D.H.Tracy, 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:

       Heavenly Questions consists of six longer poems, two of which are called lullabies -- but none of this is kids' stuff.
       A Note at the beginning of the collection explains that:

Usually translated into English as Heavenly Questions, the ancient poem Tianwen [天问] by QuYuan (c. 340-278 B.C.E.) is a series of unanswerable cosmological, philosophical, and mythological questions
       Schnackenberg addresses such issues in her Heavenly Questions as well, as much of the collection focuses on the death of her husband, the philosopher Robert Nozick, and considers some of the issues that death (and abstract thought) raise. The opening piece is an 'Archimedes Lullaby' which effectively contrasts thought- and idea-obsessed Archimedes, the notion of infinity, and his pointless, sudden death.
       Science (as well as philosophy) pervades these pages, as titles such as 'Sublimaze' and 'Fusiturricula Lullaby' suggest, but the consistent (unrhymed) iambic pentameter and the narrative quality of her scenes make the poems surprisingly approachable. As with the Fusiturricula shell itself -- "It doesn't matter, really, how it's done, / The how of it; the why" -- Schnackenberg's poems present themselves often wondrously in their crafted, finished state, often seeming almost --like the shell -- effortless in their simplicity and intricacy.
       Much of the verse also deals explicitly with the death of Nozick, and the unanswerable questions that confronting mortality brings with it, ranging from small observations -- "My fingers touch / A penny, long forgotten in my coat [...] a penny swept /Together with belongings from his coat / into a sack of 'Personal Effects'" -- to fond memory:
His striking conversation, magic ease
In seeking what the other could, then more,
In understanding, warmly understood;
A quest for truth but not for certainty.
       It's an impressive small collection, of cerebral but approachable -- and touching -- poetry.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 November 2010

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Heavenly Questions: 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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© 2010-2011 the complete review

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