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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Number 41: Gjertrud Schnackenberg "The Paperweight"

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.

-- Gjertrud Schnackenberg

Hap Notes: Gjerturd Schnackenberg (born 1953) is a mighty sharp cookie and this poem is loaded with insights. Her earlier poetry has often been criticized as being too much like Robert Lowell's (which really doesn't sound that bad to me, actually) but this poem strikes a perfect balance between Lowell and Frost.

There is no way you can closely read this poem without being seduced into some deep introspection. There's so much stuff going on here; the cold, the people forever poised in their lives and "beyond our touch" in the snow globe. Then the poem turns asking if the husband can see "shadows in the sky"- from our hands ( and perhaps more?) The poem turns again and speaks of the winter night bending to see our winter lives covered with snow, with "drifts and swirls." The poet speaks of winter in the head and hand and we go back to the couple in the globe- untouchable in their eternal winter, and the poet? Lots of stuff to think on.

Schnackenberg has taught at a number of colleges and was Writer-in-Residence at Smith College and a visiting fellow at St. Catherine's at Oxford. She is highly literate and intelligent and her poetry reflects her deep reading skills and knowledge. She has won a number of prizes and fellowships including the Glascock Prize, the Berlin Prize and the Rome Prize in Creative literature. Much of her later poetry is somewhat eurocentric which isn't that surprising from a third generation Norwegian Lutheran whose father was a history professor.

You can find more Schnackenberg here:

1 comment:

  1. I was really impressed by your light pointers towards the semantics of this poem - I think you have given the keen reader all she needs to get started with this piece (the best critics never offer too much).

    The rhythm is also interesting here: reading this poem with natural expression challenges the fairly strict prosody at several points (line 10 is a good example).

    Perhaps I'm just a wonk. Again, thanks.