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Great Poems

"Strike into it Unasked" [poem by Gjertrud Schnackenberg]

Gjertrud Schnackenberg
"Strike Into It Unasked" [by Gjertrud Schnackenberg above and below left; below right, Gerard Manley Hopkins]


Poetry’s “impulse, like electricity, crossing the space, leaves its signature.”  


 No wonder that a flash of sparks
Spills out from what I touch—the LaserJet,

Brimming with static shock,
Suspends invisible electron-clouds

Across the laser-paper’s Radiant White
To print “The Windhover”

Hopkins’ creation-poem, spelled out

In powder-particle black sparks hard-hurled
From underlying fire

The substrate of his poetry
The veiled fire of Christ,

Suffused, incarnate, metaphysical—
And poetry is where

A bird of prey is teetering
Among wind-angles

Intermittently, a fleck
Amid cloud-rhythms, then

A flickering along the morning’s
Diamond-edged peripheries,

At such a height, it’s there—
Then not—then there again—

Without my realizing it,
Between “The Windhover” and me,

A space is opened, sparking, live,
And I’ve reached through it, unaware

It will flame out, will flare
In a split-second of brute force

To jump a gap that’s imperceptible
Until I touch the page, and instantly

Hopkins crosses the space
Without a step—

The wonder of it, that the briefest touch
Can instigate a shock that’s mutual,

As if sheer being, in and of itself,
Is equally as shocked by my existence

As by its own, and equally as startled
To exist as I am here—

Electrons’ phantom-loads, drawn off,
Reel back, and hurt me

With a strike as unequivocal
As if it’s understood—a law, a truth,

A given—that brute force alone keeps
For itself the power to disclose

The presence of a shining residue
Pent in the fallen world—

Gerard Manley HopkinsFallen, but even so, The world is charged
With power enough to stop the heart—

Electrons, always in the present tense,
Without locality or mass

Or temperature or light—invisible,
Yet capable of spreading in a flash

Across the surfaces of all that is—
Like consciousness lit

For a moment by the thought
That God is worldling, worldling now

And here—even the blearest things,
Objects we overlook, inanimate,

Inert—the sparking doorknobs,
Shining paper dust, magnetic

Clinging combs, the laser printer’s
Thermoplastic case—

Even the blearest things can stun,
Be stunned, are sites

Of inscape-metaphysics where
Materia has taken hold

Of “whatness,” “suchness,” “isness,”
“Hereness,” laced with fire of stress—

But even so, such objects only pend
As fragments of a universe

Awaiting a beholder—

The outbreak of a hidden voltage
Stricken from the ore

Of Hopkins’ poetry: titanium,
The paradisal mineral

Whose lightweight metal sheds
The brightest, clearest-selved sparks

And most heartstopping firefalls
Before it lets its shining dust

Sheer off, go dark, fall back into itself—
Like humankind—How fast

 His firedint . . . is gone . . .
In an . . . enormous dark—I stand among

My own footfalls, the imprints of my soles
Mysteriously electrified

And vanishing across the carpet
Where I’ve trod and trod, as if my purpose

All along has been to try
To make it visible—the field of force

That hovers over Hopkins’ poetry
And brims at margins, boundaries,

White peripheries,
The blinding thresholds where I try

To cross a space as charged and bare
And emptied as the room at 85

St. Stephen’s Green, where Hopkins left
His battered shoes behind, because we’re meant

Gjertrud Schnackenberg 2
To come to God barefoot, and left
The treadmire toil there (“there”

Meaning “here”) Footfretted in it—dust—
And left the footfalls of his poetry

Behind, in disarray,
Scattered, and insufficiently “explained”—

(“Novel rhythmic effects,” dismissed
By literary interlocutors

As needless, odd, and disagreeable—
A later critic was “repulsed”)—

But poetry’s selfbeing selves itself
Without self-explanation, selves

Without explanatory power,
The way divine creation does—

The way the starry night

And Hopkins, as a Greek professor, knew
The ancient word for the divine

Creation is poiema—poetry—
And, as a poet, he discerned

Poiema’s fire is rapturous and wild
And sudden as a talons-first assault

Out of the blue—Christ’s
Striking-in—and knew

That poetry is where a falcon stalls
Midair, prepares to jettison

The cloudbuilt, white
Wingbeaten falcon-footholds

Where contrary winds have brought
The falcon to its highest pitch

Of being—heights upwind
From which to dive headfirst

And upside-down, hard-hurled,
With wings pressed shut,

Its livid, bright, outriding feet
Drawn back and up,

As if a falcon’s feet are useless, weak,
Superfluous impediments

To raptor-plummeting—
Useless, until

The final instant of a strike
So shocking, so unguessed-at, unforeseen,

No prey on earth is able to prepare
For how a nearly imperceptible

And distant hovering
Transforms itself into a

Fraction-of-a-second mortal blow,
The instrike, talons-first, a heralding

Of chaos in the yellow talon-flames
And blackout-wingbeats mantling

The sight of it—the site
Where He consumes the flesh and blood

Of His annihilated prey,
Whose lacerated innocence

He takes into Himself, the way
The world’s wildfire subsumes

A single flame, to signify
No partial flame exists,

All flames are whole—
As He was first internalized

When He had selved Himself
Into the first and last

Immortal sustenance,
So now His prey is selved

As it becomes a part
Of Him, the Eucharist reversed—

As in a flash, a circuit, broken
Violently, is violently restored,

Its suddenness the signal trait
That Jesus emphasized, a sign

The gap is closed between
The kingdom and creation where

God is upstream, and flows
To Christ our Lord— 

“Yet I am idle,” Hopkins wrote,
Burned out, a socket scorched

Through its interior, without
A visible connection

To its source—useless,
Without effect, like poetry unable

To explain itself, or say
What good it does, or what it’s for—

A transcreation of the downstream power
Coursing through what is,

In a creation where all things
 Are brimming with a brilliant signature

That will fall, gall, and gash
Itself across the space it opens,

Crossing it—
The way a windhover’s

Headlong freefall crazes
The atmosphere with friction-speed

And turns itself into a shining trace—
A blowing-by

As rapturous as if creation
Were an end unto itself

And it’s enough that poetry
Strike into it unasked, 

And leave a spilling out of sparks
Torn from the firedint’s continuum

Before the strike—a glimpse
Of the creation, surging past-- 


from The Paris Review


Gjertrude Schnackenberg 3
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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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