In the 1980s, a number of young American poets, Gjertrud Schnackenberg among them, began writing poetry in rhyme and meter rather than in the free verse that had dominated the American poetry scene since the late 1950s. Schnackenberg's "Supernatural Love" is written in iambic pentameter, a meter of five two-syllable feet with the first syllable accented and the second unaccented; it is divided into tercets, or triplets—three-line stanzas in which the last word of each line rhymes with the other two. Thematically, the poem explores the relationship between the history and definitions of certain words and Christian theological doctrine, weaving these elements into a touching anecdote about the relationship between a four-year-old girl and her father.
"Supernatural Love," was first published in Schnackenberg's second collection of poetry, The Lamplit Answer, in 1985. It subsequently has been reprinted in many poetry anthologies, including the second edition of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (1996). The Lamplit Answer was so well received by critics that during the 1980s Schnackenberg was considered one of the outstanding young poets writing in America. Her later publications have solidified her reputation. Much of her work is difficult, but "Supernatural Love" is one of her most accessible poems.
In "Supernatural Love," the speaker tells of an incident that involved herself and her father when she was four years old. The poem is set in a dimly lit study in which father and daughter are present. The father is at a dictionary stand, consulting a dictionary, which is illumined by a lamp. He holds a magnifying glass in his hand and scans the dictionary, running his finger down the page in order to find the word he is looking for. Then he holds the magnifying glass still above the definition of the word carnation. He bends closer to the dictionary and puts his finger on the page and reads the definition. The definition of one word seems to help him make some kind of as yet unspecified connection with something much larger.
The child, who is doing cross-stitch on a needlework sampler, imitates her father by bringing her sewing needle to her eye, which allows her to see her father through the eye of the needle "as through a lens ground for a butterfly" (stanza 4). It is likely that she is sitting very near him, to be close to the light; as she looks up at him, she sees his eyes "magnified and blurred" (stanza 3) through the lens of his magnifying glass. The poet then compares the girl looking through the needle's eye to a butterfly probing a flower ("flower-hallways") with its long, tubelike mouth in order to suck up the nectar it needs. Perhaps the nectar is located in the "room / shadowed and fathomed" within the flower, to which the "hallways" lead. These rooms are imagined by the poet to be as dark as the dimly lit study in which the girl sits. Another simile follows, in which the father, poring over a dictionary and reading the Latin derivation of the word he is looking up ("Latin blossom"), is compared to a scholar bending over a tomb to read the inscription on it.
The four-year-old girl then spills her pins and needles on the floor as she tries "to stitch the word 'Beloved'" (stanza 8) in her sampler, cross-stitch by cross-stitch. Although she cannot read, she feels connected by her needle to the word. She refers to her needle as...
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