A Gilded Lapse of Time

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

A GILDED LAPSE OF TIME has three sections: The title sequencesurrounds a visit to Dante’s tomb in Ravenna; “Crux of Radiance”borrows scenes from the Passion narrative to explore the humanmaking of the image of God; and “A Moment in Utopia” shares the sadhistory of the destruction of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam atStalin’s hands.

Gjertrud Schnackenberg was highly praised for her collectionsPORTRAITS AND ELEGIES (1982) and THE LAMPLIT ANSWER (1985). Hergreat skill as a stylist allows her to work with ease and elegancewithin the restrictions of formal verse, its cadences and rhyme. She is a poet of enormous control. Her latest collection, althoughwritten in free verse, is no less formal or—as one reviewerhas put it— “statuesque.” She addresses Dante “in paradise”and describes with the familiarity of a Renaissance scholar(Schackenberg is always well-prepared) the history of the Mausoleumof Galla Placida and Dante’s tomb.

But her poetry is most moving when she uses the familiar rhythmsand vocabulary of everyday speech to point out the familiar smallgestures and details that remind us how the miraculous resides inthe commonplace. For instance, a stately meditation on the planetsand their Creator is honed down to observe a restoration workerbusy at a fresco as he “Touches a flake of gold leaf in the hem/ OfHis threadbare gown with tweezers woefully small.”

When she conveys such intricacies, she brings static art tolife. Piero della Francesca’s “Soldier Asleep at the Tomb” isrepeatedly scolded: “You must not sleep, no matter what./ No matterhow cold the nail/ Embedded in the ice/ Of three o’ clock.” But hedoes doze and awaken, each time from another troubling dream thatreflects the barbarism of his repressive society. The beauty ofthe language in this poem makes its sad revelations more hauntingand terrible.

The last section is an ode to Osip Mandelstam and the pain heendured as a state prisoner of Stalin’s regime. Schackenberg drawsfrom his writings, as in the observation, “But you loved the winterbecause it was/ ’The one thing they could not take away.’” Thissection, where “We seem to look outdoors/ Into a room of greenrain,” is passionate, grieving, dignified, and lovely.