Gjertrud Schnackenberg, who just won the Griffin Poetry Prize for her long elegy, Heavenly Questions, considers in that collection of poems the very sketchy life of a seashell, and the very sketchy life of human beings.

As in Is That All There Is?

I mean, sure, she spends a lot of time, in this consideration of the life of a shell,Fusiturricula Lullaby,” on the miracle of life, yadda yadda… And not just life, accomplishment!

…Underwater ink enlarges, blurs,
In violet-brown across a spiral shell:
A record of volutions fills a scroll
With wondrous deeds and great accomplishings,
A record of a summons not refused:

Of logarithms visible and fused
With thoughts in rows of spiral beaded cords
As X goes to infinity; impearled;
Violet; and inviolate; self-endowed;

Itself the writing, and itself the scroll
The writing’s written on; and self-aware
With never-ever-to-be-verbalized
Awareness of awareness of awareness…

The elegy is about Schnackenberg’s husband, the Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick, and here, with the shell becoming a scroll of ideas, pearled not merely with wisdom but with the deep-lying, word-transcending convolutions of the philosopher’s self-consciousness, Nozick begins to appear.

And then disappears:

Fusiturricula slowly withdraws
Its being; self-enfolding; self-enclosed;
And all it toiled for turns out to be
No matter—nothing much—nothing at all—
Merely the realm where “being” was confined
And what was evanescent evanesced…

The historian Perez Zagorin was interviewed two years before his death about life with his wife, the artist Honoré Sharrers; and among the things he said about their existence together was this:

The greatest work of moral philosophy in the Western tradition and quite possibly of the literature the whole world is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and it begins with the theme that all men aim at happiness. But how do you – you don’t aim at happiness. Happiness is not a goal. Happiness is the byproduct of the things you do. And I could say, truly, I’ve had a happy life and I know Honoré’s had a happy life, and that was because we were all the time doing just what we wanted to be doing. Happiness emerged, it effervesced.

Emerged, effervesced, evanesced. These are the realms where being was confined and where it evanesced.

But – a shell. The poet undeniably chooses a shell, and this leaves open the possibility of life being a shell. Nothingness, emptiness, a shell game, a mere tantalizing taste of water on a tongue. Joan Didion writes about “the unending absence that follows” the death of her husband, “the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which [I] confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.”

Still, Schnackenberg’s final stanza consoles, with images of heaven.


All heaven and earth appear; and evanesce;
A self-engulfing spiral, ridge by ridge,
That disappears in waves that come and go
And all that could be done is done; and seven;
And six; and five; and four; and three; and two;
And one…and disappearing…far away…
Enraptured to the end, and all in play,
A spiral slowly turns itself in heaven.

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