Jazz & Seraphim: On Grace Schulman’s The Marble Bed

The Marble Bed
Grace Schulman
(Turtle Point Press, 2020, 116 pp., $18.00).

Schulman’s work has a dignified, sculptural grace that counterpoints the inner noise and agitation many of us bear. To read her is to come off a busy city street into a cathedral nave, to be still, or to walk quietly along the edge of the evening sea. Of Washington Square Park in 2020, she writes,

This park reminds us it was once a field
for the unclaimed dead of galloping yellow fever….

Now the clean air, pollution free, is poison
for walkers while trees stand stern, immune.
Sad paradox. For comfort, I recall:
Camille Pissarro would have lingered here.

Such a statement, in soothing iambs, indicates that this poet spends a great deal of time recalling bits of learned wisdom, facts, strains of music, stories about the lives of artists, and personal memories for comfort, a practice which forms a warm intimacy with the kind of readers who are apt to do the same. The poems invite us to see the world with a surprisingly honest, trusting, and reverent attitude. “Because,” she iterates, articulating how her own poems work as responses to a mysterious cosmic logic, “because I cannot lose the injured world / without losing the world, I’ll have to praise it.”

The Marble Bed, Schulman’s eighth collection of poetry, mostly centers on the loss of her husband, and what it’s like to be on the far side of a long, good marriage. As the recipient of a Frost Medal for Distinguished Lifetime Achievement in American Poetry, Schulman has enjoyed her share of acclaim. Yet I’ve been only a little familiar with her work, and this was my first encounter with one of her full-length collections. I’m very glad I started here. It’s a wonderful volume, full of traditional wisdom and yet winsomely personal. Schulman is a Marianne Moore scholar—and was in fact a close personal friend of Moore’s—and indeed one feels her temperate influence in Schulman’s sense of the line and effective drops from reverie into precise but conversational expression.

Schulman has also written about her marriage before, in particular in a memoir titled Strange Paradise, but there’s no need to have read her earlier work to understand how important this relationship is to her. A strong sense of her departed husband’s personality and the flavor of their pairing comes through in these poems. In “Names,” for example, the speaker captures spousal differences through a distilled dialogue:

“Listen. The tern’s whistle. The osprey’s call.”
……………………………………I hear a chorus, birds anonymous.
“Look there, at the flicker’s spotted head.”
……………………………………I see white blips in an unspotted blue.

“Look down at the amber rocks and see the rings,
one for the plover, two for the killdeer.”
……………………………………I see boulders spangled in sunlight,
……………………………………a settler’s dream of gold in a new harbor.

The wide differentiation between the lines helps us imagine the “I” blinking, perhaps, trying to listen, but also a little amused at her own inability to name. On the other hand, her way of seeing doesn’t come across as an inability after all, but a capability. Where one spouse sees evidence of specific birds, the other sees “a settler’s dream.” The poet imagines time folding over itself, past into present. She invents; she envisions; she dreams her own dream. And by the end of the poem, she has asked an important question:

So we, who walk wingless, are known by names,
a song, a strut, a night cry, shape of crown,
and like the dowitcher, through zoom lenses,
here and not here. Who are we, you and I?

As happens in a marriage, one spouse begins to see like the other. The “I” becomes “we,” and the poet becomes the namer, calling the bird by its proper term after all. Scientist and poet are performing more similar work than it might initially seem. Yet “dowitcher” is also a wonderfully slippery name, sounding as it does like “witch,” its etymology not Latin or Greek, but Iroquois.

Additional layers open up as the poem closes. The subject “we” is compared to the dowitcher, the native, and not, after all, the settler. We hear an echo of Macbeth’s “walking shadow, a poor player, / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage.” The lenses, too, invoke Schnackenberg’s “lens ground for a butterfly,” which, in adjusting the scale of things, asks us to contemplate life’s infinite meaning. The question at the end is wonderfully, precisely particular and simultaneously one of the most fundamental universal questions of all.

“Francesca Redux,” tucked unobtrusively into section 2, and a particular favorite of mine, speaks about marriage differently, and illustrates the many circles of meaning Schulman can suggest in a few lines. There’s pleasure in the wordplay (“Francesca Redux” instead of “Fortuna Redux,” and “redux” also suggesting the jazz music in which the poet is incredibly conversant), but mostly I enjoyed the way it captures that particular kind of sexuality and camaraderie which marriage entails:

…………………………….…Book, whirl us in wind,

mysterious as marriage, joining words
that had lain apart. After the daily
hoarse falsetto of an alarm clock,

cracked wineglasses and bickering neighbors,
we’ll read at night, holding the gilt-edged leaves,
the texts, the bindings that enclose us.

The hint of the illicit (from referencing Paolo and Francesca) is amusing, since mostly what the poem does is celebrate stodgy habits: the practice of reading together in the evening seems to be the “glue” of this relationship, much as the glue of a book’s binding holds together the separate pages. At the same time the image remains convincingly erotic, as the couple’s sexual relationship is compared to a book’s closure.

And yet, clever as it is, this poem’s conceit is too complicated for its brevity, and a bit uneven in tone. The poem opens by saying “In the beginning, there was the book,” managing to sound both childlike and mystical.1 Then two stanzas are devoted to physical description of the book (“the type, the smell of glue”), and there’s overt play between the lineation and the text (“the unending sentence with pleasure / delayed”). But the end of the third stanza—the ninth line—switches abruptly to the direct address I’ve quoted at more length above. The sudden switch in tense, from the past of “in the beginning,” to the future of “we’ll read at night”—completely skipping over the present—achieves a kind of jolting effect. For me, there’s a realization that this is the subjunctive mood, the mood of wishing and wanting. Francesca’s passion, I suddenly recall, is occurring in hell. And it’s then that the poem becomes not just amusing, but forceful, stirring me to an unforeseen compassion. This is in fact a witty little poem about loss, and the unfulfilled desire inside it, sexual but also practical, is what Nahedza Mandelstam called “ordinary heartbreaks,” the “normal human existence of the kind everybody should aim at.” No more alarm clocks and bickering neighbors: as the epigraph reads, “that night we read no more.”

In a later poem, “Caregiver” (section 7), the poet uses Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse to dignify the heroic work of taking care of a sick partner:

custodian of someone
……………………………………….no one can own;
head manager, planner,
……………………………………….quick to the answer,
unfazed, of the phone,
……………………………………….never alone—
stitched to the other,
……………………………………….a secret sharer,
and, like the sinner
……………………………………….condemned to a circle
of howlers in hell,
……………………………………….hearing one call.

There are those lovers again, permanently connected to one another, love binding them through the difficulties of this final, insular, mortal experience.

As for “Francesca Redux,” the poem attempts to close itself very tightly: “holding the gilt-edged leaves, / the texts, the bindings that enclose us.” But one party has escaped and is gone. The speaker’s plea to the wind to permanently join the “us” cannot be met.  The poem is trying to contain far too much, and its failure to do so is its powerful effect.

*

“Angels, trumpets, harps. They are universal symbols of exceptional happiness,” says Marilynne Robinson’s derelict character, Jack. “So I tossed them in.” One of the fascinations of The Marble Bed has to do with angels, and in particular graveyard statuary of angels. It’s possibly an inert trope for a book published in what we are constantly being reminded are “highly charged political times.” In the hands of a less skilled writer I might respond like Sexton, “I am tired of all the dead. / They refuse to listen, so leave them alone. / Take your foot out of the graveyard, they are busy being dead.” But somehow these formal angels of Schulman’s, with their black-and-white facsimiles on the facing page, spring to life.

Section 3, of particular note, takes place in Genoa, and begins obliquely with a meditation on the poet’s former teacher Irma Brandeis, and her affair with Italian poet Montale. She follows this with a sequence of six poems, each of which meditates on a particular sculpture in the Staglieno Cemetery, and is paired with a photograph. In “Widow,” for example, she writes,

I know her by the pleated satin dress,
hair in a bun, the hesitation
as she lifts the sheet, letting air in,
astonished, peering into darkness—

The poems are formal and delicate, 16 lines, each with an envelope abba rhyme scheme. But they reward closer attention, as the fifth of the poems, titled “The Struggle,” shortens itself—“the work unfinished / dinners to order / dresses to try on, letters to write.”

The final poem in the series, “Woman in Sunlight,” revises its third and fourth stanzas from quatrains to tercets. In this piece the poet emphasizes desire (“I want to move inside the blackened stone / and find a spark that flares up into blaze”) and motion (“to dazzle / with tales of what it could be like to walk / out of my weathered body.”) “Clean,” the poem ends. “Alive.”

In part, these poems are trying to play with our preconceptions about angels, particularly those we may have inherited from our more Anglo-Puritan roots.

Sexless angels? Not these fiery dancers
on tower walls. In church, they wink at those
who light candles and pray under a knee
slipped out of an angel’s robe, chiseled to flow.

Hardly androgenous, seraphim lure.
A woman slinks beside a saucy cherub.
On this bridge, Ponte Sant’Angelo,
Stone angels stand in flimsy gowns slit high.

This poem, hearkening somewhat to Wilbur’s “Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra,” is expressive of the poet’s admiration for Italy’s more earthy, Catholic sensibility. But this entire section of the book has also been using stone to communicate sex—not coldness, but permanence of intimacy, not unapproachability, but passion. Where the grieving, desirous poet has a tendency to scatter in pieces, the statuary poems gather and solidify.

In “Bald Angel,” the poet delights, “At last I’ve found the angel I can wrestle, / …a master of takedown holds and grapples.”

This bald eagle shrugs on a craggy post,
praying, if prayer is close attention,
dead still, except for darting agate eyes …

…a fierce frown. Now he stares in silence
like one of the exalted seraphim
while seagulls, lesser guardians, shriek hosannas.

The sense of relief the poet expresses is that of reduction: this the kind of divinity she can manage. As she did with the book in the “Francesca Redux” poem, the poet can delineate this creature, give him description and boundary. But the moves in the remaining stanzas of the poem are totally characteristic of the poet’s resistance to her own tendency to define:

March now, and the sea winds are too calm.
The air is tranquil, promising warm breezes.
Perhaps he’s come not to bring rough tides

but to amaze me: clutch me by the shoulder
with yellow graspers, rip open my eyes,
and lift off loudly, bitching, cursing, blessing.

There is something like an act of the will which occurs inside the poem, moving it from one way of seeing to another. The sea winds are “too calm,” so there is an underlying sense that this manner of seeing might itself be insufficient. But nonetheless, the poet posits, “perhaps.” It is enough to ask whether some other perspective might be more true. “Perhaps he’s come not to bring rough tides / but to amaze me.”

What I have called an act of the will, or a deliberate questioning, is very characteristic of the poems in The Marble Bed, and may be enough to frustrate some readers. Why should this poet so oblige herself to view hurt as blessing? Why is she always looking for the good? Is this not exerting too much agency over the work of authentic articulation? This poet is always reminding us, too, of things she thinks we ought to have read. She recalls the way King Lear talks about grief:

No, not the worst, not if it can be named.
Say sorrow. Say disaster. Say no cure
for the cared-for or the caregiver.

Tell grief in images, in heavy stresses,
And you will know it’s worse, but not the worst:
Weak legs will stride and fall, then stride again.

And she reminds us of Candide: 

……………………………………….Of course, there’s a reason

to quit: the broken-elevator drop from love,
the fall from affluence and influence,

the slump after betrayal, fooled by lies.
But hear me out, sad friend, and then resolve

To leap from no high roof…

Many of the poems partake of this hortative strain, unapologetically tuning themselves out of the music of discord or bewilderment and toward the music of consolation or peace.

For my part, I think of how often I take a Frostian sensibility toward all forms of art, but poetry in particular, viewing poems as tiny, orderly verbal constructs thrown out as a life-raft against waves of bleak despair. How often do I receive a poem as an intense physical utterance that allows me, like Schulman’s eagle/angel, to exist in a state of still, alert, vigilant, fierce attention? I want to wrestle and grapple with the elusive sublime. I want the profundity of Job’s revelation when he says, “The Almighty terrifies me; I was not cut off from the presence of darkness, and he did not hide deep darkness from my face” (Job 23:17).  That state of terror is totally seductive, absolutely real, an Edvard-Munch Stephen-King-Carrie scream. If articulating that state of grief, raw unhappiness, pure injustice, whatever it may be—if articulating that craggy human depth satisfies the reader on some core level, and should therefore be a part of the poet’s obsession, how is it that this poet can simply turn the poem and question the nature of the dark waves? How can she just say “perhaps not?”

I have no answer, except to say that in reading Schulman, I find myself wondering whether what I ask a poem to do is altogether right. I do think we are dissatisfied when art too easily exhorts, and “Bald Angel” is a poem that may, at least on a surface read, too easily move toward the concept of blessing. And yet this poet has her hands and feet in the agon of living.

For my generation, at least, and for my children’s even more, the encouragement to articulate strong emotions, to self-express, and to engage in public poetic activism is vast, but the exhortations to watch and wonder are few and far between.  This is in part why I am inclined to listen to Schulman, because what she proposes about art, and about life, really, is different. She is indicating a particular kind of patience, a slow, perplexing growth. As “After All” puts it,

You walk to the Hudson River at dawn,
Watching a terrier grow out of fog,
And tawny-red bricks that had been blurs

Of townhouses the days when you’d whizzed past.
You gaze at them in your own
Three-dimensional fullness, unbound,

And you feed the self that you had long neglected
For other selves, the one that knows you best,
And watch the soul burst into sudden bloom,

Magenta, like azaleas, and grow larger
When the body lessens.

Out of the fog forms begin to emerge, and as the poet slowly apprehends them, an expansion happens in the spiritual plane. This is a way of living I admire, and an attitude toward self and the world that arouses gratitude. I find it dignifies the ordinary work of the human experience, such as caregiving for a spouse who is dying. It acknowledges that we need to cultivate quiet reflection and not just intensity of emotion or skilled mimetic technique.

“I heard the past,” the poet writes in another piece, listening to a man playing a soprano sax:

……………………………………………Not his,
and not America’s, but the Creation,
and as noisy: a sea monster roared,
elephants ran wild, a hawk cried out,
sun and moon raged to be the stronger light.

So that was what it came to, Love Supreme.

In this particular piece, the poet wisely brings us quickly down from this height. She knows we need the “cracked wineglass” and “bickering neighbors”—all the imperfection of the present—or the poem will have little meaning for us. But we need to see beyond this, too. We need to understand our origins and our capacity for transcendence. Small as we are, and with such outrageous cosmogonies, nonetheless our history matters—not just our close, national history, but our deep, human history.  And, indeed, our capacity for love is at least as important as our capacity for fear.

*

It is difficult to know when to cease writing about this poetry collection, which circles back on itself, interlaces, and unfolds profundities not, perhaps, so unlike those in the work of Dante. I have not done justice to Schulman’s ability to draw on the wisdom traditions of many cultures—she cites figures as varied as sixth-century payyetan Yannai, Renaissance painter El Greco, and contemporary singer-songwriter Dr. John. I have not spoken adequately of her ability to surprise (as in the poem “The Vow”) or to lineate (as in “Agony in the Garden”). Nor have I given a reading of “Survival in the Woods,” a brilliant, startling poem of origins with a breathtaking ending. I have not talked about how the statuary poems in The Marble Bed are offset by poems about the sea and its shifting, which illuminate entirely different aspects of grief, loss, and the peace which follows. I have not followed themes of exile or images of painted still lives through the text, discovering their stasis-in-motion. I’ve barely touched on her incorporation of Bach and jazz. All of this I leave undone. But, in Schulman’s own words, “holiness / is actually unwhole. Perfection / is never the end-all, even in heaven.” What I want to leave you with is a sense of the gift Schulman has offered me: a gentle lifting of the spirit, reverence for life, fortitude for work, and hopefulness for tomorrow, whatever its foggy dimensions.

Footnote

1 I’m reminded of St. John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word.”
Kjerstin Kauffman

Kjerstin Kauffman

Kjerstin Kauffman is a poet, essayist, and mother of five living in Spokane, WA. Her work appears in or is forthcoming from Gulf Coast, The Hopkins Review, Gingerbread House, 32 Poems, The Cresset, The American Poetry Review, and elsewhere.
Kjerstin Kauffman

Author: Kjerstin Kauffman

Kjerstin Kauffman is a poet, essayist, and mother of five living in Spokane, WA. Her work appears in or is forthcoming from Gulf Coast, The Hopkins Review, Gingerbread House, 32 Poems, The Cresset, The American Poetry Review, and elsewhere.