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Heavenly Questions

Awards: Griffin Poetry Prize Winner

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About The Author

Gjertrud SchnackenbergGjertrud Schnackenberg

Gjertrud Schnackenberg was born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1953. The Throne of Labdacus (FSG, 2000) received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry.

photo: Mike Minehan


Griffin Poetry Prize Winner

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A visit to the shores of lullabies,
Where Archimedes, counting grains of sand,
Is seated in his half-filled universe
And sorting out the grains by shape and size.
Above his head a water-ceiling sways,
Beneath his feet the ancient magma-flows
Of metamorphic, underearth plateaus
Are moving in slow motion, all in play,
And all is give-and-take, all comes and goes,
And hush now, all is well now, close your eyes,
Distant ocean-engines pulverize
Their underwater mountains, coarse to fine,
In granite-crumbs and flakes of mica gold
And particles of ancient olivine;
And water waves sweep back and forth again,
Materialize, and dematerialize,
Retrieving counted grains and dropping more
Uncounted grains in heaps along a shore
Of granite-particled infinities,
Amassing shores for drawing diagrams.
Behind him, on the shores of Sicily,
His legendary works accumulate:
Discarded toys, forgotten thought-machines,
And wonder-works, dismantled on the sand:
A ship, reduced to ashes by a mirror;
A planetarium in hammered bronze
Whose heaven rotates, taking its own measure;
The fragment of a marble monument—
A sphere inscribed within a cylinder—
Forgotten, overgrown with stems and leaves;
A vessel, filled with water to the brim
To weigh Hiero’s golden diadem,
But emptied on its side now, overturned;
And numbers fading in papyrus scrolls
He sent by ship to Alexandria:
Approximated ratios glimpsed within
The wondrously unlocked square root of 3;
And 3.141 . . . : a treasure-store
Marcellus cannot plunder; cannot use;
And 1.618 . . . : the weightless gold
No scales are needed for, no lock and key,
Ratio divine, untouchable in war;
And block-and-tackle pulleys; water-screws
And other spirals, angles, cubes, and spheres;
The iron lever rusting at his feet
A relic from the time he told the King
Assembled with the court: Give me a place
Whereon to stand, and I will move the earth;
And as he spoke, another earth appeared,
One grain among innumerable grains
And nearly weightless as a grain of sand,
And high above the giant fortress walls
Of Syracuse his mental catapults
Are hurling mental boulders one by one
At Roman warships sinking in the bay—
Far off, a shipwreck; up close, bubble foam
Sweeps forward on the sand, sweeps off again
With remnants of a Roman war machine—
Even the Roman sailors, disembarked
From sinking ships, and rowing toward the beach
In lifeboats set afloat from battleships
Now sinking in the distance—even they
Are falling fast asleep above their oars,
And undulating ropes lash in the wakes
And bob along, the ropes asleep as well—
All drifting past the legendary shores
Where Archimedes counts the grains of sand . . .
It never ends, this dire need to know,
This need to see a diagram unfold
In silent angles, drawing in the sand,
This need to see a diagram achieve
Self-organizing equilibrium
Among the mica flakes and granite-crumbs,
This need to fill the universe with sand,
And all in play, with everything in play,
And every night before he falls asleep
In cold and heavy sand, he leans to brush
The clinging sand-grains from his naked feet
And myriads appear, self-multiply,
And multiply again: Let this be X,
Let this be X times X, and let there be
More myriads of zeroes grain by grain
In sacks of sand where one by one by one
More sacks of sand are filled with other grains,
Let numbers coalesce and re-emerge
Unharmed by coalescence and unchanged;
And always let a higher number form
And every single number have a name:
Ten to the power of the sixty-third;
A vigintillion grains of sand, times eight;
Eight vigintillion, plus or minus one:
A number for the demiurge to ponder,
Sprawling in his sleep among the bags
Of sand grains pouring into Syracuse
Where Archimedes draws a diagram . . .
It never ends, this dire need to know,
Even beneath the smoking sword of war
A Roman soldier raises overhead
Mid-thought, mid-diagram, even before
He finishes the drawing at his feet,
Even before he has the chance to say:
Let whosoever can, complete—but then
A soldier lifts the smoking sword of war,
And he’s forgotten what he meant to say.
Black heavens, pouring into Syracuse
In granite-particled infinities
Amass another shoreline at his feet.
He falls asleep in cold and heavy sand
And finishes his drawing in his sleep
Before the edges of the lines he drew
Begin to crumble grain by grain by grain
With everything in play, and all in play
A myriad appears; self-multiplies;
And waves of water sweep around and through,
Retrieving counted grains and dropping more
Uncounted grains in heaps in lullabies
Where Archimedes falls asleep and sees
A grain of sand appear: the final grain;
Ten to the power of the sixty-third,
Times eight; the sum complete before his eyes;
And then another grain is added: One;
A sack of sand tips over, pours away,
Black heavens pouring out infinities
Of sleeping islands, sleeping Sicilies,
And water waves appear and sweep away
Forgotten wonder-works and thought-machines,
And heaven revolves, a planetarium
For calculating distances between
The heavenly stars and measuring their size,
All twirling in slow motion, slower still,
And slower still, and all is sleep and peace,
The universe asleep before his eyes
Beside an ocean moving in its sleep,
And distant ocean-engines pulverize
Their underwater mountains, coarse to fine,
And water waves appear and disappear
Retrieving counted grains and leaving more
Uncounted grains in heaps in lullabies,
Where Archimedes, counting grains of sand,
Is seated in his half-filled universe,
And sorting out the grains by shape and size,
And all is well now, hush now, close your eyes,
And one . . . by one . . . by one . . . by one . . . by one . . .
The flakes of mica gold and granite-crumbs
Materialize, and dematerialize.

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