As full of “luxuriant ornamentation” as a Frederik Chopin Mazurka or Nocturne, Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s eight-poem sequence from her 1985 book, The Lamplit Answer, is both tribute to Chopin’s music and mimicry of his aesthetic. With her strong poetic personality and unmistakable verse topography, it’s no surprise Schnackenberg is drawn to Chopin’s own singular and distinctive style. Schnackenberg’s is on display throughout The Lamplit Answer, which includes one other music-themed sequence, Sonata, mirroring and extrapolating on orchestral organization (Overture, Exposition, Cadenza and so on), and several long, ornate, often curious fairy-tale and nursery-themed poems that seem to inhabit a different universe, in sound and imagery, from that of Louise Gluck or Frank Bidart, on the one hand, or A.E. Stallings, on the other.
Kremlin of Smoke weaves back and forth in time, between Chopin’s childhood and his later exile to Paris, as musical themes recur through the movements of a composition. Each movement is named by its year and location.
- Sec. 1, a Paris salon, 1831, the year Warsaw falls into Russian hands Chopin tells a funny story about himself
- Sec. 2, Warsaw 1820, the boy Chopin, abed with influenza, asks his mother, “Where is the snow from?” An instance of Schnackenberg’s dallying, the answer is delayed to the end of the section after the one following.
- Sec. 3, the Salon, where Chopin mimics his Viennese laundress, “Ach! Those sausages were ground from dogs and alley cats,/ Mein Herr.”
- Sec. 4, Chopin’s sickroom and the arrival in the streets below of the Russian Grand Duke, coming “to fetch the prodigy”; now his mother answers his question about the snow.
- Sec. 5, Chopin throws a tantrum, while back in Warsaw, in a mirror image, Russian soldiers on a lark in Warsaw seize and hurl Chopin’s piano out the window and burn the wreck in the street.
- Sec. 6, a contrapuntal gesture: street workers outside the Paris salon, hearing his music, drop their shovels and break into spontaneous applause.
- Sec. 7, back in Warsaw, the boy Chopin’s piano teacher, pleased that his pupil is “the Russian nobles’ darling,” admonishes him to “Thunder away like mad!”
- Sec. 8, Chopin’s journal entry on the fall of Warsaw.
The sequence bears a loose connection to blank verse, with lines variously metered, tetrameter, pentameter, hexameters in various configurations of accented and unaccented syllables. As to length, the stanzas vary, the lines, not much. These lines are clotted with recurring images and dense with polysyllabic descriptions and narrative details, like Chopin’s complex compositions. As Chopin mimes his laundress, fans, and tormentor, it might not be stretching it so say Schnackenberg mimes the composer in her opening’s luxuriant imagery:
The swan’s neck of the teacup, her black vizar
Plunged underwing, conceals her face like a modest cocotte
Who can’t bring herself to look up at the honored guest,
As the silver hammer of the tea service practice
Chings in runs of triplets, and the tea steam hand
Phantom chrysanthemums on long, evaporating stems
In the air of the winter apartment.
The teacup’s handle, a swan’s neck “plunged underwing,” is compared to a “modest cocotte / Who can’t bring herself to look up at the honored guest,” the guest being Chopin. Then the tea service is likened to a pianist practicing a run of triplets. (Schnackenberg here doubtless pointing up Chopin’s use of triple time, essential to the Polonaises, Scherzos, and Waltzes, and felt even in his Nocturnes, Preludes, and some concertos and sonatas.) The steam rising from the hot tea like hands (l. 5) creates “phantom chrysanthemums on long, evaporating stems,” foretelling the kremlin of smoke of St. 3 that rises in dome upon dome, “from which orders issue to plunder / His childhood home.”
Chopin’s is the flower shape to the smoke shapes of the Russian invaders. Which is the more enduring? More precisely, Chopin’s figure appears in the references to flowers–emblems of ornamentation in society, ornamentation being a salient feature of Chopin’s music. Flower imagery (underlined in the excerpt) recurs throughout the poem. In St. 9, Chopin records in his journal a moment when he chooses from a silver tray a showy blossom “to twirl/ By its stem: a creamy camellia.” The entry ends with “Flowers, because / I too am an outcome withering from my cause.” Images of butterflies and birds–classic emblems of music–also abound. As for Chopin the man, he is referred to implicitly and directly as:
- an honored guest
- the pianist
- captured king
- killed in reviews
- exiled virtuoso
- the Polish people’s little star
- the prodigy scavenged from cultural debris
- a mimic who tells funny stories
- a star at “the age of funerals held for nightingales”
- an exiled Master
- the Russian nobles’ darling
- [implicitly] a lark (who shouldn’t care about politic
Schnackenberg returns to images and phrases again and again that seem to capture the light, ornamental surfaces of events and contrast them with the exiled Chopin’s anguish over the fate of his country and over the dire, ominous Russian presence. This contrast occurs, for example, in the striking opening of Sec. 3, where a kremlin of smoke (recalling the smoke of military guns) from the pipes and cigars of millionaire guests rises over a sumptuous spread of Parisian pastries. In other examples, the boy Chopin’s bout of flu contrasts to widespread cholera in Paris, or vain Parisians, slaves to mirrors, to the Poles subjugated by Russians.
As in Chopin’s music, so in Schnackenburg’ poem, there’s a lot of dallying and indirectness. Her major theme of captivity–the captivity of Chopin by his style, art, and culture, and the captivity of Warsaw by the Russians–is never directly stated. Realities of lost homeland and invasion are masked in arabesques of smoke and snow, a snow falling on Paris streets or coming in great storms from Russia, like the Russians themselves who occupy Poland and appropriate Chopin’s music.
The dreaded, spectral carriages of thunder
Rolling toward their house, like the Grand Duke
–Pavlovich!–coming to fetch the prodigy
In an amusing, minor act of war:
Subjection in the form of flattery
15 Heaped on the Polish people’s little star
Scavenged from Warsaw’s cultural debris
They are buried in a most civilized and artful way beneath the harmonies of Chopin’s music and Schnackenberg’s sequence, which is rich in ideas, as Chopin’s music is rich in harmonies. Throughout, Schnackenberg’s juxtapositions harmonize polarities, as, for example:
- artistic power–Chopin’s genius political power–Russian soldiers
- flight, exile to Paris imprison, enslave, lock himself in his room
- artistic inventiveness the social inventiveness of gossip
- sincere musical acclaim flattery calculated to gain power
- enthusiastic applause muffled war
- Parisian pastries sausages ground from alley cats
- piano as black butterfly piano as cultural debris, object of derision
- the exile’s anguished tantrum a pet monkey wringing a lily by the stem
What’s real and what charade or mere mimicry? What, if anything, is lasting, what ephemeral? The Russian carriages in St. 4 approach Warsaw like “thunder / Rolling toward their house”, while in St 3, the grand piano of which Chopin will play in the faubourg “is rolled in, / Its curving wing unfolded, like a great black butterfly/ that slowly sails toward charades…” Chopin’s butterfly seems slight compared to Russian thunder. Yet, is it? Butterflies reappear in St. 6 as ghosts, whose breathing is the image of ashen letters breathing from a fire, “barely respiring.”
–as a page
Ignited on the grate and now gone cold,
Maintains its structure as a work of ash
Whose letters breath like ghosts of butterflies
Barely respiring, and legible unless
Gloved fingertips should touch them curiously
And make them crumble
Again and again, Schnackenberg parries emblems of surface reality against a deeper, more fundamental realities.
This dense interweaving of imagery
from various layers of the narrative is the chief characteristic of
Schnackenberg’s lines in Kremlin of Smoke.
In addition to the sumptuous recurring images, Schnackenberg multiplies the
effects of alliteration, assonance, consonance, and internal rhyme in every
line. Virtuosity like Schnackenberg’s is not to everyone’s taste. Her effects
might be cloying, even disagreeable, were it not for sense we have, underlying
complexities of the narrative, of the same splendid isolation that
characterized Chopin’s short life. Whatever Schnackenberg’s aims as a poet, she
seems as a poet to exist somewhere outside the sphere of her contemporaries. If
so, how fitting that she should devote this long poetic sequence to a composer
who has been described as wandering like a cloud across Europe, aloof from his
musical contemporaries. Certainly, in this piece, Chopin, the central figure,
is as vulnerable as a flower, yet as immortal as a mortal human can be. The
cigar-smoking imperialist Russians may seem invincible–must have seemed so to
the exiled composer. Yet the emblem of their state, the Kremlin, Schnackenberg
tells us, is “of Smoke”–a work of ash. If you touch it, it crumbles, though
both Kremlin and Chopin’s music (and possibly some of Schnackenberg’s poems)
have some “measure of eternity” in
 The phrase is Robert Craft’s, and appears in “Chopin’s Progress,” NYRB, October 18, 1973.
 Possibly bad advice, given that Chopin’s genius from the outset tended to live in shorter pieces with less crescendo. Again, I rely on the writing of Robert Craft, ibid.
 The phrase is Robert Craft’s, writing of Chopin (not the Kremlin or Schnackenberg).