The title of Jason Schneiderman’s collection of poems, Sublimation Point, refers to the temperature at which some solids transform directly into gasses. The first of the book’s two epigraphs is the scientific definition of that term, taken from James A. Plambec’s Thermometry. That definition appears again in the book’s second epigraph—only now in the form of two sentence diagrams that remind us of the role that building and structure play in the process of puzzling through to arrive at a better understanding of something. And because this is a book about making sense—of loss, of illness, and of love, in its triumphs and shortcomings—it’s hard not to recall the psychoanalytic variety of sublimation, in which powerful or uncomfortable energies become ready fuel for creative activity.
The sonnet lends itself well to inquiry and sense-making, and Schneiderman is especially proficient in the form. He begins this collection with one, “The Disease Collector,” which Philis Levin has included as the final entry in The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, among the most comprehensive sonnet anthologies in print. The poem begins with a pun on the word “culture”:
“. . . . [a]s though this petri dish/
Were a center of learning, and parents wished/
For their children to go there, like Harvard or Yale.”
The whimsy of these lines, though, is a distraction from an anxiety that becomes increasingly vivid as the pun runs out of steam, leaving only the possible consequences of diagnosis, culminating in a final couplet that anticipates a response to bad news, the speaker’s “play[ing] the old game of who gave it to whom,/Gently lowering voices, alone in one’s room.”
Schneiderman’s dedication to the sonnet is not merely nostalgic. The sonnet remains a living and lively form, in the possibilities it provides for organizing both argument and experience, for articulating the dimensions of a problem even if its solution must remain elusive. With the requirement that it respond to itself before it can rest, it is a form that demands more than mere expression—and more reflection than reflex.
The finest accomplishment in this collection is “Crown,” a five-sonnet cycle
rich in bitterness, love, anger and compassion —positions that Schneiderman characteristically embodies so effectively, as he constructs the grammar of their dependence upon each other. The cycle begins and ends with the statement that “God loves an expiration date.” God may have made death natural, but that doesn’t mean He isn’t a little cruel about it, too.
In the heartbreaking third sonnet of the cycle, “III. 1990” (the only poem in the cycle with its own title), the speaker imagines himself as a fourteen-year-old boy, unable to change the fact that the man who will someday become his lover, a man he has yet to meet, is having unsafe sex. The sonnet begins and ends with the same problem—powerlessness. After beginning with some reflections on the nature of tragedy, the speaker finds his ruminative posture impossible to maintain. Recalling the events of 1990, his voice becomes urgent, even angry, yielding to a loss of control as the sonnet turns to the powerlessness of the speaker’s lover, enthralled by the man who would lie to him and infect him. From the beginning of the third quatrain through most of the closing couplet, a series of accusations and pleas speeds along without a full stop. :
“. . . . he didn’t love you and he said
he was negative and you believed him, and he’s dead,
and even if I could get back to 1990
and say, wait, please, just wait for me, I’m coming,
it wouldn’t have made a difference. There was nothing
I could do. Nothing.”
The syntax of these lines resists any separation of the lover’s earlier tragedy from the speaker’s later despair at being too young then and, now, too late. In common usage, people say, “There was nothing I could do” in order to deflect blame. But enjambed as it is here, continuing into an uncharacteristic fifteenth line, the statement intensifies the poem’s central paradox. The finality at the end of line 14—”There was nothing”—is a reminder that the speaker and his lover had yet to meet each other, and it alludes, too, to the loveless nature of the relationship between the lover and the one who infected him. With the completion of this sentence, impotence returns; only now do we understand its full dimensions, as the reinforcing echo of “Nothing” in the final line defines a past that is unreachable even in fantasy.
It wouldn’t be fair to focus only on Schneiderman’s devotion to the sonnet, remarkable as it may be. “Now” follows a gradual breakdown in elusive deflections, as the speaker’s lover insists that he face the truth that the tragedies he associates with other people have also happened to them. The speaker finally confronts the fact that infection has made the man who was its source a permanent presence in their lives:
“He is with us in the parks and the clubs
and this bed. I mean you.
I mean him. I mean now.”
There is no “then,” only, as the final word has it, “now.” The weight of those three stops, stark and heavy as the statements they force us to linger on, conveys the reluctance of this speaker’s concessions to the uncomfortable truth.
In “Anatomy III,” a waiter transforms into a winged angel, delivering the poem’s speaker to the hospital after his jaw falls off in a restaurant. Wryly capturing the loneliness that accompanies the pursuit of reluctant inspiration, Schneiderman ends the poem with this disappointing exchange between the speaker and his newly-adored hero: “‘Will you love me?’ I asked. ‘No,’ he said.” Here is the mistake that desire so readily encourages: confusing decency with love. It is a brutal lesson, and Schneiderman offers it with the self-deprecating wit that characterizes many of his poems.
It is too easy to confuse lamentation with richness of emotion. But joy, too, is serious business, and too few pause to examine it with the attention they devote to their own pain. Let us be grateful for those who distrust the impulse toward cheap solace and insist instead upon an understanding that exacts a higher psychic cost. In their costly honesty, they allow that to love well is to learn the swiftness with which joy becomes pain.