Mark Strand’s poetry is entirely characteristic of the age in which he writes. Solipsism, alienation, and self-definition are the principal concerns. His work manifests a certain self-involvement that sometimes goes over the line into narcissism. Many of his poems are an inner dialogue that reaches into the realm of clinical schizophrenia. He is unable to define himself, finally, except as a sensitive soul searching for definition. He does not sound a Whitmanesque “barbaric yawp” over the rooftops of the world so much as he makes a distinguishable Eliotian “whimper” from the closet of his bedroom. Overall, Strand’s poetry fits clearly, quickly, and neatly into the packaged, near-formulaic modes of poetry manufactured in the second half of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, he has a voice, experience, and expression all quite his own, and certain identifiable attributes of his work do serve not only to separate it from the works of others but also to make it deserving of the attention it has received.
Strand’s work depicts, to use his own word, the sourceless “darkness” that pervades human existence. In this depiction, fear is present, to be sure, as are oversensitivity, bifurcation of identity in the voice of the poet(s), spiritual nakedness, a strange combination of fantasy and the almost-surreal, and an elusive peace that never exists in the conscious and remains undiscoverable in both the subconscious and the unconscious. Strand’s poetry, then, is not distinctive so much in its subject matter or the ideas it expresses as in the techniques it employs: He thus has a far different domain from those of other poets writing in this subgenre of late modernism and postexistentialism.
The poetry of Strand is distinctive not so much in content as in approach. His contribution to twentieth century American poetry is the singularity in method and mode of expressing ideas common to other poets of his time. He stands apart from others, however, specifically through his estranged—though assuredly successful—mixture of the haunting darkness of reality with the fantastic and sexual, with self-alienation whose form is self-involvement, and with a recognition of the bifurcated personality, neither side of which can be subject functionally to the other. The mark of the superior quality of his works is that somehow he convinces the reader that life truly is this way and that the experiences he describes, however bizarre, are experiences that they share.
Sleeping with One Eye Open
Two poems from Strand’s first published collection, Sleeping with One Eye Open, demonstrate most of these qualities. In “The Tunnel,” the speaker of the poem is aware of a second self lurking, perpetually lurking, in the front yard of his house, itself a metaphor for his body. The primary persona of the poem experiences angst in both his ability and his inability to confront the other persona of his own self. He shines a flashlight at it, opens the door for a direct confrontation (which turns out to be more of a peek), makes obscene gestures at the other, leaves it suicide notes, tears up his (their) living-room furniture, and, finally, decides to dig a tunnel to escape to a neighbor’s yard. The attempt fails; there can be no communication or contact with another until he has first set his own house in order. The poet finishes digging the tunnel to find himself immobilized. He does not enter this escape route, although it is fully prepared; the poem ends with him aware that he is still being watched by the other self, now not in immediate physical visibility, and knowing that he will not leave the other after all. The self will remain fractured, and the fear will not go away. Escape is not possible, because it would be at least a partial enactment of suicide, which is unacceptable, accomplishing nothing.
In “Poem,” the primary persona is again visited by the secondary self, who sneaks into his house (again a metaphor for the poet’s body), climbs the stairs to the bedroom, where the poet is not sleeping but waiting, and announces that he is going to kill him. In this companion poem to “The Tunnel,” the situation is reversed and enhanced. In the first poem, the primary consciousness of the poet’s existence tries only to escape the second consciousness and chooses not to do so. In “Poem,” the second self succeeds in confronting the first one to announce not escape, but murder. Both halves meet with failure. The would-be murder of self is to be carried out by mutilation: The second self starts cutting away at the body, beginning with the toenails and proceeding upward, to stop only when “nothing is left,” at least emotionally. The mutilating self stops when he reaches the neck; that is, he leaves the head to go on thinking, and he departs. Predictably, the poem ends just as the first one did. Both selves are left only to go on in a dual existence of irresolution and terror.
Reasons for Moving
Strand revisits the same motifs and existence in many of the poems that were collected in Reasons for Moving. These are particularly evident in “The Man in the Mirror,” a longer poem of thirty quatrains in which the poet reveals his innermost thoughts while routinely confronting himself in a mirror. The reflection becomes first an image, then an embodiment with a personality of its own, as the poet tries to define himself and find meaning in his life. The voyeuristic narcissism and the fact of the fractured self struggling for union and self-comprehension provide the framework, context, and message of the poem. The poet views himself in the mirror on his living-room wall, contemplating the meaning of what he sees—his other self. The emergence of identities is evident early in the poem: “I remember how we used to stand/ wishing the glass/ would dissolve between us.” However, this wistful attempt at merging the two parts is incomplete, therefore unsuccessful. “But that was another life./ One day you turned away/ and left me here/ to founder in the stillness of your wake.” The body of the poem is then a matter of recording a list of ways in which he had tried to cope with this wake. He watches and studies the other self; he tries to forget him; he is driven to walking around the house, performing strange actions. The other continues to be present, but pointlessly so. Finally, as in the case of the two poems already discussed, the poet gives up; he knows that “it will always be this way./ I stand here scared/ that you will disappear, scared that you will stay.”
Strand published “The Dirty Hand” in the same collection. This poem is, for both the poet and the reader, an experience in the self-involvement of narcissism and masturbation. The poet bemoans the fact that his hand is dirty and cannot be cleaned, ostensibly for the reason that he will simply get it dirty again: The stain of the flesh cannot be removed, because the flesh itself is dirt. He is aware of no guilt, only uncleanness. Repeatedly, he washes his hand (notice that the poet never refers to the hand in the plural; only one hand is problematic), scrubbing and polishing yet unable to remove the stain. He tries to hide the hand from others, an endeavor that meets with little success, and he cannot hide the hand from himself either. The intensity of the problem increases, until finally he recognizes that he cannot live with it and proclaims that he will cut it off, chop it into pieces, and throw it into the ocean. This desire to rid himself of his nature, however, is not the main thrust of the poem, which ends with the wish for “another hand” to come to take its place, not at the end of his arm but by fastening itself to his arm. The poet wants someone else to assume the role of self-involvement, which leaves him unclean.
Darker, published in 1970, remains Strand’s best collection of poetry. These poems focus on the fear and dread of the human consciousness that occur because of the immobility he had recognized and written of in earlier poems. Aware that it is not enough to maintain that individuals are trapped in fear, the poet turns to the “darker” realization that there is no change, no hope, and no progress. In his earlier poems, he had recognized as much, but he now turns to dealing with the consequences of such a realization. Previously, he had expressed himself as entrapped; in Darker, the poems worry with the meaning of that permanent and irreversible entrapment.
The third poem in Darker is called “Giving Myself Up.” In this poem, the poet lists a series of some dozen items that he “gives up,” parts of his body as well as his “smell” and his “clothes.” The poet gives up every matter of importance to his self-involvement, even the “ghost” that lives in his clothes. The poem concludes, “And you will have none of it because already I am beginning/ again without anything.” His surrender to fear, the hopelessness of isolation, and the immobility caused by having two identities accomplishes nothing. He has finished without anything and will start again without anything. He knows that he is hopelessly trapped in a cycle from which there is no escape—only a minimal comprehension of the process. Along with the other side of his schizophrenic self, he will begin again, only to reach the same purposeless point later. Giving up to the other self will not let him out of his present state. Thus one answer is given to the problem of existing in permanent entrapment: Self-abnegation will not work.
A second meaning of this fixated condition is similarly expressed in several other poems in Darker, particularly “Black Maps.” Here, the poet maps out his existential life against a background of blackness. He begins the poem by recognizing that his birth (here called “arrival”) is unacknowledged either by the “attendance of stones,” an image representing the kinds of mental torture and persecution the poet later experiences, or an “applauding wind”; thus he asserts that nature takes no joy from the appearance of the individual. “Nothing will tell you/ where you are” either at the time of birth or later in life. Individuals struggle and cope alone in a present that “is always dark.” In this life all “maps are black,” and life is a voyage only into the surrounding emptiness. By attempting to study these maps of the dark night of the soul, the poet learns only that “what you thought/ were concerns of yours/ do not exist.” The cares and worries of this life are unimportant, because they have no physical or mental reality. In fact, the poet concludes, “Only you are there.” Once again, the poet addresses his other self, the recognition of which entirely prevents him from any spiritual mobility. Only a dual loneliness pervades.
Also in Darker is a short poem that is in many ways Strand’s bleakest expression of his condition. He writes “My Death” from the perspective of the other side of the grave. He asserts that sadness, confusion, and waste are commonplace, expected elements of the event, of which he is consciously aware. The poet seemingly enjoys the chaos he precipitates among his friends and relatives by telling them that he had tried to commit suicide several times. He shocks them into leaving: “Soon I was alone.” The poet is now returned, by his own will and force and intention, to his original state: Nothing is gained from death, not even momentary relief from the condition he has had in life.
The Story of Our Lives
In The Story of Our Lives, Strand...
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