Mark Strand’s poems have a dark climate; the speaker in them often feels cut off and threatened, and keeps himself going by minutely observing his condition. Because he is “rattled... / With spooks,” he hopes “That nothing, nothing will happen”—that is, that he will be unharmed and die at the same time (“Sleeping with One Eye Open”). The world in which he feels this way is composed of objects that mean nothing beyond themselves and is where death seems lush on the one hand (“The Last Bus”) and the last solipsism on the other (“Elegy for My Father”).
To expose the anatomy of isolation seems to have been Strand’s task as a poet from his first volume in 1964 to the present. As a solipsist of sorts, he is concerned with the nature of self. His old, familiar self makes him nauseous and nostalgic by going away (“The Man in the Mirror”), but even though he acknowledges this by ridding himself of attachments, the opposite is also true: “I change and I am the same. / I empty myself of my life and my life remains” (“The Remains”). He is stuck with the self-life he did not choose and cannot exchange (“My Life by Somebody Else”); he is still his mother’s child (“Not Dying”), even if the self that was cannot—and cannot help trying to—define the present (“The Late Hour”). The best part of this self is a memory that one enjoys (“Pot Roast”) and a primordial source to which one belongs (“Where Are the Waters of Childhood?”). The paralysis caused by the slippery self is the fear that it will leave and also stay and the understanding that it has “no place to go, no reason to remain” (“Coming to This”).
In its relations with others, what does the self do? It either refuses to move into others’ illusions about it (“The Way It Is”), or it becomes intimate with others through lies and violence (“Courtship”). This brings up the theme of behavior in Strand’s poems. The self acts according to this dictum: “’You shall live by inflicting pain. / You shall forgive’” (“The Mailman”). That is, behavior is a paradox if the self behind it is. In “Eating Poetry,” Strand describes the act of poetry: since it is a breaking out of himself at the same time as it is a breaking into himself to fulfill himself, it is violent, animal-like, especially toward the other, in this case a librarian, “I snarl and bark at her.” Another irony here is that the self comes to a primitive, unthinking life by performing a dreamlike and thinking act. If sadism lurks in this kind of behavior, so does masochism. Strand says in “The Accident,” “A train runs over me,” and in “The Dirty Hand” (an adaptation from Carlos Drummond de Andrade), “My hand is dirty, / I must cut it off.”
The nature of seeing and of the mind is an important aspect of the nature of self. Strand says in “The Whole Story” that one cannot trust what one thinks he sees. His companion in the poem might not be on the train with him, and he himself might have lied about a fire he said he saw. We do not like the person who seems to be watching us, but we are that person without knowing it (“The Tunnel”). Those who dream about us do not see us let alone feel what we are going through in their dream (“The Kite”). “Nothing will tell you / where you are,” Strand states in “Black Maps,” which means an observer cannot see and his location cannot help him to. Not until “White,” a more recent poem, does Strand’s outlook on seeing improve: “... out of my waking / the circle of light widens... / ... All things are one.”
As for the mind or knowing, we cannot know why our lives deteriorate or if our acts are what we think they are (“The Man in the Tree”). At best all we can know is what it feels like to “keep going” (“Lines for Winter”), and when it comes to thinking, the best we can do is think about this endurance, not about why we cannot figure out what our purpose is (“For Jessica, My Daughter”).
Dreaming is a kind of involuntary thinking that Strand is not depressed by; it can be lush as in “What to Think Of,” where the poet’s mind makes image upon image of beauty and power, or as in “Eating Poetry,” where imagination changes a dull place into a savage and vital one. In fact, Strand suggests, if “you step out of your dress” (meaning, perhaps, your mental defenses), the power in the world—dark as it is—will reach you.
What is life itself, then, to a solipsist who yearns and feels nullified at the same time? It carries people toward as it carries them away from each other (“The Marriage”). It urges us to preserve it at its outset (“The Babies”), and to stay alive no matter what, to put “One foot in front of the other” (“The Hill”), to “open the door and walk in” (“Seven Poems”). It is a losing and a...
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