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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In her 1994 review of Dark Harbor for Antioch Review, Judith Hall said that the theme of the poem “is the poet’s counterlife in art, from his initial departure from the enclosure of family and home, to his journey through a place of darkness and uncertainty, to his final sense of safe harbor within the community of other poets.” At least in part, this could have been said about any of Strand’s books. Strand has often been criticized for solipsism, an extreme form of concern for self, but these accusations have not deterred him from his search for self nor from his conviction that poetry is his means of discovery.

This is not to say that Strand sees only himself; nothing could be further from the truth. He, like all poets, is constantly examining, evaluating, and speculating about life. By unrelentingly seeking a clearer picture of himself within life and creating poems as windows through which to view his explorations, he makes it possible for those who lack his particular vision to become part of his quest.

More than any of his previous books, Dark Harbor exhibits Strand’s concern with the community of poets, both living and dead, that has helped shape him as a poet and that continues to influence his poetry. No artist creates in a vacuum, and no poet seems more aware of this than Strand. He has often mentioned a handful of poets that have greatly influenced his work, and a few poets seem to drop in and out of this group. One who is always there, however, whether Strand is talking about himself or whether a critic is talking about him, is Elizabeth Bishop. Although their styles are very different, both wrote often about the relationships of art to life and life to art. The angels that appear and disappear in Dark Harbor are poets that have died, and it is not unreasonable to think that the last angel in the book, “one of the good ones, about to sing,” is Bishop.

As might well be expected, darkness is one of the major themes of Dark Harbor. This darkness is not a Joseph Conrad type of darkness, an impending doom or a void into which one falls and from which one never returns. Strand’s darkness creates more an air of nostalgia. It is a world of dreams in which the darkness is usually earthbound with at least some touch of heaven within reach. Sometimes, however, Strand’s heaven is within the darkness or, as in section VIII, darkness, death, and heaven are inseparably bound to one another:

Oh my partner, my beautiful death,My black paradise, my fusty intoxicant,My symbolist muse, give me your breastOr your hand or your tongue that sleeps all dayBehind its wall of reddish gums.Lay yourself down on the restaurant floorAnd recite all that’s been kept from my happiness.Tell me I have not lived in vain, that the starsWill not die, that things will stay as they are, That...

(The entire section is 748 words.)