Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4765
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...
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- Critical Essays
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 presents a new way of looking at his state. On one hand, he is given to the usual self-involvement; on the other, there is a rather complete self-detachment. The title poem, the best in the collection, can be rightfully interpreted in a straightforward manner. The narrator of the poem is addressing someone, presumably a woman whom he loves and to whom he is probably married. He tells her that they have been reading “the story of our lives;” that is, the frame of this long poem is to explore the possibilities of what it would mean to be able to read their lives as though they were recorded in a book, here ostensibly a novel. They jointly read on, learning of themselves as their plots and plights unfold.
The poem, which is one of his better and more readable pieces, is written in seven stanzas of some twenty lines each. In the first one, Strand reports to readers (and undoubtedly to himself) that the “we” of the poem are trying to find meaning and direction in their “lives” by reading in a book where, at least, what happens is known. The “we” here garners two legitimate interpretations. First, it is clearly the poet himself and the lover whom he is addressing. At the same time, Strand has constructed the poem so as to legitimize it as another fractured-self conversation typical in his works. In either case, the personas of the poem are sitting together on a couch in their living room, knowing that “the book of our lives is empty”; the furniture is never changed; even the rugs become “darker” through the years as “our shadows pass over them.” The second stanza opens with “We are reading the story of our lives/ as though we were in it/ as though we had written it.” Life is just as vacuous in the novel as in their other, daily existence. The poet recognizes early that if such a book did exist, it would be unable to reveal meaning for him; that, perhaps, would be somebody else’s life (or lives). In all stanzas except the first one, a few random passages from the imagined book are interwoven into the poet’s own lines so as to make evident the futility of the endeavor. Because the book offers nothing new, the poet records that “it wants to divide us.”
In the third and fourth stanzas, the other self becomes both bored and tired and falls asleep, as it is written in the book. The primary narrator-self reads on to see what will happen; of course, he learns that the answer is, more or less, nothing. People fall asleep and people wake up—their lives remain empty whether or not they are well rested. By the fifth stanza, the poet has given up on finding something in the book that would foretell purpose in his (their) existence; he wishes only for a “perfect moment,” one in which he could have momentary relief from the dark. Were there such a moment, so he ponders, he could then perpetually live and relive it by always starting at the beginning of the book and reading to that point. Such a moment is not to be found; it does not exist in their lives and cannot be found in a record of their lives. The concluding stanzas of the poem reinforce such a stance. The poet and his companion are left with loneliness and despair. They grow tired of reading the book, of studying the “tired phantoms” that occupy the “copy” as well as inhabit their own bodies. Thus they determine to accept this truth, realizing that “they are the book and they are/ nothing else.”
Selected Poems contains Strand’s best poems, and the volume serves well to represent Strand’s life’s work to 1980. Five new poems appeared in this publication, the most important of which is the unusual “Shooting Whales.” The poet recalls an event from his childhood in which he, his father, and other family members get in a boat to watch fishermen who have gone out to shoot whales in St. Margaret’s Bay. They are out all day, and as they are returning, after dark, their boat engine dies. The speaker’s father takes the oars and rows all the way home, speechlessly. That night, the young speaker lies in bed envisioning the whales moving in the ocean beneath him: “they were luring me/ downward and downward/ into the murmurous/ water of sleep.” His existence, then, is made akin to that of the whales; they are like singing mermaids who would lure him into the depths of his later darkness, self-involvement, and loneliness.
The Continuous Life
Strand did not publish another major volume of poetry for ten years. The poems in The Continuous Life vary in form and content. Many of the poems are ostensibly prose but qualify as poems because each of their meanings is conveyed poetically, through a series of images. More noticeably, there is less focus on split personality and psychosis. Though the poet never gets out of himself to the extent that his subject matter is actually another person, he does focus on external people and conditions in some poems in this volume. A few of these poems are not even written in first person; some are recordings of conversations, almost in dramatic form; two or three of them are called “letters.”
The majority of the thirty poems in The Continuous Life are composed in the same vein as those already discussed here, with little tampering with previous themes. In “The Continuous Life,” Strand gives advice about what parents should tell their children. First, he instructs, “confess/ To your little ones the night is a long way off”—that is, tell them of death but explain that it is far in the distant future. His second advice is to inform them of how “mundane” life is, and he then offers a list of household chores and implements. Parents should also explain that life is a period “between two great darks,” birth and death. In the meantime, individuals conduct a great “search” for “something . . . , a piece of the dark that might have been yours.” Finally, the poet recognizes the existence and reality of “small tremors of love through your brief,/ Undeniable selves, into your days, and beyond.” It is unusual for Strand to acknowledge the existence of love, or even of “small tremors of love,” which here arguably counter the darkness on which the bulk of his work focuses. The poet sees love, possibly, as an experience that can give partial and momentary relief in the present.
“The End,” the short poem that concludes The Continuous Life, serves as a final comment about Strand’s life, and therefore his poetry, “Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end,” writes the poet in such a way as to suggest that he does. He then gives a short list of typical activities of life that come to an end when a man becomes eternally “motionless” and it is “clear that he’ll never go back.” The poem concludes, “Not every man knows what is waiting for him, or what he shall sing/ When the ship he is on slips into darkness, there at the end.” The poet knows what awaits him at his end and what song he will then sing. Strand has explored his death sufficiently, he foresees, to know that he will comprehend and experience the darkness at that time just as he has lived his life. It will truly change nothing.
In Dark Harbor, this darkness is made all the more visible. Strand has fashioned a book-length poetic sequence consisting of forty-five numbered parts introduced by a “Proem.” All but one of the individual units fit on a single page, and they are cast in loose, three-line stanzas, occasionally ending in couplets. Strand employs this muffled echo of Dante’s terza rima to thread a graceful, somber meditation on loss, dislocation, and the general unease of a mind and spirit strangely alienated from all that they attend to and even accept. Either too decorous or too numb to celebrate or rebel, Strand’s persona charts a quiet, restrained course in which a mood of seeming passivity or resignation manages to establish and build tension.
Blizzard of One
Blizzard of One will strike many as a rather slight volume for a Pulitzer Prize winner. As ever, Strand’s realm is a place caught in the oscillation of the ordinary and the extraordinary. Time’s erasure of the many selves one puts on is mourned in various inventive ways. Strand’s rich melancholic intonations carry a greater edge of wit here, perhaps the gift of the even greater distancing from tragedy that comes with age. Many of the poems, such as “A Suite of Appearances” and “Five Dogs,” are multipart sequences. Most striking is “The Delirium Waltz,” a poem that marks a celebratory occasion of some kind without ever pinning down its true nature or meaning. Alternating heavily patterned, pantoum-like quatrains with stretches of prose, the poem seems a gathering of the damned, old friends locked in repetitive patterns of social interaction, the motion everything as they lose whatever recognition they ever had of who they are and why they came. The hours of the waltz become years and then a season. The dancers, many of whom wish to stop, cannot.
Man and Camel
Strand has not exactly mellowed through the years, but in Man and Camel, he seems to have come to terms with life being transitory. In “2032,” once dreaded death has become an old man sitting in the backseat of a limousine, waiting for his chauffeur. He has on a lap robe to ward off a chill, his face is pale, his eyes are smaller than before, and he has the same gray hair as the speaker. While the two will meet face to face one day, for now, death poses little threat, having put aside his scythe and hourglass. He no longer lurks in front yards. This is quite a change from Strand’s earlier dark, brooding poems in which he is haunted by thoughts of dying.
Man and Camel is divided into three parts, the first written by the fabulist in Strand. In part 1, Strand makes a case for accepting fantasy, presenting in “The King” a tiny monarch hiding in the corner because he would rather sleep than rule. That harmless image is followed by “I Had Been a Polar Explorer,” in which the narrator first tells of his adventure-filled youth, then describes a fallow period of adulthood, which is followed by a spurt of great creativity in which he fills page after page with tales of the exotic, before espying that familiar man in the front yard. The writer waves in recognition, but the image fades.
In “2002,” Strand says that while he is attempting to ease up on thoughts of death, Death is not only thinking of him but also identifying him by name. Death appears to be looking forward to Strand’s company.
In the title poem, “Man and Camel,” a man is smoking a cigarette on his front porch when he observes a man and a camel passing by. He takes the event casually until the two begin singing and he wants to know the origin of the tune. The man and camel run back to him, saying he has ruined everything by examining, by breaking the fantasy with thought.
In “Elevator,” Strand is either having fun or being dead serious. He takes an elevator to the basement, presumably the end of the line. A man waiting there asks if he is going up, as if going down were an option. The second stanza repeats the first, the last line of each being: “’I’m going down,’ I said. ’I won’t be going up.’” The question arises if Strand is mocking the man’s stupidity or if he has crossed over into the realm of the metaphysical. Is he going to Hell (down) as opposed to Heaven (up)?
Part 2 returns full force to the contemplative, often grim Strand. In “Mother and Son,” a man goes to his mother’s hospital room, hoping that before dying, she will at last tell him that he is her boy and always will be, but her lips are cold, the “burial of feelings hav[ing] begun.” There is more rejection in “The Mirror,” when a man sees a woman across the room looking in his direction. Assuming that he has attracted her, he realizes sadly that she is checking the mirror behind him, to see perhaps if the one she awaits is approaching. He says he can never forget that moment without a pang, without feeling that he himself is emerging “breathless and eager” from the mirror into a room full of partying people “only to discover too late that she is not there.”
Part 3 is a retelling of Christ’s last words as he hangs from the cross: Christ asks forgiveness for the perpetrators; reassures a thief on the next cross that if he is a believer, they will meet in paradise; asks disciple John to look after his mother, Mary; asks God why he has forsaken him; asks for water and is given sour wine; and finally says that his trials are finished and he is giving himself fully to his Father. “Poem After the Seven Last Words” was commissioned by the Brentano String Quartet to be read between movements of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Opus 51, in performances at various locations in the United States.
New Selected Poems
New Selected Poems is an update of the Selected Poems that appeared in 1980. As before, “the worst” is always waiting in the shadows. Strand is clearly under the influence of the great thinkers—Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Albert Camus—and the existentialists, with all their apprehension, foreboding, and sense of alienation.
In “Keeping Things Whole,” the poet says he has to keep moving so that things can be whole. “In a field/ I am the absence/ of field./ . . ./ Wherever I am/ I am what is missing.// When I walk/ I part the air/ and always/ the air moves in/ to fill the spaces/ where my body’s been.” This is Strand’s take on the transience of life. One can be in a place, but when one dies nothing has changed.
In a new, fifty-two-part poem, “The Monument,” Strand has constructed a monument to himself. He then has angry poets come with hammers and little buckets to knock off pieces of the monument to study and use in the making of their own small tombs. He wishes he could inscribe something meaningful that would be remembered. He can only use words lent to him by some literary giants, such as Octavio Paz, William Shakespeare, Anton Chekhov, Walt Whitman, Jorge Luis Borges, and William Wordsworth.
One wistful poem that has been widely anthologized is “Pot Roast,” in which the speaker is eating a pot roast dinner and thinking of the first time his mother made this meal for him, leaning over his plate to replenish the potatoes, carrots, onions, and gravy. He inhales the steam and, for a moment, does not “regret the passage of time.” He remembers his mother’s gravy, “its odor of garlic and celery,” and recalls “sopping it up with pieces of bread.” He says: “And now/ I taste it again./ The meat of memory./ The meat of no change./ I raise my fork/ and I eat.”
Although Strand uses plain language in simple, short sentences, his words have the impact of a power drill. He uses precise language and surreal imagery and deals with absence and negation, loneliness and alienation. He can be hard to understand, but the sounds and arrangements of the words can evoke a mood. Some critics have called him a documentarian, relating what he sees. He says of himself that he shows, but does not explain. He does not proselytize. He does not attempt to answer questions or provide solutions or rail against injustice. His words turn readers inward, force them to consider their own alter egos, their own mortality, and their own way of embracing life before it ends. He sees life as an in-between state starting at birth and heading, always, toward death.
He fears death, or more precisely, the unknown. He knows that writers can create what they think of as the present, but no one can discuss the state of death, the lack of being, because no one has been there. He has, however, come to see that there are moments of great joy and that he must embrace them.