Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1207
Mark Strand 1934-
American poet, short story writer, essayist, editor, author of children's books, and critic. See also Mark Strand Literary Criticism (Volume 6) and Mark Strand Literary Criticism (Volume 18).
Strand's poetry, produced over a period of more than forty years, has earned critical acclaim, numerous awards, and a...
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- Critical Essays
Mark Strand 1934-
American poet, short story writer, essayist, editor, author of children's books, and critic. See also Mark Strand Literary Criticism (Volume 6) and Mark Strand Literary Criticism (Volume 18).
Strand's poetry, produced over a period of more than forty years, has earned critical acclaim, numerous awards, and a devoted following among poetry lovers. His verse deals primarily with the relationship between the individual self and the rest of the world in language that is spare and through images that are often surreal and dream-like. In addition to his verse, Strand has written fictional prose, art criticism, children's literature, and short stories. In 1990 he was named Poet Laureate of the United States.
Strand was born on April 11, 1934, in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, Canada, to Robert Joseph and Sonia Apter Strand. The family left Canada when Strand was four years old, relocating to various American cities throughout Strand's childhood. He attended Antioch College in Ohio, receiving a B.A. in 1957, and then studied painting at Yale for two years, earning a B.F.A. in 1959. He was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship in 1960 and spent that year at the University of Florence. In 1962, Strand earned an M.A. from the University of Iowa where he taught English for three years. He married Antonia Ratensky in 1961; the marriage ended in divorce twelve years later. He married Julia Garretson in 1965. Strand has two children: a daughter, Jessica, from his first marriage, and a son, Thomas, from his second. In 1965-66, the poet served as a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. He has taught at numerous colleges and universities, including Columbia, Yale, Princeton, Brandeis, the University of Virginia, and Harvard. Since 1998, Strand has taught in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.
In addition to the two Fulbright Fellowships, Strand has received a number of other awards and grants, among them an Ingram-Merrill Foundation Grant in 1966, a National Endowment for the Arts Grant in 1967, a Rockefeller Foundation Grant in 1968, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974, and an Academy of American Poets Fellowship in 1980. His poetry collection The Story of Our Lives (1973) earned the Academy of American Poets' Edgar Allan Poe Award the year following its publication, and the 1998 collection Blizzard of One was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In 1987, Strand received the so-called genius award from the MacArthur Foundation, and in 1990 was named U.S. Poet Laureate.
Strand's first volume of poetry was Sleeping with One Eye Open (1964). The poems in the collection introduced readers to themes and concerns that would dominate his work throughout his career: the search for identity, a sense of apprehension, and recurring images of absence, negation, and self-effacement. His next offering, Reasons for Moving (1968), confirmed his reputation for writing dark, even morbid, poetry. In 1970 he produced Darker: Poems and in 1973 the award-winning collection, The Story of Our Lives, which contains the critically acclaimed “Elegy for My Father” and “The Untelling,” perhaps Strand's most famous poem. In “The Untelling,” the poet-speaker recalls a scene from his childhood at a lake, telling, retelling, and eventually “untelling” the story with an awareness of the interplay between memory and reality, between the perceptions of a child and the reminiscences of an adult. The work was followed by The Monument (1978), a collection of 52 ruminations described by one critic as “not quite poetry, not quite prose,” sprinkled throughout with quotations from Strand's literary influences.
In 1980 Strand published Selected Poems, containing verse from his earlier collections, after which he produced no poetry for the next ten years. In the 1990s he returned to the genre with The Continuous Life (1990), Dark Harbor (1993), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Blizzard of One (1998). His most recent publication is Chicken, Shadow, Moon & More (2000), characterized by one critic as “an elegant collection of one-liners organized in loose lists by repeated key words.”
In addition to his poetry, Strand has produced a collection of short stories, three children's books, and several monographs of art criticism. He has contributed to numerous periodicals and has served as the editor of several poetry anthologies, including The Contemporary American Poets: American Poetry since 1940 (1969) and the Golden Ecco Anthology: 100 Great Poems of the English Language (1994). In 2000 he edited, along with Eavan Boland, Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms.
Before turning to poetry Strand had envisioned a career as a painter, and that interest has informed much of his work. Several critics have commented on the “painterly” quality of Strand's poems and have noted the influence of the Surrealists, particularly René Magritte; others have suggested that his work evokes the landscapes of Edward Hopper—the subject of one of Strand's books of art criticism. Walt Whitman, Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Elizabeth Bishop, and most especially, Wallace Stevens, are usually named as Strand's literary sources and influences.
Most critics see absence and negation as the characteristic images of Strand's poetry. Linda Gregerson mentions the “honey of absence,” while Richard Howard refers to one of Strand's poems as “one more celebration of an empty place.” Gregerson maintains that Strand employs absence as “a hedge against mortality,” since within many of his poems, she notes, “when absence cracks, mortality gets a foothold.” Similarly, Samuel Maio reports that although Strand's speaker often defines himself through negatives and absences, the final result is that “the very act of self-negation becomes celebratory of his existence.”
Although Strand has denied that his poetry is particularly dark, his critics have usually disagreed, particularly in regard to his earliest work. In his 1972 essay, Harold Bloom contends that “Strand keeps moving from ‘It is dark’ to ‘It is darker.’” For Bloom, Strand's work is overtly Freudian; his usual subject matter is the family romance and an awareness of death. Howard asserts that the brooding quality of Strand's verse is apparent in form as well as content. “Strand,” he notes, “has discovered a scansion for his dilemma, a style for his despair.” But with the publication of The Story of Our Lives, Strand's work began to demonstrate a marked change in style and theme according to many critics. Gregerson contends that the pieces in this collection move from renunciation to at least the possibility of restoration. David Kirby, noting that the individual poems in The Story of Our Lives are longer than Strand's earlier efforts, suggests that the poet is starting to deal with the self he explored and identified in his first three books. Several scholars have commented that the assessment of his work as dark and morbid should be mitigated by an acknowledgment of Strand's witty approach to his serious subjects. Christopher R. Miller, for example, in reference to the poem “Keeping Things Whole,” explains that “in its progression of deadpan observations, the poem renders the sublime encounter with the void as an existential joke.”
Although most critics would rank the award-winning The Story of Our Lives or Blizzard of One as Strand's best work, Kirby believes that Strand's real masterpiece is The Monument, a combination of poetry and prose reflections that the critic maintains is the “culmination of Strand's themes and techniques to date as well as a quantum leap beyond them.” It is, according to Kirby, “one of the most astonishing books in the English language.”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 135
Sleeping with One Eye Open 1964
Reasons for Moving 1968
Darker: Poems 1970
The Story of Our Lives 1973
The Sargeantville Notebook 1974
Elegy for My Father 1978
The Late Hour 1978
The Monument 1978
Selected Poems 1980
The Continuous Life 1990
Dark Harbor: A Poem 1993
Blizzard of One 1998
89 Clouds [single poem accompanying monotypes by Wendy Mark] 1999
Chicken, Shadow, Moon & More 2000
The Contemporary American Poets: American Poetry since 1940 [editor] (poetry) 1969
The Planet of Lost Things (juvenilia) 1982
The Art of the Real: Nine American Figurative Painters (criticism) 1983
Mr. and Mrs. Baby and Other Stories (short stories) 1985
The Night Book (juvenilia) 1985
Rembrandt Takes a Walk (juvenilia) 1986
William Bailey (criticism) 1987
Golden Ecco Anthology: 100 Great Poems of the English Language [editor] (poetry) 1994
Hopper (criticism) 1994
Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms [editor, with Eavan Boland] (poetry) 2000
The Weather of Words: Poetic Invention (essays, prose poems) 2000
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2683
SOURCE: Bloom, Harold. “Dark and Radiant Peripheries: Mark Strand and A. R. Ammons.” Southern Review n.s. 8, no. 1 (January 1972): 133-49.
[In the following excerpt, Bloom contends that Strand's work represents a strain of American Romanticism that is consciously Freudian and that deals primarily with the family romance.]
A man's fortunes are the fruit of his character. A man's friends are his magnetisms. We go to Herodotus and Plutarch for examples of Fate; but we are examples. …
The four books of new American poetry that have moved me most in the last two years are Uplands and Briefings by A. R. Ammons and Reasons for Moving and Darker by Mark Strand. Ammons was born in North Carolina in 1926; Strand, in Prince Edward Island, Canada, in 1934. Born equidistant between them in time and space, I discover that reading their recent books has defined the limits of my own generation of poets for me. The generation includes formidable accomplishments: the works of Ashbery, Merrill, Merwin, Snodgrass, Snyder, Ginsberg, and James Wright, and Richard Howard's recent series of dramatic monologues; Hollander's ambitious long poem, Visions from the Ramble; Alvin Feinman's one distinguished and difficult volume, Preambles; and powerful individual lyrics by perhaps half a dozen more. If Derek Walcott of the West Indies be added, the whole body of work by poets now in their first prime in America is immensely heartening, particularly at so dark a moment. Granted some good fortune (and if we can save them from a killing neglect even as we allow the academies to be overrun by the rabblement of the New Sensibility), they should surpass the rich generation that included Roethke, Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop, Lowell, Berryman, Duncan, Olson, Schwartz, Wilbur, Hecht, and James Dickey. Ammons in his new phase and Strand in his first full finding of himself are both miraculously strong poets, artists so complete and individualized that we are absurd to neglect them in our poverty, in our profound and desperate imaginative need of them. I juxtapose them here for their mutual excellence, but also for their revelatory contrast to one another. Ammons is the direct and rightful heir, since Robinson and Frost, of Emerson's central line that commenced with Thoreau and Whitman; there are no strong twentieth-century influences upon him, despite the affinities of his metric with the early work of Pound and Williams. Strand is a dark child of Stevens, despite early debts to several poets of the generation just before his own. Ammons is a seer; Strand, a quester engulfed by phantasmagoria. Both have the magnificence of having been found by inevitable and obsessive themes, which they have conquered and made their own, but neither has found sanctuary by such conquest. The scourge of Ammons is the ceaseless conflict in him of violently personal ideas of permanence and change; he is a poet for whom the outward world exists, but only as a combatant in the war between the sky and the mind. Strand's affliction is the family romance, and his main resource the transformations of the self as it dodges a proleptic consciousness of its own death in an outward world that somehow seems not to exist. He is as overtly Freudian in his visions as Ammons is knowingly Emersonian. The greater poems of Darker are monuments to the already passing time of what Rieff termed Psychological Man, even as the truly astonishing poems in Uplands and Briefings may well be our last cairns to the memory of Transcendental Man. Ammons holds radical light; Strand keeps moving from “It is dark” to “It is darker.” They represent two permanent (until now, anyway) strains of American Romanticism that cannot be reconciled with one another, though both exist strongly in our five major poets: Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, and Stevens.
Reasons for Moving (1968) was preceded by Strand's first book, Sleeping with One Eye Open (1964), privately printed and largely apprentice work. The epigraph to Reasons for Moving, from Borges (and ultimately from the Chinese), establishes the irreality that never ceases to haunt Strand: “—while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men.” The title poem, which appeared in the first book under the title “A Reason for Moving,” is now called “Keeping Things Whole”:
In a field I am the absence of field. This is always the case. 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.
We all have reasons for moving. I move to keep things whole.
Beneath the grace, this is desperate enough to be outrageous. This “I” might wish he were asleep elsewhere as well as here, and so be no man rather than two. His absence seems a void that his presence could not fill, or a wound that his presence could not heal. The poet of Reasons for Moving writes Borges-like parables in a limpid mode that sometimes has overtones of Elizabeth Bishop or Roethke or even Wilbur, but the pervasive reductiveness resembles the winter vision of the prime precursor, Stevens. This is the Stevens of “The Snow Man,” “The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad,” “The Death of a Soldier,” and the other small ecstasies of reduction to a basic slate or universal hue that mark Harmonium's other music, the contrary to its Floridean excesses and gaudiness. The true epigraph to all of Strand is: “The poem refreshes life so that we share, / For a moment, the first idea. …” But the first idea in Stevens is quite deliberately unbearable, since to behold constantly nothing that is not there and the nothing that is would make us inhuman, or at least hopeless company for one another. Contemplating this aspect of Stevens, and its effect upon a younger poet of genius like Strand, I am reminded of Goethe's grim warning that anyone who destroys all illusion in himself and in others will be punished tyrannically by nature.
Some of the parables in Reasons for Moving read like scenarios by Beckett or Pinter, but the book's best poem, its last and longest, is harrowingly unlike its overt analogues and likely sources. “The Man in the Mirror” is at once phantasmagoria and simple narcist self-confrontation, an inescapable, daily, waking nightmare. First staring at his reflection, seeing an alien sleeper, the poet gasps: “How long will all this take?”—reminding me of Shelley's encounter with his double, before drowning, and the double's terrible “How long do you mean to be content?” Remembering the earlier Narcissus-delight (“how we used to stand / wishing the glass / would dissolve between us”), Strand is compelled to see the now-terrible reflection depart from him:
Your suit floating, your hair moving like eel grass in a shallow bay, you drifted out of the mirror's room, through the hall
and into the open air. You seemed to rise and fall with the wind, the sway taking you always farther away, farther away.
Alone (“The mirror was nothing without you”) the poet waits, avidly, until the prodigal's return, as “a bruise coated with light.” But the returned double is only a perpetual vision of loss, central emblem of the self unable to bear the self, ambivalence without resolution:
It will always be this way. I stand here scared that you will disappear, scared that you will stay.
This is the last vision of Reasons for Moving, and is (consciously) no distance at all from the book's opening fantasy, the poet “eating poetry” in a library, romping like a dog “with joy in the bookish dark.” The dark covers the honest terror of Narcissus, always at work composing more letters to himself, and always in the same vein: “You shall live / by inflicting pain. / You shall forgive.” The world outside this occluded self is almost formless, almost indeed without weather:
There is no rain. It is impossible to say what form The weather will take. We blow on our hands, Trying to keep them warm, Hoping it will not snow.
“What the solipsist means is right,” a gnomic Wittgensteinian truth, is in traditional American terms the Emersonian admonition “Build therefore your own world,” which in turn is founded on the central Emersonian motto: “What we are, that only can we see.” For Emerson knew he could only show (and not say) the truths, all eloquence (his own included) necessarily obscured. Pears, expounding early Wittgenstein, reads to me like an exegete of Emerson:
But what is this unique self, of whose existence he feels assured? It is neither his body nor his soul nor anything else in his world. It is only the metaphysical subject, which is a kind of focal vanishing point behind the mirror of his language. There is really nothing except the mirror and what the mirror reflects. So the only thing that he can legitimately say is that what is reflected in the mirror is reflected in the mirror. But this is neither a factual thesis nor a substantial necessary truth about what is reflected in the mirror, but a tautology. It means only that whatever objects exist exist. So when solipsism is worked out, it becomes clear that there is no difference between it and realism. Moreover, since the unique self is nothing, it would be equally possible to take an impersonal view of the vanishing point behind the mirror of language. Language would then be any language, the metaphysical subject would be the world spirit, and idealism would lie on the route from solipsism to realism.
That route was Emerson's, from the solipsism of the early Notebooks through the idealism of Nature on to the realism of The Conduct of Life. Ammons is an Emersonian who has passed to idealism; Strand follows no route, and never departs from solipsism. The splendor of his poetry, only intimated by Reasons for Moving, emerges in Darker (1970), where nearly every poem shows what can be shown of the solipsist's predicament, while wisely eschewing the saying of what cannot be said. Pears, following Wittgenstein, speaks of “deep tautologies,” and Strand, without metaphysical design, gives them to us. “There is what there is” might be the motto of Darker. Here is its characteristic kind of poem:
I empty myself of the names of others. I empty my pockets. I empty my shoes and leave them beside the road. At night I turn back the clocks; I open the family album and look at myself as a boy.
What good does it do? The hours have done their job. I say my own name. I say goodbye. The words follow each other downwind. I love my wife but send her away.
My parents rise out of their thrones into the milky rooms of clouds. How can I sing? Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same. I empty myself of my life and my life remains.
This poem's title, “The Remains,” means everything about the self that ought to have only posthumous existence, when the poet will survive only in the regard of other selves. But his dread (which is one with the reality of him) is that already he survives only insofar as he has become an otherness capable of extending such regard. Dread born of spectral duality, dread identical with what Blake called the Spectre of Urthona, is peculiarly an anxiety that shadows poets, and is almost a distinguishing mark of Romantic tradition. “The Remains” is a poem written by Strand's alastor or Spirit of Solitude, his true voice of feeling. Its despairing wish—to be delivered from the self's prison without abandoning a self that can be embraced only when it in prison lies—is repeated throughout Darker in many superb modulations:
that the lies I tell them are different from the lies I tell myself, that by being both here and beyond I am becoming a horizon …
And there is the sleep that demands I lie down and be fitted to the dark that comes upon me like another skin in which I shall never be found, out of which I shall never appear. …
Why do you never come? Must I have you by being somebody else? Must I write My Life by somebody else? My Death by somebody else? Are you listening? Somebody else has arrived. Somebody else is writing.
The mode is phantasmagoria, of which the American master will always be Whitman, the one supreme Emersonian bard. No poem by Strand (so far) is as dark and powerful as Whitman's A Hand-Mirror (Looking-Glass in its manuscript title) where the self has the strength of Satan to bear its outward and inward loss. Closer to Strand (and more approachable) is the Stevens who charted the “mythology of self, / Blotched out beyond unblotching.” Strand's peculiar courage is to take up the quirky quest when “amours shrink / Into the compass and curriculum / Of introspective exiles, lecturing,” concerning which Stevens warned: “It is a theme for Hyacinth alone.” Throughout Darker, Strand's risk is enormous. He spares us the opaque vulgarity of “confessional” verse by daring to expose how immediate in him a more universal anguish rages:
The huge doll of my body refuses to rise. I am the toy of women. My mother
would prop me up for her friends. “Talk, talk,” she would beg. I moved my mouth but words did not come.
My wife took me down from the shelf. I lay in her arms. “We suffer the sickness of self,” she would whisper. And I lay there dumb.
Now my daughter gives me a plastic nurser filled with water. “You are my real baby,” she says.
Strand's unique achievement is to raise this mode to an aesthetic dignity that astonishes me, for I would not have believed, before reading him, that it could be made to touch upon a sublimity. Darker moves upon the heights in its final poems, “Not Dying” and the longer “The Way It Is,” the first work in which Strand ventures out from his eye's first circle, toward a larger art. “Not Dying” opens in narcist desperation, and reaches no resolution, but its passion for survival is prodigiously convincing. “I am driven by innocence,” the poet protests, even as like a Beckett creature he crawls from bed to chair and back again, until he finds the obduracy to proclaim a grotesque version of natural supernaturalism:
I shall not die. The grave result and token of birth, my body remembers and holds fast.
“The Way It Is” takes its tone from Stevens at his darkest (“The world is ugly / And the people are sad”) and quietly edges out a private phantasmagoria until this merges with the public phantasmagoria we all of us now inhabit. The consequence is a poem more surprising and profound than Lowell's justly celebrated “For the Union Dead,” a juxtaposition made unavoidable by Strand's audacity in appropriating the same visionary area:
I see myself in the park on horseback, surrounded by dark, leading the armies of peace. The iron legs of the horse do not bend.
I drop the reins. Where will the turmoil end? Fleets of taxis stall in the fog, passengers fall asleep. Gas pours
from a tri-colored stack. Locking their doors, people from offices huddle together, telling the same story over and over.
Everyone who has sold himself wants to buy himself back. Nothing is done. The night eats into their limbs like a blight.
Everything dims. The future is not what it used to be. The graves are ready. The dead shall inherit the dead.
Self-trained to a private universe of irreality, where he has learned the gnomic wisdom of the deep tautology, Strand peers out into the anxieties of the public world, to show again what can be shown, the shallow tautologies of a universal hysteria, as much a hysteria of protest as of societal repression. Wherever his poetry will go after Darker, we can be confident it goes as a perfected instrument, able to render an image not of any created thing whatsoever, but of every nightmare we live these days, separately or together.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1596
SOURCE: Howard, Richard. Review of The Story of Our Lives, by Mark Strand. Ohio Review 15, no. 3 (spring 1974): 104-07.
[In the following review, Howard praises the clarity of Strand's focus in his poetry and contends that The Story of Our Lives is Strand's best collection.]
His fourth and finest book—finest because the focus is so clear, the resonance of an already “placed” voice so unmixed and yet so unforced—begins with a sustained lament for the poet's father, for his father's life rather than for his death. Death is not to be mourned in Strand's thematics, of course, it is only to be identified:
to lose again and again is to have more and more to lose, and losing is having …
One more celebration of an empty place, this elegy is an emblematic trajectory, a six-poem acknowledgment of the necessity to put off knowledge, to deny, to refuse, to gainsay: “There were no secrets. There was nothing to say.” Strand insists, or broods, which is his brand of insistence, on the importance, for individual survival (“they cannot reach your dreams”), of rejecting that extremity of consciousness which process, which historical existence, cannot endure or transcend. Sometimes—later on in the book—he is wistful about such ecstatic apprehensions (“If only there were a perfect moment … if only we could live in that moment”), but he is quite certain that they are not available to him, that they are not within life, as indeed the sense of the word ecstasy makes evident they are not. So Strand divides to conquer, divides the self to conquer the self (“you are the neighbor of nothing”), for the price of experience, experience which Blake has told us cannot be bought for a song, is negation.
Which is why Strand writes his lament not in verse but in the very dialect of negation, in prose, the one linguistic medium out to eliminate itself, to use itself up in the irrecoverable rhythms of speech rather than in the angelic (or ecstatic) measures of repetition and return. No recurrence, no refrain here, but the horror of knowing too much, of suffering more than is to be borne: “I have carried it with me too long, I give it back,” Strand says to his father's “shadow”, that Blakean specter of the mortal body which is life without time, or death within eternity where “there is silence instead of a name”. For once we accept, once we put on the consciousness of others, Strand implies, we are lost. Such an assumption is a “rejoicing among ruins,” a “crystal among the tombs”; to say No to consciousness—
… to stand in a space is to forget time, to forget time is to forget death …
is the one way of evincing and yet evading the horror: negation is a mask which points to itself (as a mask), advancing. The prose sentences of “Elegy for My Father” are for life in their refusal to recuperate a rhythm, to reverse. They insist upon process, upon the rudiments of narrative (“The beginning is about to occur. The end is in sight”) which will get past those nodal points when it all becomes so saturated with Being that life has nowhere to go and so cannot go on. Strand's poem is a way of outdistancing the mind in its submission to consciousness—it is a discarding in order to pick up the blank card, the next … “that silence is the extra page.”
And yet the next group of poems in the book show that what I have called prose is not entirely that, for all the abjuration of repetition, of predictable (and therefore violable) interval which must constitute verse. “What are the blessings born of enclosure?” Strand asks, and proceeds to count them. He counts the way a child does, sliding beads across the abacus until the line is empty. Emptying, in fact, is the creative performance of these poems: “sorrow leads to achievement which leads to emptiness.” For it is only when you and the world are empty that you taste what Strand calls “the honey of absence.” Only when enclosure is voided does it become space—allow for event, possibility, the dynamics of annihilation:
this is the celebration, the only celebration: by giving yourself over to nothing you shall be healed.
The comparatively short poems grouped in the appropriately titled second part of the book “The Room” are a discovery, then, of a new prosody for Strand, for the poet who “could not choose / between sleep and wakefulness”, between ecstasy and process. Whereas most of us, poets or not, begin with the story of our lives and must find those ecstatic apices which afford it a value, a meaning; Strand begins with the ecstasy, the astonishment, the stupor, and seeks to empty it out, to put it behind him, to silence it in order that the story may occur—for him the story has not yet happened, or has already happened but has never been lived (“there was no more to our lives / than the story of our lives”). The only way for the poet who seeks an issue out of Being into Becoming is by negation. It is a perpetual nay-saying in the face of what is given, what is too much with us:
He would have preferred the lake without a story, or no story and no lake. His pursuit was a form of evasion: the more he tried to uncover the more there was to conceal …
The presented cacuminations of life—this woman, this room, this bed, this weather—are too full, too loud, too much there already:
The silence was in him and it rose like joy, like the beginning.
As is apparent from these quotations, Strand has discovered a scansion for his dilemma, a style for his despair: “He would follow / his words to learn where he was. / He would begin … and in the sound of his own voice beginning / he would hear” the words which would allow him to be forthcoming, rather than merely, ecstatically, here:
What he had written told him nothing. He put it away and began again.
What the book ends with, then, is that beginning: three long poems about utterance as enema, “The Story of Our Lives”, “Inside the Story” and—crucially—“The Untelling.” Evident in the titles alone is that concern with process, movement and trajectory which in even the most fragmentary lyric is felt to underly the impulse to speak at all; even the wildest cry has a cause, even the weirdest lament has an effect. The story begins in raw feeling, or cooked form (“the sun dragging the moon like an echo”), and it is what will save the speaker, it is the end of the beginning, “knowing that what I feel is often the crude / and unsuccessful form of a story / that may never be told.” How to tell the story if it rejoins, once spoken, what is merely there, suffocating in its presence, meaningless in its existence? Strand has found out: he must untell the story so that he does not accumulate his experience but rather, by words, so that he rids himself of experience, empties himself out of memory and foreboding, lays waste to the past and the future so that there is that space about him in which the story—the life, the poem—may occur.
There is a famous cartoon by Saul Steinberg in which a drawing hand draws a drawing hand which draws it. We have, as Gombrich has remarked about this little diagram, no clue as to which is meant to be the real and which the image; each interpretation is equally probable, but neither, as such, is consistent. The drawing illustrates the limit to the information that language can convey without introducing devices—they are, precisely, the devices of poetry—which differentiate between language and “metalanguage”. Strand's final poem in this book is such an achievement, for in it “he” is writing a poem which, as it is produced on the page, becomes the unacceptable production of the poet himself. By successive rejections Strand brings the poem round to its end, the story-as-Ourobouros, the serpent devouring its own tail, for the last lines are:
He went to the room that looked out on the lawn. He sat and begin to write: THE UNTELLING
which is of course the title of the poem, so that we do not know where to take “him,” here at his end which is his beginning, or at his beginning which it now appears is his end. Indeed we do not take him at all, we are taken by him: we are moved. By untelling the story, Strand has recovered, then, the old circular or cyclical wisdom of poetry, indeed of verse, which is always a turning, a returning. He has made the room in which he can move … around.
Such a commentary does no justice whatever to the great beauty of visualization in these poems—“The Untelling” is as vivid and unforgettable as a Bergman film, a Hopper landscape, with all the despairing notification those great names imply—but that is not what is new in Strand's book. What is new is his recovery of what might have seemed, to the merely finger-tapping critic, a lost art: the prosody of erasure. These astonishing poems remind us that originally the word verse and the word prose come from the same old Latin word, provertere, which in its prose past-participle means to have moved on, but which in its poetic infinitive means to roll around again.
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SOURCE: Miklitsch, Robert. “Beginnings and Endings: Mark Strand's ‘The Untelling.’” Literary Review 21, no. 3 (spring 1978): 357-73.
[In the following essay, Miklitsch maintains that the poems in the collection The Story of Our Lives are both highly original and important in terms of Strand's influence on future poets.]
Whatever we have words for, that we have already got beyond.
Mark Strand is an outstanding poet. He stands out because, falling as he does between that generation of major American poets alive today (Ammons, Ashbery, Howard, Kinnell, Merrill, Merwin, Rich, Wright) and the younger poets who are just now gaining public recognition (Gluck, Hass, and Simic, to name three), he is both a transitional figure and a representative one. He is representative in his poetic influences (Stevens, Roethke and Bishop) and his translation of Latin American poets like Alberti; yet his first four books set him apart from the previous generation by their “plain-style” manner and from the following generation by their unmistakable authority of voice.
Strand, then, is unique in the context of contemporary American poetry. More importantly, the gradual development of his work, both in style and scope, signifies a major talent. In this age of abundance, if not over-abundance, when many poets seem to publish anything and everything they put down on paper, Strand is publishing “books of poems,” not collections. Since a book is “something that's going to be around for a while, and it's something that other people have to live with,” he remarks in an interview, “it should represent the best that I can give them.”1 His work has borne out these claims. After the strong, but not extraordinary, first two books, Sleeping with One Eye Open (1964) and Reasons for Moving (1968), Darker (1970) emerged as one of the best volumes of short lyrics to appear in quite some time, since say, Merwin's The Moving Target or Wright's The Branch Will Not Break. More direct and less allegorical than the previous books, it appeared to be a turning point for Strand. What is evident now is that he was beginning for the first time to come into his own, to find the Strand style of which the Darker lyrics are such eloquent and consummate examples, the examples of a master.
Strand, though, was not content to crank out these “very short” poems, successful as they were. Instead, after the “three-stanza, twelve-line poems” of Darker came the longer, meditative verse of The Story of Our Lives (1973), the latest and best of his books. Surprisingly, the latter book was not well-received by critics, although there were notable exceptions such as Richard Howard (Ohio Review) and Laurence Lieberman (Poetry). And yet, it looks more and more, at least to me, as if The Story of Our Lives is not only one of the most original books of poetry to appear in years, but one of the most important, that is to say potentially influential ones as well. Out of all the pseudo-narrative and neo-surrealist poetry of the past few years, which Strand's work superficially resembles, only The Story of Our Lives is radical enough to make a significant contribution to a new American poetics, radical because radically simple in its use of syntax and metaphor, those two fundamental principles of American verse.
Thus, although the dominant images in The Story of Our Lives at first appear plain, they take on an almost symbolic character as they recur throughout the book so that whole poems become metaphors. Likewise, although the syntactical surface seems simple, the emotional and linguistic interplay is complex. For instance, there is Strand's use of syntax. Unlike Whitman, whose parallelism is primarily of the synonymous kind where the second sentence or line enforces the first by repeating the thought, Strand's parallelism is essentially synthetic or cumulative where the second sentence supplements and completes the first.2 That the structural norm is fundamentally synthetic and not synonymous is important insofar as Strand in The Story of Our Lives is concerned with narration. Thus, in the concluding poem of the book, “The Untelling,” the speaker remembers a moment from his childhood and then repeatedly attempts to narrate it. Since he is a poet, narration for him involves composition: to narrate means to write, to put down on paper. Hence, after an introductory strophe which sets the scene (the “frame story”), there follow four written versions of the remembered moment (the italicized strophes) each of which, in turn, is followed by a strophe of reflection, revision or amplification. “The Untelling,” then, as much of The Story of Our Lives is more narrative than lyric, more the “music of ideas” than the “rhythm of feeling.” Still, I do not want to dismiss the lyrical elements of “The Untelling,” nor of the book as a whole. For although there is not the subtle lyricism of the earlier work, work influenced by the elegant lines of Richard Wilbur, nonetheless The Story of Our Lives is highly musical verse. But it is the music, as Eliot said of his Beethoven-modelled Four Quartets, of poetry “with nothing poetic about it, poetry standing naked in its bones, or poetry so transparent that we should not see the poetry, but that which we are meant to see through the poetry.”3
Strand's real poetic debt, though, is to neither Whitman nor Eliot. The austerity of music and image, together with the mastery of tone, reminds one finally of the Stevens of “The Snowman,” although it is to another Stevens poem that I want to refer before I end this introduction. Near the end of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” Stevens muses:
This endlessly elaborating poem Displays the theory of poetry, As the life of poetry. A more severe, More harassing master would extemporize Subtler, more urgent proof that the theory Of poetry is the theory of life …
Strand, the Strand of The Story of Our Lives and especially “The Untelling,” is that “more severe, / More harassing master.”
The epigraph to Strand's “The Way It Is,” the last and longest poem of Darker, is from Stevens' “Gubbinal,” the Stevens of imaginative impoverishment: “The world is ugly / And the people are sad.” This is the dark master of “The Snowman” in a lesser guise, the imaginatively depressed seer of “Lunar Paraphrase,” “Loneliness in Jersey City” and “The Man on the Dump.” Unable to summon up the violence within to combat the violence without, the poet must confront a world that contests the transfiguring power of the imagination. It is just this point of poverty with which Strand begins The Story of Our Lives:
There was no reason to get up. Let the sun shine without him. He knew he was not needed, that his speech was a mirror, at best, that once he had imagined his words floating upwards, luminous and threatening, moving among the stars, becoming the stars, becoming in the end the equal of all the dead and the living. He had imagined this and did not care to again.
This is the nekyia moment of verse, when the descent leads to the cyclical turn, and re-turning, of the abyss, where the moon is still a prisoner of stone. It is the standpoint of the disenchanted solipsist—in the best sense, as Strand himself puts it, one “who believes in the absorbing emblem of the self.” It is the self both as source and starting point, mirror and void: “The mirror was nothing without you.” In the beginning, we remember, was nothing:
He leaned forward over the paper and for a long time he saw nothing.
Then, there was the Word, where the Word is Logos, the Deed. But Strand does not begin where Derrida begins, where the act of writing is itself the primal act (“la scène de l'écriture”).4 For Strand, the Word issues from Mnemosyne, the internalized mother of the Muses. The imaginative act, therefore, depends on the mechanism of remembrance of things past: the affective memory reveals the reality of the self.
To recapitulate: In the beginning was nothing. Then, ex nihilo, there was the Word, where the void is the self. As Strand says, “the true self may reside in the unremembered, unorganized, unthought-of”; it is a self “defined by absence, negatively reinforced.” The genesis of “The Untelling” produces the “frame story”:
He leaned forward over the paper and for a long time he saw nothing. Then, slowly, the lake opened like a white eye and he was a child playing with his cousins, and there was a lawn and a row of trees that went to the water. It was a warm afternoon in August and there was a party about to begin.
The lake here could have various meanings: (1) the source of life; (2) the source of the self, as in the unconscious; (3) the connection between the superficial and the profound; (4) a mirror (the surface), image of self-consciousness, contemplation and revelation; and so on. Likewise, the “white eye” elicits numerous associations. One thinks of the moon. Or the “divine eye” of the Egyptians (Wadza) which signifies Osiris—“He who feels the sacred fire of the intelligence of Man.” Or perhaps Rene Magritte's Le Faux Miroir, which hangs at the opposite end of the wall from de Chirico's The Double Dream of Spring in the Museum of Modern Art (New York). The point, though, is not to turn this poem into a subject of arcane symbology but to suggest the kinds of associations Strand achieves with his austere, but powerful, images.
To take one path out of these dark woods: the “white eye” of the lake symbolizes the self-reflexive act of the mind. This, in turn, becomes the creative act, an act whose goal is to produce the lunar opus. Thus, “He leaned forward over the paper / and he wrote”:
I waited with my cousins across the lake, watching the grown-ups walking on the far side along the bank shaded by elms. It was hot. The sky was clear. My cousins and I stood for hours among the heavy branches, watching our parents, and it seemed as if nothing would enter their lives to make them change, not even the man running across the lawn, waving a sheet of paper and shouting. They moved beyond the claims of weather, beyond whatever news there was, and did not see the dark begin to deepen in the trees and bushes, and rise in the folds of their own dresses and in the stiff white of their own shirts. Waves of laughter carried over the water where we, the children, were watching. It was a scene that was not ours. We were too far away, and soon we would leave.
The poet-speaker recollects a moment from his childhood, what appears to be a Wordsworthian “spot of time.” What immediately strikes one about the passage, though, is its plastic, as opposed to auditory, emphasis. In “Childhood and Concealing Memories,” Freud notes that “all our dreams are predominantly visual” and that our earliest childhood memories are also “of a visual character” since they “represent plastically depicted scenes, comparable only to vague stage settings.”5 The “frame story” and first “untelling,” then, are primarily imagistic, which is not to say they are merely the product of imagisme. Rather, the poem, like a dream or a childhood recollection, takes its form, becomes manifest, by means of pictures. In this sense, Strand is cinematic.
The near chromaticism and relentless reconstruction of a past, remembered or imagined, that occurs in Last Year at Marienbad, for instance, looks retrospectively as if it were composed by Strand, not Resnais. And yet, in the end, Strand is more painterly than cinematic. This is hardly surprising since he turned to writing poetry only after studying painting under Albers at Yale. Critics, of course, have repeatedly detected the influence of Magritte and other Surrealist painters in the earlier work. And although there is still a trace of the characteristic phantasmagoria of Delvaux or the startling collages of Ernst, the new work, especially “The Untelling,” is closer in tone and composition to the author of Melancholy and Mystery of a Street. Strand's passion for enigma, his use of elemental imagery (lake, woods, lawn) and syntax recall the metaphysica of mystery and anxiety, the simple yet obsessive vocabulary of de Chirico.
There is even a way in which the chaste, uncompromising images and grammatical forms of The Story of Our Lives acknowledge the nature of verse just as the restricted palette and faceted-rectilinear shapes of Analytical Cubism reinforced the pictorial principles of that art. In a picture like Picasso's Portrait of Daniel Henry Kahnweiler (1910), Cubism had moved right to the verge of abstraction, into its “hermetic” phase. In order to retain sculptural illusion, to keep the surface from completely collapsing into “deep space,” Braque and Picasso were forced to forego the demands of representation, the classical depiction of recognizable objects.6 Similarly, in The Story of Our Lives, the poetry verges on silence. The poet, because he knows it takes “no courage, no special / recklessness to discredit silence,” must resort to an exacting artifice, an artifice that must forego the pleasing image and well-turned phrase, in order to speak at all, to even begin.
To return to the poem, then: despite the dream-like clarity, the scenario is ambiguous. For this is no Wordsworthian moment recollected in tranquility; it is much too haunting and fantastic for that. Here, “this unintelligible world” is not lightened by a “serene and blessed mood” but rather, the “burden of the mystery” surrounds the poet so that it is impossible for him to see into “the life of things” (“Tintern Abbey”).
He leaned back. How could he know the scene was not his? The summer was with him, the voices had returned and he saw the faces. The day had started before the party; it had rained in the morning and suddenly cleared in time. The hems of the dresses were wet. The men's shoes glistened. There was a cloud shaped like a hand which kept lowering.
Freud, I think, is again relevant. What he says of dream-interpretation is true here for the poet-speaker: “The interpretation falls into two phases: the phase in which it is translated and the phase in which it is judged.”7 Similarly, the poet-speaker of “The Untelling” translates his childhood recollection (“I waited with my cousins …”) and then judges it (“How could he know …”). However, as his memory activates again (“The summer was with him …”), he realizes there is a discrepancy between what he has written and what actually happened, what is imagined and what remembered. Why, for instance, wasn't the “cloud shaped like a hand” in the first version?
The first-person narrative (“I”) has trapped the poet-speaker into the perceiving mind of a child. This, in turn, places limitations on the narration, unwittingly forcing the narrator to simplify his interpretation of the past. Without recourse at this point to a retrospective standpoint which would allow him greater distance and verisimilitude, he must attempt to gain greater control over his memory and imagination—that is, since memory and imagination are so subtly and inextricably fused (to differ with Coleridge's distinction between “fancy” and “Imagination”), the poet must be able to master both to be able to manage either. “If he could say it so that people believed him, so that he believed it, he could go on” (“To Begin”). Perhaps the “cloud shaped like a hand” foreshadows this control or perhaps, more sinisterly, it is a synecdoche for a deus ex machina. At any rate, the poet-speaker, disturbed and dissatisfied with his first “untelling,” puts aside what he has written and begins again:
We all went down to the lake, over the lawn, walking, not saying a word, All the way from the house, along the shade cast by the elms. And the sun bore down, lifting the dampness, allowing the lake to shine like a clear plate surrounded by mist. We sat and stared at the water …
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “untelling” as: (1) innumerable, countless; (2) untellable [not much help!] where “untellable” is defined as that which is “indescribable.” More to the point, the OED defines “tell” as: to mention or name in order, to recount; to narrate or relate; to make known by speech or writing; to utter words, to say over; to disclose or reveal (something secret or private). To “untell,” then, is to tell a tale, to tell one's tale, where the telling involves something that is unknown, and / or secret, and / or “untellable.” Thus, in the second re-telling or “untelling,” the scenario changes in order to record more faithfully the speaker's recollection of what happened, in order to lay bare a possibly terrible truth. The point of view shifts from “I” to “We”; the tropeless lake of the first version shines, in the second version, “like a clear plate surrounded / by mist”; the hand-shaped cloud becomes an imagined hand “brushing the fallen leaves from our faces.” But has the poet-speaker actually done more justice to what he wants to say? Is it possible to separate the imagined from the remembered?
He looked at what he had written. How far had he come? And why had it grown dark just then? And wasn't he alone when he watched the others lie down on the lawn?
In the second version or re-telling, the narrator reconstructs from memory the childhood scene in order to make temporal (“it was not autumn”) and spatial (“We all went down to the lake, over the lawn …”) clarifications of the first version. The more he tries to pinpoint what happened, however, the less sure he becomes about what he wants to say. Unable to understand the impossibility of his task, the inevitable failure of all mimetic art, the poet-speaker despairs of his project, of writing a poem that will allow him “to move beyond the book, beyond [his] life into another life” (“The Story of Our Lives”). As long as he strives to make his art mirror the reality of the past, he will remain subject to the oppressive demands of the past:
He stared out the window, hoping the people at the lake, the lake itself, would fade. He wanted to move beyond his past.
This is the poet weary of the visionary burden; it is the poet as alchemist, weary of the knowledge that everything he touches he must turn to gold, into the poem philosphorum. For the person who must revise his past (re-vision) but is unable, the prospect of life is unbearable. The imagination, instead of transforming the dark anxiety of childhood—
A bleak crown rested uneasily on his head. He was the brief ruler of inner and outer discord, anxious in his own kingdom.
—merely mirrors the circular ruins of a fallen world, a world of endless repetition from which there is no respite. In this sense, “The Untelling” can be seen as a quest romance where the quester (narrator) cannot achieve his purpose directly but must postpone it for an indefinite series of intermediate actions (italicized versions) which constitute the life of the quest (the poem itself).8 The Child is the Father of the Man; the failed quester becomes the enslaved old man.
Like the first version, then, the second one, although it does provide some modicum of distance, does not reveal to the narrator what he wants to know, what it is he wants to say (“What he had written told him nothing”)—there is still a discrepancy between the remembered and the imagined. In “Screen Memories,” Freud speculates whether we possess any memories at all from childhood or only memories relating to childhood.9 The present, for Freud, distorts the past; psychic forces from a later period displace memories of our infantile experience. Thus, revelation becomes amplification; “untelling” becomes re-telling:
I waited under the trees in front of the house, thinking of nothing, watching the sunlight wash over the roof. I heard nothing, felt nothing, even when she appeared in a long yellow dress, pointed white shoes, her hair drawn back in a tight bun; even when she took my hand and led me along the row of tall trees toward the lake where the rest had gathered …
In this the third re-telling, the reversal to the singular (“I”) rather than plural (“We”) first person narrative, discloses “the woman in the yellow dress”; the remembered act begins to merge with the imagined, where the imagined is the desired. But who is this woman? Is she sister, temptress, mother? Or a composite dream-figure, like Dante's Beatrice? What we do know is that she is a figure of revelation, a kind of anima-archetype, who initiates the child into the mysteries of life which are, of course, Eros and Thanatos.
Yeats, in his Autobiography, remarks that the great event of a boy's life is the awakening to sex. And yet, the sexual mysteries which the child encounters via the woman are not those of Freud's “primal scene”; or, if they are, it is an earlier scene where sexuality is so undifferentiated as to be confused with death:
And the woman and the others slowly began to take off their clothes, and the mild rushes of wind rinsed their skin, their pale bodies shone briefly among the shadows until they lay on the damp grass.
Thus, the imagination in its moment of transformation appears in its negative rather than positive guise—“the full moon / had risen and dropped its white ashes on the lake”—and, consequently, there is an ambiguous mixture of erotic and death imagery: “As far as we know, / they are still there, their arms crossed over their chests, / their stiff clothing creased.”
The return to the singular first-person narrative, then, does not resolve the situation: the narrator has told too much, distorting the event just as he did the first time when he left too much out:
It bothered him, as if too much had been said. He would have preferred the lake without a story, or no story and no lake. His pursuit was a form of evasion: the more he tried to uncover the more there was to conceal the less he understood.
The poet-speaker is still unable to find a balance between the remembered and the imagined, between what he knows and what he wants to say (“He wanted to know and not to know”). This continued discrepancy creates, in turn, an “uncanny” effect where the uncanny (Unheimlich), according to Freud, “is in reality nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old-established in the mind which has been estranged by repression.”10 It is that anxiety which recurs, that something “which ought to have been concealed but what has nevertheless come to light (Schelling).”11 In “The Untelling,” the narrator continuously returns to, compulsively repeats, the childhood scene until his “involuntary repetition surrounds with an uncanny atmosphere what would otherwise be innocent enough, and forces upon us the idea of something fateful and inescapable.”12
Strand manages the effect of “involuntary repetition” through his use of parallel, or repetitive, syntax and themes; as Freud notes, “whatever reminds us of the inner repetition compulsion is perceived as uncanny.”13 Hence, the narrator's inability or unwillingness to confront what has happened (“His pursuit was a form of evasion”) corresponds to the reader's inability to determine whether the “story” is real or imagined, oblique history or mere fantasy. This dialectic, of course, is Strand's stroke of genius—what we experience as uncanny on one level, on another level we experience as obsession, the speaker's need to “untell,” to bring to light what is concealed in the darkness of his childhood. To find a standpoint which will allow him access to the world of his childhood and which, at the same time, will allow him to remain true to his present situation—a man writing a poem—this is the speaker's task:
He put his hand on the paper. He would write a letter for the man running across the lawn. He would say what he knew.
Self-recognition at this point merges with vision; the partial metamorphosis of the speaker—“he would be the man he had become”—enables him to observe the event from outside the story as well as within. With the crucial realization that he must integrate his adult persona with that of his childhood one, the narrator begins again, for the fourth and final time:
I sat in the house that looked down on the lake, the lawn, the woods beside the lawn. I heard the children near the shore, their voices lifting where no memory of the place would reach. I watched the women, the men in white, strolling in the August heat. I shut the window and saw them in the quiet glass …
Topography exhibits ontology. The speaker-within-the-story has now moved from “across the lake” to in front of the lake to “under the trees in front of the house” to, finally, within the house itself. The child has become a man; the outer journey reflects the inner one. The metamorphosis is complete, the lost self of childhood is at last integrated with that of the present self in the process of writing—“It may have been my own face looking back”—and the narrator finally has the necessary distance between himself and the poem. This incorporation of viewpoints (child, young man) enables the speaker to describe the situation in its fullness: “I was where I was, where I would be, and where I am.” And yet, this comprehensive standpoint also forces him to recognize the cyclical nature of time, what Nietzsche has called “the Eternal Return of the Same.” Illumination leads, at least momentarily, to darkness; the “white eye of the lake” turns blue, then black.
It was too late for them to call the children … I wanted to tell them something. I saw myself running, waving a sheet of paper, shouting, telling them all that I had something to give them, but when I got there, they were gone.
There is no word which can reverse time, which can save the children from themselves. “The freeing of the individual, as he grows up, from the authority of his parents,” Freud observes in “Family Romances,” “is one of the most painful results brought about by his development.”14 But the tale is told neither to tell time, nor to alleviate pain (“And pain could not give it / the meaning it lacked; / there was no pain, only disappearance”). Rather, it is the act of telling itself, the lost self cast into the form of the imagined self, into the world of the poem, that is meaning. There is no transcendant justification, “yet he would pass it on”; no Word, but words.
Exhausted, the poet-speaker falls into a dreamless sleep; when he wakes, it is as if “nothing had happened.” His mind like a tabula rasa, the sleep has somehow cleansed him of his imaginative struggles. Now the vision, the poem, comes to him without mediation, “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (Keats' negative capability). Content with mysteries, uncertainties, doubts, the poem tells itself:
The lake opened like a white eye, the elms rose over the lawn, the sun over the elms. It was as he remembered it— the mist, the dark, the heat, the woods on the other side. He sat for a long time and saw that they had come and were on the lawn. They were waiting for him, staring up at the window.
In my end is my beginning. The reality of childhood becomes the world of the imagination; the remembered act, the imagined. Knowing that he will run from the house down to the lake, knowing that he will be late, that the children will be gone when he gets there, the poet-speaker no longer is uncertain of his project. Hence, the Word returns to the abyss out of which it came; the childhood world, visible for a moment, recedes into the depths of the psyche. As the via activa turns into the via contemplativa, silence reigns:
He felt the world recede into the clouds, into the shelves of air. He closed his eyes. He thought of the lake, the closets of weeds. He thought of the moth asleep in the dust of its wings, of the bat hanging in the caves of trees. He felt at that moment to be more than his need to survive, more than his losses, because he was less than anything. He swayed back and forth. The silence was in him and it rose like joy, like the beginning.
In my beginning is my end. Curled within the darkness of his being, the speaker knows that moment when the void becomes in Eliot's phrase the “heart of light,” when the self, emptied of all images and emotions, experiences the world which precedes memory and perception. Nietzsche called this ultimate affirmation amor fati, the Dionysian happiness which is possible for those who can accept the eternal recurrence of all things, who can themselves become “the eternal joy of becoming.” Out of this joy “beyond the lawn, beyond the lake, / beyond the waiting dark, the end of summer, / the end of autumn … the silence,” the poet speaks:
When he opened his eyes the silence had spread, the sheets of darkness seemed endless, the sheets he held in his hand. He turned and walked to the house. He went to the room that looked out on the lawn. He sat and began to write:
To the Woman in the Yellow Dress
The serpent has eaten its tail; the circle is unbroken. “Everything dies, everything blooms; eternally runs the year of its being,” saith the animals to Zarathustra. But for the one who does not negate any more, who has faith that all is redeemed in the end, there is the joy of constantly beginning anew. “Woe implores: Go!” chants Zarathustra, “But all joy wants eternity, wants deep, wants deep eternity.”
This quotation and the following ones by Strand are from “A Conversation with Mark Strand,” American Poetry Since 1960, ed. Robert Shaw (Great Britain, 1973), pp. 193-207.
I am indebted to Gay Wilson Allen for these terms. See “Walt Whitman,” American Prosody (New York, 1934), pp. 217-243.
Quoted by Harvey Gross, Sound and Form in Modern Poetry: A Study of Prosody from Thomas Hardy to Robert Lowell (Ann Arbor, 1964), p. 204 and the note, p. 323.
See Jacques Derrida's L'Écriture et la différence (Paris, 1967).
“Childhood and Concealing Memories,” The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, trans. A. A. Brill (New York, 1962), p. 65.
My understanding of Cubism and the illusion/representation argument comes from Clement Greenberg (“Collage,” Art and Culture) via Michael Fried.
“Childhood and Concealing Memories,” The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, p. 61.
I owe this definition of “quest romance” to Geoffrey H. Hartman. See “The Fate of Reading,” The Fate of Reading (Chicago, 1975), p. 254.
“Screen Memories,” The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey (London, 1964), III, 332.
“The Uncanny,” The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, XVII, 241.
Ibid., p. 237.
Ibid., p. 238.
Ibid., p. 237.
“Family Romances,” The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, IX, 237.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7242
SOURCE: Gregerson, Linda. “Negative Capability.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 9, no. 2 (fall/winter 1981): 90-114.
[In the following essay, Gregerson contends that in Strand's later work the focus of his poetry shifts from renunciation to restoration.]
“… it seems to me that we should rather be the flower than the bee. …”
John Keats to J. H. Reynolds, February 19, 1818
When Mark Strand reinvented the poem, he began by leaving out the world. The self he invented to star in the poems went on with the work of divestment: it jettisoned place, it jettisoned fellows, it jettisoned all distinguishing physical marks, save beauty alone. It was never impeded by personality. Nor was this radical renunciation to be confused with modesty, or asceticism. The self had designs on a readership, and a consummate gift for the musical phrase:
I give up my eyes which are glass eggs. I give up my tongue. I give up my mouth which is the constant dream of my tongue. I give up my throat which is the sleeve of my voice. I give up my heart which is a burning apple. I give up my lungs which are trees that have never seen the moon. I give up my smell which is that of a stone traveling through rain. I give up my hands which are ten wishes. I give up my arms which have wanted to leave me anyway. I give up my legs which are lovers only at night. I give up my buttocks which are the moons of childhood. I give up my penis which whispers encouragement to my thighs. I give up my clothes which are walls that blow in the wind and I give up the ghost that lives in them. I give up. I give up. And you will have none of it because already I am beginning again without anything.
(“Giving Myself Up”)
The poet's career has thrived on the honey of absence and, mid-career, Mark Strand has come forth with Selected Poems. The overview is both impressive and timely. Beneath a changing prosody, the central poetic strategies exhibit remarkable coherence. On the stage it had cleared, the self divided itself for dialogue: the I became an I and a you, an I and a mailman, an I and an engineer; the face appeared on both sides of a mirror, both sides of a picture window, both sides of the printed page. In 1978, with the simultaneous publication of The Late Hour and The Monument, the divided persona became a divided corpus. The Monument, a prose collage, is the logical extension of all that went before it: here the poet divests himself of even his poems. In The Late Hour, conversely, and surely as a consequence, the banished populations begin to reassemble: place names, personal names, the items of use and the trappings of memory resume some luster of their own. The habitual and strategic renunciation that characterized the earlier poems has been siphoned off into an extra-poetic territory. The new poems, those in the last third of The Late Hour and those that complete the present volume, have thus been freed for the work of restoration.
In the Selected Poems, the first polished surface held forth for regard is a series of ingenious couplets, the title poem of Strand's first book:
Unmoved by what the wind does, The windows Are not rattled, nor do the various Areas Of the house make their usual racket— Creak at The joints, trusses and studs.
(“Sleeping with One Eye Open”)
This urbane series of feminine rhymes and triple rhymes and slant rhymes culminates in no less than a version of analyzed rhyme; the echo must multiply to complete its variations, and the couplet expands to become a final triplet:
And I lie sleeping with one eye open, Hoping That nothing, nothing will happen.
Open, hoping, nothing, happen: the rhyme sequence constitutes, among other things, a witty portrait of paranoia, wherein the most feared eventuality is most devoutly invoked. The passive verbs or verbals (unmoved, rattled) activate an echo of another sort. These words are the commonplaces of psychological portraiture; context and tone suggest that we construe them as such. But their grammatical subjects (windows, areas) argue for a purely material interpretation. Thus two semantic frameworks are poised in sympathy and competition. Irony is hardly an adequate term for tactics of the sort this poem deploys.
There are antecedents. Prosody, at least, has been refined to this particular double edge before, and Strand undoubtedly studied something of tone from Donald Justice, whose perfect elegance is always perfectly double. Justice has polished a surface in order to aggravate the discrepancies between manner and tone, has cultivated, in other words, the inherent ambiguity of perfect manners. His powers of inflection are subtle in the extreme, and nowhere so subtle as when he merges the cunning and the disingenuous, as when, for example, he would have us encounter death in an end-stopped couplet. A chasm opens beneath the studied naiveté in Justice's evocation of a grandmother's funeral:
I remember the soprano Fanning herself at the piano,
And the preacher looming large Above me in his dark blue serge.
My shoes brought in a smell of clay To mingle with the faint sachet
Of flowers sweating in their vases. A stranger showed us to our places.
This poem is in fact a late one. Though Justice is the senior practitioner and was for a year Strand's teacher, it rather behooves us to discuss affinity between the two than to track down primogeniture. Strand quickly cleared ground of his own, and made the reciprocities of influence one of his primary themes. In later volumes, Justice and Strand entertain a sporadic dialogue in which homage is sometimes difficult to distinguish from exorcism, a dialogue subtle as journeymen who have learned one another's lessons well.
For a brief time, Strand's prosody assumed more flamboyance than Justice's ever has, but the virtuosity was quickly toned down and channeled in other directions. The surface complexities of Strand's first book afford considerable delight, though rhyme and meter and wordplay occasionally leave plain sense and syntax to fend somewhat for themselves. At times, humble connotation puts up a thin resistance to flashier denotation. Now and again, the poems exhibit imperfect tact, as any young poet who speaks too knowingly of “Old People on the Nursing Home Porch” is likely to exhibit imperfect tact. But the poet's informing preoccupations are already full-blown. When, in the same first volume, his poems emerge with the simpler surface we think of as characteristic, dislocation is still a central mode. The world and the self appear to exist ever more at each other's expense:
In a field I am the absence of field. This is always the case. 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.
We all have reasons for moving. I move to keep things whole.
(“Keeping Things Whole”)
This factoring of self and the world is manifestly a strategic withdrawal: it rather signals a consolidation of power than any sort of abdication. The I is now a catalyst for all the I is not.
Already in his first book, Strand began to employ the narrative or quasi-narrative formulas and the doubles that appear in so much of his subsequent work. I quote in full:
A man has been standing in front of my house for days. I peek at him from the living room window and at night, unable to sleep, I shine my flashlight down on the lawn. He is always there.
After a while I open the front door just a crack and order him out of my yard. He narrows his eyes and moans. I slam the door and dash back to the kitchen, then up to the bedroom, then down.
I weep like a schoolgirl and make obscene gestures through the window. I write large suicide notes and place them so he can read them easily. I destroy the living room furniture to prove I own nothing of value.
When he seems unmoved I decide to dig a tunnel to a neighboring yard. I seal the basement off from the upstairs with a brick wall. I dig hard and in no time the tunnel is done. Leaving my pick and shovel below,
I come out in front of a house and stand there too tired to move or even speak, hoping someone will help me. I feel I'm being watched and sometimes I hear a man's voice, but nothing is done and I have been waiting for days.
End-rhyme, much muted, now hints at subterranean affinities. With the advertised suicide threat, Strand takes a shot at the confessional poets, whose methods he has always shunned, even inverted, but whose spectacle he has carefully studied. The use of obscenity as enticement requires no comment. The use of flight as a lure is as old as romance: Ariosto's Angelica and Spenser's Florimell had only to flee across the plain to engage all the knights for miles around in pursuit. Suspended flight may be more potent yet: it's the erotic lesson of a Grecian Urn, the perpetuation of desire by deferral.
Absence is power, and change, by a similar sleight, may clinch a static hold. “The Man in the Mirror,” a somewhat later poem, plays absence in numerous keys. The poem is too long to quote in any substance, but its broadest moves are the departure and qualified reappearance of Narcissus in the glass. Both moves, the disappearance and the return, aggravate the bondage of his lover, because the image restored is manifestly decomposing, forecasting yet another and final departure:
You stood before me, dreamlike and obscene, your face lost under layers of heavy skin,
your body sunk in a green and wrinkled sea of clothing.
Mortality makes even reflection faithless. The face loves death more than it loves its former self. It's change, quite crudely, that enters the mirror and narrows the lovers' alliance to some parody of the immutable.
It will always be this way. I stand here scared that you will disappear, scared that you will stay.
End-rhyme, we note, continues to serve. Here it seals the stanza with a stroke like fate. Dreams of the double may always harbor a death wish of sorts, but they also harbor its opposite, the infatuating possibility of extending one's influence infinitely. Wherever I am, I am what is missing. I am, as Strand and Justice both have put it in separate poems, a horizon. The poet continues to mediate everything he has relinquished.
Strand's quasi-narratives suggest narrative sources: Borges, Kafka, and the parabolic or paradoxical structures they canonize. Strand's formats are based on many of the same commonplaces these other writers employ: the symbiosis of complementary characters, the transposition of matter and context, of dreamer and dreamed, of writer and written. His later verse fictions embrace with increasing frequency the postures and devices familiar from Beckett: narrative or dramatic interminability, the story that insists on its own telling and invents the one who tells it, the durability of voice amidst the longing for extinction, “the pain of revival and the bliss of decline.” These phrases “From a Litany” appear in Darker, Strand's third book. In The Story of Our Lives, the echoes are more sustained:
You want to wave but cannot raise your hand. You sit in a chair. You turn to the nightshade spreading a poisonous net around the house. You taste the honey of absence. It is the same wherever you are, the same if the voice rots before the body, or the body rots before the voice.
Strand borrows poetic shapeliness, then, from nonpoetic sources. He builds with three elementary figures: the circle that perpetuates motion; the Escher-like pattern that reverses foreground and background; and the asymptotic convergence of a line and a curve, Zeno's paradox maintaining decline and waylaying closure. The figures inevitably overlap.
The importance of Strand's narrative and dramatic models is structural, not thematic. This merits some insistence. When his critics use strategic affinities to account for affect and motive, when they intone not only Borges, Kafka, Beckett, but also anguish, despair—and they do—analogy has gone awry. It's not the sheer presence of wit that marks a different project, although the tenor and pervasiveness of Strand's wit provides a valuable antidote to solemn exegesis. But Borges and Beckett are witty too, and Kafka is some oracular equivalent; Beckett's more witty the closer he gets to the grave. No. It's Strand's pacing, his relative lassitude, that's the giveaway. The pallor behind Strand's narrative, the phlegm behind his very wit betray an occupation distinct from those of Beckett and Borges especially. Though he uses the formal vocabulary of a metaphysician, Strand's subject is not the problem of perception. Not Berkeley's subject. Not Descartes's. Neither the anguish of consciousness nor its rewards. His methods are those of a sensualist; his subject, the disposition and deployment of power: erotics, politics, and especially the erotics and politics of passivity. Ultimate power resides with one who is only acted upon, who only provokes. The poems are poems of seduction:
A train runs over me. I feel sorry for the engineer who crouches down and whispers in my ear that he is innocent.
He wipes my forehead, blows the ashes from my lips. My blood steams in the evening air, clouding his glasses.
He whispers in my ear the details of his life— he has a wife and child he loves, he's always been an engineer.
And after an effort at separation:
He rushes from the house, lifts the wreckage of my body in his arms and brings me back. I lie in bed.
He puts his head down next to mine and tells me that I'll be all right. A pale light shines in his eyes.
Luminous morbidity has had no comparable heyday since Lizzie Siddal first graced the pre-Raphaelite canvases. This is the exquisite transparence of Millais' Ophelia, languid unto death.
Certain versions of the accidental are chronically banished from Strand's poems: the accidental increments of material and social life, the detritus of fashion and wage labor and domestic arrangement, the shape of a chin, the lumps in the couch. But the syntax of accident chronically appears. Another way of putting this is to say that Strand suppresses the subjects of accident, the people and things that accident produces and leaves in its wake, in order to highlight the predicates of accident, the process itself. It is the shape of experience, not its contents, that interests him. In the system of his poems, events are wholly contingent or wholly fated, rather than caused or desired on a human scale. What happens happens for no reason or for the one reason (God, necessity, abstract pattern, the poet's whim), rather than for the intermediate reasons, the individual notations of human purpose. This is why the poems can be as shapely as they are, uncluttered by the merely anecdotal. In “The Accident,” the speaker's imperturbability gives us our first clue that the anecdotal versions of cause and effect have been suspended, that the casual has supplanted the purposive. Even seduction works through the speaker, rather than at his explicit command. “The Accident” unearths the casual in casualty, the causal in both. Calamity provokes desire, enfeeblement arouses, contingency displaces will. Causality becomes diffuse or atmospheric. Compare these lines from “The Ghost Ship”:
Through the crowded street It floats,
Its vague Tonnage like wind.
Slowly, Now by an ox,
Now by a windmill, It moves.
Because both ox and windmill are potential sources of momentum, the sentence is almost drawn to “it is moved” instead of “it moves.” But the poem does not require the passive voice to preserve the ship's passive locomotion. The power to move is the power of contagion. Thus we say that a thought or a lover can infect the will.
In “The Kite,” the longed-for catatonia exerts an influence equally pervasive:
It rises over the lake, the farms, The edge of the woods, And like a body without arms Or legs it swings Blind and blackening in the moonless air.
With no limbs to work its will, the kite proceeds by insinuation, blind and blackening. The three long stanzas of this poem are haunted by recurring elements: lake, farms, woods, rain, curtain, wings, wind. In each stanza, their relative pressures are differently disposed. Causality passes through altered configurations. The elusive notion of origin goes underground, like Hamlet's ghost.
In the first stanza, the kite appears to have some hold on the weather. As it rises,
The wren, the vireo, the thrush Make way. The rush And flutter of wings Fall through the dark Like a mild rain.
An almost invisible Curtain of rain seems to come nearer. The muffled crack and drum Of distant thunder Blunders against our ears.
Of the line that runs from the kite to the weather, we know only that aural links and analogies predominate. The rain is never quite rain: it's a figure for sound, it's an immanent presence announced by sound.
In stanza two, the kite string is held by a man who seems to precipitate whole seasons:
The wind cries in his lapels. Leaves fall As he moves by them.
In the final stanza, the elements of landscape resolve into the features of a parlor. Outside the rain fell like a curtain, and here
Inside the room The curtains fall like rain.
The poem is a hothouse where images bloom and cross-fertilize. The remnants of end-rhyme now intimate some hidden course of generation:
Darkness covers the flower-papered walls, The furniture and floors, Like a mild stain. The mirrors are emptied, the doors Quietly closed. The man, asleep In the heavy arms of a chair, Does not see us Out in the freezing air Of the dream he is having.
The kite rises, still a conductor, and the man begins to wake. The kite may equal the dream or not; it certainly mediates the dream's authority. And because parataxis is the mother tongue of dreams, equivalence and consequence are free to dissolve and reformulate. The panels of this poem are angled for resonance, not for reflection. Strand's is not a lapidary art. He relies not on taut juxtaposition but on the bland parataxis that loosens the will at its hinges. His methods mature with a chronic humor, their own slight fever. As the poet moves further away from his earliest poems, the tension between line break and phrasing softens, enjambment nearly disappears. The simplest of syntactical patterns simply repeat; the eddies and stills of imagery even out. The poems encounter less and less resistance as they move down the page, until their progress becomes as frictionless as that of a kite or a ghost ship:
We are reading the story of our lives which takes place in a room. The room looks out on a street. There is no one there, no sound of anything.
(“The Story of Our Lives”)
“The Story of Our Lives” and “The Untelling,” centerpieces of Strand's fourth major collection, pursue the formal discoveries made in “The Kite.” Each poem contains a story which contains a poem which steadily dismantles containment. As “The Story of Our Lives” proceeds, a man and a woman, side by side, consult the course of love in a book. Though love unfolds and doubles back, no point of origin or terminus appears, no point, that is, beyond which the mind might firmly declare itself to be outside the story:
The book never discusses the causes of love. It claims confusion is a necessary good. It never explains. It only reveals.
In this way the book preserves the reasons for moving:
It describes your dependence on desire, how the momentary disclosures of purpose make you afraid.
Books have promulgated desire before. When Paolo and Francesca, side by side, read the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, adulterous love renewed its kingdom: “A Gallehault was the book and he who wrote it; that day we read no farther in it” (Inferno V, 137-138). Gallehault served as a go-between for Lancelot and Guinevere. Boccaccio subtitled The Decameron “Prince Gallehault” and dedicated his book to oziose donne, idle ladies. The pattern for seduction is perfectly explicit, and perfectly vicarious. Strand's own poems mediate a vast inherited culture by appearing to build in a clearing. Their faithlessness is part of their pedigree, as faithlessness is the cement of love. Paolo and Francesca owed their fealty and their desire to Gianciotto, Lancelot and Guinevere to Arthur. The man and the woman on the couch must interpolate a breach of faith in order to perfect desire:
I lean back and watch you read about the man across the street. .....You fell in love with him because you knew that he would never visit you, would never know you were waiting. Night after night you would say that he was like me.
Idle ladies are most apt to wander, so go-betweens play upon idleness. This explains why Strand's erotics should pass through languor to boredom at times. The man and the woman repeatedly fall asleep. The reader, left to stare at plainer and plainer walls, allows his thoughts to wander to Dante, Boccaccio, Borges, as the woman's thoughts wander to the man across the street. In the reader, Strand sows the seeds of the faithlessness that completes his hold. Mediation expands its inventory at every opportunity. Like a Greek messenger, the mailman in an early poem assumes the onus for news he bears:
He falls to his knees. “Forgive me! Forgive me!” he pleads.
I ask him inside. He wipes his eyes. His dark blue suit is like an inkstain on my crimson couch.
In “The Story of Our Lives,”
… the rugs become darker each time our shadows pass over them.
In calamity and in burlesque, in even its modest moments, the book's ambition is limitless: to own what passes through it, to be the portal the past must enter on its way to the future.
They sat beside each other on the couch. They were the copies, the tired phantoms of something they had been before. The attitudes they took were jaded. They stared into the book and were horrified by their innocence, their reluctance to give up. They sat beside each other on the couch. They were determined to accept the truth. Whatever it was they would accept it. The book would have to be written and would have to be read. They are the book and they are nothing else.
The book engineers its own supersession. In “The Untelling,” the story of the past is handed from a third-person frame to a first-person frame and back again, four full cycles in all. Each narrator figures as a character in the story his counterpart tells. The two are alternate versions of one another, separated in time, and each produces the other, as the child is father to the man. The points of view draw nearer in time and place as the poem proceeds: a man writes a poem in a room overlooking a lake; the child in the poem himself observes a scene from the opposite side of the lake; each revision begins somewhat earlier in the story, somewhat closer to the house, and finally in the room itself. The setting is vaguely Chekhovian, bucolic, elegiac; there's even the sound of a breaking string:
He would never catch up with his past. His life was slowing down. It was going. He could feel it, could hear it in his speech. It sounded like nothing, yet he would pass it on. And his children would live in it and they would pass it on, and it would always sound like hope dying, like space opening, like a lawn, or a lake, or an afternoon.
The period in which the past occurs presumably approximates that of the poet's childhood, but the women wear dresses whose hems are made wet by the dew. Hemlines haven't touched the ground as a matter of course since a family longed to stop time in a cherry orchard:
I waited under the trees in front of the house, thinking of nothing, watching the sunlight wash over the roof. I heard nothing, felt nothing, even when she appeared in a long yellow dress, pointed white shoes, her hair drawn back in a tight bun; even when she took my hand and led me along the row of tall trees toward the lake where the rest had gathered. … .....It seemed as if the wind drew the dark from the trees onto the grass. The adults stood together. They would never leave that shore. I watched the one in the yellow dress whose name I had begun to forget and who waited with the others and who stared at where I was but could not see me. Already the full moon had risen and dropped its white ashes on the lake. And the woman and the others slowly began to take off their clothes, and the mild rushes of wind rinsed their skin, their pale bodies shone briefly among the shadows until they lay on the damp grass. And the children had all gone. And that was all. And even then I felt nothing. I knew that I would never see the woman in the yellow dress again, and that the scene by the lake would not be repeated, and that that summer would be a place too distant for me to find myself in again.
Her dress takes its color from the sunlight he watches before she appears, or gives the sunlight its place in his mind because she is about to appear. She guides him to the lake like a mother and leaves him like first love; he summons her to the place he holds for both. And even as he knew that he would never see her in yellow again, he sees her so in memory and in this poem. The forfeits of will and the footholds of longing are deeply equivocal:
His pursuit was a form of evasion: the more he tried to uncover the more there was to conceal the less he understood. If he kept it up, he would lose everything.
According to the paradox of aging and generation, everything must be given up if everything is to be gained; growing up is rather like getting into heaven in that regard. That regard only, presumably. The adult blossoms on the corpse of the child he was. The child he makes, in imagination or in the flesh, his consolation for mortality, is also the agent of usurpation. In the end, he furthers his will not by testimony but by testament, by divestment, and thus the final lines of this poem:
He sat and began to write:
To the Woman in the Yellow Dress
The dedication bequeaths the story to another, places it squarely in the hands of one who cannot but appear, and in her yellow dress at that. She as she was, she as she was to him. As Wills go, this one is quite a coup. In the courtship the poem enacts, the woman has played the role throughout of mediating third, the go-between for man and child. As long as man and child had to share the burden of narration, each could approach the other only by surrendering his own reality. The woman in the yellow dress is the agent in whom their stories overlap. By taking the story over, a matter she cannot refuse since her page is white, her part in the story is silence, she allows them to coexist at last in harmony, to assume their place in the fixed constellations.
The strategics of will and testament reveal absence in its other aspect, as a hedge against mortality. Poem after poem in Strand's corpus makes this clear: when absence cracks, mortality gets a foothold. This is the other side of “The Man in the Mirror.” This is why, “When the Vacation Is Over for Good,” we find we are dying. This is why “The Guardian” is invoked as he is: “Preserve my absence. I am alive.” Divestment and renunciation are forms of pre-emptive suicide:
I empty myself of the names of others. I empty my pockets. I empty my shoes and leave them beside the road. At night I turn back the clocks; I open the family album and look at myself as a boy.
What good does it do? The hours have done their job. I say my own name. I say goodbye. The words follow each other downwind. I love my wife but send her away.
My parents rise out of their thrones into the milky rooms of clouds. How can I sing? Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same. I empty myself of my life and my life remains.
Strand plays with the formulas of masochism and self-immolation, but the erotic and funerary aspects of divestment always come down to this: a solemn striptease and a wonderfully irreverent act of monument-building. The concurrence of these occupations incidentally clarifies the equivocal status of discards and the vicarious role of a readership. “I give up my tongue,” says Strand on the page. “I have omitted to mention my wife or daughter.” And by such ruses, he doesn't, he hasn't. Everything named is preserved. Everything abandoned to language is there to be taken up in another life, like the mummified food and playthings in a pharoah's tomb. The reader is consigned to prurience. He watches the self enticing the self to love; he overhears, he oversees, and by such moves is taken on as permanent overseer, the custodian in whose care the monument resides.
The Monument itself absents itself from the Selected Poems. Its prose, however, is always and explicitly the prose of a poet, who comes to its pages empty-handed. As “The Untelling” was dedicated to the woman in the yellow dress, this volume is dedicated with sublime humor and manifest coerciveness “To the Translator of The Monument in the future.” The honor conferred does not come free. (Strand has dedicated other poems to his most illustrious critics and to the illustrious editor through whom his finished poems pass first. The board of executors.) Again and again the supposed translator is reduced to the most abject dependence, his every insubordination second-guessed, his very speeches of protest written for him. “I live in you,” The Monument says.
Epigraphs play a prominent role in the book. Passages from Thomas Browne, Unamuno, Nietzsche, Wordsworth, Borges, and Suetonius, to name but a few, are yoked into a single discourse. (We should write, says Petrarch, as the bees make sweetness, turning the various flowers into a single honey.) The poet claims the inherited past as his to bequeath and, by the way, rehearses the origins of epigraphic verse in wayside interments and epitaphs. Siste viator, The Monument reads. Stay, traveller. In Coleridge's epitaph, it's “Stop, Christian passer-by!”; on the seat in Wordsworth's yew-tree, “Nay, traveller! rest.” As a legal will lays its hand on the living, as the Ancient Mariner waylays the wedding guest, The Monument stops the course of all who would continue outside its control. The Monument knows nothing indifferent; it knows only itself and its residue:
Give us a blank wall that we might see ourselves more truly and more strange. Now give us the paper, the daily paper on which to write. Now give us the day, this day. Take it away. The space that is left is The Monument.
The Monument's “other voices” are more of the same:
Sometimes when I wander in these woods whose prince I am, I hear a voice and I know that I am not alone.
The passage above appears in tandem with an epigraph derived from St. Mark: the poet is not above an aggrandizing pun on his own name, as long as it makes the issue clear. The Monument's final words, appropriately enough, were not its own until it commandeered them:
To pass on, (O living! always living!) and leave the corpses behind.
Walt Whitman, now The Monument.
What The Monument leaves behind is matter for a changing poetic—sanction too, if a cover illustration may be so read. Assuredly, the picture of mortuary architecture that adorned The Late Hour when it first appeared cast something of a shadow: the hour was late as death approached. On the other hand, the monument was put farther behind with each new page one turned. From the back of the book, the poet regards us, still very much alive. Between its covers, the writing follows the course of one who has decided to return from the brink of the grave, to leave death to its own devices. The only poem whose absence I regret when I read the Selected Poems is “No Particular Day,” in which the turning is first announced:
Items of no particular day swarm down—
moves of the mind
that take us somewhere near and leave us
combing the air for signs of change,
signs the sky will break and shower down
upon us particular ideas of light.
Sotto voce, the poet invokes what heretofore he has loudly banished. He has favored the generic for the authority it confers, furnishing his kingdom with everything in general and nothing in particular; but here he prepares to turn again to the accidents and givens that particularize experience.
In Selected Poems, “Exiles” becomes the fulcrum for change, the site on which the work of restoration commences. Its first section follows the plot more or less of Albee's A Delicate Balance: a certain “they” find life disappearing around them and run to “us” to be taken in. In the second section, they reverse their course, in what might be a prologue to the poet's later work:
And on their way back they heard the footsteps and felt the warmth of the clothes they thought had been lifted from them. They ran by the boats at anchor, hulking in the bay, by the train waiting under the melting frost of stars.
This reunion with the world does not exactly end in a wash of optimism:
They lay in their beds and the shadows of the giant trees brushed darkly against the walls.
It is, nonetheless, a reunion of moment, and here are the gifts that accrue: St. Margaret's Bay, the North West Arm, Mosher Island, Wedge Island, Hackett's Cove, Fox Point, Boutelier's wharf, Albert Hubley's shack, a furniture store, a black baby Austin, brants and Canada geese, a mother, a father, an uncle, a grandmother, and Winslow Homer's Gulf Stream. The change is enormous, this change that begins with the final third of The Late Hour, and it's not imparted by proper names alone. If the ravellings and auras of personal memory find quarter for once, this is not to suggest that the earlier poems had no sources in biography, or that the current poems never invent or lie. The appearance of personal history is what was not encouraged before and is very much encouraged now. When place names appear, as they occasionally do, in the earlier poems, they are poised on the scales of dislocation. As “The Last Bus” moves past Lota's park in Rio de Janeiro,
The ghosts of bathers rise
slowly out of the surf and turn high in the spray.
The image is designed to capture the material imagination but cannot be solved in material terms. Far from being comfortably “placed” by setting, the reader encounters deliberate disorientation. So with distinguishing items of clothing or social class. “Let us save the babies,” an early persona proposes,
You shall wear mink and your hair shall be done. I shall wear tails.
To underscore a retreat to animal instinct, Strand has borrowed his perspective from the hoi polloi, who call such outfits “monkey suits.” Since “The Babies” is a Vietnam-era parable about the survival of the fittest generation, the playfulness is apt, but hardly a genre-painter's approach to circumstantial detail. So with memory. Heretofore, the memory Strand was interested in was the memory he could engineer, the memory he could become. In recent poems, he grants some affection to the merely historical, some credence to the merely found, and he diversifies the methods of provoking recognition. No attentive reader will expect biography to “solve” a good poem, or will underestimate Strand's loyalty to the methods and discoveries of fiction. But when the poet begins to grant the past and the reader some license of their own, this loyalty is being reconstrued.
The final sections of Selected Poems include work as purely lyrical as any Strand has written; the phrases are more extended, the mimetic strategies far less guarded than any the poet has used before. One poem, based on an ominous survey of the Thames in Bleak House, assembles a central sentence of twenty-eight lines, whose eddyings and sweep reproduce the course of the river itself. As to the elevation of the quotidian, one final example demands our attention. The poem has provoked a fair amount of skepticism, even among Strand's admirers, and may therefore be a useful test of his continuing strength and perspective. The poem is named for the thing itself: “Pot Roast.”
I gaze upon the roast, that is sliced and laid out on my plate and over it I spoon the juices of carrot and onion. And for once I do not regret the passage of time.
I sit by a window that looks on the soot-stained brick of buildings and do not care that I see no living thing—not a bird, not a branch in bloom, not a soul moving in the rooms behind the dark panes. These days when there is little to love or to praise one could do worse than yield to the power of food. So I bend
to inhale the steam that rises from my plate, and I think of the first time I tasted a roast like this. It was years ago in Seabright, Nova Scotia;
my mother leaned over my dish and filled it and when I finished filled it again. I remember the gravy, its odor of garlic and celery, and sopping it up with pieces of bread.
And now I taste it again. The meat of memory. The meat of no change. I raise my fork and I eat.
The senses that feed on well-being here are those most resistant to the embrace of language. The taste of a roast, the smell of an onion have the power to translate the speaker to another time precisely because they resist translation. The sensations of taste and smell withstand the dilution and obfuscation that readier equivalents inflict upon the process of sight. The reader, however, may understandably choke a bit upon Strand's version of the lime-flower tea and madeleine. As anecdote, the transporting powers of garlic and celery are credible, if uninspiring. In their figurative capacity, as revisionist versions of Proust, as the specific and composite key that unlocks the past, they cannot help being somewhat parodic: pot roast is about as close as a poet could get to generic food. Not mother's Christmas cardamom bread, not even Aunt Mabel's own barbeque sauce. Even a sympathetic reader might think at first that Strand has miscalculated tone: the language—“juice of carrot and onion”—gets awfully reverential at times; the poet might almost be eating the host. And, indeed, this disproportion is meant as a clue. Strand's closing lines are modeled on the closing lines of a Herbert poem, a poem about the final communion in heaven:
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat: So I did sit and eat.
The meat is the meat of transubstantiation. Even without the detective work, we know something of this from the rhythms with which Strand's poem draws to a close: those rhythms argue that “meat of memory,” “meat of no change” are in earnest. The earnestness reads like a callow mistake, until we find that the second helping is literally a double take. The past has been used up, as has the vision that Herbert believed in, as has the cultural nexus that fostered a sensibility like Proust's. And then the change: as when the bread is bread no more, the empty plate is filled again, and everything lost restored. The mother's shade enacts her blessing, and the agnostic has his sacrament too, the meat of memory to be savored like hope. And what of the humor?—the past recaptured in a pot roast, Jesus on a fork? Strand has accommodated radical disjunction before, purest burlesque and sobriety in a single poem, but never did disjunction entail a greater risk. What this poem has in mind, and brings to mind, precludes the somnambular voice that Strand so often used in the past to solve the problem of tone in a hybrid production. The title—“Pot Roast”—partakes of that poker-faced hilarity that alerted us to double meaning in earlier poems, but it's not reinforced by obvious gestures in kind. The poem relies on internal transformation, and accomplishes what it does by assuring that it will first be underestimated, even dismissed. In this manner the poem mimes its subject, and confesses to a diminished version of the myth it reenacts. History repeats, with some chagrin. To achieve his final proportion and tone, the poet has only the disposition of literary antecedents, the necessary and sufficient motives for parody, and the manifest subject of celebration.
Having channeled his most distinctive accomplishments into a poet's prose that sidesteps or cagily reroutes generic expectations, Strand is now experimenting with various reconstructions of the lyric voice. He's relaxed his censorship of quotidian detail; he's trying a gentler hand with the past and a lusher version of literary homage; he's practicing a less austere, more personalized and impure fable. Are the poems a dilution of the former enterprise? The poet himself has signalled a shifting of loyalties: “I'm really less interested in writing magazine verse or individual poems than in creating a literary spectacle … a little like Barthes on Barthes” (Missouri Review, Summer 1981). But Strand has always enacted the spectacle he describes. If all writing distributes allegiance between an audience and a subject of regard, if all writing occupies a place on the spectrum that runs from the presentational to the contemplative or exegetical, Strand's characteristic work has steadfastly been of the former kind. The poems were rhetorical, which is to say they were designed to move an audience; the self was a rhetorical construct built in view of that audience; the argument was all ad hominem. Their beauty notwithstanding, the poems written since The Monument may prove to be something of a sideline. On the other hand, as a poem like “Pot Roast” should alert us, the play of presence and absence continues in all its vitality, even when, on first glance, presence seems to have become less problematic. The new bifurcation of voice, one part spoken by an altered lyric, one part by all that is left of the old, may signal the start of a dialogue we will all do well to attend to: the flower and the bee.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10438
SOURCE: Kirby, David. “And Then I Thought of the Monument.” In Mark Strand and the Poet's Place in Contemporary Culture, pp. 27-57. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1990.
[In the following excerpt, Kirby examines Strand's 1973 collection, The Story of Our Lives and the 1978 collection, The Monument. Kirby comments that the first is characterized by a marked change in style from the poetry of Strand's earlier volumes, and the second by a highly original combination of poetry and prose.]
THE STORY OF OUR LIVES (1973)
Mark Strand is a cautious poet yet an academic as well. His caution does not seem suited to the publish-or-perish world of the academy, to the carrot-and-stick atmosphere in which a writer's achievement is summed up in a yearly listing of professional accomplishments. Sleeping with One Eye Open, Reasons for Moving, and Darker deal with perhaps the most important single idea of any culture, the nature of self and its relation to everything else that exists. But these books process that idea at a snail's pace, as it were. The sheer volume in Strand's poetry of what Keats called “negative capability” is daunting. The speakers in the poems are nothing if not careful, and an idea posited in one poem is understood to be subject to qualification in another.
For these reasons, a systematic approach to Strand's writing results in a sort of allegory of reading that the reader can then apply to other writers. Strand teaches us to read the way he writes, and the rules for both reader and writer are ultimately the same. Take your time. Be tolerant of new ideas. Be painstaking in everything, from the first whim you entertain to the ultimate word choice. Arrive at decisions slowly. And don't be afraid to change your mind.
The Story of Our Lives represents a serious furthering of these precepts. If Sleeping with One Eye Open and Reasons for Moving are books of early exploration and discovery of some fundamental truths about the self, and if Darker posits a program for dealing with that self, The Story of Our Lives puts the program into effect, though not always with success. The challenge, after all, is enormous; were the ordering of our lives a simple matter, the world would be an earthly paradise, and Strand is, while one of the least realistic writers in the Zolaesque sense, a most realistic one in his charting of the human spirit's triumphs and failures.
“THE STORY OF OUR LIVES”
Strand's speakers' desire for self-effacement reaches a peak of seriousness in The Story of Our Lives, and that seriousness is announced by a change in style. In the words of the dust jacket, the poems collected here are “longer [in fact, there are only seven of them], more mysterious, more engrossing” than Strand's earlier work. One might add “more strenuous” to that list of adjectives; the reader of these poems really gets a sense of Jacob wrestling with the angel. The title work, for example, is in seven parts and deals almost claustrophobically with two people struggling both to live their lives and to read about them in a putative book that already seems to have been completed.
For example, in part 1 of “The Story of Our Lives” it is observed that “we sit beside each other on the couch, / reading about the couch,” and not only do “we say it is ideal” but in fact “it is ideal” in the book the couple is reading. The ideal state is not necessarily a comfortable one in Strand's poetry, though; it is perhaps too substantive in a world in which the material is downplayed. As in earlier work, the atmosphere of the poem is soundless, almost motionless (except for the turning of the pages), and progressively darker. The room in which the action takes place is almost a world unto itself, and indeed “it is almost as if the room were the world” (97). The word room will have greater significance in other poems in this collection, but for the moment it is enough to say that it delimits the action by providing a barrier between the couple and a noisy world outside and also, on the strength of its soothing quietness, encourages the couple to keep their own egos in check.
In part 2 of “The Story of Our Lives,” the man tries to push past the ideal state not only by living his life and reading about it but also by writing:
I lean back and begin to write about the book. I write that I wish to move beyond the book, beyond my life into another life.
This makes sense: it turns out that the book the couple is reading is a bad book because it looks too far ahead and tells too much. For example, it says that the woman will fall in love with the man across the street and that the speaker will grow old without her. Glimmerings of Strand's early theme of the divided self are present here. When the speaker says, “The book describes much more than it should. / It wants to divide us,” the reader knows not only that the couple may be separated but also that their individual selves are in danger (98).
These feelings turn out to be prophetic. Part 3 has the speaker rereading the “mysterious parts” of the book, especially the early ones that leave him feeling as though he's “dreaming of childhood.” Having lost his focus on the here and now, the speaker feels (and reads that he's feeling) a sensation similar to that described in “Sleeping with One Eye Open” for example, or in “The Accident” and “The Man in the Mirror” (Reasons). The book-within-the-poem says:
A bleak crown rested uneasily on his head. He was the brief ruler of inner and outer discord, anxious in his own kingdom.
As he confirms the horrible news of his own anxiety, the speaker is waiting for the woman to awake. In part 4, she seems to him to be secure, protected rather than vulnerable, and he is “moved by a desire to offer myself / to the house of your sleep.” (As an objectification of things solid and unchanging as opposed to things ephemeral and unreliable, house is used here as room will be used in several other poems.) The more he watches her and the less he reads, the more it seems as though there will be a breakthrough into a higher state of happy calm. If he knows this, of course, then so will the book; so that when the speaker confesses, “I was tired and wanted to give up,” he also says, “the book seemed aware of this. / It hinted at changing the subject” (100).
And that is the problem: the couple are followed everywhere by the book, and they will never lose their self-consciousness as long as the book masters their lives. It is worse than a mirror, which merely reflects, as the images in the book preexist and cause anxiety by announcing limits that cannot be transcended.
Part 5 deals with the paradox of longing for perfection, which of course cannot exist, since the anxiety of longing prevents the attainment of any perfect state. We know from earlier Strand poems that the perfect state is immaterial, unselfconscious, transcendent, but how can that state be reflected in the book, which is material, self-conscious to the extreme, and imminently mundane? No wonder the speaker observes ruefully, “if there were a perfect moment in the book, / it would be the last” (101). If the story of their lives ends, then so will their lives, and no Strand speaker to date, regardless of the depth of his despair, has expressed an interest in so ultimate a solution.
Clearly, it is lives that are important, not stories of lives. The book is the story of the couple's lives, and that is what is wrong: in part 6 they read, “it was words that created divisions in the first place, / that created loneliness.” The couple need to stop narrating—more precisely, they need to stop being narrated to—and start living. As it is, all they are doing is proving that consciousness is a terrible thing.
The escape that seemed possible for this unlucky pair in part 4 of “The Story of Our Lives” never takes place. Struggle as they may, they cannot get away from the Möbius strip of self-consciousness that seems an inescapable aspect of the modern condition:
You are asking me if I am tired, if I want to keep reading. Yes, I am tired. Yes, I want to keep reading. I say yes to everything.
In the final part of the poem, the people end as simulacra of themselves, “the copies, the tired phantoms / of something they had been before.” The book has the last word about the people and about itself: “They are the book and they are / nothing else” (102-3).
Thomas Jefferson described himself as having a canine appetite for reading; here is a poem that turns that eighteenth-century notion on its head and has a book eating people. Perhaps this is the revenge of the written word: a Strand speaker was able to devour some poems in “Eating Poetry” (Reasons), but an entire book is too much for this couple to fend off, no matter how strenuously they resist. From librarians to advertisers, everyone offers us books as an unqualified good. But this poem seems to be saying that the wrong book can be, not merely deadly boring, but deadly.
If it is so dangerous for us to tell ourselves our own stories, perhaps a more healthful activity is suggested in the title of a poem called “The Untelling.” Indeed, if “The Story of Our Lives” is an account of a long, losing battle against fatal self-consciousness, “The Untelling” is an account of an equally long but successful struggle. First, though, it will be helpful to look at three shorter poems that provide some vocabulary important to a reading of “The Untelling.”
“In Celebration” is one of Strand's regular addresses to a second-person character who differs little from the typical first-person speaker or the (only slightly) dramatized third-person character, such as the woman in “The Story of Our Lives.” That is to say, this “you” is static, silent, thoughtful, less a perceiver of possibilities, however, than someone who has already arrived at the moment of perception. If the couple in “The Story of Our Lives” is searching for answers, like so many Strand characters, this person belongs to that smaller yet distinct class of characters who have the answer in hand.
What brings these two groups together is the fact that what strikes the first as a problem is to the second a solution. If many Strand characters are afraid of emptiness, this one savors “the honey of absence,” recognizing that it is “the same if the voice rots before / the body, or the body rots before the voice.” A benign apathy is at work here. After all, “you know that desire leads only to sorrow, that sorrow / leads to achievement which leads to emptiness.” Therefore the “nothing” that torments others is not only to be celebrated, it is “the only celebration, / that by giving yourself over to nothing, / you shall be healed” (91).1
Nothing becomes the word that heals, in this and other poems in The Story of Our Lives. In “She,” for example, a sleeping woman sleeps without caring what she looks like, doing nothing for days. She sleeps in a room that seems to protect her as the house protects the sleeping woman in “The Story of Our Lives,” a soundless room where
nothing curled in the air but the sound of nothing, the hymn of nothing, the humming of the room.
By disarming herself, she is armed against one of the most agonizing perils of Strand's shadow-world, the divided state in which the self is in neither one world nor the other.
Her eyes half-open, she saw the man across the room, she watched him and could not choose between sleep and wakefulness.
But if nothing is everywhere, both sleep and wakefulness are the same, equally desirable, though one can only attain them by not desiring them. As far as that goes, it's especially worth noting that, after the indifferent or failed relationships of earlier poems, this character actually achieves an ideal state, not above, but with another.
And he watched her and the moment became their lives so that she would never rise or turn from him, so that he would always be there.
The characters of “In Celebration” and “She” have in common their achievement of transcendent states within houses, within rooms. Strand is hardly a pastoral poet and most of his poems are set indoors, but at this stage in his writing, tranquillity seems to have at least something to do with architecture. A poem called simply “The Room” underscores this idea, both in its title and in its use of the first-person pronoun. This poem reads as though it is what the speaker in “The Story of Our Lives” wanted to say to the woman in that poem and what he wishes had happened between them.
What happens, of course, is nothing, that desireless state that is actually everything since it cannot change, cannot lead to sorrow, achievement, or emptiness. And what makes this nothingness possible is the room in which the minimal action takes place: a man watches a woman who has just entered, and he imagines that she will walk around the table, take off her coat, and so on, but in the course of his imaginings he reverts continually to the room itself, which he describes as large, long, and white. The room is not Heaven, necessarily, but it may be a sort of heaven on earth, a permanent state of blissful anticipation. The first and second lines, “I stand at the back of a room / and you have just entered” (93), are echoed three pages later in the third- and fourth-to-last lines, and the poem ends this way:
I stand at the back and you have just entered. The beginning is about to occur. The end is in sight.
But the means and the end are the same in “The Room,” where a state of perfection is attained through the experience of nothingness, within the specific context of an indoor setting.
The premise of “The Untelling” is simple: by telling another story, a man untells his own. This fabulist begins by looking at a blank page that becomes a lake, a lawn, a row of trees. People appear: the storyteller as a child and his cousins. He begins to write and, speaking now in the first person, announces that he sees a “man / running over the lawn, waving a sheet / of paper and shouting” (104); that is, he sees himself. This stops the adult writer. As in “The Story of Our Lives,” the telling of the story prevents the story from advancing.
When he begins to write again, the writer adds more detail, describing the children's parents asleep in their old-fashioned clothes. As before, the shouting, running man with the paper appears and the story of the childhood idyll stops again. Now the writer or storyteller questions seriously his failure to sustain the narrative:
How far had he come? And why had it grown dark just then? And wasn't he alone when he watched the others lie down on the lawn?
This questioning is apparently the key to advancing the story. Whereas the couple in “The Story of Our Lives” accepted more or less passively the dictates of the book that continued their history (as well as their present and presumably their future), this writer makes more of a life for himself—creates a life within a life—by plumbing depths, exploring mysteries, and emerging with the details that form the foundation for the surface of our lives.
Accordingly, the next attempt at storytelling is longer than the first two put together. A significant addition to this version is a woman in a yellow dress who takes the child by the hand briefly before joining the other adults for a nude swim. This time the adults lying on the grass are naked swimmers instead of properly attired figures out of a Victorian past. And then they disappear, and the children as well, and the storyteller is left alone on the shore of the lake with a sober realization: “Although I have tried to return, I have always / ended here, where I am now” (107). This time it does not seem to be his own adult presence that halts the story so much as a sense that everything has been told, that the inconsequential tale so full of potential consequence with its references to play, sleep, sexuality, and creation is finished.
Back in his adult state, the writer reflects on his progress and its disturbing implications:
It bothered him, as if too much had been said. He would have preferred the lake without a story, or no story and no lake.
Art can go too far; poetry is necessary (Strand's poems about the difficulty of poem-writing make that abundantly clear), yet it can misrepresent, present data falsely, impose limits where there should be none. We must make poetry, but we must take care not to lose our audience in the heedless pursuit of poetic truths. Just as important, we must not lose ourselves in delusions about our real intentions; in the case of this writer,
his pursuit was a form of evasion: the more he tried to uncover the more there was to conceal the less he understood.
And therefore “if he kept it up, / he would lose everything” (108).
A balance must be achieved, a compromise. The writer must be himself, but he cannot be himself too much or he will slip into that self-consciousness that is anathema in Strand's poetry. The divided, self-regarding personality is something to be avoided at all costs, so the storyteller decides to avoid it by entering the story not as a writer addressing the others from an aesthetic distance but as a participant in the mindless enjoyment of the day, the hour, and the setting.
He would bring what he had written and then would lie down with the others. He would be the man he had become, the man who would run across the lawn.
It doesn't work, of course; the more he thinks about participating in the story, the more he becomes a thinker rather than a participant, and the distance between himself and the others that he longed to lessen simply grows.
Exhausted, the writer sleeps. When he wakes, he finds himself by the lake with the others. Significantly, “it seemed as if nothing had happened.” Then
he saw the adults on the lawn, beginning to lie down. And he wanted to warn them, to tell them what he knew.
When they disappear, he understands that it is his story-telling ego that makes them do so. He closes his eyes, loses himself in the minutiae of all that he has experienced, and
felt himself at that moment to be more than his need to survive, more than his losses, because he was less than anything.
Silence rises in him, and joy, too. The writer goes back into the house and begins to write his poem from the beginning; it ends with his setting down these words: “THE UNTELLING / To the Woman in the Yellow Dress” (112).
The history of authorship is often the story of growth toward self-parody: Ernest Hemingway becomes a brutal Papa; F. Scott Fitzgerald turns into a giddy drunk and steps into the pages of his own fiction; the confessional poets shuffle through their own poems toward the bridges and garages where they will die. The writer in “The Untelling” avoids that fate by remaining always a beginner. His work is never finished, his story never told, though the untelling of it is complete. He has accomplished much by avoiding the accomplishment of anything; the source of his narrative remains fresh because he never reduces it to the falsity of print—rather, he does and he doesn't. The aggressive act of running and shouting and waving the paper gets him nowhere, whereas sleep and the experience of nothing lead the writer to the still center of his own being where everything is eternally new.
The episode by the lake remains accessible because it is told and then untold, put at a distance that allows us to savor it but not to consume and discard it. Appropriately, the second titling of the poem, the one that occurs at the end, includes a dedication. This is a sign that the writer is abandoning a self-directed art in favor of an art dedicated to another; it is also an acknowledgment of the poem's central figure, the ever-fresh mystery within a mystery, Goethe's Ewig-Weibliche (eternal womanliness) along with something more, although it would not be in the spirit of the poem to say what.
The key terms sleep and nothing figure importantly in “The Untelling,” just as they do in the other poems of The Story of Our Lives. But what about room? The answer is that “The Untelling” is a room. It is its own frame. It ends where it begins. One comes around to the point where one started. And there is found at the center what is to be found at the center of any room: nothing. At the heart of this poem is space, a blankness like the whiteness of a page. It is an area that invites change, an emptiness into which furniture may be brought and from which it may be removed, a blank sheet on which one may write words and then rub them out, an uninterpreted field of reference to whose images and dramatis personae one gives but then denies meaning.
Free verse is a tautological phrase; all verse is formal, whether the form is created or inherited. Each poem is a structure, though few poets reveal that structure as explicitly as Strand does here. As if to emphasize this, the writer—the “story-unteller,” as we must now recognize him to be—does something simple yet breathtakingly significant at the end (the beginning, actually) of his poem. He goes inside.
There is a paradox in Mark Strand's writing, especially that of his midcareer, and it is that his persona, on the one hand so quiet and self-effacing, is on the other hand so capable of strenuous effort. There is an air of physical exhaustion in The Story of Our Lives: so much has been hazarded, so much accomplished.
“ELEGY FOR MY FATHER”
Perhaps none of this would have been possible, though, had Strand not written “Elegy for My Father (Robert Strand 1908-68).” This magnificent poem, one of the great elegies of the English language, distinguishes itself from Lycidas and Adonais and In Memoriam by being more a poem of dispersal than they are, a poem of cleaning up and giving away. The loss of a father is in part a loss of self for any man, provided he is able to lose it. However, as one might expect from Strand at this point, to lose that self takes effort.
“Elegy for My Father” consists of six parts. Part 1, “The Empty Body,” is a fairly straightforward anatomy of the body's physical aspects in contrast to its departed spirit. “The hands were yours, the arms were yours,” begins the poem, “But you were not there.” There is no pain anymore, no secrets. The world encroaches, but it can no longer trouble the dead man:
The body was yours, but you were not there. The air shivered against its skin. The dark leaned into its eyes. But you were not there.
Part 2, “Answers,” is a dialogue in which each question (except the last two) is asked twice and receives two answers, the first literal and the second figurative; the first response is always true, the second truer. For example, when the son asks the father whom he slept with, the father says a different woman every night, but when the question is repeated, the father says he always slept alone—each of us sleeps this way, and none more so than the libertine. In this section the father seems at first a cynic (“nothing means much to me anymore”), then a skeptic (“I don't know. I have never known” ), and ultimately a stoic. Amid the multiplicity of answers, the section concludes with an unambiguous acknowledgment of death's finality: when the son asks how long he should wait for the father, the answer is that he should not wait, that the father is tired and wants to lie down. “Are you tired and do you want to lie down?” asks the son (86). But the father is so exhausted by this point that he can only repeat the question.
Silent now, the father begins the last stage of his dying. The third part of the poem, “Dying,” is the longest, for death is never easy. The father seems determined; the section begins, “Nothing could stop you,” and the line is repeated throughout. In elaboration of that statement, most of the other lines begin with the word not: “Not your friends who gave you advice. / Not your son. Not your daughter who watched you grow small.” Grief spills like water here as the father himself wakes at night, wet with tears, as the “son who thought you would live forever” observes over and over, now in anguish, now numbly, “You went on with your dying” (86-87).
The father's effort over, the speaker must now make his own. The father achieves a kind of completion in death; the divided self that troubles so many others in Strand's poetry comes together here in part 4, entitled “The Shadow.” Still, the surviving son must assist the departed father, just as the living pray for or attend the dead in formally organized religions. Here, the speaker catalogs each appearance of the father's shadow and the shadow's return to its source:
The rooms in Belém where lizards would snap at mosquitos have given it back. The dark streets of Manaus and the damp streets of Rio have given it back. Mexico City where you wanted to leave it has given it back.
The most important place for the shadow to have lingered is in the speaker's own house, where “it sat on my shoulders.” But the speaker must be his own man now. This section ends with the speaker's angry address, not to the father whom he loved, but to the father's shadowy partial self, the abstraction the dead become when the living reduce them to terms that are manageable and false:
Your shadow is yours. I told it so. I said it was yours. I have carried it with me too long. I give it back.
As in “The Untelling,” one succeeds here by failing: to never write the poem is to write the best poem ever, and to reject a limited version of a dead father is to have that father always in his fullness. The two works also have in common the fact that the speaker in each, while on the surface honoring something exterior (a poem, a father), is secretly engaged in his own salvation.
Among other things, “Elegy for My Father” is a poem noticeable for its symmetry. The first two comparatively brief sections introduce the father in body and spirit, the longer third and fourth sections deal with the father's hard-fought dying and the son's equally difficult struggle to both honor his father and live his own life, and the two short, final sections describe the public mourning for the father and the son's private consolation. In part 5, “Mourning,” those who knew the dead man simply “mourn for you the way they can” (90). However, in the poem's last part, “The New Year,” there is genuine closure as the speaker moves beyond the clichés of traditional mourning to make peace on his own terms with the spirit of the departed parent, now “the neighbor of nothing.”
As in other Strand poems, peace is ineffable, found as it is between the extremes toward which our lives lead us: if the father has left the physical beauty of the world (“you do not see the sun dragging the moon like an echo”), he has left too its ugliness (“you do not see the scars of plenty, the eyes without light” ). He is unknown, unremembered, except in the poem, which is to say he has cast off the limits of the everyday mind and lives now in the interpretive world, where he will be alive as long as people read and think about what they have read.
That condition too is ineffable, since it is still occurring. Once a name, the father has become silence itself (“Because there is silence instead of a name”). In freeing him from his limits, the son has freed himself; when he says three times in this section that “it is winter and the new year,” he is announcing a beginning as well as an end (90).
Typically, this Strand speaker is not falsely optimistic. The subject of the poem argues against false optimism, and so do the subjects of Strand's poetry in general. Strand is not Whitman, though a number of his poems are Whitmanesque in their form, length, and tone. Whereas Whitman held out the promise of the metaphysical with the physical, Strand never collapses the two states. His is a poetry of proliferation; entities multiply instead of coalescing into a cosmic One. The result is not stasis but a charged, vibrant balance: winter and the new year at once.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the achievement of Strand's speaker in these personal, strenuous, and ultimately successful testings of the human spirit, The Story of Our Lives is a disquieting book. These poems were written while the author was in his thirties, after all, and the last poem in the collection, “The Untelling,” is about a man who decides to stay a writer forever by never writing again. These poems seem to say, This is it, this is final, this is all I know, all I can do. On closing The Story of Our Lives, readers are well within their rights if they ask, Now what?
The answer is The Monument, one of the most astonishing books in the English language, one of the great literary tours de force of the last half of the twentieth century, and a culmination of Strand's themes and techniques to date as well as a quantum leap beyond them.
THE MONUMENT (1978)
In the normal course of events, almost no one reads an author systematically, beginning with the earliest work and proceeding to the latest, taking notes along the way, keeping strict account of themes, images, key words, and so on. By the same token, the conventional path is from imaginative to critical writing rather than vice versa, and very few readers will begin their acquaintance with a given author by going first to find out what others have said of him.
Imagine, then, the thoughts that might pass through the mind of a reader who encounters Mark Strand for the first time in The Monument. This hypothetical reader has never read anything by or about Strand and is now on the verge of entertaining the question that is in the mind of anyone holding a new, unopened book, Will I like this, is this my kind of book, my kind of author?
Even before beginning the text proper, though, the reader will draw some sort of conclusion from the dedication, which is “To the Translator of / THE MONUMENT / in the future.” Why, what presumption, and what a monstrous ego this fellow must have! The reader with a slight knowledge of Strand's work is likely to be only slightly less disconcerted. After all, isn't Strand supposed to be a poet of self-effacement?
The Monument is not quite poetry, not quite prose; it consists of fifty-two “chapters” that average about half a page in length and in which statements by a Strand persona are mingled with quotations from Octavio Paz, Miguel de Unamuno, Wallace Stevens, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Sir Thomas Browne, Nietzsche, and others. What gives coherence to this ontological olla podrida is that its various voices have a sameness that would be familiar to anyone who has read any of Strand's other work. Subdued, nearly plain, quietly intense, yet almost completely without detail, the voices become one voice; thus the Paz quotation, “I am setting out from the meeting with what I am, with what I now begin to be, my descendent and my ancestor, my father and my son, my unlike likeness” (chapter 2), not only sounds like the Unamuno and Stevens lines that follow it (chapter 3), as well as the remarks of the persona in both those chapters, but also sounds like the voice of the speaker in “Elegy for My Father,” who is himself parting company with his unlike likeness.
But our hypothetical reader doesn't know this, and, in fact, the more he reads, the less he knows. Chapter 1 of The Monument says in its entirety, “Let me introduce myself. I am … and so on and so forth. Now you know more about me than I know about you.” In this Cartesian spoof of a chapter, the reader is made a kind of servant who ushers the author of The Monument into being as surely as a valet wakens, dresses, and feeds his master: you think, therefore I am.
Each of us thinks fleetingly of the world after our deaths and hopes to be remembered, however briefly, but the voice in The Monument has a grander plan, one befitting a potentate. He relates that he died once but came back to life after a few minutes and felt a certain fullness, but “this feeling was to give way to an image of waste. How much would be lost! A box placed underground with me inside would never be right. And then I thought of The Monument. It was this promise of adequate memorial that brought me back to life, to my room and my coffee” (chapter 12).
This self-satisfied speaker with his peremptory demands is not above congratulating himself for his decision to live in the future, no matter how irksome it may be to our hypothetical reader. Thus he quotes Sir Thomas Browne: “Many would have thought it an Happiness to have had their lot of Life in some notable Conjunctions of Ages past; but the uncertainty of future Times hath tempted few to make a part in Ages to come” (chapter 4). The speaker, we are given to understand, is just such an intrepid time-traveler, one whose courage is exceeded only by his literary skill. He boasts in chapter 5 of the power of his voice, dim to our ears now perhaps, yet strong enough to be heard after hundreds of years. Still, has anyone ever found an author of the past so compelling as to read him this closely?
Or let me put it this way. You must imagine that you are the author of this work, that the wind is blowing from the northeast, bringing rain that slaps and spatters against your windows. You must imagine the ocean's swash and backwash sounding hushed and muffled. Imagine a long room with a light at one end, illuminating a desk, a chair, papers. Imagine someone is in the chair. Imagine he is you; it is long ago and you are dressed in the absurd clothes of the time. You must imagine yourself asking the question: which of us has sought the other?
Not only did people dress absurdly during the speaker's day but their entire period was “barren” (chapter 11). In other words, the reader is being asked to savor the artifact of a worthless time produced by an egomaniac.
Gradually, though, the speaker's full voice is heard and not just the part that seems to be shamelessly self-promoting. Unless its author wishes it to be venerated and unread like Finnegans Wake, The Monument must provoke its readers, and the first dozen chapters or more are almost relentlessly egoistic in tone. However, the self-effacing persona (of poems like those in Darker and The Story of Our Lives) manifests himself as early as chapter 3. “Why have I chosen this way to continue myself under your continuing gaze?” he asks and then answers, “I might have had my likeness carved in stone, but it is not my image that I want you to have, nor my life, nor the life around me, only this document.” It is The Monument, then, not its maker, that matters; indeed, “What I include of myself is unreal and distracting. Only this luminous moment has life, this instant in which we both write, this flash of voice” (chapter 3). Here the translator is given status equal to that of the writer instead of being treated as a porter opening the door between the writer's world and his own. More than that, beyond the two personalities involved and the physical document itself, it is the moment of resonance, of harmony between the two voices, that allows each to transcend its ties to a restricted place and period.
Later, the writer's selflessness becomes even more distinct. Its fullest expression is reached in chapter 22, where the speaker allows that though his friends, enemies, and colleagues would think The Monument an expression of narcissism even greater than he has ever expressed before, not only because none of their names appears in it but also because the speaker has omitted to mention his own wife and daughter, they would be mistaken: “This poor document does not have to do with a self, it dwells on the absence of a self.” In fact, for all his tone of self-satisfaction, how much does this speaker really want to promote himself when he refuses to give the reader any of the details of his life, even his name? “I—and this pronoun will have to do—have not permitted anything worthwhile or memorable to be part of this communication that strains even to exist in a language other than the one in which it was written. So much is excluded that it could not be a document of self-centeredness” (chapter 22).
The Monument is “everything that history is not.” It is an expression of nothing, and not the trivial nothing of ordinary usage but the all-important nothing aspired to in Strand's earlier work, the nothing that exists before and after all phenomena, the great blank sheet on which all private and public histories are recorded and from which they are erased. Just as Strand announces the importance of selflessness midway in his career, so he mirrors that pattern here, roughly halfway through The Monument, by underscoring “the absence of a self” (chapter 22).
Strand's speaker is engaging precisely because he is as human as the reader is. Undiluted saintliness is best offered in small doses, and, even in this self-denying chapter 22, the speaker cannot keep from confessing to “a thread of longing.” This selfless persona has one desire: to be translated. Students of translation theory are familiar with the half-serious idea that some writers do not achieve their full potential until their works are put into another language; an in-joke among translators is that Poe reads better in Spanish than he does in English and best of all when translated into the South American Indian language Quechua. This is the kind of transformation Strand's persona wants. He says to his translator, “Friend, say something amazing for me. It must be something you take for granted, something meaningless to you, but impossible for me to think of” (chapter 26).
This is not the voice of an egoist. Indeed, one of the most urgent themes of The Monument is that neither writer nor translator should emerge as personality at the expense of the text. In chapter 10, the persona says that ideally his translator will be an “interpreter-angel,” with the angel's ethereality. And recognizing that the translator too is human, the speaker cautions him against the same sort of temptations that he felt as writer. In chapter 28, he confesses,
I have begun to mistrust you, my dear friend, and I am sorry. As I proceed with this work, I sense your wish to make it your own. True, I have, in a way, given it to you but it is precisely this spirit of “giving” that must be preserved. You must not “take” what is not really yours. No doubt I am being silly, my fears reflecting jealousy on my part, but I know you only as you work on this text. Whatever else you are is hidden from me. What I fear is that you will tell people in your day that you made up The Monument, that this is a mock translation, that I am merely a creature of your imagination. I know that I intend this somewhat, but … I feel that this should not be my memorial, merely, but that it should be passed on in no one's name, not even yours.
Chapter 31 is a companion of sorts to chapter 28; it is a speech the writer has written for the translator to deliver into the mirror, a short rant that permits the translator to anathematize the finicky writer and get on with the business of preserving his anonymity. Eventually, of course, the speaker in The Monument hopes to cajole the translator into understanding his proper role and recognizing that, although “some will think I wrote this and some will think you wrote this,” the truth is that “neither of us did,” that there is “a ghostly third who has taken up residence in this pen, this pen we hold” (chapter 38).
Every poet has felt the workings of this ghostly third, the thing that seems, at times, to do the writing for the poet. A clumsy writer will call it “my gift” or “God speaking through me,” but it is something else entirely. Howard Nemerov defines poetry as the language spoken in Eden during the few hours between the naming of Creation and the Fall; perhaps it would be more accurate to say that poetry is the stuff that tries to be and, in its finest moments, comes closest to being that language.2 And it is this language of prelapsarian Eden—this language that takes over during a poet's luckiest hour and that poets personify as Muse, God, ghostly third—that is the original language of The Monument.
Chapter 37 urges the translator to promise that the act of translation will be carried out with the utmost awareness of the text's special nature:
Tell me that my ugly tomb, my transcending gesture, my way into the next world, your world, my world made by you, you the future of me, my future, my features translated, tell me that it will improve, that it will seem better for my not giving into what passes for style, that its prose shall never wear a poem's guise at last, tell me that its perpetual prose will become less than itself and hint always at more.
To have a recognizable style is an understandable poetic impulse, but this writer is wary of distinctive literary features that seem vain and attention-seeking. In chapter 27 he warns the translator that an entire army of angry poets has turned out to abuse The Monument; but in chapter 34 he notes that these same angry poets have returned “with hammers and little buckets, and they are knocking off pieces of The Monument to study and use in the making of their own small tombs.”
The writer himself has felt this desire to be distinctive in a niggling way; he confesses that he thought of including in the text lines like “invisible lords among the stars / Over the heads of deep astronomers” or “the moon sucking the sea, sucking / The light from our eyes as we sleep.” But finally he decided on a “blazing plainness” (chapter 44), a “blank prose … its freight the fullness of zero, the circumference of absence” (chapter 47).
The translator's job is to preserve that simplicity of Eden. If he does his job correctly, he will lift the last straw of anxiety from the back of Strand's persona, who says as much in a punning chapter 39:
I wonder if my poverty would be more complete without you or whether you complete it, the last straw taken away. Having said such a thing I feel a surge of power, I, a single strand, upright, making translation less and less possible. Beautiful swipes of clarity fall upon me, lights from the luminous bells of heaven. I tell you this robe of harmless flames I wear is no poor man's torn pajamas. There's no poverty here, with or without you. Translate. Translate faster. Brief work, isn't it, this feathery fluke!
After all, this is the same Strand persona we have known from Sleeping with One Eye Open, the nervous contemporary type who has wrestled with his anxiety and even bested it but who still must say, or let a character from Chekhov's The Seagull say, in one of the dozens of quotations interleaved with the persona's own observations, “I have no rest from myself. I feel as though I am devouring my whole life” (chapter 6).
What can save him? He knows what to do, of course: “It has been necessary to submit to vacancy in order to begin again, to clear ground, to make space” (chapter 9). But submitting to vacancy is not easy; like nature, the self abhors a vacuum. Clearing ground is exactly the right metaphor—cutting brush, mowing, and raking take time, and as soon as the ground is clear, the grass and vines begin to grow again. It is what must be done, however, lest strangulation occur. In chapter 45, the speaker asks for a cigar, some brandy, a wall, paper on which to write, the day itself, and then he asks for them all to be taken away. What is left is The Monument.
When all is taken away, though, what is left? What is The Monument? Where is it? Its location has been reported in both the eastern and western hemispheres; chapter 13 includes crude maps, like a child's drawings of constellations, that show seventeen stars, each denoting a place where The Monument has been reported.
But the real Monument is no more palpable than that pesky but, after all, dispensable entity, the self. If the maker of The Monument is invisible, so is The Monument itself: “The drift of skeletons under the earth, the shifting of that dark society, those nations of the dead, the unshaping of their bones into dirt, the night of nothing removing them, turning their absences into the small zeros of the stars, it is indeed a grave, invisible workmanship” (chapter 33). The monuments that were reported earlier are probably just the work of the poetic thieves who are described as stealing little pieces of The Monument and using them to further their own paltry careers. In chapters 15 and 16, the speaker even gives two examples of false monuments. Each is a poem, as opposed to the deliberately unpoetic prose of The Monument, and each is called “The Monument.” The first of these unmonuments is described as ignored, unworshiped:
when you leave the monument's hard gaze, the cold violet of its shade, you will not think of turning back.
Worse, the second unmonument is not only ignored but unidentified: “and you will never know / whose monument it is / or why it came to you” (chapter 16). What is paramount in these faux monuments is the preening of their makers, the boastful superiority of the minor poets who have subordinated the one true Monument to their own egos.
The real Monument resists this belittling, this falsely pious sentimentalizing by authors who pretend to mourn its decline as they praise themselves implicitly for their sensitivity and understanding. The Monument is like a god: one has to worship it. False poets offer false deities as well as false pieties. The true Monument is ever-living and is not to be written off so easily; it insists on “its own perpetual birth instead of its death again and again, each sentence a memorial” (chapter 17).
Unlike the false poets, the maker of The Monument has no interest in aggrandizing himself. To show that “I am justified in leaving my life out of our [not ‘my’] work,” the speaker includes “a few paragraphs from an abandoned autobiography” in which he describes the death of his paternal grandfather, an Ohio steelworker named Emil (chapter 21). Unlike the rest of The Monument (and unlike almost all the rest of Strand's writing, for that matter), this chapter is unusually detailed, but the point is to show how details mislead. Emil died by falling into a giant vat of molten metal. As a boy, the speaker had the natural egoistic impulse to want “a lineage of heroes,” so he made up a coda to his grandfather's life in which Emil becomes part of a Cleveland skyscraper. Now mature, the speaker still tells the story, complete with the false ending, even though he admits that he knows better, “and the young boy in me is satisfied” (chapter 21).
An adult should point away from and not toward himself, as the writer of The Monument illustrates in two companion chapters. In the first, chapter 19, he alludes to his own death, described in chapter 12, when he dies for a few moments but returns to life. Just before he expires, the speaker points out the window and calls on his friends to look. What he is urging them to look at is The Monument, the very embodiment of selflessness. In the companion chapter 20, on the other hand, another death is described, the death of a man who spent his entire life lying on his back waiting to see his own resemblance in the clouds overhead. He dies at the precise moment that he sees his likeness reproduced in the sky. Hence the vainglory of peering incessantly into the mirror of biography. Which is better, to be the man who killed himself in the search for a spurious self or the Monument-maker who points others to a timeless legacy?
The speaker who denies the importance of his own life is involved in a collaborative venture—it is “our” work, never “my” work—and so he asks his translator to do the same. In chapter 18 he urges the translator to “consider the events of your life from the greatest to the most humble” before beginning his translation and then to proceed according to these lines by Jorge Luis Borges: “Now I can forget them. I reach my center … / my mirror / Soon I shall know who I am.” The who I am is not a noun but a verb; identity is not to discover a self but to collaborate on The Monument.
In other words, the writer wants the translator to lose his separate, worrisome ego and join him as someone ordinary, not a hero endlessly toiling through the ages but an anonymous craftsman. In chapter 24 he says,
There is a day when the daughters of Necessity sit on their thrones and chant and souls gather to choose the next life they will live. After the despots pick beggary, and the beggars pick wealth, and Orpheus picks swanhood, Agamemnon an eagle, Ajax a lion, and Odysseus the life of quiet obscurity, I come along, pushing my way through the musical animals, and pick one of the lots. Since I had no need to compensate for any previous experience and wandered onto that meadow by chance, I found the lot of another man much like me, which is how I found you. And instead of going to the River of Unmindfulness, I wrote this down.
Coupled with these good wishes, of course, is the speaker's recognition that the translator is as human as he is and therefore as susceptible to the sirens who would call him to glory; the calm hope of chapter 24 is balanced by the exasperated sermonizing of chapter 28, in which the speaker says that, despite his desire for “sweet anonymity and nothingness,” he must deliver to the translator at least once a forceful warning against claiming The Monument as his own.
The Monument translated will be “the last straw taken away” (chapter 39); it will entail completion of the persona's program of self-effacement as announced in Reasons for Moving and developed in Darker and The Story of Our Lives. Paradoxically, self-effacement is the one sure path to immortality, though it would be the immortality of an anonymous person famous for his work rather than his life. One of the many things this puzzling book seems to say is that great personalities, including great writers, lose their value over time. Thus the Strand persona chooses to address the future, not as a Canadian-born American living and writing in the last half of the twentieth century, but as No One.
Yet the game is considerably more complex than that. The startling realization is that this book has already been translated. This is evident from the several translator's notes throughout. Yet translated from what? Earlier it was suggested that the original language of The Monument was the language of Eden, which is not really a lost tongue but the one that underlies all of our post-lapsarian utterings. This is why communication is, although difficult, ultimately possible: we all speak the same common, silent language. This is why the roles of writer and translator are virtually interchangeable: the translator utters The Monument daily beneath his own mundane pronouncements. “In what language do I live?” asks the writer. “I live in none. I live in you. It is your voice that I begin to hear and it has no language. I hear the motions of a spirit and the sound of what is secret becomes, for me, a voice that is your voice speaking in my ear” (chapter 6).
This is early in the book, though, and as he wrestles with his shortcomings, the not-yet-transcendent speaker admits, “It is a misery unheard of to know the secret has no name, no language I can learn” (chapter 6). Still, he is aware of lessons the Strand persona has learned in earlier books, namely, the value of companionship or, to put it more precisely, the fact that to close the language gap with another is to close the gap within oneself. With this in mind, the speaker offers the translator this suggestion in chapter 14:
It may be wise at this time to get down to practical matters, to make suggestions that will ease your task. There are words that I use, words used often in the poetry of my day, which should not constrain you. It is possible that they will not exist in your time or in your language. In either case, find words for which you yourself have a fondness. If this is difficult, then I suggest you use one word to cover the many. The objects you see from where you sit may be “anything.” “Anything” may be “nothing,” depending on what your feeling is. If “nothing” conveys the wrong idea, use “something.” By all means, use “something” if you agree with the poet who shrieks, “There is not nothing, no, no, never nothing.”
In earlier books, nothing has appeared as a key word, an alternative to the Strand persona's imprisonment in phenomena. Even nothing is an entity, though, so here the persona permits himself to have his nothing and eat it too, to argue away the word's substantiality without putting in its place another substantial word that will in its turn have to be argued away.
This is the kind of play at which the Strand persona excels. In chapter 32, as he approaches his book's triumphant completion, the speaker exalts in flights of “gang-gangs and galahs,” two kinds of cockatoo found in Australia. Yet the gray-and-pink galah is Kakatoë roseicapilla, the largely gray gang-gang Callocephalon fimbriatum. The two birds are the same—Australian cockatoos—yet not the same, since they have different scientific names. They are alike and not alike in the playful and sometimes jubilant world of the Strand persona in which the nothing that is something is ubiquitous.
Except for the inadequate phrase “on the last page,” it is difficult to say exactly where The Monument ends. Just as many lyric poems are best read in a circular manner that befits their nature, rather than in a linear, start-to-finish fashion, so too The Monument, in its disjunctive form and playful content, seems to license the reader to take liberties. On the last page the reader will find other authors only; the Strand persona absents himself at the ultimate moment to let Nietzsche and Whitman have the final say. This disappearing act is consistent with the paradoxical modesty that the persona has evinced throughout, a modesty that will yield an anonymous fame. (It may be that The Monument was suggested by “The Monument,” a poem written by Strand's acknowledged mentor Elizabeth Bishop. “The Monument” is a reverse “Ozymandias”; in Shelley's poem a vainglorious king's cenotaph crumbles to dust, while in Bishop's a marker with no name on it seems to transcend and perhaps even outlast nature.)
While admitting his own fallibility, the reader will nonetheless expect some kind of last hurrah before the slow fade into silence. The speaker seems to throw off his few remaining shreds of personality in chapters 41 and 42, where he flies into a frenzy of jackhammer punning (“The fruit of the tomb! The flute of the tomb! The loot of gloom! The lute of loot! The work of soon, of never and ever!”) and then subsides into a state of peace and transcendence.
The punning never leaves off, but it becomes more thematically substantive (“Without weight the future is possible, here without our waiting”). If nothing and something can coexist in space and never and ever in time, then truly “we have come to terms without terms.” Words will coexist with the absence of words: “The enormous airs—the giant cloudsongs that will reign and reign. Friend, they are coming and only we know it. Perhaps we should be silent, tell no one …” (chapter 42).
Once again, as at the end of the consideration of The Story of Our Lives, we must ask ourselves, where do we leave the Strand persona this time? On the one hand, we leave him as a sort of Invisible Man: game, aggressive, thoroughly defined by his own struggles, happy to be rid of his earlier anxiety yet in no way eager to replace that frail nervousness with a Technicolor personality destined only to begin the cycle of suffering all over again. On the other hand, we leave the persona lost in the literary tradition, sunk in the sea of poetry in which every true poet is immersed (as T. S. Eliot says in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”).
To make this point, the final chapter consists solely of quotations from other writers. The telling lines are from Whitman: “O to disengage myself from these corpses of me, which I turn and look at where I cast them, / To pass on, (O living! always living!) and leave the corpses behind” (chapter 52). The corpses are the poets of the past, present, and future who do not really exist, whose poetry does not really exist except insofar as it is the language of Eden.
Of all the poets who hover over The Monument, Whitman is the one whose spirit is most pervasive. Take chapter 40, for instance:
To be the first of the posthumous poets is to be the oldest. This will make children of the poets of Europe, the dead poets of Europe. There must be something America is first in. Death and post-death meditations! Glory be! A crown on our heads at last! But what is America to you or you to America?
And just as the Whitman persona more or less dissolves at the end of Song of Myself, so too does the Strand persona at the end (actually, just before the end) of The Monument. The Strand persona goes one step further, though, by promising to be both there and not-there at the same time, to be present through absence. The lines that close the book are from a Whitman poem entitled “O Living Always, Always Dying.” This would be a good motto for the Strand persona and an even better one were the words “living” and “dying” to be reversed. For when the self dies, life begins.
In an interview, Cristina Bacchilega asked Strand, “What would you like to be remembered for in the context of twentieth century American poetry?” and the replied,
I really don't know. I'd like to be remembered for a few poems, but, beyond that, I really don't know … my kindness to animals … I really don't know. It is the subject of my book The Monument, but what I say there is that it's not my poems, it's that which cannot be translated. It's what Paul Tillich called the ontic self: me being me right now. To be me, duplicated exactly. I'd like to be known as it is impossible to know anyone after he's dead. I'd like to be known as always alive.3
In an interview, Strand says, “Poetry, to a certain extent, is a dance around a void, a debate with nothingness” (David Brooks, “A Conversation with Mark Strand,” 29).
Howard Nemerov, “Poetry and Meaning,” in New and Selected Essays (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985), 174.
“An Interview with Mark Strand,” 64.
Works by Mark Strand
Sleeping with One Eye Open. Iowa: Stone Wall Press, 1964.
Reasons for Moving. New York: Atheneum, 1968.
Darker: Poems. New York: Atheneum, 1970.
The Story of Our Lives. New York: Atheneum, 1973.
The Sargeantville Notebook. Providence: Burning Deck, 1973.
Elegy for My Father. Iowa: Windhover Press, 1978.
The Monument. New York: Ecco Press, 1978.
The Late Hour. New York: Atheneum, 1978.
Selected Poems. New York: Atheneum, 1980.
Selected Secondary Materials
Bacchilega, Cristina. “An Interview with Mark Strand.” Missouri Review 4 (1981): 51-64.
Brooks, David. “A Conversation with Mark Strand.” Ontario Review 8 (1978): 23-33.
Gregerson, Linda. “Negative Capability.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 9 (1981): 90-114.
Kirby, David. “The Nature of No One.” Times Literary Supplement, September 15, 1978, p. 1009.
Shaw, Robert. “Quartet.” Poetry 139 (1981): 171-77.
Stitt, Peter. “Stages of Reality: The Mind/Body Problem in Contemporary Poetry.” Georgia Review 37 (1983): 201-10.
Vine, Richard, and Robert von Hallberg. “A Conversation with Mark Strand.” Chicago Review 28 (1977): 130-40. Reprinted in American Poetry Observed: Poets on Their Work. Edited by Joe David Bellamy (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 238-47.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10456
SOURCE: Maio, Samuel. “The Self-Effacing Mode.” In Creating Another Self: Voice in Modern American Personal Poetry, pp. 163-224. Kirksville, Mo.: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1995.
[In the following excerpt, Maio explores Strand's handling of issues of poetic voice and tone involving absence and self-negation in individual poems from Sleeping with One Eye Open, Reasons for Moving, and Darker.]
In his short collection of idiosyncratic musings in verse form, The Sargeantville Notebook (1973), Strand included the following curious statement:
The ultimate self-effacement is not the pretense of the minimal, but the jocular considerations of the maximal in the manner of Wallace Stevens.
Strand admittedly has long admired Stevens's work, and read Stevens even before beginning to write his own poetry. (He once remarked to Wayne Dodd: “I discovered I wasn't destined to be a very good painter, so I became a poet. Now it didn't happen suddenly. I did read a lot, and I had been a reader of poetry before. In fact, I was much more given to reading poems than I was to fiction and the book that I read a lot, and frequently, was The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens” .) Perhaps Strand, in commenting on what constitutes the “ultimate self-effacement,” regards Stevens as a belated Romantic poet, as does Harold Bloom, in that the ostensibly private reflection, which is the subject of the poem, expresses emotions or ideologies that are in fact diffuse. I make this parallel by suggesting that Strand means “the minimal” to be the private, or individual, concern so that a pretense of such occurs when a poet argues for his own life experiences as reflective of a larger than personal theme, and that his phrase “the jocular considerations of the maximal” means the viewing of global concerns with some degree of wit, with a touch of the absurd. A poet betrays his “pretense of the minimal” when he tries to be an impartial observer, a chronicler of an event he has witnessed or of a landscape he has seen; his presence in the poem—his personal “I” speaker—negates his intended impartiality, or objectivity, towards his subject. In chapter 2 we saw this “pretense of the minimal” in Lowell's “The Mouth of the Hudson,” where the speaker regards “the single man's” and “the Negro's” concerns as his own finally.
Strand reads Stevens, however, as having successfully avoided such pretense by constructing poems that begin about another's concerns, then move outward to embrace universal questions: “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,” and “The Paltry Nude Starts on a Spring Voyage” are a few examples from his early work. These jocular titles lead us to poems of “maximal” subject matter; in each, Stevens's presence is not visible. Each poem concentrates on the individual named in its title; consequently, Stevens's discussion of universal matters is filtered through his representation of these paltry and jocular characters. Yet these poems of Stevens employ a particular individual—Peter Quince, the “Oncle,” the Nude—(and none acting as a persona) in order to achieve his measure of self-effacement. In this sense, these figures are like dramatis personae. Yet Strand's objective is to achieve the same extent of impartiality, and impersonality, while using an “I” speaker that is neither a persona (that is, a representative “I” speaking in behalf of all) nor one that is entirely confessional.
Another phrase from The Sargeantville Notebook explains how such an “I” can function in personal poetry: “The poet could not speak of himself, / but only of the gradations leading toward him and away.” If the poet explores that which leads toward him and away from him, he will come to a better understanding of himself. Strand has written further about this in “A Statement about Writing”:
Ideally, it would be best to just write, to suppress the critical side of my nature and indulge the expressive. Perhaps. But I tend to think of the expressive part of me as rather tedious—never curious or responsive, but blind and self-serving. And because it has no power, let alone appetite, for self-scrutiny, it fits the reductive, dominating needs of the critical side of me. The more I think about this, the more I think that not writing is the best way to write.
Whether I admit it or not, I write to participate in the delusion of my own immortality which is born every minute. And yet, I write to resist myself. I find resistence irresistible.
His use of the phrase “which is born” is ambiguous; it could likely mean that his delusion of immortality is that “which is born every minute,” or, perhaps, that his immortality is born every minute that he writes.
Whichever is intended, his stated goal is to “resist” himself. Because his expressive part is blind to everything except that which is self-serving, his critical side is necessary for self-scrutiny, self-definition (which, according to Strand's notion, is reductive), and it is this side that “dominates.” The need for self-scrutiny, for self-definition, is separate from the self-serving impulses. It is this critical side that helps Strand control the tone of his poems which in turn contributes to the seeming absence of self, or rather, the impersonal voice, of the “I” speaker. Strand, in concentrating on self-scrutiny (the critical side of his nature), can resist himself; that is, he can resist the more personal, intimate tone which is expressive and self-serving. For this reason, that he writes to resist himself, Strand, as we shall see later in the chapter, mocks the extremely personal indulgences of poets like Adrienne Rich or Anne Sexton, to name but two. Although self-definition is reductive, and therefore mostly contrary to self-scrutiny—in that one should, presumptively, expand one's self-awareness through such scrutiny, not limit oneself to a single, finite, definition—it cannot be avoided since it is a “dominating need” of Strand's critical nature.
Consequently, he does attempt self-definition in his work, yet it is neither finite nor reductive. Strand's speaker defines himself by all that he is not. Consider this early poem, “Keeping Things Whole” from Reasons for Moving (1968)—this poem (with the title “A Reason for Moving”) was included originally in his first book, Sleeping with One Eye Open (1964), a limited edition—in which the “I” speaker defines himself by his absence:
In a field I am the absence of field. …
Wherever I am I am what is missing. …
We all have reasons for moving. I move to keep things whole.
Strand's sparse use of words, regular syntax, and simple prose sentences (six comprise the poem) are appropriate aesthetic choices; each helps to reflect the speaker's feeling of absence. The poem's content is the speaker's self-scrutiny which leads to his self-definition: “I am what is missing.” The speaker characterizes himself by a description of absence; he defines himself in terms of that which is not present: “In a field / I am the absence / of field.” Yet the poem enumerates particulars of the physical world: a field, the air. And although the speaker is part of physical reality, he considers himself a void. When standing in a field, he has no relationship to it other than using it to illustrate what he is not. The speaker is obviously alienated from the physical world; he represents a nothingness, someone unable to mark his presence: “the air moves in / to fill the spaces / where my body's been.” Of this self-definition, Harold Bloom has written: “Beneath the grace, this is desperate enough to be outrageous. This ‘I’ might wish he were asleep elsewhere as well as here, and so be no man rather than two. His absence seems a void that his presence could not fill, or a wound that his presence could not heal” (135).
In Strand's The Monument (1978), prose represented as the work of an anonymous author who addresses his future translator, giving him instructions how the work should be best represented in order to ensure the author's immortality, a particular passage (n9) explains further the concept of nothingness. It begins with an epigraph taken from Wallace Stevens's “The Man with the Blue Guitar”:
… Nothing must stand Between you and the shapes you take When the crust of shape has been destroyed. You as you are? You are yourself.
It has been necessary to submit to vacancy in order to begin again, to clear ground, to make space. I can allow nothing to be received. Therein lies my triumph and my mediocrity. Nothing is the destiny of everyone, it is our commonness made dumb. I am passing it on. The monument is a void, artless and everlasting. What I was I am no longer. I speak for nothing, the nothing that I am, the nothing that is this work. And you shall perpetuate me not in the name of what I was, but in the name of what I am.
Since this passage suggests the absence of the author (“what I was I am no longer” and “the nothing that I am”), that which the author “passes on” in leaving behind his work—his monument—is a “void, artless and everlasting.” His work is artless because it is prose—uncomplicated, simple sentence patterns—and everlasting because the translator places it in the world's literary canon. Strand said in an interview with Frank Graziano that The Monument represents a notion of “the desire for immortality”:
That sounds rather grand … and making fun of it at the same time. I mean there are moments in one's life when one would like a guarantee that he will be read after he's dead. I thought this would be a clever way of doing it; writing a text for the translator who might … not be interested in the rest of one's work, or maybe just interested in the rest of one's work and telling him don't be, just do this. … [S]o I started writing The Monument and it became less and less about the translator of a particular text, and more about the translation of a self, and the text as self, the self as book.
The words in themselves may not require linguistic translation, but as representative of the author—his immortal self—they do require a translation (in much the spiritual use of the term) into the future, towards immortality. Strand, speaking from the point of view of The Monument's “author,” continued, in that interview: “[I]t's more than the things I've written, it's more than the text, it's my self that has to be continued. It's my self that has to be created again; the illusion has to be that I am doing it again, so that the translator in The Monument is my self, takes on an identity. It's not really being read in the future; that's what initiated The Monument. I mean I don't really care one way or the other, in truth” (37-8). What the author wishes to have translated, finally, is nothing: “I speak for nothing, the nothing that I am, the nothing that is this work. And you [he tells his translator] shall perpetuate me not in the name of what I was, but in the name of what I am”—nothing, whose work is a void. This is one way Strand is “making fun” of his fictional author's desire for immortality.
In a later passage (n22) in The Monument, the author more openly discusses the self's absence (and closely following this passage, the author insists on referring to himself only in the third person, thereby becoming in fact “absent” from his own text):
This poor document does not have to do with a self, it dwells on the absence of a self. I—and this pronoun will have to do—have not permitted anything worthwhile to be part of this communication that strains even to exist in a language other than the one in which it was written. So much is excluded that it could not be a document of self-centeredness. If it is a mirror to anything, it is to the gap between the nothing that was and the nothing that will be. It is a thread of longing that binds past and future. Again, it is everything that history is not.
The speaker attains self-effacement in that he removes himself from the restrictions of the present (“What I was I am no longer”) and attempts to become that which is expected in the future: “the nothing that will be.” In Stevens's terms, “you are yourself” when you have reached the “shape” after “the crust of shape has been destroyed.” That is, one understands a knowledge of self when the binding forces, which define oneself presently, are removed and a new shape for the future is created with anything left.
This is the speaker's purpose in “Giving Myself Up” from Darker (1970), in which the chantlike phrasing is incantatory and serves to simulate what might be an Eastern religious meditation of self-negation:
I give up my eyes which are glass eggs. I give up my tongue. I give up my mouth which is the constant dream of my tongue. I give up my throat which is the sleeve of my voice. … I give up my clothes which are walls that blow in the wind and I give up the ghost that lives in them. I give up. I give up. And you will have none of it because already I am beginning again without anything.
This poem comprises a rather complete list and is indicative of many characteristics common to Strand's work of self-scrutiny we have discussed so far. It is “artless” because it is lengthy and repetitious (both tire our patience); the intentional craft—that is, his choice of simple prose statements—contributes to this. Richard Howard's remarks about Strand's “Elegy for My Father,” from The Story of Our Lives (1973), may help to explain the use of prose in “Giving Myself Up”:
Strand divides to conquer, divides the self to conquer the self. … [F]or the price of experience, experience which Blake has told us cannot be bought for a song, is negation. Which is why Strand writes his lament not in verse but in the very dialect of negation, in prose, the one linguistic medium out to eliminate itself, to use itself up in the irrecoverable rhythms of speech rather than in the angelic (or ecstatic) measures of repetition and return.
But Strand's aesthetic in “Giving Myself Up,” on closer examination, is one of luscious phrases, increasingly so as the speaker gives up more of himself, so that the very act of self-negation becomes celebratory of his existence. In this poem—as with many of Strand's—the clear images and language can lull the reader away from its more complex intentions. Thematically, then, the poem indicates the speaker's self-divestiture, but its craft can be suggestive of the contrary.
Still, the speaker of “Giving Myself Up” sounds like a programmed machine, or someone in a trance, devoid of emotional anguish or excitement, and with an unchanging, stoic personality. Although an “I” is indeed giving himself up in the poem, it is an impersonal one, betraying a subdued wit just once by a quip of sarcasm in the final line. That the speaker begins “again without anything” is his declaring a state of nothingness (which parallels similar declarations: “the nothing that I am,” and “the nothing that will be” from The Monument).
Finally, like the speaker of “Keeping Things Whole,” the speaker of “Giving Myself Up” is apparently alienated from the physical world because there is no mention of it except in relation to various parts of his body. In giving himself up, the speaker only considers physical reality in terms of his body; he only knows the world in this way. When he gives up his smell, he leaves behind “a stone traveling through rain”; giving up his clothes means relinquishing “walls that blow in the wind,” and his lungs are “trees that have never seen the moon.” It is a solipsistic perception of the physical world; his place in it is determined by his presence or absence. When Graziano asked Strand about solipsism in his work, he replied: “I think a lot of contemporary poetry is solipsistic in that reality is a subjective determination and that we write about our vision of the world as if it were the world” (32). So Strand's definition is close to the metaphysical theory of solipsism which is, succinctly stated, that all real entities (that which we see) are only modifications of the self, states of our mind. This seems reasonably applicable to the speaker of “Giving Myself Up,” who may have, in actuality, given up nothing more than his way of viewing himself in relation to physical reality. He therefore is ready to begin “again without anything,” which is to say from a fresh perspective, a new state of mind.
That Strand manifests his critical side, his nature for self-scrutiny—particularly his penchant for “resisting” himself through his themes of nullity and absence and by means of his aesthetics which include an impersonal speaker, one who is stoic and solipsistic—has led Linda Gregerson, in writing of “Giving Myself Up,” to remark:
When Mark Strand reinvented the poem, he began by leaving out the world. The self he invented to star in the poems went on with the work of divestment: it jettisoned place, it jettisoned fellows, it jettisoned all distinguishing physical marks, save beauty alone. It was never impeded by personality. Nor was this radical renunciation to be confused with modesty, or asceticism. The self had designs on a readership, and a consummate gift for the musical phrase.
Except for the suggestion that Strand's musical phrasing (that is, his chanting) is a “consummate gift,” I would think this assessment fairly describes Strand's intentions, primarily in Darker.
Another poem similar in meaning to “Giving Myself Up” is “The Remains,” from the first section of Darker (which section is also titled “Giving Myself Up”). In this poem, the speaker empties himself of his life, or continues his “work of divestment”:
I empty myself of the names of others. I empty my pockets. I empty my shoes and leave them beside the road. …
Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same. I empty myself of my life and my life remains.
This is perhaps closer in content and tone to Stevens's lines from “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” used to introduce The Monument passage concerning the speaker's change to nothingness, which lines were: “When the crust of shape has been destroyed. / You as you are? You are yourself.” In “The Remains,” the speaker pronounces: “I change and I am the same.” Like Lowell in “Memories of West Street and Lepke,” Strand's speaker traces his “seedtime” attempting to determine, as he states, “what I am.” The tone of this poem, however, strikingly contrasts with that of the confessional mode of voice. Whereas Lowell's is immediately personal (as documented by the autobiographical content of the poem and by the urgency of the voice, the sense of personal drama evoked by the tone of the first person speaker), Strand's tone is controlled to the extent of making the speaker—again—stoic, and his words flat, neither urgent nor passionate. His rhetorical questions (which he proceeds subsequently to answer) and his self-revelations as simple pronouncements of fact make Strand's tone here, like that of “Giving Myself Up,” one reflective of the impersonality of the speaker. One level of absence has been reached in these poems, then, in that the personal has been removed from the “I.” Strand has invented a self “to star” in these poems of self-divestiture. The self invented by Lowell—or any poet of the confessional or persona modes—is one for public representation, to use Trilling's argument, but it remains a personal self that is closely connected to the poet.
Strand's poetic self, and the voice of that self, achieve for him the peculiar tone of the poems of Reasons for Moving and Darker, a tone so different from that of the speakers of the confessional or persona modes that it is at once bolting and impressive to most readers. Bloom has written:
The irreality of Borges, though still near, is receding in Darker, as Strand opens himself more to his own vision. These poems instantly touch a universal anguish as no “confessional” poems can, for Strand has the fortune of writing naturally and almost simply (though this must be supreme artifice) out of the involuntary near solipsism that always marks a central poetic imagination in America. An uncanny master of tone, Strand cannot pause for mere wit or argument but generally moves directly to phantasmagoria, a mode so magically disciplined in him as to make redundant for us almost all current questers after the “deep image.”
Others have commented on Strand's “uncanny mastery of tone”: Linda Gregerson writes, “Strand undoubtedly studied something of tone from Donald Justice, whose perfect elegance is always perfectly double. Justice has polished a surface in order to aggravate the discrepancies between manner and tone, has cultivated, in other words, the inherent ambiguity of perfect manners” (92). Peter Stitt, in his essay “Stages of Reality,” feels that the poems from Sleeping with One Eye Open “introduce us, inevitably, to the characteristic speaking voice of nearly all early Strand poems—the consciousness through which everything seen, thought, felt, is filtered. Undoubtedly, this character is very nearly identical to Mark Strand himself, and yet to equate him with Strand would be to deny the role the imagination plays in these, as indeed in all poems, however directly ‘confessional’ they may appear to the naive reader” (201-2). Of that first collection, Richard Howard, in Alone With America, writes: “By writing an existing language as if it were his own invention, by confiding his endurance of dissolution to traditional discourse, Strand achieves … the spooky sense that he is being written by someone else, by something else, an energy his own only in that it moves through him, for it does not proceed from him. … [These poems] register a collapse, a defeat, a disintegration of the identity they are concerned to disclose, they do so with the tenantless decorum of alienation, of otherness …” (591-2). And Stanley Plumly, in his review of Darker, observed, “If there is a poetry of the absurd, Strand is its present master. … [I]t is the artifice, the revelatory means of Strand's special madness, that defines his intention and achievement. ‘The Sleep,’ for example, reminds us of nothing really new. … What is profound, of course, is the execution of the perception, especially Strand's marvelous ability with timing and tone” (79).
Strand, too, is conscious of his voice—which ultimately determines tone—and felt that in Darker he had achieved some “mastery” of it. When Plumly, in an interview, commented: “I have a greater sense of speaking voice, say, direct to Mark Strand in Darker,” Strand replied: “I agree. … There are other voices in Reasons for Moving. There are other voices in Darker, too, but I think that I don't rely on them; I think I use them with—I don't want to say greater control—but I use them because I've chosen to” (61), which is to say in essence that in Darker Strand believes he achieved a control of voice. In choosing a voice, or speaker, for each poem, he has eliminated the possibility that his subject matter dictate to him which voice to use. (Some subjects—such as Lowell's from the Life Studies poems we have discussed—demand a particular, confessional voice appropriate to the poem's content.) Strand's Darker poems, however, begin with an impersonal self as its voice, regardless of the individual poem's subject. The voice is “direct to Mark Strand” because it reflects his personal inquiry of the self. His “uncanny mastery of tone” is a result of his poems' subjects: impersonality, self-negation, and absence. But if he is hesitant to “say greater control,” he is willing to label his voice as “restrained.” In attempting to determine the influence other poets have had on his work, Strand told Richard Vine and Robert von Hallberg: “… it has to do with a certain tone, a tone I associate with George Herbert: a kind of restrained, but not withheld, conversational tone, not inelegant, not elegant, and very hard to maintain” (130).
Strand's tone, then, is determined by the self he defines in his poems—the impersonal, the self of absence—who is also the poem's speaker. His craft, specifically his use of the impersonal “I,” and his subject, the quest for self-definition and thus fulfillment, function in tandem to effect the “restrained, but not withheld” tone. A detailed examination of this unique tone will better define the self-effacing “I.”
In Strand's early poetry, the speaker's purpose is to discover his place in the contemporary world and his relationship to it. Having found neither (as has been shown in such poems as “Keeping Things Whole” and “Giving Myself Up”), he alters himself—rather than the world—and strives for his other self, a void of a self, one of nothingness, for, as Octavio Paz has written of Strand's Selected Poems (1980): “To be alive is to be absent from oneself—or, an extreme and desperate means of being present to oneself. The poetry of Mark Strand explores the terra infirma of our lives. Fascinated by emptiness, it is not strange that he should conceive the poem as a description of absence; but at the same time his vision continually stumbles against the blunt, obtuse reality of things and beings irrevocably trapped in brute existence.” That one self, the one present in the physical world, who is paranoid and alienated, can transform into another self, the “other,” absent from any relationship to the world, was suggested by “The Remains,” or his poem “The Guardian” which concludes: “Guardian of my death, // preserve my absence. I am alive.”
Since tone is determined by the speaker (as I. A. Richards instructed us, it is the attitude the speaker adopts towards the poem's subject) and because the speaker in these early Strand poems defines himself in terms of absence, an impersonal “I”—which is to say the self-effacing voice—results. However, in Strand's poems, subject matter is not the sole determination of the voice's tone; the speaker's wit and sense of the absurd also contribute. In analyzing this tone, let us first consider the speaker's sense of alienation further, then the ensuing pursuit of his “other” or double self—a pursuit resulting from the speaker's alienation—and finally his notion of the absurd. Each operates towards formulating Strand's voice of self-effacement.
That Strand's “I” finds the world alien, and himself so afraid he is unable to cope with it, was evident in the poem “Sleeping with One Eye Open” in which the “I” expresses his abject paranoia, as this selection shows:
It's my night to be rattled, Saddled With spooks. … Oh I feel dead, Folded Away in my blankets for good, and Forgotten. My room is clammy and cold, Moonhandled And weird. The shivers Wash over Me, shaking my bones, my loose ends Loosen, And I lie sleeping with one eye open, Hoping That nothing, nothing will happen.
Although the speaker's phobias keep him awake, he remains composed enough to tell us of them by way of rather clever, end-rhymed couplets (including slant rhymes and off rhymes), the last three lines comprising a closure rhyming “open,” “hoping” and “happen”—hardly the phrasing of an acutely paranoid insomniac. Strand's playful sense of the absurd—evident here by his attributing ingenious speech patterns to his speaker whose “bones are shaking”—informs this otherwise disturbing monologue of a frightened man.
The same fears are expressed more solemnly in “When the Vacation Is Over for Good” which concludes with the speaker wondering “just what it was / That went so completely wrong, or why it is / We are dying,” and in “Violent Storm” (both from Sleeping with One Eye Open) in which the speaker proclaims of the “long night sweeping over these trees” that:
for us, the wide-awake, who tend To believe the worst is always waiting Around the next corner or hiding in the dry, Unsteady branch of a sick tree, debating Whether or not to fell the passerby, It has a sinister air.
Earlier in the poem, the speaker alludes to the “us” as “nervous or morbid,” and their unquieting considerations are held in contrast to “Those who have chosen to pass the night / Entertaining friends / And intimate ideas in the bright, / Commodious rooms of dreams.” These people are oblivious to the sinister air, apparently; they:
Will not feel the slightest tremor Or be wakened by what seems Only a quirk in the dry run Of conventional weather. For them, The long night sweeping over these trees And houses will have been no more than one In a series whose end Only the nervous or morbid consider.
In this direful world, the speaker tries to define himself in relation to his place in it. Ultimately finding that he is alienated from any physical part of the world—in a field, he is nothing but the absence of field—the speaker chooses what he believes to be the last recourse: to absent himself from the world, but to do so without actually dying. Consider “The Guardian,” a short poem from Darker, the last lines of which we have already seen:
The sun setting. The lawns on fire. The lost day, the lost light. Why do I love what fades?
You who left, who were leaving, what dark rooms do you inhabit? Guardian of my death,
preserve my absence. I am alive.
Only in absence, freed of his former, confining, fear of night, does the speaker feel alive. He now loves the “lost light”; he now chooses to inhabit dark rooms in an effort to preserve his absence from the reality of the physical world. There is a spiritual sense, too, to the reference of the mysterious “dark rooms”; it is in them that the speaker believes he can retain life. The problem, therefore, is one of transcendence. The killing of oneself, or physical death resulting from any cause, would preclude discovering the life one finds in absence, in the dark rooms of nothingness.
In “The Remains,” a poem of self-divestiture as we have seen, the speaker encounters this problem, finds no solution, and finally realizes: “I change and I am the same. / I empty myself of my life and my life remains.” Bloom, in his essay “Dark and Radiant Peripheries,” has written of this poem that what “remains” is:
everything about the self that ought to have only posthumous existence, when the poet will survive only in the regard of other selves. But this dread (which is one with the reality of him) is that already he survives only insofar as he has become an otherness capable of extending such regard. … “The Remains” is a poem written by Strand's alastor or Spirit of Solitude, his true voice of feeling. Its despairing wish—to be delivered from the self's prison without abandoning a self that can be embraced only when it in prison lies—is repeated throughout Darker in many superb modulations. …
The mode is phantasmagoria, of which the American master will always be Whitman. … Closer to Strand … is the Stevens who charted the “mythology of self, / Blotched out beyond unblotching.” Strand's peculiar courage is to take up the quirky quest when “amours shrink / Into the compass and curriculum / Of introspective exiles, lecturing,” concerning which Stevens warned: “It is a theme for Hyacinth alone.” Throughout Darker, Strand's risk is enormous. He spares us the opaque vulgarity of “confessional” verse by daring to expose how immediate in him a more universal anguish rages. …
What Bloom calls “the opaque vulgarity of ‘confessional’ verse,” Strand feels is “the pretense of the minimal,” as suggested earlier. Instead, Strand's speaker becomes an “otherness”—which is his final achieving of absence—only after some struggle with his double, in various guises, or this other self, who seeks entrance to (what he calls in “The Guardian”) the “dark rooms” which will ensure his absence and thus his life. So afraid of the emergence of this “other” that, at one point, the speaker of “The Tunnel” (from Sleeping with One Eye Open) threatens suicide to scare it away:
A man has been standing in front of my house for days. I peek at him from the living room window and at night, unable to sleep …
I weep like a schoolgirl and make obscene gestures through the window. I write large suicide notes and place them so he can read them easily. …
I feel I'm being watched and sometimes I hear a man's voice, but nothing is done and I have been waiting for days.
Again the speaker is frightened, unable to sleep, yet again he retains his wit. He “weeps like a schoolgirl” hoping to discourage his pursuer, and the public display of his “large suicide notes” is a jest aimed towards the “tragic generation” of poets, those whom Berryman elegized in The Dream Songs, and whose verse Bloom criticized as “opaque vulgarity.” Strand, I would think, inclines to agree with Bloom, as evident by his contrasting style of voice and by these remarks to Plumly: “… one of the horrifying things about many poets is that they lost, somewhere along the line, in the fervor of the inner debate, the idea of poetry. … They become, in fact, ‘chroniclers’ or ‘notators.’ They write notebooks or leaflets or what have you” (59). The intent, certainly, of “The Tunnel” is not to chronicle a personal experience, but to explore the terror—here presented in a mildly surreal circumstance—of confronting one's otherness, which nevertheless must be faced eventually if (to use Bloom's phrase) one is to be “delivered from the self's prison without abandoning a self that can be embraced only when it in prison lies,” which is to echo Strand's line from “The Guardian”: “preserve my absence. I am alive.”
Strand's speaker, then, faces the challenge of transcendence, of absenting himself while still physically alive—what Bloom in referring to “The Remains” called becoming “everything about the self that ought to have only posthumous existence.” This transcendence is close to being the “ultimate self-effacement” for one escapes from oneself in order to fill the void of not knowing oneself, and thus not knowing—and, consequently, fearing—one's relationship to the physical world, as Paz wrote: “To be alive is to be absent from oneself—or, an extreme and desperate means of being present to oneself.” The world must be illuminated, made less threatening, before the speaker can complete the process of becoming “alive.” For Strand, who inverts the notion of one's presence (as one's absence), that which is dark is most illuminating. Darker, finally, traces the process of the speaker's transcendence to the other—a process that includes his abandoning fear and gaining confidence—and in doing so, he reaches an understanding of self-definition. “Mark Strand's vision of [the world] is something like a photographic negative,” writes James Crenner. That darkness is inviting to the speaker is shown in the seventh of “Seven Poems,” which also serves as Darker's epigraph:
I have a key so I open the door and walk in. It is dark and I walk in. It is darker and I walk in.
Crenner has written of Darker: “It is as though your daily life has been translated into a haunted house, where the daylight is so bright you can barely make anything out, all bleached to a sameness; then the thunder rumbles and suddenly there is a bolt of darkness in which, for an instant, the heavy furniture and the corpse and the monster stand out clearly. The darker the clearer” (85). The analogy of the haunted house is a becoming one, for it suggests the witty and sometimes absurdly surreal vision of the speaker in many of these poems.
The process of becoming an “otherness” is that of disappearing into darkness, for in darkness lies life:
The present is always dark. Its maps are black, rising from nothing, describing …
the black, temperate necessity of its completion. As they rise into being they are like breath.
(from “Black Maps”)
Or, the act of diminishing is one of becoming:
Out of breath I will not rise again.
I grow into my death. My life is small and getting smaller. The world is green. Nothing is all.
(from “My Life”)
Flowers bloom. Flowers die. More is less. I long for more.
(from “The One Song”)
The double self, the other, is addressed in “My Life By Somebody Else.” The speaker, having tried various ways to lure the other out in the open, grows increasingly frustrated; the poem's concluding stanzas follow:
The days drag on. The exhausted light falls like a bandage over my eyes. Is it because I am ugly? Was anyone ever so sad? It is pointless to slash my wrists. My hands would fall off. And then what hope would I have?
Why do you never come? Must I have you by being somebody else? Must I write My Life by somebody else? My Death by somebody else? Are you listening? Somebody else has arrived. Somebody else is writing.
The two poems previous to “My Life By Somebody Else” in Darker are in fact “My Life” and “My Death”; all three are part of that book's final section which is also titled “My Life By Somebody Else,” as if Strand is implying that his speaker, having discovered the means of transcendence earlier in the book (that is, by seeking darkness, by diminishing), has now become “somebody else,” the otherness he sought. Here Strand has achieved self-effacement on at least three levels: Mark Strand is not projecting himself in this grouping of poems (collectively as “My Life By Somebody Else”), as the confessional or persona poet does. If we can continue to assume that Strand's work has been towards self-divestiture, then the life referred to in these poems is strictly invention, and Strand frequently injects moments that are not quite believable, or which are surreal or absurd, to emphasize the difference between the life presented in the poem by the speaker and the poet's actual (public) life. Further, the speaker of the poems is suggesting that that life is not really his either, but that it is controlled—it is being authored—by somebody else. And still another level of self-effacement is reached when, within the individual poem “My Life By Somebody Else,” a separate presence takes over that which the speaker has been writing. If it is necessary, as the speaker wonders, for “My Life” and “My Death” to have been written by somebody else before the otherness can appear, then that otherness, by appearing at the end of “My Life By Somebody Else,” has taken control of not just that one poem, but the entire grouping.
Both Strand and his speaker have been effaced from these poems. Crenner gives his perspective of the speaker's confrontation with his otherness as he writes of “My Life By Somebody Else,” in which Strand, Crenner argues, has “dramatized, with characteristic mastery of tone (‘You must have hated me for that’ … ‘Was anyone / ever so sad?’) the self/self dichotomy,” and continues that:
One is reminded of Borges' “Borges and I,” in which the narrating “I” speaks of the Borges to whom everything real happens and in whom the “I”—rather than in itself—has its being. The “I” concludes the piece with, “I do not know which of us has written this page.” But Strand here goes even Borges one better, beginning with two selves and ending with three (or maybe one)! The process of recording the cat-and-mouse game between the I and the missing self leads to the arrival of a third party, a “someone else” who by the end of the poem is writing the poem. We might recognize this “someone else” as the only possible union of the other two, a union which takes place only in the act (“writing”) of the poem. This is poetry as revelation.
Strand wants us to think of Borges. In his previous collection, Reasons for Moving, Strand takes as his epigraph Borges's phrase: “[W]hile we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men.” There are several poems following that concern Strand's notion of a double self—one is “The Tunnel” (originally appearing in Sleeping with One Eye Open) which we have already seen. Others are “The Whole Story” (also first included in Sleeping with One Eye Open) and “The Man in the Mirror”; none, however, is a “dramatization” in the manner of “My Life By Somebody Else.” Instead, each considers the notion of otherness accompanied by Strand's sense of amusement.
Strand, when giving a public reading of “The Whole Story,” will often tell of the poem's genesis, that as a young poet he showed his work to a much older (and famous) poet who told Strand not to repeat himself in his poems; that advice forms the poem's epigraph: “I'd rather you didn't feel it necessary to tell him, ‘That's a fire. And what's more, we can't do anything about it, because we're on this train, see?’” A selection from the poem follows:
How it should happen this way I am not sure, but you Are sitting next to me, Minding your own business When all of a sudden I see A fire out the window.
I nudge you and say, “That's a fire. And what's more, We can't do anything about it, Because we're on this train, see?” You give me an odd look As though I had said too much.
But for all you know I may Have a passion for fires, And travel by train to keep From having to put them out. It may be that trains Can kindle a love of fire.
The poem does not exist solely for its humor although some is rather revealing of human behavior. The speaker, for example, repeats verbatim, in the context of the poem, the dialogue already quoted in the epigraph. That is, the speaker cannot cease repeating himself even in a poem that attempts to justify such refrains, claiming that they are useful in recovering “the whole story.” But the large theme operative here concerns the dialogue the speaker has with himself—with his other self, specifically, as the last lines of the poem indicate. He has been talking to his reflection he sees in the window. In his oral introduction to this poem, Strand tries to make us believe the dialogue is between the speaker and the older poet who, thinking the speaker has said “too much,” gives him an “odd look.” Yet the speaker is attempting to understand his immediate situation of helplessness, and so considers all the possibilities in order to justify his not being able to “do anything about it, because we're on this train.” The “we” therefore would be the rational self and the emotional, or impulsive, self.
Further, the poem is in part a response to the older poet, informing him not to assume that repetition is unintentional and valueless. The speaker comes to some tentative understanding—if that understanding is only an awareness of the endless possibilities of the situation—by conducting this dialogue, complete with the repetitive thoughts and words to which any of us is prone, particularly when thinking to ourselves.
The personal “I” has been effaced by confusing its identity; it has two selves in this poem (maybe several more in a poem like “My Life By Somebody Else”). The controlled tone—without lineation, the prose is even, unemotional, matter of fact, as these lines near the end of the poem show: “And then again / I might be wrong. Maybe / You are the one / Who loves a good fire. Who knows?”—and the speaker's sense of the absurd (“I may have lied about the fire”), that the entire poem has been a hoax, also contribute to the self-effacement of the voice. What Strand would have us believe initially is that a poem of personal experience becomes yet another type of self-divestiture poem.
“The Man in the Mirror” presents another “self/self” confrontation. This long (five pages) poem—the final one in Reasons for Moving—is seemingly a “dialogue” between the selves, but since we never hear directly from the other self, the man actually “in the mirror,” it is more a slow, quiet monologue of the “I” addressing his reflection as “you.” Still, the speaker's reflection alone is insufficient for a self-confrontation because earlier in the poem, the speaker says “the mirror was nothing without you,” then adds later:
I remember how we used to stand wishing the glass would dissolve between us, and how we watched our words
cloud that bland, innocent surface, and when our faces blurred how scared we were. …
You never spoke or tried to come up close. Why did I want so badly to get through to you? …
It will always be this way. I stand here scared that you will disappear, scared that you will stay.
The speaker here is not “scared” in the same way as the paranoiac in Sleeping with One Eye Open, but is afraid of losing contact with his otherness and of that which the otherness has to reveal about the speaker's self-identity. In “The Tunnel,” the speaker urges the other self to leave; here the speaker is weary of the ensuing consequences if the other does so. The speaker has matured; his tone, not comically absurd, but serious (and without the emotional urgency of the confessional voice), is indicative of the surreal content: “we watched our words / cloud that bland, / innocent surface” of the mirror, rather than the speaker's physical breath, which in turn causes the reflection to blur.
Strand's aesthetic, his technique of craft, is enmeshed with his themes of self-discovery. To be is to be nothing—which, of course, echoes Stevens's final line from “The Snow Man”: the listener, “nothing himself,” stands watching the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” The self-effacing mode of voice serves to define Strand's speaker's growth from alienation to achieving absence from the physical world without physically dying, and it mirrors each poem's content. As the speaker becomes less afraid of his otherness, his tone becomes less comic. The speaker's reaction to his estranged world was that of humor, but as he began to better understand his relationship to it, the world seemed less strange, and his place in it more definite (“In a field / I am the absence / of field.”), no longer befitting a humorous response.
Strand told Richard Jackson that “the act of writing is itself a metaphor for the way we relate to the hidden resources of our lives. A truly exciting poem has something evasive or mysterious at the core, and it succeeds in suggesting to us that the core is essential to our being. But that core's absence reminds us of how precariously we exist in the universe that evades us, that is always beyond us” (13-14). The speaker of “The Man in the Mirror” ends his monologue by articulating this precariousness. That Strand's craft informs his poems' subject matter is stated best by Strand himself when writing of Donald Justice's work for Contemporary Poets:
From the very beginning Justice has fashioned his poems, honed them down, freed them of rhetorical excess and the weight, however gracefully sustained, of an elaborate diction. His self-indulgence, then, has been with the possibilities of the plain statement. His refusal to adopt any other mode but that which his subject demands—minimal, narcissist, negating—has nourished him. …
If absence and loss are inescapable conditions of life, the poem for Justice is an act of recovery. It synthesizes, for all its meagreness, what is with what is no longer; it conjures up a life that persists by denial, gathering strength from its hopelessness, and exists, finally and positively, as an emblem of survival.
Strand well could be assessing his own work here; he said to Plumly of Justice: “I've learned a lot from him. And I think he's learned some things from me, too. We share some of the same subject matter and give each other poems—that is, ideas for poems” (66-7). It is true of Strand's technique, too, that he refuses “to adopt any other mode but that which his subject demands—minimal, narcissist, negating,” and the mode to convey such subjects is the self-effacing voice, which Strand achieves, as we have seen demonstrated by his poems so far discussed, by his themes of self-definition and his tone. The self-effacing “I” is a matter of technique, but it is a technique available only for use in certain poems whose content allows for it. In “Keeping Things Whole,” the “I” is self-effacing because the speaker's definition of himself—the subject of that poem—is one of effacement, or absence from his presence in the physical world. In “My Life By Somebody Else,” the “I” is self-effacing because the poem's subject suggests a confusion of personal identity, an indefiniteness of the speaker-composer of the poem. And in “The Whole Story,” the comic tone becomes the subject; the ultimate joke of the poem is the speaker's disavowal of the subject of the fire—that is, his effacement from the poem's original subject.
Strand achieves the truly “ultimate” self-effacement in some of his translations, however. In something of the reverse of the intention of the speaker of The Monument, who desires immortality by being spiritually “translated” through his work which survives him, Strand at times leaves behind the author whose poem Strand literally translates. Consider “The Dirty Hand” from Reasons for Moving. Following the poem's title, in parentheses, is the inscription “after Carlos Drummond de Andrade,” yet we can assume it is Strand's own composition because he does not indicate otherwise. The poem is, however, neither a response to Drummond, an engagement of poetic dialogue with him, nor an adaptation in, say, the manner of Lowell's Imitations (1961) as might be thought considering the inscription. In 1976, Strand published the following translation of “The Dirty Hand” in Another Republic, in which he presented the poem as a translation of Drummond's. Strand's is very closely a literal rendering; I have compared it to John Nist's literal translation of it found in Nist's In the Middle of the Road (1965). Here is a selection of Strand's translation from Another Republic:
My hand is dirty. I must cut it off. …
I used to keep it out of sight, in my pants' pocket. No one suspected a thing. People came up to me, wanting to shake hands. I would refuse and the hidden hand would leave its imprint on my thigh. And I saw it was the same if I used it or not. Disgust was the same. …
It is impossible to live with this gross hand that lies on the table. Quick! Cut it off! Chop it to pieces and throw it into the ocean. With time, with hope and its intricate workings another hand will come, pure, transparent as glass, and fasten itself to my arm.
The following is the text of what Strand implies is his own poem, “The Dirty Hand” (“after Drummond”), published eight years prior to the appearance of his translation we have just seen:
My hand is dirty. I must cut it off. …
I used to keep it out of sight, in my pants pocket. No one suspected a thing. People came up to me, wanting to shake hands. I would refuse and the hidden hand, like a dark slug, would leave its imprint on my thigh. And then I realized it was the same if I used it or not. Disgust was the same. …
It is impossible to live with this gross hand that lies on the table. Quick! Cut it off! Chop it to pieces and throw it into the ocean. With time, with hope and its intricate workings another hand will come, pure, transparent as glass, and fasten itself to my arm.
Strand makes his claim of authorship based on four changes in Drummond's text: In line three of the second stanza, “Strand's” poem reads “in my pants pocket,” his translation of Drummond is “in my pants' pocket” (the poems were published by different presses; I am discounting the allowance for “house style”); in line nine of the same stanza, Strand includes “like a dark slug,” which was omitted from his translation; in line twelve, also of that stanza, Strand writes “And then I realized” instead of the “And I saw” of his translation; and the last change, in the penultimate line of stanza three, reading “lethargic and crablike” in Strand's “The Dirty Hand,” was omitted from his translation.
If these differences are slight, they are enough to alter (however slightly) the tone and emphasis of the poem. The voice of Strand's translation of Drummond betrays a Christian sensibility. That is, Drummond clearly means to suggest, in part, “if thy hand offend thee, cut it off” from the Gospel of St. Mark, 9:43. Strand's poem is different—that is, taken from, or “following” Drummond—because Strand now emphasizes, by adding two more lines of description to the hand (making it more definitely metonymic), the slothfulness of the human condition, and, by implication, the desire for something supernatural to replace it.
But this is mere justification. Strand has implied that his early version of “The Dirty Hand” is his own poem, not Drummond's. (And such a claim is almost believable given that Strand's flat style—the result of his careful and complete tonal control—makes all his early poems read as though they were themselves translations.) Nothing could be more self-effacing than to remove oneself nearly entirely from the poem—from conceiving it, from actually writing it. Strand uses Drummond to author Strand's poem: the ultimate, and most absurd, act of self-effacement.
Strand freely admits to “basing” some of his poems on his reading of others' work. “Reading,” he said to Graziano, “is as much a part of experience as walking down the street or talking to people or anything. It's part of life. … [S]ometimes I don't know whether I read something or experienced it” (39-40). Strand's “jocular consideration” is to subvert the essence of the confessional and persona poets who rely so greatly on personal experience. Strand's personal experience of reading others' work—and taking their ideas, that is, their experiences—becomes the subject of his work. He continued in the same interview:
… the first of the “Night Pieces” [from The Late Hour (1978) is] a version of a paragraph toward the end of Bleak House. Of course I changed it a lot; turned London and the Thames into New York and the Hudson and I changed a lot of details to make it more contemporary, and I added things of my own.
Perhaps, then, Strand's acknowledgment—“after Dickens” follows the poem's title—is enough to suggest the affinity to the paragraph in Bleak House; its having been altered significantly makes it a genuine Strand poem. But consider our next example, something of “a third ‘Night Piece,’” Strand says, “that was based on a reading of Leopardi.” That poem, first published in Antaeus (Spring 1978) under the title “Poem after Leopardi,” but appearing as just “Leopardi” in his Selected Poems—leaving the reader without much of a clue to the meaning of the one word title—follows in excerpted form:
The night is warm and clear and without wind. The stone-white moon waits above the rooftops and above the nearby river. Every street is still and the corner lights shine down only upon the hunched shapes of cars. You are asleep. And sleep gathers in your room and nothing at this moment bothers you. Jules, an old wound has opened and I feel the pain of it again. You are asleep and I have gone outside to pay my late respects to the sky that seems so gentle and to the world that is not and says to me: “I do not give you any hope. Not even hope.” Down the street I hear the voice of a drunk singing an unrecognizable song and I hear a car a few blocks off. … Once when I was a boy, and the birthday I had waited for was over, I lay upon my bed, awake and miserable, and very late that night the sound of someone's voice singing down a sidestreet, wounded me, as this does now.
Here is my literal (as closely possible) translation of Leopardi's “La Sera Del Di' Di Festa”; I have chosen to translate a bit more than just the lines Strand retains for his “Leopardi,” omitting but a few lines from Leopardi's Italian text:
The night is sweet and clear and without wind, And the moon poses quietly over the roofs And in the middle of the gardens, and reveals In the distance the serenity of every mountain. Oh, my woman, Now every path is silent, and from the balconies Only a rare night lamp is shining. You are asleep, crouched in easy sleep In your quiet rooms, and no care eats at you, And, of course, you have no thoughts of how you have Opened the wound in the middle of my chest. You are asleep: I look towards the sky, which seems benign, And I salute it, and salute nature which wounded me once. “Hope?” nature said to me. “Hope I deny you … Only tears will shine in your eyes.” This day was a holiday: but all its fun You have ended with sleep, remembering perhaps In your dreams how many took to you today, How many you took to: it is not my name That comes to your mind. So here I ask What life can I look for … Where today are our famous ancestors crying, And the great power and armies and roar of Rome That covered land and sea? All is peace and silence; the world rests, Our passions have subsided. When I was very young, the holiday For which I anxiously awaited came and went, Leaving me in pain, awake, pressing my pillow; And in the late night, a song that rose from the streets, Dying little by little into the distance, Pained my heart, as now.
Strand eliminates some of Leopardi's verbiage (accouterments of the early nineteenth century), changes some of the diction to make the poem's sound and setting more contemporary, and ensures that the poem evokes an American, rather than Italian, evening after a holiday. Still, the situation here in “Leopardi” is remarkably that of Strand's-Drummond's “The Dirty Hand”; there is but slight difference in content, and none in meaning, between Leopardi's piece and what Strand calls his own poem, one “based on a reading of Leopardi”—a very close reading, obviously. Strand's inclusion of this poem in his “New Poems” section of Selected Poems simply as “Leopardi,” giving no clear acknowledgment to the poet whose work it is, can be justified if considering that Strand added his personal mark to the poem by addressing “Jules,” his wife. (Leopardi wrote, “Oh, my woman.”) Yet this makes Leopardi's “La Sera Del Di' Di Festa” appear to be Strand's, in the confessional mode of voice—particularly since it is placed in his Selected Poems following a grouping of his confessional poems about his childhood in Nova Scotia—when, in fact, it is Strand at his self-effacing best.
In another instance, Strand more subtly seduces us into believing that his poem “For Jessica, My Daughter” from The Late Hour is confessional—he does have a daughter named Jessica (and his Selected Poems is dedicated to her and to Jules)—until we realize that the poem's opening in a wind storm and its theme of a father's contemplating his daughter's future are too similar to Yeats's “A Prayer for my Daughter,” although the actual phrasing and specific lines of the two poems are dissimilar.
Nothing could be more jocular than to claim authorship of poems one has translated; indeed, the true author has been lost in the translation—as Drummond and Leopardi were, having been supplanted by the Strand who is actually effaced from these same poems. He could well title these: “My Poems By Somebody Else.”
For Strand, such a claim of authorship is a final display of the absurd, of phantasmagoria, which helped inform the controlled tone, a tone necessary in establishing the voice of an impersonal “I,” one defined by the degree to which he can achieve absence—from himself, from the physical world. The resulting self-effacing voice aids Strand in his personal inquiry into the constitution, the definition, of an individual in a contemporary world to which he feels no relationship or role other than that of filling a void. Such an inquiry—and tentative answers—could not have been effected without his use of the self-effacing voice, for, as we have seen, this voice cannot be distinguished from the self portrayed—and defined—in these poems, whoever it is Strand would have us believe is their author.
Bloom, Harold. “Dark and Radiant Peripheries: Mark Strand and A. R. Ammons.” Southern Review (New Series) 8.1 (1972): 133-49.
Crenner, James. Rev. of Darker, by Mark Strand. Seneca Review 2.1 (1971): 84-9.
Graziano, Frank. In Memory of Michael Morgan. Bryan, TX: Cedarshouse P, 1986.
Gregerson, Linda. “Negative Capability.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 9.2 (1981): 90-114.
Howard, Richard. “Mark Strand: ‘The Mirror Was Nothing Without You.’” Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950. Enlarged ed. New York: Atheneum, 1980. 589-602.
Jackson, Richard. “Charles Simic and Mark Strand: The Presence of Absence.” Rev. of Charon's Cosmology, by Charles Simic, The Late Hour and The Monument, by Mark Strand. Contemporary Literature 21.1 (1980): 136-45.
Plumly, Stanley. “From the New Poetry Handbook.” Rev. of Darker, by Mark Strand. Ohio Review 13.1 (1971): 74-80.
Strand, Mark. “A Conversation with Mark Strand.” Interview with Richard Vine and Robert von Hallberg. Chicago Review 28.4 (1977): 130-40.
———. “A Conversation with Mark Strand.” Interview with Wayne Dodd and Stanley Plumly. Ohio Review 13.2 (1972): 55-71.
———. “Donald Justice.” Contemporary Poets. Third ed. Ed. James Vinson. New York: St. Martin's P, 1980. 816-18.
———. “An Interview with Mark Strand.” With Cristina Bacchilega. Missouri Review 4.3 (1981): 51-64.
———. “An Interview with Mark Strand.” With Frank Graziano. Strand: A Profile. Ed. Frank Graziano. Iowa City: Grilled Flowers P, 1979. 29-48.
———. “Notes on the Craft of Poetry.” Antaeus 30-31 (1978): 343-47.
———. Preface. The Contemporary Poets: American Poetry Since 1940. Ed. Mark Strand. New York: World Publishing, 1969. xiii-xiv.
———. “A Statement about Writing.” The Generation of 2000: Contemporary American Poets. Ed. William Heyen. Princeton: Ontario Review P, 1984. 317.
———. “Untelling the Hour.” Interview with Richard Jackson. Jackson, Acts of Mind 13-18.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4253
SOURCE: Berger, Charles. “Reading as Poets Read: Following Mark Strand.” Philosophy and Literature 20, no. 1 (April 1996): 177-88.
[In the following essay, Berger presents a detailed explication of three poems by Strand: “Our Masterpiece Is the Private Life,” “The Next Time,” and “Great Dog Poem No. 2.”]
For close to a decade now, in the third or fourth phase of his career, Mark Strand has been giving us poem after poem marked by his familiar voice—luminous, deceptively casual, witty, allusive—as he builds up a body of work that thinks and sings ever more deeply about the poet's unavoidable life of allegory. This growing summa of poetic knowledge and readerly pleasure demands, as the best lyric poetry always does, that readers give themselves over to the rigorous joys of figurative reading, figurative argument. You stare and stare at the poem until something flashes—linkages, interpretive genealogies, a conjunction of words that opens up arguments. Wittgenstein asked: “How can that which we understand in a flash, be put to a use?” Literary criticism, I think, provides an answer.
Reading a poet like Strand shouldn't send you running to the library for secondary source material; instead, you let your memory for poetry run. This assumes that you indeed possess a memory for poetry. Nowadays—enter the polemics—poems are not considered to be sufficient contexts for critical discourse. They need to be supplemented, bolstered, by “wider” cultural texts. The remarkable poetry being written around us counts for very little in the precincts of academic debate, even though so much of this poetry speaks directly to issues of great polemical importance. And it should go without saying that the deep pleasures of tracking poetic language, wherever you will let it take you, wherever you will take it, goes untasted. The poems Mark Strand has recently been writing show him, I think, at the height of his power, as he thinks through the question of his place in poetry, the place of poetry in his life and ours, and the strange institution of poetry: so gripping in its hold on those who practice it as readers and writers, so hard to locate among the public monuments. The cultural critics don't seem to understand how one is chosen by poetry, and how the kind of poetry you choose to read, to write, to teach, to remember, constitutes a deep part of your public and private being.
At the same time, we should never espouse a defense of reading that limits us to the “poem-in-itself,” as if poems were not already layered, as if it were so easy to distinguish between imagination and interpretation. Poems have memories, as Rosanna Warren demonstrated so powerfully in her discussion of the formal genealogy of Auden's Freud elegy. A poet like Mark Strand displays a ghostlier kind of memory that signals to us a little less overtly, but no less hauntingly. This is never more apparent than in the three new poems of his that I will now discuss: “Our Masterpiece is the Private Life,” “The Next Time,” and, briefly, “Great Dog Poem No. 2.” Since these poems have yet to be published in a volume, I need to quote them in their entirety.
“OUR MASTERPIECE IS THE PRIVATE LIFE”
Is there something down by the water keeping itself from us, Some shy event, some secret of the light that falls upon the deep, Some source of sorrow that does not wish to be discovered yet?
Our happiness says we should not care, that desire Could cast its rainbow over the coarse porcelain of the world's skin And with its measures fill the air. Why look for more?
Why not in the brightness of this weather allow ourselves to be Astonished by the music and the privilege of our passing?
And now, my love, while the advocates of awfulness and sorrow Push their dripping barge up and down the beach, let's eat Our brill, and sip this beautiful white Beaune.
True, the light is artificial, and we are not well-dressed. So what. We like it here. We like the bullocks in the field next door, We like the sound of wind passing over grass. The way you speak, In that low voice, our late night disclosures … why live For anything else? Our masterpiece is the private life.
Standing on the quay between the Roving Swan and the Star Emaculate, Breathing the night air as the moment of pleasure taken In pleasure vanishing seems to grow, its self-soiling
Beauty, which can only be what it was, sustaining itself A little longer in its going, I think of our own smooth passage Through the graded partitions, the crises that bleed
Into the ordinary, leaving us a little more tired each time, A little more distant from the experiences, which in the old days Held us captive for ours. The drive along the winding road
Back to the house, the sea pounding against the cliffs, The glass of whiskey on the table, the open book, the questions, All the day's reward waiting at the doors of sleep …
The opening section of “Our Masterpiece is the Private Life,” hints at the temptations of the quest, the lure of “something down by the water”—Strand's version of Pound's “And then went down to the sea”—the beckoning tease of secrets, sources, events, promising distant discoveries of that which Strand simply terms “more.” Strand regards this mysterious something as a threat to happiness and, interestingly, to desire as well, thereby pointing to the appeal of an external event that might prove more than a fabrication of desire. The phrase “our happiness,” however, makes of happiness a possession rather than an essential part of ourselves, opening up the possibility that we might choose to jettison our happiness in order to “look for more.” The deeper argument against the expeditionary call of the “source” comes in the closing couplet of this section as Strand passes up on the quest in order to explore a state of charged, being-in-flux, that he names passing, and that he wishes us to read as the opposite of end-determined questing. Passing moves toward no goal. But Strand brings home to us the fact that it must move by his alignment of end-words in the closing couplet: “to be” is aligned with “passing”; indeed, “passing” underlies, substantiates being, in all its transience. Being is not at rest in Strand's view. It is in perpetual motion, guided by no terminal fictions. Nor is passing passive, at least as Strand has constructed it, for it depends upon our ability to perceive, and receive, brightness and astonishment. Our passing is a privilege, bestowed upon us by—who else?—ourselves, for we are being counseled to “allow ourselves to be.” This “allowance,” which becomes a “reward” by the end of the poem, grants license to practice the strict craft of aesthetic self-fashioning. It is an imperative, not an indulgence. Though Strand argues against looking for “more,” it should be clear that he is hardly content with less.
The poem's second section brings us to the table set by Wallace Stevens in so many of his hauntingly commonplace, austerely communal final poems. We eat and drink only the best, though we are poor in the Emersonian sense of holding hard to our native poverty, accompanied only by the interior paramour, a figment, a palpable impalpable other, a solitary auditor, a legion of the like-minded, an audience, et al. Nature is not a presence at the communal table, for the light is artificial—“True, the light is artificial,” Strand tells us, creating yet another of his tantalizing paradoxes, for “true” can indicate veracity as well as acknowledging the inadequacy of the light. Cunning understatement continues with the triple repetition of “like”: We like it here, We like the bullocks, We like the sound of wind passing over grass. The colloquial ease of liking masks the taxing search for likenesses in the world's arrangements.
The second movement ends with the pronouncement of the poem's titular, gnomic line: “Our masterpiece is the private life,” a line hard to get out of your head once you have heard it, a line whose implications are hard to contain. First of all, there is an implicit comparison being made, I think, between our way and the way of others. By the logic of counteridentification, those others need not even be named, because they are the lineaments of our perceived lack—if we are private, they are public, if we are small and domestic, they are large, traveling on the open road, if we are lyric then someone else, of greater scope, is writing new versions of the epic. Such comparisons of scale, it would be easy to point out, have been going on for as long as the history of lyric poetry, though the pain of comparison lingers.
But I am more interested in the equation, not the conjunction, of “masterpiece” with “the private life.” In a poem that likes to say “like,” how interesting it is that comparison is banished here, to be replaced by identity. Can a private life that accepts the regime, the rigor, of the masterpiece be truly private? Is privacy the same thing as solitude? Can it be shared? The lines preceding the phrase contain a strong ambiguity that speaks directly to this question. “The way you speak, / In that low voice, our late night disclosures. …” Does the companion speak those late night disclosures, or are they revealed, outside speech, by no identifiable other? The question is unanswerable because syntax allows either choice. If such disclosures are not interpersonal, may they be somehow transpersonal, in which case it would be hard to see them as a product of privacy. But the rhetorical force of the phrase, “Our masterpiece is the private life,” precedes and survives logical analysis, telling us something about our deep attachment to the realm of redemptive privacy.
The last section of this poem begins with a matter-of-fact turn to hyperbole, after so much understatement, but the invocation of Roving Swan and Star Emaculate—a convolved coupling of Yeats and Shelley—is hard to place, tonally. There's mockery, to be sure, but who or what, exactly, is being mocked? Are these emblems or slogans? Can poetry ever divest itself of its own history of grand rhetorical gestures?
Strand merges his own meditation on the words of the past with the night air itself, demonstrating yet again how difficult it is for the acute lyricist to disentangle words of the world from the world itself. But aesthetic pleasure has a restless, destructive spirit to it as well, especially for the contemporary creator of such pleasure, and like Yeats and Stevens before him, Strand celebrates the daily disappearance and destruction of such beauty, going so far as to read the setting sun, a figure for dazzling tropic power, as if its very darkening were a kind of “self-soiling,” detritus, the past evacuating itself as “what it was” yields to a new day. The natural arc of appreciation descends into a kind of bitterness or derogation here, but the verbal configuration of the fourth line, where the phrase “Beauty … sustaining itself” encloses its dismissal, indicates the lasting power of its grip.
And yet, if Star and Swan betoken transcendence, aesthetic or otherwise, that cannot be Strand's way. He has become one of our essential poets (and art critics) of the domestic sublime, the transfigured ordinary, so it is no surprise when this word—“ordinary”—breaks into the poem near the end, attacked by “crises”—public, private, poetic—that bleed into it, and bleed it as well. Stanley Cavell has been writing about the philosophy of the ordinary for a long time and I find his work to be deeply congruent in its figurative concreteness with the work of poetry. In This New Yet Unapproachable America (1989), he writes about Wittgenstein's effort to come upon the transformed ordinary in ways that are strikingly parallel to Strand's task: “Wittgenstein's insight is that the ordinary has, and alone has, the power to move the ordinary, to leave the human habitat habitable, the same transfigured. The practice of the ordinary may be thought of as the overcoming of iteration or replication or imitation by repetition, of counting by recounting, of calling by recalling. It is the familiar invaded by another familiar” (p. 47). But of course Strand's poem is not called “Our Masterpiece is the Ordinary Life,” and therein lies a question: what is the relation of the private life to the ordinary life? Is the private life closer to the lucent form of the ordinary than is the public life? What kind of communal life is there in the ordinary? In “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” Stevens was still haunted by the possibility of a religious, ceremonial aspect to the ordinary, recovering an earlier meaning of the word, but this doesn't appear to be a possibility for Strand, whose concerns, by the end of the poem, seem to center on the waning powers of his own privacy, rather than a failure to make the private public, as if inwardness itself were bleeding out. The poem's closing catalogue of daily events summons ordinary experience once again, hoping that to describe the world is to experience it, uncertain still as to just what status in the world the poet's private acts assume—but clear as to the necessity that drives him down that “winding road.”
“THE NEXT TIME”
Nobody sees it happening, but the architecture of our time Is becoming the architecture of the next time.
And the dazzle of light upon the waters is as nothing Beside the changes wrought therein, just as our waywardness
Means nothing against the steady pull of things over the edge. Naturally, we are concerned. Nobody can stop the flow,
But nobody can start it either. Time slips by; Our sorrows do not turn into poems, and what is invisible
Stays that way. Too bad desire has fled, leaving only a trace Of perfume in its wake, too bad so many people are moving away,
Too bad no voice comes forth from infinite space, from the fold Of dust and carpets of wind to tell us that this
Is the way it was meant to happen, that if only we knew How long the ruins would last, we would never complain.
Perfection is out of the question for people like us, So why plug away at the same old self when the landscape
Has opened its arms and given us marvellous shrines To flock towards? The great motels to the west are waiting.
In somebody's yard a pristine dog is hoping that we'll drive by, And on the rubber surface of a lake people bobbing up and down
Will wave. The highway comes right to the door, so let's Take off before the world out there burns up. Life should be more
Than the body's weight working itself from room to room. A turn through the forest will do us good, so will a spin
Among the farms. Just think of the chickens strutting, The cows swinging their udders, and flicking their tails at flies.
And one can imagine prisms of summer light breaking against The silent, hay-filled sleep of the farmer and his wife.
It could have been another story, the one that was meant Instead of the one that happened. Living like this,
Hoping to revise what has been false or rendered unreadable Is not what we wanted. Believing that the intended story
Would have been like a day in the west when everything Is tirelessly present—the mountains casting their long shadow
Over the valley where the wind sings its circular tune And trees respond with a dry clapping of leaves—was overly
Simple no doubt, and short-sighted. For soon the leaves, Having gone black, would fall, and the annulling snow
Would pillow the walk, and we, with shovels in hand, would meet
Bow, and scrape the sidewalk clean. What else would there be
This late in the day for us but desire to make amends And start again, the sun's compassion as it disappears.
“GREAT DOG POEM NO. 2”
Now that the great dog I worshipped for years Has become none other than myself, I can look within
And bark, and I can look at the mountains down the street And bark at them as well. I am an eye that sees itself
Look back, a nose that tracks the scent of shadows As they fall, an ear that picks up sounds
Before they're born. I am the last of the platinum Retrievers, the end of a gorgeous line.
But there's no comfort being who I am. I roam around And ponder fate's abolishments until my eyes
Are filled with tears and I say to myself, “Oh, Rex, Forget. Forget. The stars are out. The marble moon slides by.”
“The Next Time” says “architecture” where “Our Masterpiece is the Private Life” concerns itself with the single house, topos of the domestic sublime, which is not to say that this is a public poem, but to note Strand's more overt concession to his place in the poetic design of “our time” as it moves now to become both the prophecy and the memory of the next time. Despite your own design of a career, despite your never-disavowed desire to run with the pack, it still comes as something of a surprise to discover that you have become top dog, that you have indeed achieved coincidence with the image in the mirror. “Great Dog Poem No. 2”—retrieves the fabular wit of Moore, Stevens, and Frost (see his “Canis Major”) to create a brief skit filled with tricked-out truths about the career of a poet. “I am the last of the platinum / Retrievers, the end of a gorgeous line,” unforgettably clever, sad and true, serves as the motto for this poet's collar. The end of the line slips into “The Next Time,” a poem without jokes, a poem where the primal dazzle of light upon the waters—the refigured ordinary—is blinded by the sense of change, the sense of one architectural era passing into another, paradigm, overriding perception. We live in architecture, not houses, the poem says.
“The Next Time” has much to say about the instincts behind epochal thinking, what some of our colleagues call “periodization.” As the best poets do, Strand searches for elemental ambiguities, contradictions, in our broodings on the subject of eras, temporal boundaries, and our place in these schemes. Whatever of living, perceptual vitality might be sacrificed to the notion of architecture, the term, and everything behind it, must be seen in opposition to what Strand terms “the steady pull of things over the edge.” Architecture tries to freeze that steady pull, to diagram structures upon the “flow,” to use another of Strand's elemental terms. But even the word “edge” has a resistant edge to it, for it fights the frightening idea that things are always pulling away by assigning limits, boundaries to the flow. Without such zones of demarcation not only are we faced with undifferentiated time, but persons become annihilated: “Nobody can stop the flow, // But nobody can start it either.”
Strand combines the opposing ideas of architecture and decay, epoch and flow (epoch comes from the Greek to hold, to check) in the crucial word “ruins” that he manufactures at the end of the poem because no voice from infinite space will utter it. In Strand's use of ruins to describe the onrush of structures through time we can hear the Virgilian use of the word as a verb (urbs antiqua ruit), Frost's meditation on runnings down and resistance in “West Running Brook,” Stevens's meditation on poetic transmission in “A Postcard from the Volcano.” For Strand's poem is built upon these ruins; it inhabits this architecture.
“Perfection is out of the question for people like us, / So why plug away at the same old self” Strand writes at the beginning of the next poem in the sequence, thereby complicating Yeats's famous dictum in “The Choice”: “The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work.” The complication lies in the direction of effacing the distinction between life and work, empirical and aesthetic selfhood. Yeats, of all people, knew everything there is to know about this complication, but it has been left to certain American poets, especially in their later poems, to brood incessantly on the impossibility of getting behind the mask to the real self, getting into the precincts of the natural. Later and later into the career, every effort to speak naturally, to slough off the aesthetic self, finds yet another layer of intaglio. So, when Strand writes, “why slog away at the same old self,” he acknowledges not only that this has been going on for so long now, has such a history, but that it is impossible to locate that old self which predates aesthetic selfhood.
Any idea of the natural world offering an escape from the work of selfhood is put slyly into question by the ease with which Strand says “landscape” instead of land. The engine of the imagination cannot be turned off so easily. Even if it were, what would we be left with, other than a sense of the body's mere weight working itself from room to room? Against this Strand places the imagination of “prisms of summer light breaking against / The silent hay-filled sleep of the farmer and his wife.” Even the farmer, it turns out, is a dreamer. But any kind of complacent celebration of the high imagination of summer is tempered, I think, by the possible slide of “prism” into prison, indicating that the poet is indeed trapped in a world of perfectionism, despite the poem's opening assertion.
The last poem of the sequence conforms to a pattern of late poetry set by a number of our best poets—the look back at the whole career in apparent regret, only to discover the virtue in one's way of doing things, the sense of an ending being overtaken by the possibility of starting again. Strand proposes that “It could have been another story,” but once again this alternative autobiography would be just that—self writing, writing on the self, not an extraliterary narrative. Here, the subject of near-elegiac regret is the story Strand calls “the one that was meant / Instead of the one that happened.” Remembering that the contrived voice of fate at the end of the first poem in “The Next Time” declared “it was meant to happen,” we might be a little suspicious of this dichotomy, but emotionally, if not philosophically, it is an important one. The self of planned happenstance, the achieved, written self, is seen only as a reviser, but a reviser of the false and the unreadable. This is a fascinating claim, a great example of Strand's characteristically devilish understatement. To revise the false and the unreadable means what: to tinker with it or to change it? To turn the false true, the unreadable readable? (Since to render is also to translate, Strand might be talking about fine-tuning a translation, getting it closer to the spirit of the original.) One might compare Strand's line to Yeats's in “The Man and the Echo”: “Nor can there be work so great / As that which cleans man's dirty slate.” Kept endlessly open, endlessly interpretable, is the scope and force of revision.
Yet, Strand declares, being a reviser is not what we wanted, in any case. What we wanted, what we intended, was a story that would be “tirelessly present”—a story, since it is always there, in need of no revision or translation, a story that might be seen therefore as primary, original. Strand's economy spares us volumes of deconstructive analysis, for he demonstrates how what we really desire is a story that is like a day in the west, a day when everything is tirelessly present. Though one can clearly note the marks of distance in this story of presence, the pathos of nostalgia for the perfect day remains—a point seldom noted or honored by even the best deconstructionists, who have always had trouble accounting for the rhetorical forcefulness of poetry. Strand takes the day apart himself, however, calling this celebration of tireless presence “too simple and short-sighted.” “Simple,” etymologically, goes back to “one,” but this poem has already told us that there are always two ones: the one that was meant, the one that happened, the mountains and their shadows. And “short-sighted” would indicate the very opposite of what the poet's gaze is trained on.
The close of the poem undoes even the opening possibility that there ever was another story, for it closes, if it does not heal, the gaps between desire and revision, declaring that what else would there be, after all, but “desire to make amends.” The poem revises “revise” so that it becomes “make amends,” an activity more acceptable to desire because it more strongly implies self-correction, improvement. The poet can indeed plug away at the same old self if he improves it, revises it. Starting again doesn't imply abandoning the made self, but working it closer to a kind of perfection that can only be the fresh repetition of its achieved forms of mastery—not, as Hart Crane said, “an improved infancy” (“Passage”), but an improved poetic maturity. Which is exactly what Strand—and, I would add, John Hollander—have been doing in their most recent books.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1318
SOURCE: Manguso, Sarah. “Where Is That Boy?” Iowa Review 29, no. 2 (fall 1999): 168-71.
[In the following essay, Manguso contends that in Blizzard of One Strand “attempts to explain what happens when he can't show us the subject of his meditation.”]
The poems in Mark Strand's latest collection [Blizzard of One,] are missing their subjects. Some have sent false confirmations of their impending arrival, some have come and gone, leaving only their skittish footprints. Depending on a poem's voice, the results of the omission can vary from wry to mournful, but the speaker of nearly every piece, regardless of any ostensible topic, attempts to explain what happens when he can't show us the subject of his meditation. The voice in the opening piece, “Untitled,” asks, “… Where / Is she now? And where is that boy who stood for hours / Outside her house … ?” The poem fails to catch even the beloved's name, referring to her only as “So-and-So” or “The Adorable One.” Where, indeed, is the couple of this poem? Are they the runaway subject of the rest of the book? And where, for that matter, is the poem's title? The following pieces in the collection, empty of their own subjects and pursuant to varying degrees, seek the answer.
The sad, simple laments are among the book's most memorable pieces. In “I Will Love the Twenty-First Century” the speaker declares his missing main course. “The potatoes were hard, the beans soft, the meat—/ There was no meat.” There was no meat. Some subjects stay not only absent, but elusive, as does the unnameable subject in “What It Was,” a pronoun whose referent never surfaces. And in the collection's longest piece, “The Delirium Waltz,” the speaker seems unable (or unwilling?) to identify his dancing partner. With these gestures, Strand is either offering an apologia or problematizing the act of writing in general.
Sometimes these poems' subjects are, unarguably, there, but not there enough, as the speaker intones in “The Beach Hotel”: “… there in the faded light discover the bones, / The dust, the bitter remains of someone who might have been / Had we not taken his place.” We are here, and we are the subject, he says, but to choose one, to choose us, to choose anything at all, is tantamount to endorsing the deaths of all the others. So how will any subject comfort the loss of all the rest? How, asks the speaker in “A Suite of Appearances,” after the snow melts, “… will the warmth of the fire, / So long in coming, keep us from mourning the loss?” How will any subject ever offer enough to make us forget the other elusive or impossible ones?
In addition to sounding their frustrated lament, these speakers show us another contradiction encoded in the act of writing (or of existing)—that we thrust our subjects away in spite of ourselves. In “Precious Little,” the subject receives a swift kick. “‘Out of my way,’ you say to whatever is waiting, ‘Out of my way.’” After the expulsion, “You head west over the Great / Divide. …” Heading west recurs in the collection as a trope not so much of escape as of deliverance—west past the edge of the old, toward the realer subject, the truer destination. “So why plug away at the same old self,” asks the narrator of “The Next Time,” “when the landscape // Has opened its arms and given us marvelous shrines / To flock towards? The great motels to the west are waiting. …” Are they mirages? or real possibilities of salvation?
The speakers can hope for salvation because a “better” subject, though elusive, is at least imaginable, as in “A Suite of Appearances”:
… But beyond all that, what cannot Be seen or explained will always be elsewhere, always supposed,
Invisible even beneath the signs—the beautiful surface, The uncommon knowledge—that point its way.
Plato's well-worn theory of recollection surfaces here as if to remind us that—immortal or not—sometimes, we just know. What we can't see in these poems might always exist somewhere, always “elsewhere,” within some realm of the possible. Let us go and find them! the curious speakers urge.
Yet not all of them are ready for adventure. Some speakers display a groundedness (or an ennui?) that the restless others lack. One purpose of a subject, say the homebodies, is to remind us of all the other lost ones. In some cases the very subject itself, the signifier of all, may also number among the lost. “A Suite …” asks not whether we may step into Heraclitus' proverbial same river twice but, as Kierkegaard asked, whether we may step into it even once.
… the church bell
Tolled the hour. What more is there? The odors of food, The last traces of dinner, are gone. The glasses are washed. The neighborhood sleeps. Will the same day ever come back, and with it
Our amazement at having been in it, or will only a dark haze Spread at the back of the mind, erasing events, one after The other, so brief they may have been lost to begin with?
Can this speaker even experience anything—much less, remember it? If not, then what remains for him to hope for or seek? Can there be a poem if the subject is impossible?
Others of the collection provide an answer—that the mere desire for a subject can affirm enough, can offer enough of a reason for being. “Is there something down by the water keeping itself from us … ?” asks the voice in “Our Masterpiece Is the Private Life.” Is the subject there? And, if not, can we search for it anyway? “Why should we care? Doesn't desire cast its rainbows over the coarse porcelain / Of the world's skin and with its measures fill the air?” We might even abandon the search, this speaker suggests—for why search when desire already offers all we need? And in the face of desire's casting its rainbows, does it even matter what we seek or keep? Might we not even have what we think we have?
If we do not, then watching our shy subject's disappearance can at least be pleasurable. The speaker of “Our Masterpiece …” intones: “… the moment of pleasure taken / In pleasure vanishing seems to grow, its self-soiling // Beauty, which can only be what it was, sustaining itself / A little longer in its going …” If nothing remains to live for, he swears, we may at least take pleasure in pleasure's dissolving right in front of us.
In this collection, writing neither freezes nor keeps what it takes. Anything to which we direct our gaze, any subject we choose, will only change or disappear before we can record it. I can't decide whether this philosophy complements or contradicts Keats's “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which the art of recording is more, and not less, powerful than the world. But, whatever the case, the voice of the collection's final piece, “The View,” reaches some kind of resolution—if not by solving the problem of this collection, then at least by finding the ability to endure it.
… Slowly the sky becomes darker, The wind relents, the view sublimes. The violet sweep of it Seems, in this effortless nightfall, more than a reason For being there, for seeing it seems itself a kind Of happiness, as if that plain fact were enough and would last.
The act of living in a moment, after all, carries value in itself, however little sense we can make of it, and a moment's ability or inability to last in the world bears no relevance to its “kind of happiness.” In these poems it is not up to us to capture the subject, to find the boy. What the poems do capture, whether the subject is “there” or not, is what we must turn our attention to. Keats's “heard melodies” are the subject of this collection, and they are the moment, and they are all.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6452
SOURCE: Miller, Christopher R. “Mark Strand's Inventions of Farewell.” Wallace Stevens Journal 24, no. 2 (fall 2000): 135-50.
[In the following essay, Miller examines the connections between Strand's work and the poetry of Wallace Stevens.]
Wallace Stevens has many and diverse poetic heirs—John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, Charles Wright, and Mark Strand, to name a few—all practitioners of what Helen Vendler has called the “second-order poem” (12), or what Stevens himself called “The poem of the act of the mind” (CP [The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens] 240). As opposed to “first-order” poetry of statement or narrative, such a lyric translates the particulars of lived experience into an abstract language of meditation; its central actor is the large red man reading, a spirit storming in blank walls, the transparent man in a translated world. After Stevens, second-order poets, like the imagined future generations in “A Postcard from the Volcano,” inevitably speak his speech; Mark Strand is particularly fluent. Like Stevens, Strand can strike some readers as too abstract, and one critic has gone so far as to disparage Strand's early poems as “divorced from everyday truth” in favor of later ones in which the poet turns to quasi-autobiographical modes (Stitt 874).
The ultimate poem, as Stevens said, is abstract, and Strand seems to have taken this ethos to a further extreme: without Stevens' exotic vocabulary or syntactic complexity, he draws from an elemental lexicon of Platonic forms—trees, darkness, light, moon, room, breath, sleep, dreams—as if beginning in the “plain sense of things” of late Stevens. As Strand's mentor Donald Justice rhetorically asked in his “Homage to the Memory of Wallace Stevens” (1973), “Who borrows your French words and postures now?” (107). We might tentatively nominate Ashbery, whom Harold Bloom has called “the most legitimate of the sons of Stevens” (Anxiety 143), but not Strand. Yet Strand quotes Stevens more frequently than any of his contemporaries. For instance, he uses the famous refrain, “The world is ugly, / And the people are sad” (SP [Selected Poems] 79), as an epigraph; he muses on the far more obscure “Piano Practice at the Academy of Holy Angels” (DH [Dark Harbor: A Poem] 46); he inverts “A Child Asleep in Its Own Life” into his own title, “An Old Man Awake in His Own Death” (SP 128); and he borrows the notion from Stevens' poem “Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu” that in a world without heaven all is farewell.
As Harold Bloom has argued, “Even the strongest poet must take up his stance within a literary language,” and strength is thus measured in the degree of “usurpation” or “imposition” the poet exerts (Poetry and Repression 4). Is Strand, then, a “strong poet”? Not exactly in the strict sense of Bloom's formulation, since Strand does not so much usurp as self-consciously quote, sometimes even representing himself in the act of meditating upon Stevens' words. At the same time, Strand demonstrates Bloom's axiom that poetry constitutes a form of criticism, and vice-versa: Strand has theorized his own anxiety of influence in The Monument (1978), a prose meditation on poetic transmission. These postmodern variations on the theme of the Death of the Author, with their extracts from Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Stevens, Whitman, and others, propose that all reading is a form of writing, that all quotation is a form of translation, that every poet is belated. Stevens saw the world as meditation; Strand, through the lens of deconstruction, sees the world as text, an invisible “monument” temporarily constructed, or reconstructed, by future generations of readers.
If, as Stevens said, the poem is the cry of its occasion, Strand would define the “occasion” itself as the moment of reading, and only that, as in this commentary on a passage from Stevens:
Shine alone, shine nakedly, shine like bronze, that reflects neither my face nor any inner part of my being, shine like fire, that mirrors nothing.
Why have I chosen this way to continue myself under your continuing gaze? I might have had my likeness carved in stone, but it is not my image that I want you to have, nor my life, nor the life around me, only this document. What I include of myself is unreal and distracting. Only this luminous moment has life, this instant in which we both write, this flash of voice.
(M [The Monument] 3)
Strand's quotation can be called second-generation borrowing, since Stevens was in turn commenting on a fragment from Williams (“Nuances of a Theme by Williams,” CP 18). In this poetic succession, Williams first finds “strange courage” from the sparkling of an “ancient star”; Stevens contemplates the star as a kind of First Idea devoid of human pathos; and Strand implies that the text itself is a kind of stellar radiance that exists only in the act of beholding it some light-years later. As if to demonstrate this point, Strand echoes Stevens even in the act of interpreting him, for in this projected “flash of voice,” he subtly invokes the elegiac “earthly mother” of “The Owl in the Sarcophagus” who “in the syllable between life / And death cries quickly, in a flash of voice, / Keep you, keep you, I am gone, oh keep you as / My memory” (CP 432). Throughout The Monument, Strand writes in registers of intellectual teasing, deconstructive knowingness, and surrealistic narrative; but here, where he aspires to elegiac sublimity, he turns to Stevens.
Stevens famously said that the American Sublime “comes down / To … / The empty spirit / In vacant space” (CP 131), and in this sense, Strand can be considered a poet of the sublime, but with a difference. If Stevens' early statement of this theme is “The Snow Man,” Strand's is the poem “Keeping Things Whole.” Stevens, with a sense of his own belatedness in the romantic tradition of meditative-descriptive landscape poetry, contemplates a landscape devoid of human meaning; but Strand goes even further by considering his mere physical presence as an intrusion. This is the difference between being postromantic and postmodern (or, more precisely, post-Stevens). While Stevens refracted the romantic poetry of experience through various alter egos and interior paramours, Strand typically speaks directly through the lyric first person, but he speaks as a spirit in vacant space, a bare Cartesian “I”:
In a field I am the absence of field. This is always the case. 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.
We all have reasons for moving. I move To keep things whole.
In its progression of deadpan observations, the poem renders the sublime encounter with the void as an existential joke. Bloom has said that “The Snow Man” revisits Emerson's transcendental moment of crossing a New England common and becoming a “transparent eyeball” (Poetry and Repression 269); Strand's poem continues this theme in a seriocomic vein. In Emerson's binary terms, the “me” is the cogito, the monad that thinks and feels, the voice of the lyric “I”; and the “not-me” is everything else—people, places, things, even one's own body. But in Strand's wry rendering of this dualism, the “me” becomes the body and almost nothing else, an Archimedean object that displaces air. This is a far cry from Emerson, who turns the air into a trope for Spirit itself:
Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball, I am nothing; I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.
In the arc of his epiphany, Emerson reimagines the sensual “blithe air” as the metaphysical “currents of the Universal Being” and transforms the surface play of bathing into the thorough soak of circulation. Emerson and Strand, then, have markedly different notions of “keeping things whole”: one whole includes the self, the other does not.
In comparing “Keeping Things Whole” with “The Snow Man,” we can see a fundamental difference in poetic procedure: whereas Stevens' poem consists of a fifteen-line sentence riding gracefully on the currents of infinitives and subordinate clauses, Strand's proceeds in terse subject-predicate increments. The difficulty and marvel of reading a Stevens poem lies in grasping its sinuous turns of thought; a Strand poem, in contrast, challenges us to construe complexity from simplicity. Like many Strand poems, “Keeping Things Whole” is structured by repetition: field / field, I am / I am, air / air, moving / move—strict binaries of presence and absence, before and after, the many and the one. For all the speaker's self-effacement, the first-person pronoun appears six times, three times in the jehovan phrase of the first stanza, “I am.” It is as if the Snow Man were given a lyric voice, with this naked utterance as his one certain statement. It is a statement with subtle shadings, as the chiasmus demonstrates: “Wherever I am / I am what is missing.” The first line is a statement of location, the second of identity, and this is the crux of the poem: where you are will never be in perfect alignment with who you are. Stevens' poem contains its own grammatical éclat: the thrice-uttered “nothing” of the final tercet, in which “the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (CP 10). Just as Stevens famously puns on the sense of “nothing” as both negating and positing, then, Strand plays with a binary sense of “I am.”
Strand's repetition of “always” strikes another sardonic note: it is as if the speaker had empirically to verify the fundamentals of his existence as a body in space, as if he were constantly rediscovering the idea. “This is / always the case”: it is not that I occasionally feel myself to be an absence; I realize over and over that I am a thing apart from everything else I behold. “Always the air moves in”: I am constantly struck by the way that the world effaces all traces that I have ever lived in it. It is in Strand's poetic temperament not to render this as an epiphany; rather, he treats simple movement as an obsessive-compulsive disorder, with the pop-psychology tinge to the phrase “keeping things whole.” So suggestive is this phrase that we are tempted, as with many of the elliptical, vaguely surrealist narratives of Strand's early poetry, to construct some allegory about loss, or love, or death; and certainly all manner of “things” might be worth keeping “whole.” But Strand's laconic “I” strictly avoids the hint of any emotion at all; he has gone even beyond the mental exercise of purgation in “The Snow Man.”
Both “The Snow Man” and “Keeping Things Whole” implicitly respond to the creative challenge of writing a twentieth-century landscape poem; but in their gestures of abnegation, they represent only one aspect of their authors' sense of self and world. Stevens, in fact, revises his poem in “A Postcard from the Volcano” by imagining a posthumous return to his wintry landscape a generation or so ahead and insists that he once had “a being, breathing frost,” and that “what we felt / At what we saw” has persisted in “The look of things” (CP 159). Here, Stevens restores the link between seeing and feeling, between beholding frozen trees and thinking of misery in the sound of the wind, and between dead language and living speech. Strand, likewise, wrote a sort of counterpoint to “Keeping Things Whole” in his poem “Breath,” from Darker. For both Stevens and Strand, breath serves as a figure for the physical and spiritual interchange between self and world; and here Strand humanizes the abstract self of “Keeping Things Whole” by suggesting what the earlier poem forgot to mention about the air—that it both suffuses and surrounds the body.
In both Stevens and Strand, breath becomes a trope for the nonverbal—the corporeal basis of poetry rather than the divine spiritus of traditional mythology. Characteristically, Strand develops his idea through chant-like repetition rather than Stevensian dialectic. To see how Strand appropriates the figure of breath, I will first consider Stevens' meditation on the theme in “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” where it unfolds through appositional layering:
Our breath is like a desperate element That we must calm, the origin of a mother tongue
With which to speak to her, the capable In the midst of foreignness, the syllable Of recognition, avowal, impassioned cry,
The cry that contains its converse in itself, In which looks and feelings mingle and are part As a quick answer modifies a question,
Not wholly spoken in a conversation between Two bodies disembodied in their talk, Too fragile, too immediate for any speech.
The strangely haunting urgency of that “desperate element” begins an arc from birth to adulthood; from mother tongue to paramour; from the first gasp of air to the erotic breathings of “recognition, avowal, impassioned cry.” Here, breath suggests what cannot be verbally communicated between any two people; it reminds us of the corporeal and earthly dimension of poetry even as it shadows forth the poem of the mind (“looks and feelings”) that eludes any poem of the page. If all words are ultimately foreign to us, breath is our native “speech,” the true lingua franca of immediate contact; it is the “converse” of verbal “conversation.”
In “Breath,” Strand echoes Stevens' theme of the speech beneath words, but he does so through first-person utterance. While Stevens avoids the first-person singular, Strand frequently embraces it, and yet this difference does not necessarily make the latter a more overtly autobiographical poet. If anything, Strand's “I” gives only the barest outlines of a stationed self or experiential base, as in the first lines of “Breath”: “When you see them / tell them I am still here, / that I stand on one leg while the other one dreams, / that this is the only way” (SP 67). Who are the recipients of this message, and where is the sender? It seems as if the speaker is practicing some kind of yogic balancing act, intoning a string of mantras:
that as the sun rises and sets I know my place, that breath is what saves me, that even the forced syllables of decline are breath, that if the body is a coffin it is also a closet of breath,
that breath is a mirror clouded by words, that breath is all that survives the cry for help as it enters the stranger's ear and stays long after the word is gone,
that breath is the beginning again, that from it all resistance falls away, as meaning falls away from life, or darkness falls from light, that breath is what I give them when I send my love.
Characteristically, Strand's lines proceed through paratactic repetition rather than hypotactic complication. In Stevens' meditation, “breath” is the originating word in a chain of terms that begins with “element” and ends with “cry,” which is in turn modulated by a series of qualifications. Strand's poem, on the other hand, unfolds a series of identity-statements. If the speaker begins the poem as if in a meditative stance, he sounds as if he were on his deathbed at the end—able to speak only the “forced syllables of decline,” finally leaving only a valedictory breath. The odd inversion in Strand's metaphor of breath as “a mirror clouded by words” suggests this narrative: Lear's looking-glass arbiter between life and death—the thing that Cordelia's breath will never again “mist or stain” (V.iii.262)—becomes breath itself, a clearness obscured only by language. If poetic language is traditionally supposed to hold a mirror up to nature, here it fogs up a more elemental mirror.
Helen Vendler has located Stevens' “truest sublimity” in “process rather than achievement,” particularly in the heroic late effort to imagine summer in the midst of winter (12). Stevens' passage on breath gives us the sense of a mind in the act of finding what will suffice, of constantly defining and qualifying; Strand's poem, on the other hand, feels like achievement rather than process, an accomplishment of Zen serenity. In another, later meditation on middle age called “White” (1978), Strand borrows the patently Stevensian trope of whiteness to similar effect. Strand dedicated the poem to Harold Bloom, who has written about “The Auroras of Autumn” as a Wordsworthian crisis poem and particularly admired its “extraordinary fantasia upon the trope of whiteness” (Poems of Our Climate 262). Strand's development of the theme could be similarly called a fantasia, but like “Breath,” it is less crisis-poem than meditative exercise.
In his famous passage on the desolate blankness of the deserted cabin on the beach, Stevens makes fine discriminations between past and present shadings of white, turning on the syntactical fulcrum of “or”:
Farewell to an idea … A cabin stands, Deserted, on a beach. It is white, As by a custom or according to
An ancestral theme or as a consequence Of an infinite course. The flowers against the wall Are white, a little dried, a kind of mark
Reminding, trying to remind, of a white That was different, something else, last year Or before, not the white of an aging afternoon,
Whether fresher or duller, whether of winter cloud Or of winter sky, from horizon to horizon.
The whiteness of the cabin is either a deliberate symbolic choice (“according to / An ancestral theme”) or the inevitable result of fading, in which all colors bleach under the sun. The dried flowers remind or try to remind of a different whiteness, from last year or the year before, part of a winter cloud or a winter sky. Stevens registers the difficulty of articulating a changed sense of the world, of tracing the inflection of one whiteness into another. In the present, “white” is an adjective attached to the material world (cabin, dried flowers); but in the past, it is an elusive noun (“a white / That was different … not the white of an aging afternoon”).
Strand, in contrast, states his present blankness of vision and proceeds through a litany of illustrative instances. Here, white becomes the adjectival tag for all the nouns of the world, and the monotonous sound of the word itself becomes a poetic blankness. Though he adopts the quasi-romantic stance of a poet wandering through nature, he subordinates the experiential to an abstract meditation on the absence of color:
Now in the middle of my life all things are white. I walk under the trees, the frayed leaves, the wide net of noon, and the day is white. And my breath is white, drifting over the patches of grass and fields of ice into the high circles of light. As I walk, the darkness of my steps is also white, and my shadow blazes under me. In all seasons the silence where I find myself and what I make of nothing are white, the white of sorrow, the white of death.
The poem's iterations continue in this manner, culminating in the apocalyptic fusion of inner and outer whiteness: “All things are joined / even beyond the edge of sight.” Strand's meditation might be called, in a phrase from Stevens' passage on absolute whiteness, “the accomplishment / Of an extremist in an exercise” (CP 412). If Stevens is a poet of dialectical movement, Strand is a poet of catalogic accretion; Stevens' conjunction is the oscillatory “or,” Strand's the paratactic “and.” While Stevens distinguishes between two kinds of white and refuses to name their chromatic symbolism, Strand pointedly articulates “the white of sorrow, / the white of death.” Stevens defers such explicit troping until the auroras arrive to replace whiteness with a new sublimity of “blue-red sweeps” and “polar green”—“The color of ice and fire and solitude” (CP 413). Here, Stevens finally uses “and,” in an iridescent phrase that outshines the starkness of Strand's “the white of death.” In terms of sheer imaginative complexity, then, Stevens' variations on the theme of whiteness easily surpass Strand's; but I do not want simply to claim that Stevens is the better craftsman. Rather, in making this comparison, we can see Strand making certain aesthetic choices: to adopt a first-person lyric voice rather than Stevensian personae and indirect discourse; to write a poem of mantra-like repetition rather than of assiduous qualification; to make the ideas of sorrow and death explicit rather than implicit; to engage in direct statement rather than weavings to-and-fro.
Strand wrote in his most overtly Stevensian vein in the sequence Dark Harbor, which consists of what might be called, in Stevens' phrase, “inventions of farewell” (CP 432). Several vignettes address seasonal change in ways that implicitly ask how to write a season-poem after Stevens. In one, Strand offers a brief credence of summer, set in a “dark harbor” indeed—a tropical seascape in which sybaritic contentment is shadowed by ultimate thoughts of death, expressed in Stevens' own idiom and characteristic tercets:
It is true, as someone has said, that in A world without heaven all is farewell. Whether you wave your hand or not,
It is farewell, and if no tears come to your eyes It is still farewell, and if you pretend not to notice, Hating what passes, it is still farewell.
“Someone” has said this, more or less, in “Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu”:
That would be waving and that would be crying, Crying and shouting and meaning farewell, Farewell in the eyes and farewell at the centre, Just to stand still without moving a hand.
In a world without heaven to follow, the stops Would be endings, more poignant than partings, profounder, And that would be saying farewell, repeating farewell, Just to be there and just to behold.
Strand renders Stevens' “Waving Adieu” even more Stevensian: he expresses the flux of existence in sublime abstractions, finds serene stasis behind motion. All elements of the scene—leaning palms, diving pelicans, glistening bathers—are “stages in an ultimate stillness”; the dark materiality of the world is “beyond the distortions / Of chance.” Whereas Stevens' poem begins as a scherzo, with its giddy, anapestic surges, Strand's maintains its meditative poise throughout. In comparing the two variations on a theme of “adieu,” we see the poets' distinct temperaments. Stevens' most solemn inventions of farewell often contain a countersong of jubilance, famously expressed by the couplet in “Esthétique du Mal”: “Natives of poverty, children of malheur, / The gaiety of language is our seigneur” (CP 322). Strand's poems, on the other hand, speak a more austere language.
I have suggested that Strand does not quite fit the category of “strong poet” as Bloom defines it; but in this poem, Strand does adopt a strong stance toward Stevens in turning him into an anonymous “someone,” a flash of voice coming momentarily into consciousness. Stevens' words, like the tropes of breath and whiteness, serve as the keynote for a meditation. Is Strand merely illustrating a Stevensian theme, or does he swerve from his predecessor in some way? Since he begins with the concessive phrase, “It is true,” we would expect him to introduce the qualification of a “but” or an “and yet,” but he seems intent instead on illustrating Stevens' premise, visualizing a setting for it. Toward the end, Strand introduces a choice of sorts: in a world without heaven, mere being becomes “an occasion for mourning” or “an occasion / Worth celebrating,” and Strand refuses to arbitrate between these possibilities beyond suggesting that there are no others. The poem turns, finally, on a rhetorical question and a restatement of idea:
for what else does one do, Feeling the weight of the pelicans' wings,
The density of the palms' shadows, the cells that darken The backs of bathers? These are beyond the distortions Of chance, beyond the evasions of music. The end
Is enacted again. And we feel it In the temptations of sleep, in the moon's ripening, In the wine as it waits in the glass.
How does one end a poem that begins with “farewell”? Both poets ask questions, but they ask different kinds, and in different orders. Strand's suggests a starkly binary choice between mourning and celebrating earthly mutability. Without preferring one or the other, Strand simply offers further intimations of mortality—tempting sleep, waxing moon, waiting wine—that echo Stevens' own infinitives of farewell (“to sip / One's cup and never to say a word, / Or to sleep or just to lie there still”). Stevens' adieux, however, lead to a different question: “Ever-jubilant, / What is there here but weather, what spirit / Have I except it comes from the sun?” (CP 128). In Stevens' symbolic lexicon, the sun is the archetypal First Idea, a constant presence in the poetry, from the “savage of fire” of “Gubbinal” to the “battered panache” of “Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself.” It is the hypothetical divinity to which the worshippers in “Sunday Morning” chant “boisterous devotion”; the “spaciousness and light / In which the body walks and is deceived” in “Anatomy of Monotony”; the “opulent” vandal of “A Postcard from the Volcano” that smears the abandoned house with gilt graffiti. In Strand's poem, however, the sun becomes yet another intimation of mortality, the energy that shatters chromosomes and causes skin cancer. Strand, who does not share Stevens' mythopoetic imagination, seems to suggest a counter-sublime here: the sun as destroyer rather than creator.
Strand is now approaching the age of what we associate with “late Stevens,” and in his latest book, Blizzard of One (1998), he contemplates what Keats called “the human seasons,” dwelling on late autumn and winter, and the Paterian flux of things that vanish as they appear. Two poems in particular, “The Night, the Porch” and “A Piece of the Storm,” sound like postscripts to “The Snow Man.” Like Strand's earlier meditations on landscape and seasonal change, they are haunted by a sense of belatedness within a tradition; they ask what to make of a diminished thing, but they answer this implicit question in different ways. The first poem, I would argue, assumes a defensive stance of irony and suffers as a result; but the second manages to avoid this pitfall and achieves what Stevens called in a late poem “A new knowledge of reality” (CP 534).
Like “White,” the more recent “The Night, the Porch” is a meditation on a theme of blankness, but this time Strand takes the idea of “nothing” as his keynote. In effect, he picks up where the “The Snow Man” left off, with an echo of the infinitive that suspends Stevens' poem in its icy atmosphere of supposition.
To stare at nothing is to learn by heart What all of us will be swept into, and baring oneself To the wind is feeling the ungraspable somewhere close by. Trees can sway or be still. Day or night can be what they wish. What we desire, more than a season or weather, is the comfort Of being strangers, at least to ourselves. This is the crux Of the matter, which is why even now we seem to be waiting For something whose appearance would be its vanishing— The sound, say, of a few leaves falling, or just one leaf, Or less. There is no end to what we can learn. The book out there Tells us as much, and was never written with us in mind.
(B [Blizzard of One: Poems] 10)
While “The Snow Man” begins with the visible signs of winter and ends in the beholding of “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is,” Strand inverts the process. He begins with a play on “nothing” as both presence and absence: to stare at nothing is either to look without focus or to gaze intently into a void. Like Stevens' “listener” who “beholds,” Strand's porch-sitter experiences the landscape in two sensory registers, describing a visual “vanishing” in terms of the sound of “a few leaves falling, or just one leaf, / Or less.” Stevens imagines thinking away “any misery in the sound of the wind, / In the sound of a few leaves, / Which is the sound of the land / Full of the same wind / That is blowing in the same bare place” (CP 10). In his chain of grammatical subordinates, Stevens reminds us that the sound of the wind is always the sound of the wind in something—a tree or an ear—and that the sound of the land is the sum of smaller stirrings. Strand's sequence of sounds, on the other hand, more pointedly riffs on Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, which famously equates autumn with advancing human age: “That time of year thou mayst in me behold, / When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang / Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, / Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang” (64). In correcting “none” with “few,” Shakespeare's speaker hopefully revises his own metaphorical reckoning of age; but Strand wryly eliminates this backward glance to perform a series of subtractions, from “few” to “one” to “less”—back, in other words, to “nothing.”
Strand turns “nothing” into what Bloom would call a trope of pathos, as we can see when we reduce the two poems to their fundamental propositions:
Stevens: To behold nothing is to have a mind of winter. Strand: To behold nothing is to learn our ultimate fate.
On the surface, Strand's conclusion, “There is no end to what we can learn,” might seem too neatly to wrap up an elliptical paysage moralisé, but the word “end” can be read as both “limit” and “purpose”: there are infinite ways to “learn” about nothingness, and there is no goal to any of them. Presumably, the “book out there” is the Book of Nature, which has traditionally been considered a companion text to holy scripture; but if this book “tells” us things, it does not do so “with us in mind.” With that last word, Strand completes his inversion of “The Snow Man”: while Stevens' poem moves from “mind of winter” to “nothing,” Strand's moves from “nothing” to “mind.” In either direction, a circle is traced: the mind contemplates nothing and is a sort of nothing.
Like the other poems of Strand that I have considered, “The Night, the Porch” sets itself the task of meditating upon a theme—in this case, “nothing” rather than “breath,” or “whiteness,” or “farewell.” Despite its flashes of wit, however, the poem suffers from the sense that nothing new can be said on its chosen subject; it baldly states its trope of pathos but remains deeply suspicious of it. In “A Piece of the Storm,” from which the title of Strand's recent book is taken, Strand achieves a more moving variation on “nothing”; he imagines a scene for “something whose appearance would be its vanishing.” Here, the outdoor porch becomes the indoor study, the Stevensian emblem of consciousness; the deliberate act of waiting for falling leaves becomes the surprise of finding a single snowflake drifting through a window; and the figurative “book out there” becomes a literal book read inside:
From the shadow of domes in the city of domes, A snowflake, a blizzard of one, weightless, entered your room And made its way to the arm of the chair where you, looking up From your book, saw it the moment it landed. That's all There was to it. No more than a solemn waking To brevity, to the lifting and falling away of attention, swiftly, A time between times, a flowerless funeral. No more than that Except for the feeling that this piece of the storm, Which turned into nothing before your eyes, would come back, That someone years hence, sitting as you are now, might say: “It's time. The air is ready. The sky has an opening.”
Rather than beginning with a meditation on nothingness, Strand reaches “nothing” through a narrative of surprise: the conjunction of gaze and snowflake is purely fortuitous. Yet the danger of the poem is that it will not be surprising at all—that after the four-line narration of the event, the elaboration of its significance will follow a familiar path. After all, truisms about the snowflake's uniqueness and ephemerality make it as natural an emblem of human mortality as falling leaves, and Strand's phrase, “flowerless funeral,” does nothing to avoid this symbolism. The poem repeatedly asserts the relative triviality of the event (“That's all / There was to it,” “No more than …,” “No more than that”), only to suggest its significance. Like Stevens' “sound of a few leaves, / Which is the sound of the land” (CP 10), the snowflake is a synecdoche, a “blizzard of one,” or a “piece of the storm”—as the “shadow of domes” is a small part of “the city of domes,” as the blizzard itself is a single event in a history of storms. The soul experiences the world in such pieces, one moment at a time.
Strand's gestures of minimizing the event prepare us for an “and yet,” a “nothing” turned into a “something.” Indeed, the abstract epithets finally yield to a residue of feeling, the surprising premonition that the snowflake would “come back.” We might try to explain this phrase through the Lucretian interpretation that all water “comes back” endlessly, but this would be to ignore a mystical undertone of metempsychosis: next time, the perceiver, sitting in the same place, will expect the snowflake. The word “opening” makes an apt last word for the poem, because it suggests the action of both sky and eye, world and perceiver, as they open into each other. But if the poem is about perception, it is also about reading: the snowflake can also be said to “come back” as poetic reenactment. We are, after all, reading about someone reading and looking up to see a “blizzard of one.”
The twinned ideas of disappearance and return recur throughout Blizzard of One, in relation both to the phenomenal world and to the world of the poem—both the “book out there” and the book of the mind. In a sequence entitled “A Suite of Appearances,” Strand asks, “Will the same day ever come back, and with it / Our amazement at having been in it. … ?” (B 26). Despite the appeal of such a fantasy, Strand knows that death is the mother of beauty, and that “To have the whole sunset again, moment by moment, / As it occurred, in a correct and detailed account, only darkens / Our sense of what happened” (B 26). As Strand has suggested in The Monument, poems are like sunsets in that they, too, repeat and yet change—because a poem is a temporal act of reading, because it cannot be held still. In another poem of “A Suite of Appearances,” Strand expresses this faith by naturalizing poetry as a corporeal event in time. Like the snowflake in “A Piece of the Storm,” the sound of an incipient poem briefly appears, vanishes, and returns:
How it comes forward, and deposits itself like the wind In the ear which hears only the humming at first, the first Suggestion of what is to come, how it grows out of itself,
Out of the humming because if it didn't it would die In the graveyard of sound without being known, and then Nothing would happen for days or weeks until something like it
Came back, a sound announcing itself as your own, a voice That is yours, bending under the weight of desire, Suddenly turning your language into a field unfolding
And all the while humming can still be detected, the original Humming before it was yours, and you lie back and hear it, Surprised that what you are saying was something you meant,
And you think that perhaps you are not who you though, that henceforth Any idea of yourself must include a body surrounding a song.
This is one of Strand's most emphatic statements of an origin-mythology; here, he sounds most like a Bloomian strong poet listening to his own interior paramour. Rather than being the “absence of field,” the poet's language becomes a field unto itself. At the same time, Strand cannot escape the traditional tropes of poetic creation—wind, voice, song—in describing the genesis of a poem.
This poem might be read as an allegory of how the sound of a Stevensian adieu is modulated, through the voice of a later poet, into a new invention of farewell. We have seen Strand quoting tropes and even lines of poetry from Stevens and self-consciously theorizing his borrowings in the prose vignettes of The Monument. In this late poem, Strand neither acknowledges a debt to his precursors nor announces a creation ex nihilo, and this is its fascination. Rather than effacing poetic genealogy, Strand's elliptical syntax preserves its mystery, the phenomenon of a poem that is both familiar and new. The opening phrase, “How it comes forward,” hangs suspended without completion or antecedent: Strand never says how “it” does, nor does he say what “it” is. The phrase might be completed by the predicate, “… is a mystery to me”; or it might be preceded by a declaration of intent, as in, “I would like to write a poem about …” In any event, Strand's omission of antecedent suggests that his poem, like any utterance, takes place in a pre-existing language, in medias res; but this becomes a source of wonder rather than despair. In its cycle of departure and return, the “it” becomes “something like it”—comes back, as Emerson would say, with a certain alienated majesty. Meanwhile, the “you” could be either a poet in the act of writing a new poem or a reader absorbing and remembering an already written one. Strand's discovery of the lovely phrase “body surrounding a song,” might describe either poet or reader; and as we have seen in his various interpretations of Stevens, Strand imagines himself as both.
Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
———. Poetry and Repression. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.
———. Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Collected Works of R. W. Emerson. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.
Justice, Donald. New and Selected Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare's Sonnets. Ed. Stephen Booth. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.
Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1954.
Stitt, Peter. “Engagements with Reality.” Georgia Review 35 (1981): 874-88.
Strand, Mark. The Monument. New York: The Ecco Press, 1978.
———. Darker. New York: Atheneum, 1970.
———. Dark Harbor: A Poem. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. Abbreviated within the text as DH, with page citation.
———. Blizzard of One: Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998. Abbreviated within the text as B, with page citation.
———. Selected Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. Abbreviated within the text as SP, with page citation.
Vendler, Helen. “The Hunting of Wallace Stevens: Critical Approaches.” The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988. 75-90.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1267
SOURCE: Hamilton, Craig A. “Strand's ‘The History of Poetry.’” Explicator 60, no. 3 (spring 2002): 177-79.
[In the following essay, Hamilton offers a brief analysis of the formal features of Strand's poem “The History of Poetry.”]
Of Mark Strand's poems since 1990, “The History of Poetry” (Continuous [The Continuous Life] 56) is representative both formally and thematically of his more recent work. Strand used short stanza forms for many of his poems from the 1960s to the 1980s, but his more recent poems are somewhat longer, normally consisting of one stanza. “The Great Poet Returns” (Blizzard [Blizzard of One] 12), an example that readers of the New Yorker magazine would have seen on 20 November 1995, is one clear instance of a formal shift away from the shorter forms of Strand's past. This shift from short to long no doubt culminated in Dark Harbor (1993), a long poem in forty-five parts, written mainly in tercets. However, to best see where Strand's new formal tendencies began, it is perhaps best to analyze “The History of Poetry” for what it tells us of Strand's artistic concerns since 1990.
Structurally, “The History of Poetry” is a single stanza poem of 23 lines, and it consists of four sentences. Three of the sentences are rhetorical questions. The first question, about who would hear the old “masters” of poetry, were they to return from the grave, is answered in line 7. “None of us here” (7), Strand says, would be able to hear poetry's long-gone masters. This is the only question of the three that is really answered within the poem. As for the speaker, Strand's use of the first-person plural pronouns, “us” and “we” lends the poem a tone of collaboration between speaker and reader. The critic William Doreski, when discussing this “pronominal I-you paradigm” in contemporary American poetry, has said that these pronouns can “assure the reader that this is a community of at least two, rather than a self-reflexive construct” (163). On the one hand, then, the reader is felt to be a part of the conversation, given these pronouns. The questions in which they are embedded also draw in readers who search the poem for answers. On the other hand, there is some counterpoint involved because the enjambment of lines 6 and 7 entices readers. If no one can hear what the great old poets had to say about our world, then Strand would appear to be telling his readers that no one is ready to hear what he has to say now. This lowering of the arms before the battle begins, as it were, serves Strand well rhetorically. Tension between the poem's common diction and its searching, questioning tone enhances the counterpoint seen in many of the lines. Thus, Strand's argument that poetry must still be spoken, even if it readers are unprepared for it, shines through the remaining lines by encouraging the poet to persist in his task.
Rhythmically, the fine balance of end-stopped and enjambed lines reveals a cadence in the poem that reflects the subject of the history of poetry. The end-stopped lines slow the pace set by the faster lines earlier on in the poem. This suggests a heaviness or lamentation over nature's loss, over man's entrapped state within this world. As Strand argues in the last five lines of the poem, our senses and our entrapment limit us and hinder our actions:
So we do nothing but count the trees, the clouds, The few birds left; then we decide that we shouldn't Be hard on ourselves, that the past was no better Than now, for hasn't the enemy always existed, And wasn't the church of the world already in ruins?
The iambic rhythm surfacing here blends with the turning point in the poem. Strand's argument is that we are to take this state of affairs a little less seriously than we might do, although his irony mustn't be lost. The path of least resistance is denial. Rewriting the past so that it better accounts for the present implies one resolution to Strand's searching questions. Whether or not this is mere self-deception on the part of the persona is, of course, just one of the things Strand asks us to contemplate here.
Metrically, “The History of Poetry” follows a rather loose pattern regarding syllables, but consecutive pairs of lines almost mirror identically one another in length of feet. Also, there is an echo of rhythm patterns just under the surface here. In the lines cited above, Strand seems to suggest that the dominant accentual pattern of past English poetry (i.e., iambic) is still sufficient for contemporary purposes. Moreover, concerning the poem's cadence, many of the lines have frontal caesurae, which take some speed off of the enjambed lines and put emphasis on the brief slowing down of the lines before they roll on again. As for the near rhymes, they seem distributed along sounds both light and heavy: the heavy sounds of end-stopped lines, ending with ed's, d's, or n's (e.g., returned, sound, tuned, existed, autumn, waken, range), contrast with the enjambed lines, ending with lighter sounding s's (e.g., stars, is, doors, voices, steps, sighs, farms, clouds, ruins). The latter connote vivid images that linger through the poem, and finally these lines clarify the initially vague concepts: “And do nothing but doze, half-hearing sighs / Of this or that breeze drift aimlessly over the failed farms” (14-15). Vague intangible items become clearer and clearer and the poem progresses. To “doze” better defines doing “nothing,” and the “failed farms” of the landscape make concrete the wanton “breeze.” For Strand, the significance behind these images is the concern of poetry, for they help define the unknowable, help complete our thoughts, no matter how vague. Even Strand's lyrical tendencies are visible in this poem because there is a musicality to these lines. That musicality conveys the tradition and craft of poetry to the reader. In so doing, Strand has embedded within the poem concerns about the history of this art form itself.
Formally, the poem is nearly a double sonnet, with most lines being pentameter in length. By naming the poem “The History of Poetry,” Strand forces himself to create a visible form recognizable as poetry. While the poem appears to be in free verse, the alliteration, rhythm, feet, and conventional flush-left lines with initial capitalization would suggest a principled form here. All these elements work in conjunction to make it look and feel like a poem paying formal homage to poems written before it. Strand's rhetorical questions nearly seem medieval, reminiscent of Villon's “Où sont les neiges d'antin?” and the poems of the old “Ubi suent?” tradition. Likewise, within the context of Strand's volume, “The History of Poetry” reveals Strand's interest in Rilke's rhetorical questions, questions that are spoken dramatically by speakers here and elsewhere in The Continuous Life. The limits and shortcomings of man and the melancholy of angels who hover temptingly close to our plane of existence were recurring themes in Rilke's work. Strand returns to them here, for he argues ultimately that we “shouldn't be / Hard on ourselves” (20-21). Strand's attempts to take on grand subjects in down-to-earth American language reveal tensions between form and content. The poem appears deceivingly simple, but its intricate formal schemes suggest it is well crafted. Such is to be expected in a poem titled “The History of Poetry,” which highlights Strand's gift for beautiful verse that is partly conventional, partly original, and completely versatile.
Doreski, William. The Modern Voice in American Poetry. Gainesville, FL: U P of Florida, 1995.
Strand, Mark. The Continuous Life. New York: Knopf, 1992.
———. Dark Harbor. New York: Knopf, 1993.
———. Blizzard of One. New York: Knopf, 1998.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1638
SOURCE: Mitova, Katia. “On the Ease of Writing Lists.” Denver Quarterly 36, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 2002): 94-7.
[In the following essay, Mitova contends that the poems in Chicken, Shadow, Moon & More are actually simply lists that seem to invite the reader “into poetry in general, and into Mark Strand's poetry in particular.”]
Mark Strand's twenty-first book, Chicken, Shadow, Moon & More, is an elegant collection of one-liners organized in loose lists by repeated key words. While reading it, I am itching to quote this or that line to a friend, to insert new lines into the book, or to write my own lists in the same spirit. I found out that I am not alone in this ridiculous itch for co-authorship: readers of Strand's lists, who have not attempted to write poetry even during their first-love years, are telling me they feel like generating a few more one-liners in Strand fashion. Whence this desire to put ourselves into the author's slippers? Is there a deeper meaning in Strand's suggestion (on the wing of the dust-jacket) that his lists are “as easy to read upon falling asleep as they are upon waking”? Asked “Why lists?,” the poet replies, “Because it is easy to write them.” No one who is familiar with Mark Strand's Dark Harbor (1993) and Blizzard of One (1998) would take such an answer literally. Then what kind of luring ease is this that makes the reader so involved in the creation of poetry?
Before I propose an answer to this question, let me catalogue some of my favorite lines, one per key-word (italics mine):
Shadow me, and tell me where I've been Paradise is a secondary necessity The wind that roars is only practicing The throat's favorite food is sausage The sun is the night's pornographer A peacock lives on the moon when it can When sleep awakes, it forgets what it was The hour when mice run in the walls The hand of nothingness reaching for something Kissing the foot is like learning a language When my dog stares at me, I fall to my knees The island of golden tedium Long live the chicken with its head A journey with fog must be a pastel A chair's secret is not to breathe Sorrow is the soul's candy An empty glass is nakedness inverted A night in July, your hair, and you To count the lake's two colors The paintings of S seemed to shrink as they were looked at
A bit like automatic writing, a bit like a warming-up exercise. Some lines sound aphoristic, others look like fragments of sentences. In fact, the lists in the book read easier than the sample I have extracted because of the uniting key-word in each of them and the occasional lighter lines which let us breathe. Without even noticing it, we have submitted ourselves to a double seduction: into poetry in general, and into Mark Strand's poetry in particular.
The principal seduction into poetry is ensured by the very nature of the list as a trope. Since Darker (1970), Mark Strand has been exploring the artistic potential of this ancient device. Three poems in Darker are essentially lists: “Giving Myself Up,” “From a Litany,” and “The New Poetry Handbook.” One of the most moving poems Strand has ever written, “Elegy for My Father,” published in The Story of Our Lives (1973), consists of several accumulative lists. “Some Last Words” from his recent book, Blizzard of One, is a collection of seven almost sinister propositions, followed by the dismissing refrain, “Just go to the graveyard and ask around.” In the same collection we find “The Delirium Waltz,” a list of dancing friends' names that mimics the waltz steps. Strand's only collection of essays on poetry, The Weather of Words (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), opens with “A Poet's Alphabet,” a list of inspirations and influences. Each letter of the alphabet is represented by one word, which creates the illusion of an exhaustive catalogue. Randomness has put on the mask of completeness. Words like Canada, garden, Hades, immortality, joy, lake, Neruda, oblivion, tedium, Utah, why, zenith, co-exist on equal basis. Some of them (e.g., absence, Kafka, Rilke, Vergil) are accompanied by an insightful essay, others, by a brief sketch of feelings and associations.
Despite their variety—from a catalogue of the body to a catalogue of inspirations, from elegy to sarcasm, from a litany in praise of existence to a writing manual—Mark Strand's older lists (to some extent with the exception of “A Poet's Alphabet”) do not seem to evoke a desire for joining the game. The reader, who is aware of the elaborate designs of these lists and perceives them as closure-driven works, remains a more or less empathetic observer. Chicken, Shadow, Moon & More, in turn, contains no hierarchies and displays simpler patterns. The twenty lists in the book have random beginnings and endings; they are not chains of one-liners; rather, they are handfuls of rings that occasionally hook to one another. Lured by this confession of incompleteness, the reader enters a creation in statu nascendi, a world of countless possibilities before the fiat of choice has occurred. Perhaps this is what Mark Strand means when he talks about the ease of writing and reading his new lists: that the author is relieved of the demand to create an illusion of completeness, and the reader is relieved of the obligation to grasp the work in its wholeness. Metafiction might seem to be doing something similar, but it remains far from producing the impression of easiness. With its cunning calculations how to be both complete and open, with its notorious self-awareness and self-criticism, metafiction actually builds a transparent but impenetrable wall between the work and the reader.
“What's wrong with the walls?” you may ask, “Stone, brick or glass walls—don't they all quicken the reader's appetite for fiction? The removal of the obstacle means the end of desire.” True. And if so, why does Chicken, Shadow, Moon & More intensify the reader's appetite for Strand's poetry, instead of calming it down? Perhaps the lists remove the obstacles only partially. The wall opens, we are let into the garden of creation and can clearly see a man sitting on a chair, thinking about a poem. We know what is going to be in the poem; we see it: chair, green grass, wall. We can almost see how the poem fills up these three simple concepts. What escapes us is the more. The poem emerges within the chair, green grass, wall & more. Surely the blending of familiarity and mystery is a well-tried enticement in art. Strand's list book seems to let the reader a step or two closer to the secret of this combination than his poetry usually does.
“As a poet develops, he develops a predisposition to use certain words—which create or suggest certain landscapes, or interiors, or certain attitudes. Those, in fact, become his identity as a poet,” Strand says in an interview with Wallace Shawn (Paris Review, 1998). Those who know Strand's poetry will add about a dozen more identity words to the tokens of Chicken, Shadow, Moon & More: dark, snow, nothing, night, cold, room, angel, tree, wind, sky. (Actually, most of these “missing” words appear here and there within the lists.) In the same interview, Mark Strand also talks about the limitations of such simple-word identity and mentions his long poem Dark Harbor as a step toward adopting words with a distinct or exotic aura. Chicken, Shadow, Moon & More seems to be a return to Strand's earlier vocabular minimalism. The key-words are simple and most common. So common that they appear to be emptied of meaning. But Strand needs them precisely as transparent containers of possibilities.
A paradigmatic example of such container is the word “cloud,” so capacious that it has accommodated eighty-nine one-liners, published along with Wendy Mark's two dozens of plates representing clouds. 89 Clouds (New York: ACA Galleries, 1999) is a self-commentary of Strand's poetic language. From afar, clouds appear to be material objects like everything else around. Yet the wind, which is just moving air, reshapes them so easily. Clouds always seem to envelop some mystery, but when entering a cloud, we are amazed that its matter offers no resistance and that we can be inside the mystery—indeed, a part of the mystery—without really comprehending it. Just what the words are to a poet, “clouds of unknowing.” In 89 Clouds, Strand departs from “A cloud is never a mirror” and “Words about clouds are clouds themselves” and shapes and reshapes his clouds just like the April wind, beheld by a child, would play with them.
As Chicken, Shadow, Moon & More shows, however, to Mark Strand objects with quite obvious density—for example, a chair—are not much different from clouds:
The secret wish of a chair is to be a horse And yet, if a chair had arms it would play the viola The sculptor thought he made a giraffe; it was a chair A chair is the ultimate defense against chaos A nude in a glass chair is a little like champagne Musical chairs is not a game but a delusion A chair carved of a carrot can be eaten No one expects a chair to smile
We all have collected some rare pebbles throughout our lives. While reading Chicken, Shadow, Moon & More we are anxious to make something of our unique experiences, to put them into Mark Strand's transparent word containers. But what if, unlike Strand's filling, they look just like ordinary pebbles? Perhaps, despite the anticipated easiness of the experiment, we should do better to limit our involvement to contemplation of the indefinable more in Strand's list book and press the pebbles deep into our pockets. We may be surprised how easy it is to warm them.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 355
Bensko, John. “Reflexive Narration in Contemporary American Poetry: Some Examples from Mark Strand, John Ashbery, Norman Dubie, and Louis Simpson.” Journal of Narrative Technique 16, no. 2 (spring 1986): 81-96.
Discussion of the way Strand, among others, acknowledges and confronts the narrative tactics he employs within his poetry.
Berger, Charles. “Poetry Chronicle: Amy Clampitt, Louise Glück, Mark Strand.” Raritan 10, no. 3 (winter 1991): 119-33.
Praises the openness of the poems in Strand's 1990 volume, The Continuous Life.
Brooks, David. “A Conversation with Mark Strand.” Ontario Review 8 (1978): 23-33.
Analysis of Strand's work as a translator and its effect on his poetry, as well as on his evolution as a poet.
Jackson, Richard. “Charles Simic and Mark Strand: The Presence of Absence.” Contemporary Literature 21 (1980): 136-45.
Discussion of the relationship between language and being in the poetry of Strand and Simic.
McMichael, James. “Borges and Strand, Weak Henry, Philip Levine.” Southern Review 8 (1972): 213-24.
Brief exploration of the connections between Borges's poetry and Strand's.
Mitgutsch, Waltraud. “Metaphorical Gaps and Negation in the Poetry of W. S. Merwin, Mark Strand, and Charles Simic.” Salzburg Studies in English Literature 27 (1980): 3-27.
Examines images of reduction and absence in the poetry of Strand, Merwin, and Simic.
Strand, Mark. “A Conversation with Mark Strand.” Ohio Review 13, no. 2 (1972): 54-71.
Strand discusses his poetry and addresses some recent criticism of his work with an anonymous interviewer from the Ohio Review.
———, and Nolan Miller. “The Education of a Poet: A Conversation between Mark Strand and Nolan Miller.” Antioch Review 39, nos. 1, 2 (winter, spring 1981): 106-22; 181-93.
Two-part conversation between Strand and Miller, a professor of literature at Antioch College, on the influences critical to Strand's development as a poet.
Additional coverage of Strand's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 4; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 40, 65, and 100; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 6, 18, 41, and 71; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5; DISCovering Authors Modules: Poets; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; Poetry for Students, Vols. 9 and 18; Poets: American and British; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; and Something About the Author, Vol. 41.