The Story of Our Lives

by Mark Strand

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Themes and Meanings

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Strand’s chief theme is the exploration of the mind working through language to define the nature of the self. The attempt to reconcile two opposing selves is perhaps best seen in the relationship between the book and the speaker’s supplement to and commentary on the book. The closing two lines of the poem read “They are the book and they are/ nothing else.” Yet the previous two hundred lines have attempted to explore the reality that their life must be, or at least wants to be, more than the book. For example, at one point the speaker awakens and believes that there is no more to their lives than the book, but the woman disagrees and then goes back to sleep, attempting to elude the control of the linguistically constructed self.

The key tool in this exploration is language. Because language is such a problematic tool, however, writing provides hopeless hope. Language can construct the self, but anything constructed by language is suspect. At a key moment, the speaker says of the book, “It describes your dependence on desire,/ how the momentary disclosures/ of purpose make you afraid.” The pronouns “you” and “your” have three possible antecedents. In the structure of the poem, they most literally refer to the woman. They could also be used as a universalizing substitute for “I” and “my.” Finally, they could refer to the reader being directly addressed. At any rate, language exists, the passage tells readers, essentially to express desire (“momentary disclosures of purpose”). Those descriptions and disclosures make readers afraid for two reasons: First, language expresses the self’s wishes, making them public and permanent; second, another self or part of the self realizes the discrepancy between what is meant or felt and what is said. The speaker says that they keep “hoping for something,/ something like mercy or change,/ a black line that would bind us/ or keep us apart.” Language is the black line that both unifies and severs.

For Strand, language is the source not only of hope but also of hopelessness—hopelessness because it will not stay pure and straight; it is, by its nature, contaminated, inadequate. When the speaker says, “I write that I wish to move beyond the book,/ beyond my life into another life,” he embodies this paradox. Both the world of the book and the world of “the life” are the world of language, of writing. There is a strong undercurrent in the poem flowing toward the idea that hope comes in love or feeling: “what I feel is often the crude/ and unsuccessful form of a story/ that may never be told.” It may never be told because, for Strand, there are only crude language and unsuccessful forms of telling stories. Yet the desire to get beyond language and story always exists. The poet is finally a problematized king: “A bleak crown rested uneasily on his head./ He was the brief ruler of inner and outer discord,/ anxious in his own kingdom.

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