Monday, August 31, 2009


When I heard Mark Strand read at Yale the end of spring semester from his New Selected (2009), I resolved to get a copy and read through it. The only previous volume of his I’d read in its entirety was Dark Harbor (1993), but I dipped into his earlier Selected (1980) sometime between Dark Harbor and the end of the ‘90s, and read a selection from Man and Camel (2006) shortly after it came out. The impression I’d had that Strand’s work inhabits a certain constant place is sustained by this reading, and it’s fitting that the New Selected should emerge after Man and Camel. There is a wryness in the latter volume that creates a tone that, I realize now, inhabits much of Strand’s verse from the earliest, but which wasn’t quite so forcefully apparent before, to me, at least. His reading was so affable, jocose even, that the sense of the poems as austere imaginative landscapes into which one peers with metaphysical intent collapsed somewhat, leaving a stronger sense of a playfulness I associate with French poetry derived from the symbolistes.

Certainly, that’s no surprising identification. Strand’s poems have always been inflected by a sense of words as symbolic more than descriptive. He’s about as far from being a nature poet, who yet describes a natural world, as one could be. He’s also rather far removed from confessional verse, even though he does at times clearly write about himself, or as himself. And that, to me, is where the lesson of symbolist poetry comes into play: it allows one to write in a voice that treats the natural world, and oneself as a member of the natural world, as an occasion for certain kinds of lingusitic organization. In other words, such poems are not meant to create a scene to contemplate, or to reveal the dramatic movement of events, but are aimed to make a statement. To create a poem is to offer a kind of prĂ©cis that renders the state of consciousness, that articulates a grasp of lyric presence, or rather articulates the lyric presence that we might spend our whole lives trying to grasp.

This makes Strand sound rather abstract and the odd thing is that he really doesn’t seem to be, even though he often is. The trick of Strand’s verse is to appear completely 'natural' while talking in the most indirect way possible. The reader is almost fooled by the directness of his language, and by the fact that nothing so very different from how prose works is happening, into thinking that the poems are simple, direct statements. It’s only when one tries to parse what a poem is saying, when one tries to place interpretive weight on this or that word or phrase, that one realizes that an odd sleight-of-hand takes place: it’s almost impossible to find the load-bearing supports, as it were. Strand’s poems tell us everything we need to know at once, but almost invariably leave us wondering what they’ve said.

Sometimes, as with 'Man and Camel,' the sense of parabolic meaning is so deliberate its effect becomes quite funny. For Strand has a very dry sense of humor and he knows how to use it. He’s able to make us feel in on a joke that may very well be played on us nevertheless. And that ‘joke,’ in all its wry charm, is that saying something profound, in poetry, is a kind of ‘kidding.’ It’s as if we say, upon reading the poem, ‘you must be joking,’ uncertain whether we mean: the joke is the point of the poem, or the joke is that we accept the poem as a poem.

That may sound like I’m saying that the poems are funny, or that’s it’s funny to call them poems, but that really isn’t what I mean. The poems are often quite solemn, and they are indeed ‘austere’ in the sense that they don’t seek out fun and music and sensuous detail, very little in the way of sound effects or vivid impressions. 'I walk / into what light / there is.' This, we can say, is so pared down as to be almost minimalist. The ability to be so toneless is not easy, and its goal seems to be to be read as if the page itself speaks. There are a lot of imperative sentences, words that simply surface and command our hearing. And the actions are generally simple too: walking, looking, speaking, writing, sitting, thinking; sometimes there are dreams. Nothing very much happens, but everything is poised to happen because each poem is running a course, moving to an end that will clarify its intention, its statement. As with this poem, from Darker, way back in 1970:

The Remains

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.

It seems to me that this poem is in someways the start of Strand’s poetic project; it pretty much contains everything his poems will do as he matures. The fact that this is offered as ‘remains’ lets us know something: what remains after the essential paring down is what the poetry consists of: a series of statements. Sometimes the statement -- the actual breath and sentence of the poem -- will be the entire poem, one flowing thought. But more often the movement of the thought will be cut up, either by short sentences, as here, or by very short line breaks. In either case, the pacing is very deliberate, and is necessary for the effect achieved, an effect suggested in this poem by the line 'The hours have done their job.' For this definite pacing is a matter of time, or, as with jokes, timing. We have to arrive at completion, at what remains, by very deliberate steps: names, pockets, shoes, road, clocks, photos, boy.

The nouns are so precise and yet so generic; we could almost accuse Strand of seeking out a poetry of the generic. If that were all he were doing, it might be interesting enough for a volume or two, but there is always more at stake because the generic always becomes the allegorical: 'The words follow each other downwind'; and the metaphysical: 'Time tells me what I am.' But there are other registers Strand exploits that are here too: the familial thread is alive in each stanza, from ‘family album’ to ‘my wife’ to ‘my parents,’ so that affective relations, the human community, is always ready to burst into Strand’s meditation (as ‘the man’ that appears in a number of signal poems). And the gesture toward nature or to metaphor (both of which are sometimes greater than here): ‘the milky rooms of clouds,’ can bring a clear, unforced lyricism to bear at any moment.

So what is the poem’s statement? Much depends on whether you view the final verse as illustrating futility (‘What good does it do?’) or whether it has managed -- the very ideal of sleight-of-hand -- to slyly change the terms while we were looking. ‘How can I sing? / Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same.’ We are bordering on ‘I am that I am’; could God sing a song of praise? Or, what would God praise other than himself? The parents off their thrones and in their clouds is a joke image; the wife is sent away from this paradise of self-knowing, self-perpetuating Godhead. All the other names are vacated. Only the one remains. The poem is stuck constantly in the groove of its own making, like a needle stuck on a record. Empty/remain; empty/remain, ad infinitum.

And that is Strand’s characteristic jest, to start singing just when about to be cut-off, to point the way out as he leads us back to the start. In 'The Monument,' a long poem, written in prose as responses to quotations primarily from other poets, Strand says: 'my voice is sufficient to make The Monument out of this moment.' To make a monument of any moment, one need only write a poem, but it will be a poem which conceives of each moment, any moment, as monumental.

Reading through the 267 pages of poetry in this volume, covering forty-two years of publication, one is struck again and again by Strand’s fidelity to that task. His ability to bring it off is based upon that keen sense of emptying and grasping what remains, but it’s also based on what I take to be the jest of originary utterance. God, the Hebrew scriptures tell us, spoke first and created everything. After that, there can be no originary utterance. The poet, in enunciating his poem, speaks in an ancillary manner that purports to begin things again, to empty, or to praise, but there is always the remainder of that pre-existing world. Strand is far too canny to take that as a point of despair or of futility if only because the mind allows words to happen to it, and when they do, there is no telling what possibilities for speech might also remain, or, as I like to say, surface.

Here’s Strand, in 2006, evoking the magic of one of his favorite natural objects, the moon. We can easily read the moon’s symbolic meaning of satellite, of heavenly object visible only by virtue of the great shining of the sun, and yet, for all that, visibly reigning in the sky when the sun is invisible, but Strand is able to invest the moon with all meaning we find in mirrors, in indirect figures for our dependent and never quite transcendent condition, and to make it finally a figure for the truth, maybe even the joy, of that condition, though it remains as a memory of something we have to try to experience (or grasp, or understand) again:


Open the book of evening to the page
where the moon, always the moon, appears

between two clouds, moving so slowly that hours
will seem to have passed before you reach the next page

where the moon, now brighter, lowers a path
to lead you away from what you have known

into those places where what you had wished for happens,
its lone syllable like a sentence poised

at the edge of sense, waiting for you to say its name
once more as you lift your eyes from the page

and close the book, still feeling what it was like
to dwell in that light, that sudden paradise of sound.

Here the moon is closely identified with the page, the path, ‘those places where what you had wished for happens’ (baldly stated wish-fulfillment!), and name. Appropriately enough, after the above, the ‘name’ is something still to come rather than something ‘emptied,’ as in ‘The Remains,’ and its arrival -- our glimpse of the originary utterance -- comes to us as a memory which we would return to: ‘what it was like’ in ‘that sudden paradise of sound’ that is the name. But the name does not appear here, and only when we reach the word ‘sound’ do we know that it was uttered -- ‘moon,’ ostensibly, but the word that said ‘let there be light and there was light’ certainly lurks in (or shines forth from) that utterance, which we can only see ‘reflected’ by the moon, afloat on the book of evening, which we have just closed but which our memory of ‘that light’ will cause us to open again, and again, and again. World without end. Where we remain . . . stranded.

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