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I Am Not What I Am: The Poetry of Mark Strand


ISSUE:  Fall 2006
Man and Camel, by Mark Strand. Knopf, September 2006. $24

1

Stop me if you’ve heard this. A beautiful blonde steps into an elevator with George Clooney. Once the doors close she sidles up to him and, in a sultry whisper, offers him “the best blow job you’ve ever had.” And Clooney says, “What’s in it for me?”

The joke works in the same way a good poem should work: it manifests in language what’s already vaguely understood. Elaboration is of no avail; the good joke is its most essential reduction. There are countless variations of this one—celebrities and athletes are frequent subjects; I specifically recall a version I heard at a writers’ conference a few summers ago, related with the suspicious earnestness of an anecdote. Its subject was Mark Strand.

But here’s a different joke. Marvin Bell and Mark Strand walk into a bookstore in Iowa City. Neither of them sees any of his books on the shelf. Dejected, Bell says, “They must not stock any of my books.” Strand replies, “They must be sold out of mine.”

Even in an age so densely populated with poets, few escape anonymity, and those who do usually escape into a life as the circus animal of some university’s English department. A few of these poets, such as Billy Collins, Seamus Heaney, or Ted Kooser, even sell a hundred thousand copies of their books. But Mark Strand embodies a different sort of “celebrity.”

After all, how many contemporary poets are reviewed in the pages of Elle (where Blizzard of One was praised as a “beautifully wrought collection of poems”)? Good luck finding Kooser’s name in Liz Smith’s gossip column, or Collins’s among the elite of the New York art world. Elsewhere, a former colleague at the University of Chicago writes, “He’s also deadly handsome, tall and rugged; classic good looks. If God were to put an instrument on earth to make women suffer, Strand is it.” (As if his Pulitzer were not enough …) Not only do Strand’s poems, stories, and reviews appear frequently in The New Yorker, but the magazine also made his film debut (in Ethan Hawke’s Chelsea Walls) the subject of a “Talk of the Town” piece.

It is strange, then, that most critical responses to Strand’s work have emphasized his evacuation of the self. Linda Gregerson writes, “When Mark Strand reinvented the poem, he began by leaving out the world.” David Kirby, in his Mark Strand and the Poet’s Place in Contemporary Culture, goes further: “Both the pleasure and the paradox of reading Mark Strand lie in the realization that the Strand persona, even though he seems at first to be withdrawing into the cocoon of self, is in fact stepping away from the self, away from the Technicolor cartoon of contemporary life.” True enough, Strand’s early poems—often inspired by surrealist painting and poetry—are filled with self-annihilation. “In a field / I am the absence / of field” (“Keeping Things Whole”). “I empty myself of the remains of others. I empty my pockets. . . . I empty myself of my life and my life remains” (“The Remains”). “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” (“Giving Myself Up”). “More is less. / I long for more” (“The One Song”).

As his reputation has grown, however, into that oxymoronic epithet “famous poet,” Strand has engaged that self, satirized it, and refashioned it as a subject for his poems. If Richard Howard is right when he says that “the poems . . . narrate the moment when Strand makes Rimbaud’s discovery, that je est un autre, that the self is someone else, even something else”—then in the early poems the Strand persona rejects itself.

And in the later poems the Strand persona mocks the persona of Mark Strand.

2

Strand’s career divides conveniently along the decade of the eighties, during which he published fiction, reviews, children’s books, and art monographs, but rarely any poems. His Selected Poems of 1980 comprises Sleeping with One Eye Open (1964), Reasons for Moving (1968), Darker (1970), The Story of Our Lives (1973), and The Late Hour (1978). As the titles suggest, the poems were dark, occupying the Rilkean space between beauty and terror. His ominous, foreboding early poems carry the anxiety of what cannot be communicated because it cannot be known, only anticipated. “Sleeping with One Eye Open” ends with the speaker “Hoping nothing will happen,” but his worry is not diminished for its having arrived too late, as in “‘The Dreadful Has Already Happened.’” Or, as Denis Donoghue wrote in 1971, “He is very good on memory, but even better on prediction and the failures of prediction: best of all on situations in which it is possible to say, ‘the future is not what it used to be.’”

Along with The Monument (1978), a book of “poetic prose” that nearly won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (but for Louis Simpson’s discomfort with prose poems), these books built Strand’s reputation, and still stand as the subjects of most of the criticism. For the next ten years, they were all the critics had. As Jonathan Aaron explains in a 1995 profile of Strand:

After Selected Poems came out in 1980, Strand hit something of a wall. “I gave up [writing poems] that year,” he says, looking back. “I didn’t like what I was writing, I didn’t believe in my autobiographical poems.” He began to concentrate on journalism and art criticism. He wrote the sweetly freakish comedies collected in Mr. and Mrs. Baby and Other Stories (1985), which featured the likes of Glover Bartlett, who reveals to his wife that he used to be a collie, or the nameless narrator who’s certain his father has returned to life as a fly, then as a horse, and finally as his girlfriend. In settings that ranged from contemporary Southern California to the Arcadia of Greek myth, Strand explored new approaches to parody and satire and, in doing so, began to work himself free of what he felt were the imaginative and stylistic limitations of dramatic self-regard. “And then,” he says, “in 1985, I read Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of The Aeneid. I decided I’d try a poem, and I wrote ‘Cento Virgilianus,’ and I was off and running.”

“Cento Virgilianus” eventually appeared in The Continuous Life (1990), which, along with the reissue of his Selected Poems and his appointment as US Poet Laureate, marked Strand’s return. His poems were still ominous, but he had gained a sharp gallows humor that made his poems feel more complete and expansive. Following this are Dark Harbor (1993), a book-length allegorical poem in forty-five parts, Blizzard of One (1998), for which Strand did receive the Pulitzer, and now Man and Camel (2006).

These later books at once occupy and laugh at the self that the earlier books, try as they might to avoid it, create, particularly the lithe, APRcover-photo reputation he had gained (or, some might argue, had cultivated). Since the early nineties his poems’ speakers find women unhooking their bras, or mirrors conveniently set up along forest paths. In Part XXII of Dark Harbor, the speaker confides:

Madame X begged to be relieved
Of a sexual pain that had my name

Written all over it. Those were the days
When so many things of a sexual nature seemed to happen,
And my name—I believed—was written on all of them.

In “I Will Love the Twenty-first Century,” the Strand persona encounters a man who speaks in a suspiciously Strandian idiom:

Then a man turned
And said to me: “Although I love the past, the dark of it,
The weight of it teaching us nothing, the loss of it, the all
Of it asking for nothing, I will love the twenty-first century more,
For in it I see someone in bathrobe and slippers, brown-eyed and poor,
Walking through snow without leaving so much as a footprint behind.”

Here is the Rimbaudian moment that Howard describes; but instead of meeting this situation with horror, or even old-fashioned existential angst, the response is: “‘Oh,’ I said, putting my hat on, ‘Oh.’” Strand, by now, has learned something from his friends Charles Wright and John Ashbery, both of whom excel in creating humor through rapid diction-shifts: Ashbery from the intellectual to the pop-cultural, Wright from the metaphysical to the folksy. How does one respond to meeting oneself? With a shrug, with the donning of a hat.

As the poet has moved closer to the source of all foreboding and terror, he seems, strangely, to be having more fun. The poem “2002,” from Man and Camel, is exemplary:

I am not thinking of Death, but Death is thinking of me.
He leans back in his chair, rubs his hands, strokes
His beard and says, “I’m thinking of Strand, I’m thinking
That one of these days I’ll be out back, swinging my scythe
Or holding up my hourglass to the moon, and Strand will appear
.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .
O let it be soon. Let it be soon.”

Death himself pines for the poet’s company, one-upping both the sexual desire of women and the conversational longing of men. However, “2002” is not the first such instance in Strand’s work. Part VIII of Dark Harbor finds the allegorical lovers at dinner. I quote in full:

If dawn breaks the heart, and the moon is a horror,
And the sun is nothing but the source of torpor,
Then of course I would have been silent all these years

And would not have chosen to go out tonight
In my new dark blue double-breasted suit
And to sit in a restaurant with a bowl

Of soup before me to celebrate how good life
Has been and how it has culminated in this instant.
The harmonies of wholesomeness have reached their apogee,

And I am aquiver with satisfaction, and you look
Good, too. I love your gold teeth and your dyed hair—
A little green, a little yellow—and your weight,

Which is finally up where we never thought
It would be. O my partner, my beautiful death,
My black paradise, my fusty intoxicant,

My symbolist muse, give me your breast
Or your hand or your tongue that sleeps all day
Behind its wall of reddish gums.

Lay yourself down on the restaurant floor
And recite all that’s been kept from my happiness.
Tell me I have not lived in vain, that the stars

Will not die, that things will stay as they are,
That what I have seen will last, that I was not born
Into change, that what I have said has not been said for me.

We expect “you look / Good, too” to refer to a woman, a lover who attracts the speaker nearly as much as he attracts (“aquiver with satisfaction”) himself. But here the surreal images of Strand’s early work skulk in—the lover’s gold teeth, green hair, and the “tongue that sleeps all day / Behind its wall of reddish gums.” This would be grim if it were not so funny. In the next two lines, in fact, the poem shifts drastically, from the bestial “Lay yourself down on the restaurant floor” to the heartbreak of “And recite all that’s been kept from my happiness.” The speaker’s requests of the final two stanzas, of course, cannot be assured: the stars will die, as will the speaker himself. What he has seen may not last, but what he has said—more accurately, the way he has said it—may.

3

If Wordsworth’s statement that the child is father to the man can be applied to stages of a poetic career, we might apply it here. Donoghue points to Darker as the transitional book; Kirby, to The Late Hour. While they represent subtle and important changes from earlier books, The Story of Our Lives is, to my mind, the work most formative of Strand’s recent writing. Charles Simic, Strand’s friend, recalls its composition:

Strand had been reading Wordsworth’s The Prelude and the autobiographical element in these poems is even more overt. Some of them are quite long and nearly all are narrative, but in an odd, circular way. . . . If only I could insert myself back into that lost moment, he thinks, I could begin once more the story of my life as if it had not been written yet.

Simic’s use of the phrase “my life” may not seem curious unless one considers that Strand has written poems titled “My Life” and “My Life By Somebody Else” (both appear in Darker). The latter of these ends with the line “Somebody else has arrived. Somebody else is writing.” This sentiment, however, is not realized until the next book.

Kirby suggests that Strand’s return to the self—specifically his autobiographical poems of The Late Hour—is a way of reinventing himself. “Without coherence,” Kirby writes, “a writer will be a dilettante, a mere style-machine; without continually reinventing himself, the writer becomes a stereotype of his own invention, a Hemingway or Capote. One can see how this latter threat might menace the Strand persona especially—a self adamant on the subject of self-effacement will, without some relief, become the thing it wants to get rid of.”

But indeed Strand stopped writing poems at that time specifically because, as he explained to Katharine Coles in 1992, “I didn’t like what I was writing at the end of Selected Poems. I never felt that poems about my childhood and my family were my poems or poems I really wanted to write. They were poems that were generated by the atmosphere of American poetry at the time.”

His choice, instead, is to write the biography of a different self, the self of persona. This process begins most recognizably in The Story of Our Lives. In this book, Strand’s subject matter expands, and with it his line and the length of his poems in general. The “we” of the title poem become fictionalized, objects of their own making. They become the “characters,” as Irvin Ehrenpreis has written, “waiting for a poet to invent them.”

The Story of Our Lives opens with “Elegy for My Father,” which Kirby calls “one of the great elegies of the English language,” distinguished from “Lycidas” and Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” “by being more a poem of dispersal than they are, a poem of cleaning up and giving away.” The declarative opening lines of “Elegy for My Father” would seem too obvious (“The hands were yours, the arms were yours, / But you were not there”) if it were not for the surrealism of Strand’s early books. When Strand writes (in “The Accident,” from Reasons for Moving), “A train runs over me,” we understand that we have entered the realm of the surreal. But here Strand is merely describing the literal event—though surreal to the speaker—of seeing his father’s corpse for the first time.

“Answers,” the second section of “Elegy for My Father,” recalls the Early Modern ballad of “Lord Randal.” In the song, the dying Randal is questioned by his mother:

“What d’ye leave to your true-love, Lord Randal, my son?
What d’ye leave to your true-love, my handsome young man?”
“I leave her hell and fire; mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m sick at the heart, and I fain wad lie down.”

“Lord Randal” is not an economical poem; with its consistent repetition, only half its lines advance the narrative. But the poem achieves its effects in different ways—each question wounds deeper for having been asked twice, and is always answered with “I fain wad lie down.” Strand’s speaker in the “Answers” section, too, asks each question twice, but receives two different answers each time. In Kirby’s words, “the first response is always true, the second truer”:

Who did you sleep with?
I slept with a different woman each night.
Who did you sleep with?
I slept alone. I have always slept alone.

Neither the son’s answers in “Lord Randal” nor the father’s in the “Answers” offer solace. Instead, they concede a mortal tiredness, the desire for and fear of dissolution (apparent, as we have seen, in “2002” as well).

How long shall I wait for you?
Do not wait for me. I am tired and I want to lie down.
Are you tired and do you want to lie down?
Yes, I am tired and I want to lie down.

The fourth part of “Elegy for My Father” recalls Strand’s most famous poem, “Keeping Things Whole.” In that poem, Strand identifies himself as the “absence” of whatever he is—but here, “the places where you were have given [your shadow] back. / The hallways and bare lawns of the orphanage have given it back.” Here, the short line of “Keeping Things Whole” is elasticized, a shadow grown afternoon-long. Strand reinvents his subject matter and style by revising the poems of English past, and of his own past. The self, he seems to have learned, can remain the object of a poem, even if the speaker appears to be someone else. The story, like the lives it tells, grows by slow accretion:

2
We are reading the story of our lives
as though we were in it,
as though we had written it.
This comes up again and again.
In one of the chapters
I lean back and push the book aside
because the book says
it is what I am doing… .

3
This morning I woke and believed
there was no more to our lives
than the story of our lives… .

7
.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .
The book will not survive.
We are the living proof of that.

Yet as the story grows, the lives of its subjects wither. The self is not unknowable and jettisoned, but unknowable and utterly present, which is worse. “The Story of Our Lives”is the story of self becoming persona, and vice versa. It is the achievement of the dissolution practiced in the earlier poems: the self rendered as character, as fiction. It is the prophecy of the most mature and accomplished phase of Strand’s career.

4

The interactions of Man and Camel are chance encounters, brushes with allegory: a strange apparition while on a polar expedition, a commune with sentient horses, and the enigmatic title characters themselves. The poet hopes to approach these characters and moments as a naturalist approaches a deer in the wild. But one step too far and the quarry springs alert and careers off:

Was this the night that I had waited for
so long? I wanted to believe it was,
but, just as they were vanishing, the man
and camel ceased to sing, and galloped
back to town. They stood before my porch,
staring up at me with beady eyes, and said,
“You ruined it. You ruined it forever.”

Moments of clarity or transcendence arrive tragically late, sometimes comically later. “Something is always / About to happen,” he wrote in Blizzard of One, “just at the moment it serves no purpose at all.” But they do arrive, diminished things though they may be. “Two Horses,” a title that echoes the wonderful “Five Dogs” sequence from Blizzard of One, allows such a moment, but only briefly:

The horses must have sensed that I was holding back.
They moved slightly away. Then I thought they might have known me
in another life—the one in which I was a poet.

Here, again, is a uniquely Strandian event. Bending to drink beside two horses, of course the poet would assume that they had read his work. Is this arrogance? No more than the arrogance of The Monument, that satirical meditation on literary immortality. No more than the arrogance of the lyric project itself. But let us recall as well that Strand is more funny than he is often given credit for; often his humor is mistaken for the familiar ominous earnestness. Take “Elevator,” a two-section poem of six lines. Or three lines repeated, depending on one’s perspective:

1
The elevator went to the basement. The doors opened.
A man stepped in and asked if I was going up.
“I’m going down,” I said, “I won’t be going up.”

2
The elevator went to the basement. The doors opened.
A man stepped in and asked if I was going up.
“I’m going down,” I said, “I won’t be going up.”

This is either monumentally pretentious, or hilarious, or both. In fact it is just the sort of tension that freshens Strand’s later poetry; he keeps from becoming a parody of himself because he is already parodying selves.

The instances of inapproachability can be parodic and funny, as in the Death poems or “Elevator.” But they can also move as powerfully as any of Strand’s poems have, such as “Mother and Son” and “Poem After the Seven Last Words.” Both of these are about deaths, the first anonymous, the second legendary. “Mother and Son” presents a moment from a mother’s deathbed:

The son leans down to kiss
the mother’s lips, but her lips are cold.
The burial of feelings has begun. The son
touches the mother’s hands one last time,
then turns and sees the moon’s full face.
An ashen light falls across the floor.
If the moon could speak, what would it say?
If the moon could speak, it would say nothing.

So we wonder, and so we must conclude. For if the moon were to speak, its lines would be farcical. Compare an altogether different approach to a mother’s death in these lines from Seamus Heaney’s remarkable “Clearances” sequence:

And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.

The difference is not merely third- and first-person speakers. Heaney’s “Clearances” attempts to make something of the moment, to memorialize and preserve. Strand’s “Elegy for My Father” does not seek to preserve, but to disperse; still, the poem seeks some agency in an unchangeable event. As such it resembles Heaney’s poem more closely than it does “Mother and Son,” in which the last word is silence.

In the marvelous “Poem After the Seven Last Words,” Strand writes of the Passion beautifully and heartbreakingly, but does so as an atheist. In this he resembles Wallace Stevens, Strand’s great master, and Philip Larkin, whom Strand admires but to whom he is rarely compared. Like both his predecessors’ is Strand’s—shall one say religious?—devotion to the nothingness of death, and his resulting adulation for the things of this world. “The Continuous Life,” one of Strand’s most beautiful poems, grows out of this praise, as does “Poem After the Seven Last Words.” The latter meditates on the last words of Christ, the return to pure language of one who came from the Word itself. Part 1 in full:

The story of the end, of the last word
of the end, when told, is a story that never ends.
We tell it and retell it—one word, then another
until it seems that no last word is possible,
that none would be bearable. Thus, when the hero
of the story says to himself, as to someone far away,
“Forgive them, for they know not what they do,”
we may feel that he is pleading for us, that we are
the secret life of the story and, as long as his plea
is not answered, we shall be spared. So the story
continues. So we continue. And the end, once more,
becomes the next, and the next after that.

We are forgiven for thinking this is “The Story of Our Lives Redux.” One poem tells the story of two persons, the other tells what hopes to be the story of all persons. And indeed the only differences between religions, finally, are the stories to which one devotes oneself. Through his career, Strand’s own loyalties have been divided between what is present and what is untouchable (“selves” and “personas” being no exceptions). He who wrote once of “the beauty of shovels and rakes, brooms and mops” now writes:

And beyond,
as always, the sea of endless transparence, of utmost
calm, a place of constant beginning that has within it
what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, what no hand
has touched, what has not arisen in the human heart.
To that place, to the keeper of that place, I commit myself.

This tension, between what is present and what cannot be touched, continues to be the most consistent theme in Strand’s work. Each of his various techniques—at times surreal, pseudobiographical, satirical, self-eschewing, self-effacing—attempts to address these tensions. His celebrity springs from numerous sources, but any praise he receives must return to his negotiation between the world here and the world beyond, the self that is and the self that seems, between speech and the silence to which he defers—but, in poem after poem, transcends.

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