When I heard Mark Strand read at Yale the end of spring semester from his New Selected Poems (NY: Knopf, 2009), I resolved to get a copy and read through it. 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 appear after Man and Camel (2006). There is a wryness in the latter volume 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 playfulness. 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. 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. For Strand, to create a poem is to offer a kind of précis 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.
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. The poems often seem 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 minimalist. To be so toneless is not easy, and the goal seems to be for the poem 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, that in some ways defines Strand’s project:
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.
The nouns are so precise and yet so generic; we could almost say Strand seeks 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 can become the allegorical: 'The words follow each other downwind'; and the metaphysical: 'Time tells me what I am.' But there are other typical registers 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. And the gesture toward nature or to metaphor, ‘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 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.