by Mark Strand, Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 544 pages If I were to die now, I would change my name so it might appear that the author of my works were still alive. No I wouldn’t.
— Mark Strand, from “The Monument” The obituaries of poets fit a predictable template. Lines from the poet’s own hand addressing death are a must, especially if written in the first person. When poet Mark Strand died at the age of eighty last November, obituary writers had an easy time of it. Strand had written a poem called “My Death” and one called “Not Dying” for the 1970 collection Darker, as well as one titled “My Life,” which states, “I grow into my death.” His obsession with absence and presence — “Wherever I am/I am what is missing” — was mindful of mortality. In “Breath,” breath stands in for life: “if the body is a coffin it is also a closet of breath.” “The Man in Black” (”A man in black,/ black cape and black boots, coming toward me”) from 1968’s Reasons for Moving suggests striding up to this not-so-grim reaper, who shines “like a summer night full of stars,” and offering one’s hand in the hopes it will be refused. Strand predicts “sadness, of course, and confusion” in “My Death.”
The timing of Strand’s passing, within weeks of publication of his Collected Poems, seems fortuitous, recalling the old joke that the best career move a poet can make is to die. That’s probably not true and certainly wasn’t necessary in Strand’s case. Strand, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for Blizzard of One, was something of a personality as poets go. A generation of English majors in the late 1960s and early ’ 70s was attracted to his dreamy, Felliniesque images and the ironic, melancholic laments that populated his first four volumes. The work’s soft surrealism and absurd circumstances — a wailing, apologetic postman, a screaming librarian, a fire glimpsed helplessly from a passing train window — jumped from everyday experience to a plain-spoken, existential futility. He could be frustratingly simplistic: “Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same./I empty myself of my life and my life remains.” And he had a weary reliance on certain visual images — seashores, fog, turning leaves, and above all the moon — that called back to his early childhood on Canada’s Prince Edward Island. Yet his work was always entrancing, leaping from misty backdrops into stark confession.
Strand personalized the anxieties of the times, a skill that gave every reader something to identify with, as in “When the Vacation Is Over for Good”: It will be strange Knowing at last it couldn’t go on forever, The certain voice telling us over and over That nothing would change, And remembering too, Because by then it will all be done with, the way Things were, and how we had wasted time as though There was nothing to do.
The verse that follows, with its “flash” and “cities like ash,” sends us back to “it couldn’t go on forever” and the Cold War fears of the 1960s. The image of the helpless witness, wasting time, who should have done something, leaves us wondering what that something might be.
Strand reached a peak of sorts with Darker, reinforcing his reputation as a somber reflective with a second-person rawness: “Nothing will tell you/where you are./Each moment is a place/you’ve never been” (from “Black Maps”). The poems are set in strange, dreamlike circumstances, tableaux that suggest the visions of Argentine Jorge Luis Borges and Brazilian Carlos Drummond de Andrade, both poets he translated. “The Dreadful Has Already Happened” describes the poet holding a baby above broken glass while a “small band” plays marches. “The Recovery” is about healing: “saw the doctors wave from the deck of a boat/that steamed from the port, their bags open,/their instruments shining like ruins under the moon.” Strange symbols and animal-like behavior succinctly define relationships. “Courtship” is driven by shame and monumental craving. The same force that brings together the couple in “The Marriage” drives them apart: “The wind is strong, he thinks/as he straightens his tie./I like this wind, she says/as she puts on her dress.”
Strand’s work came more slowly after 1978’s “The Monument,” a long poem dealing with translation and the immortality of art. For roughly a decade, in the ’80s, he published no poetry at all, instead writing art criticism and children’s stories. Much of what followed, often written as prose poems, was even more absurd. Borges, catching Strand in the bathtub in “Translation,” suggests that Strand should translate himself. That’s what Strand seemed to be doing those last 20 years, putting new words to old ideas, framing them in even more fantastic situations.
Blizzard of One changes the tone of the obsessive, windblown images as the past trumps death. Like Dalí’s floppy clocks, time seems to have no shape other than in memory. The poet, always in love with mirrors, rejoices that he still casts a reflection: “It was clear when I left the party/ That though I was over eighty I still had/A beautiful body.” (The poet was in his sixties when this was published.) In “Morning, Noon and Night,” something waits, but he can’t quite make it out: “yesterday I noticed/Something floating in and out of clouds, something like a bird,/But also like a man, black-suited, with his arms outspread.”
The moon, Strand’s go-to, still figured in his last book, 2012’s Almost Invisible. Strand’s fatalistic view hadn’t changed. The title suggests his slow erasure but also that what remains is see- through. In “Provisional Eternity,” a woman wonders why the man in bed with her keeps insisting on one more time: “‘Because I never want it to end,’ said the man. ‘ What/ don’t you want to end?’ said the woman. ‘ This,’ said the man, ‘ this/ never wanting it to end.’ ” His favorite image finally fails him. In one of his last poems, “Nocturne of the Poet Who Loved the Moon,” he writes, “I have grown tired of the moon, tired of its look of astonishment,/ the blue ice of its gaze, its arrivals and departures, of the way it/gathers lovers and loners under its invisible wings, failing to/ distinguish between them.” The moon, it seems, has finally set.
— Bill Kohlhaase