Col­lected Po­ems

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS -

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

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