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On the Night Train

It’s a great stroke of luck, when it comes to poetry, that human beings do not know themselves very well. We meet the familiar stranger in our mirror, pretending most days that there’s nothing odd about him, nothing worth thinking about, but in fact we know better. “Why am I me? Why not a goldfish in a fish tank in a restaurant somewhere on the outskirts of Des Moines?” Mark Strand asks in The Weather of Words, his fine new collection of essays and comic pieces. Poets, like everyone else, do not have the answer. However, here’s where the fun starts. In poetry, life’s ambiguities are worth more than what can be explained. They cause poems to be written. The true poet, one might say, gropes in the dark. Far from being omniscient on the subject of his work, he is merely a faithful servant of his hunches. The poem, with all its false starts and endless revisions, still mostly writes itself.

There is a good reason for that. The awful truth is that no memorable figure of speech can be willed into existence. They just pop into the poet’s head. Consequently no poet can possibly envision the full meaning and the eventual fate of one of his metaphors. For all he knows, it may be in the process of selling his soul to the Devil. The more original the poet, the wider the gap between his intentions and his inventions. Even when they are widely read, much liked, or even belittled, the true nature of many poets’ work remains elusive for a long time.

This is certainly the case with Mark Strand. At various times over the last thirty years, he has been regarded as both a Neo-Surrealist and a poet working in the long spent tradition of Modernism. What makes Strand so “uncontemporary” is his conviction that all of poetry, going back to the Greek and Roman poets, is still relevant for someone writing today in Brooklyn or Kansas. In his new book of essays he explains: “I believe that all poetry is formal in that it exists within limits, limits that are either inherited by tradition or limits that language itself imposes. These limits exist in turn within the limits of the individual poet’s conception of what is or is not a poem.” Poetry’s self-reflective nature is his major theme. Whoever reads him in the future will find little of contemporary America in his work. His poems are introspective, obsessively so. If there are tragic and comic moments in them, and there are plenty, they concern solitary, anonymous characters and take place in settings equally nameless. Even though he is looked upon as an established figure, one who was recently named Poet Laureate of the United States, Strand has been a loner, someone whose best poems, despite his honors, are out of sync with his times.

Since Whitman, most American poets have exerted themselves not to sound too literary. In their efforts to disarm their readers, they took their cue from Emerson’s idea of the poet as the representative man. “We are no better than you are,” Whitman writes in the 1855 introduction to Leaves of Grass. This is not what Strand is after. He is unabashedly elitist and literary. The reader he seeks is a member of a minority, an ideal reader, a total unknown, someone who may not even be born yet. A book of Strand’s is like a long night train with a single passenger riding in it. He is bent over with a small flashlight reading from the book of his life. From time to time, he raises his head, straining to glimpse something of the landscape rushing by beyond the dark window, only to catch sight of his ghostly reflection in the glass. He whispers to himself, hoping that he is being overheard.

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.
(“Keeping Things Whole”)

Mark Strand was born in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, Canada, in 1934 of American parents. His father was an executive for Pepsi-Cola and traveled widely, taking his family with him. They lived in Halifax, Montreal, New York, and Philadelphia as well as in Peru, Columbia, and Mexico. After graduating from Antioch College, Strand studied painting at Yale with Josef Albers. Following the years 1960 and 1961, which he spent on a Fulbright Scholarship in Italy, he enrolled in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and after graduation taught there till 1965. Since that time he has lived in Brazil, Ireland, Italy, New York, New Haven, Charlottesville, Cambridge, Salt Lake City, Baltimore, and Chicago, teaching literature and creative writing. Among American poets, only Elizabeth Bishop may have lived in more places than Strand has, and yet he’s rarely a poet of travel. Like Marco Polo in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, who sought something of his native Venice in every fabulous city he visited as he journeyed across Asia, Strand bumps into himself everywhere. He is a poet, as it were, who is always seated at home in his bathrobe and slippers while being usually in transit.

I first met Strand in New York City at the reading organized by Paul Carroll in 1967 to promote his anthology Young American Poets. A tall, handsome, and extremely elegant man, he did not look like a poet. On the other hand, most poets don’t look like poets. One is more liable to encounter the type among morticians and flower shop attendants. Although we imagined our poems to be unmistakably different, the poet James Wright, who introduced us, had our poetry confused. He praised to the skies a poem of mine, calling it Strand’s and vice versa. We, of course, were so honored to have a distinguished older poet speak so well of us we did not dare correct him afterward.

Strand and I belong to a generation of American poets who discovered and were influenced by both European and South American poetry. The 1960s were a great period of translation. Strand himself has translated from both Spanish and Portuguese. Poets like Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, Vasko Popa, Henri Michaux, Paul Celan, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Rafael Alberti, Rainer Maria Rilke, Fernando Pessoa, Zbigniew Herbert, Vincent Huidobro, and Robert Desnos, among many others, were closely read and imitated. Our literary historians and critics who have at best only a superficial knowledge of foreign literatures when they write about this period habitually overlook these important influences. The issue for poets of any age is how to rejuvenate the lyric poem, and here were various possibilities not to be found in the American poetry of the times. What we admired above all about these foreign poets was the extravagance of their similes and metaphors, the way they let their imagination run wild. “He is a cosmetician of the ordinary,” Strand says of Pablo Neruda in a piece from his new book of essays. Here is the beginning of the Chilean poet’s “Death Alone,” translated by Angel Flores.

There are lonely cemeteries,
graves full of bones without sound,
the heart passing through a tunnel,
dark, dark, dark,
as in a shipwreck we die from within
as we drown in the heart,
as we fall out of the skin into the
soul.

There are corpses,
there are feet of cold, sticky clay,
there is death within bones,
like pure sound,
like barking without dogs,
emanating from several bells, from several graves,
swelling in the humidity like tears or rain.
I see, alone, at times
coffins with sails,
bearing away pallid dead, women with dead tresses,
bakers white as angels,
pensive girls married to public notaries,
coffins ascending the vertical river of the dead,
the purple river,
upstream, with sails filled with the sound of death,
filled by the silent sound of death….

While other American poets were content to make poems by piling up one image after another in the manner of Neruda, Strand did something else in his first book, Reasons for Moving (1968). He would take a single image and make a narrative out of it, the way our dreams do. A mood dredges up an image in a dream; that image then tells its story. So it is with Strand. Many of the poems in the book were like dreams, the kinds that leave us absolutely baffled. A man climbs into a tree and won’t come down. Another fellow stands in front of someone’s house for days on end watching the people inside. A ghost ship floats through crowded streets. In a town library someone sits eating poetry. Like the unknown movie projectionist in charge of our nightly film festival, what Strand finds tantalizing about such oneiric images is not their psychological content but their poetry. The following perceptive comment on Edward Hopper from Strand’s book on the painter is an equally good description of the ambience of many of his poems.

So much of what occurs within a Hopper seems related to something in the invisible realm beyond its borders: figures lean toward an absent sun, roads and tracks continue toward a vanishing point that can only be supposed. Yet Hopper often establishes the unreachable within his paintings.

In Stairway, a small, eerie picture, we look down some stairs through an open door to a dark, impenetrable massing of trees or hills directly outside. Everything in the house says, Go. Everything outside says, Where? All that painting’s geometry primes us for is darkly denied us. The open door is not the innocent passage connecting inside and outside but a gesture paradoxically designed to keep us where we are.

In his next book of poems, Darker (1970), some of Strand’s American influences became apparent. Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop at their most surrealist and obscure are both present. Strand writes: “In Stevens, argument tends to be discontinuous, hidden, mysterious, or simply not there. More often, what we experience is the power of the word or the phrase to enchant.” These are his strategies too. What he is aiming at, in book after book, is a short lyric poem perfectly executed.

When I say “lyric poems,” I mean poems that manifest musical properties, but are intended to be read or spoken, not sung. They are usually brief, rarely exceeding a page or two, and have about them a degree of emotional intensity, or an urgency that would account for their having been written at all. At their best, they represent the shadowy, often ephemeral motions of thought and feeling, and do so in ways that are clear and comprehensible. Not only do they fix in language what is often most elusive about our experience, but they convince us of its importance, even its truth. Of all literary genres, the lyric is the least changeable. Its themes are rooted in the continuity of human subjectivity and from antiquity have assumed a connection between privacy and universality.

A poem that invites the reader to endless reverie is Strand’s ideal. Darker is a young man’s book, which atypically is obsessed with death. As he aptly points out, the business of dying is the central concern of lyric poetry. The early deaths of his mother and father and the accompanying feeling of irretrievable loss haunt him. The heart of the lyric for Strand is the place “where elegy imagines a future that mourns the past.” The heightened sense of the self that accompanies such knowledge is his subject. “The poem celebrates the sad moment when we become history,” he observes in an essay on a poem by Charles Wright, but this pathos is equally true of his poems. Strand is an inward exile. His poems make me think of immigrants’ suitcases full of old family photographs; they take them out from time to time, and look at them until they find some small detail, never noticed before, that breaks their hearts. Strangely, and this may be its whole point, nostalgia for the past is really a covert way of making the present more poignant, more real.

THE PREDICTION

That night the moon drifted over the pond,
turning the water to milk, and under
the boughs of the trees, the blue trees,
a young woman walked and for an instant

the future came to her:
rain falling on her husband’s grave, rain falling
on the lawns of her children, her own mouth
filling with cold air, strangers moving into her house,

a man in her room writing a poem, the moon drifting into it,
a woman strolling under its trees, thinking of death,
thinking of him thinking of her, and the wind rising
and taking the moon and leaving the paper dark.

Another peculiarity of Strand’s poem is the way he slows down the clock. No sooner has the poem begun, weariness takes over, everything winds down as if one were watching an Antonioni movie. For Strand, in an infinite universe, a beginning is as meaningless as is the end. What they both mask is a deep underlying stillness at the core of things. A continuous present in which nothing happens, but which is rich in omens and intuitions, is his idea of paradise. Does this make Strand a mystic? Yes, but a very peculiar one. What interests him about the moment is not its metaphysics but its aesthetics. His hope is to convey the beauty that accompanies such sublime experiences.

He can’t be serious, you are probably saying to yourself. Who still believes in beauty with a capital B? Well, some poets do. Poets believe in many such unfashionable sentiments that most of today’s literary and art critics would find laughable. Be that as it may, there’s a serious question lurking in Strand’s poetry: Is it the truth or is it the beauty of some philosophical or religious system that we are attracted to? Are we simply pulling wool over our eyes when we insist that it is the truth? What if it’s the elegance of the argument that makes it convincing? Strand, I would say, is pretty sure that the supreme philosophical problem is one of aesthetics. He trusts in good taste more than he does in abstract ideas.

His next book, The Story of our Lives (1973), is very different. 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. They replay a single fragment of memory over and over again. Strand is like someone in a police lab enlarging a photograph to identify a face or an important detail. 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. “Untelling,” “Elegy for my Father,” “In Celebration,” “The Room,” and the book’s title poem are some of the most moving poems Strand has written.

In Late Hour (1976), he returned to shorter poems, some more open in form, but thematically his range remained notably small. “My Mother on an Evening in Late Summer” is a very moving poem and so is another one about watching whales being shot by fishermen. That same prolific year, Strand published one of his most original books. Called The Monument, it is a delightful work, difficult to classify consisting as it does of fragments, notes on poetry, musings, confessions, and anecdotes, which at times read like prose poems. Among other things, it is a further meditation on time and an address to the unknown, future reader.

Though I am reaching over hundreds of years as if they did not exist, imagining you at this moment trying to imagine me, and proving finally that imagination accomplishes more than history, you know me better than I know you. Maybe my voice is dim as it reaches over so many years, so many that they seem one long blur erased and joined by events and lives that become one event, one life; even so, my voice is sufficient to make The Monument out of this moment.

This is an old theme in poetry. Two thousand years ago, Horace in his poem “Monument” bragged that his verses would outlast the pyramids. For Strand, too, at the heart of every poem an appeal to a future reader takes place. His book The Monument satirizes the dream of literary immortality with its monstrous narcissism together with the poignant wish of every human being not to be forgotten. “The secret of human life,” he says, “the universal secret, the root secret from which all other secrets spring, is the longing for more life.” The odds are not very good, as Strand knows well. “O most unhappy Monument! The giant of nothingness [is] rising in sleep…” he writes. “O happy Monument! The giant of nothing is taking you with him!”

In The Continuous Life (1990), and in the book-length poetic sequence Dark Harbor (1993), Strand attempts to enlarge his repertoire. The comic vision encountered in works like The Monument and his collection Mr. and Mrs. Baby and Other Stories (1985) is from now on to be found in many of his poems. On one hand, he continues to perfect a kind of philosophical lyric on the subject of time and memory and, on the other, he writes humorous poems, Borgesian prose narratives, slapstick ballads and satires. I must admit that I prefer Strand at his gloomiest, while realizing that if not for his buffoonery and his self-deprecating tone he would be very hard to take in long stretches. Occasionally, these two divergent impulses come together, as in this wise little poem:

THE IDEA

For us, too, there was a wish to possess
Something beyond the world we knew, beyond ourselves,
Beyond our power to imagine, something nevertheless
In which we might see ourselves; and this desire
Came always in passing, in waning light, and in such cold
That ice on the valley’s lakes cracked and rolled,
And blowing snow covered what earth we saw,
And scenes from the past, when they surfaced again,
Looked not as they had, but ghostly and white
Among false curves and hidden erasures;
And never once did we think we were close
Until the night wind said, “Why do this,
Especially now? Go back to the place you belong;”
And there appeared, with its windows glowing, small,
In the distance, in the frozen reaches, a cabin;
And we stood before it, amazed at its being there,
And would have gone forward and opened the door,
And stepped into the glow and warmed ourselves there,
But that it was ours by not being ours,
And should remain empty. That was the idea.

This is a sad and funny poem. The entire history of American nature poetry is replayed here with its unremitting longing for a grand transcendental vision that would be a revelation of the supreme truth, and a kind of sweet homecoming to the primordial house of our being. There are no lasting “epiphanies,” however, in Strand’s poetry. At best, there may be only small intimations here and there. In his book on Hopper, while praising the painter for making the most familiar scenes appear remote and enigmatic, he goes on to say, “It is as if we were spectators at an event we were unable to name. We feel the presence of what is hidden, of what surely exists but is not revealed.” I believe Strand is convinced that this is as far as we ever get in our knowledge of reality. We may have occasional teasing hints of something else beyond appearances, but no larger view of things.

Why plug away at the same old self?” Strand asks in Blizzard of One (1998). Why, indeed? His answer, I believe, would be that we have no choice. Emily Dickinson scrutinized the goings-on of her inner life in most of the 1,775 poems she wrote in her lifetime and got away with it. The self is the supreme ineffable for both of them. At the heart of their being there is an otherness that transcends language, an unknown that they cannot name. The best poets always turn out to be the ones who fail at what they strive all their lives to say. For over thirty years, Strand has staked everything on that premise. In a few poems in Blizzard of One, he makes a further try. A masterly villanelle, an homage to Giorgio de Chirico’s enigmatic painting The Philosopher’s Conquest, ends up being an homage to the poet’s own melancholy, the source of his most authentic poems. Like poetry itself, the villanelle tells the story of the eternal return of the same, the same which always turns up a little different, if we have our eyes wide open, and even more so if they are closed in reverie.

THE PHILOSOPHER’S CONQUEST

This melancholy moment will remain,
So, too, the oracle beyond the gate
And always the tower, the boat, the distant train.

Somewhere in the south a Duke is slain,
A war is won. Here, it is too late.
This melancholy moment will remain.

Here, an autumn evening without rain,
Two artichokes abandoned on a crate,
And always the tower, the boat, the distant train.

Is this another scene of childhood pain?
Why do the clockhands say 1:28?
This melancholy moment will remain.

The green and yellow light of love’s domain
Falls upon the joylessness of fate,
And always the tower, the boat, the distant train.

The things our vision wills us to contain,
The life of objects, their unbearable weight.
This melancholy moment will remain,
And always the tower, the boat, the distant train.

Strand’s newest work, Chicken, Shadow, Moon & more, is a book of lists that at times sounds like a collection of one-line poems and at other times like a collection of epigrams. Each list is constructed by a repeated use of a single word, so, for instance, his paradise list includes lines like “The toys of paradise wind themselves” and “The poor in paradise have smaller wings,” while the hand list has “The cold hand of snow on the hillside” and “The hand that holds the house of cards.” Many of the individual lines do not quite come off, but when they do, they exhilarate by their poetic invention and their eloquence. Strand loves verbal fragments as much as he loves the formal perfection of a villanelle. It is these two contrary passions, one for order and the other for the freedom of the imagination, that define him as a poet. “The shadow of chaos is order,” he writes. “Come back, shadow of my youth,” he continues. “Shadow me, and tell me where I’ve been.”

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