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Experience’s Ghosts

Mark Strand, born in 1934, has written on painting and photography as well as on literature; written three children’s books as well as nine books of poetry. He was Poet Laureate in 1990, and won the Pulitzer Prize for his most recent collection of poems, Blizzard of One (1998).

Strand’s early volumes of verse, Sleeping with One Eye Open (1964) and Reasons for Moving (1968), cool and restrained in tone, are full of hints of obscure damage. A mailman brings a letter bearing bad news and falls on his knees begging forgiveness. Another poem begins:

A train runs over me.
I feel sorry
for the engineer
who crouches down
and whispers in my ear
that he is innocent.

These suggestions of violence, “the harsh syllables/Of disaster,” return in more recent work, often with a slight edge of surrealism, as in “Move the dying piano out to the beach,” from one of the poems in the book Dark Harbor (1993). The poems of Strand’s middle and later years, however, are usually quieter and more discursive, thoughtfully and often ruefully in pursuit of various forms of vanishing, as in these lines from Dark Harbor:

It is true, as someone has said, that in
A world without heaven all is farewell.

Or in the remarkable poem called “Orpheus Alone,” in The Continuous Life (1990), where the poet sits “trapped/in the chill of his loss” of Eurydice, and makes a world out of everything he misses.

Much poetry is on intimate terms with loss; and a sense of loss often creeps into very famous poems that are ostensibly about quite different matters: about anger and war, for example, like the Iliad; about war and empire, like the Aeneid; or about the growth of a poet’s mind, like The Prelude. It’s hard to insist on this perception without flattening out too many differences, and the point is not that loss is everything, only that it has an eerie, proliferating life in a great deal of poetry. We could think of a sort of chain or scale of infiltration of feelings among the genres: something of the elegiac hides in most lyrics, something of the lyric can be found in many epics. “Man is in love and loves what vanishes,” Yeats wrote in the poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” “What more is there to say?”

There is plenty more to say, of course, about loss and about other things, and poets keep saying it. But the saying often includes, and takes much of its power from, an evocation of what vanishes and our love for it. This inclusion is precisely what Mark Strand, in a subtle and moving essay on Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid, finds in the moment when the hero in the underworld tries to embrace his father’s ghost. Tries and fails three times:

And there he tried three times
To throw his arms around his father’s neck.
Three times the shade untouched slipped through his hands,
Weightless as wind and fugitive as dream.

This is Robert Fitzgerald’s translation, which Strand quotes, adding the original:

ter conatus ibi collo dare bracchia circum;
ter frustra comprensa manus effugit imago,
par levibus ventis volucrique simillima somno.

A peculiar doubleness pervades Book VI,” Strand writes. “Things are present and yet they are not. Vision and action are accorded epic scale, but they hint at the lyric.”* They hint at the elegiac too, Strand suggests, because even Virgil’s grand visions of the Roman future are weighted with the idea of vanishing. The epic poem creates “the conditions for elegy,” but then both epic and elegy momentarily give way to lyric, because “it is the lyric…that offers images of continuity which can be set against the fact of mortality.” Along the sliding scale I suggested earlier, the lyric would have the attraction of not being all elegy while still remembering the losses that epic tries not to count. It would neither mourn nor celebrate but register the causes for both ceremonies.

So that when Strand says, “Lyric poetry reminds us that we live in time,” his suggestion is not just that time passes and that loss is all there is, only that loss is always to be reckoned with. In the introductory notes to his translations in Looking for Poetry, Strand writes of “the ubiquity of loss” in the poems of the Brazilian Carlos Drummond de Andrade, of the “elegies, remembrances, and poems of loss and exile” he admires by the Spanish Rafael Alberti. But Strand knows well that every poet has his or her own relation to loss, and has different ways of recalling us to time.

The three collections The Story of Our Lives (1973), The Monument (1978), and The Late Hour (1978), now brought together in a single volume, take us from a poem of mourning for a dead father, Strand’s own attempted embrace of a paternal ghost, to various delicate evocations of lateness and fading light, by way of the extraordinary short prose pieces of The Monument, an ironic portrait of the artist as manager of his own posterity. The last poem of The Late Hour, and therefore the last poem in the book, is said to be written “after Carlos Drummond de Andrade,” but it sounds more like Kenneth Koch, and that is a voice Strand can’t do:

Thank you, faithful things!
Thank you, world!…

Strand is better at more oblique forms of gratitude, as when he catches the light in a garden or on a page of poetry, “even now/in the moment before it disappears.” Or when he watches “the downward drift of light” in a snowfall, which he describes as

the fall of moments into moments, the burial
of sleep, the down of winter, the negative of night.

Night as negation, an image of the end of everything, seems the main suggestion here. But the grammar and metaphor allow a faint hope. The bright snow could be night’s negative in another sense, a denial of night; and every negative could in principle be developed into a well-lit photograph.

The grave of light is everywhere,” Mark Strand writes elsewhere in The Late Hour, but for there to be a grave there has to have been a life:

Even this late it happens:
the coming of love, the coming of light.
You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,
stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows,
sending up warm bouquets of air.
Even this late the bones of the body shine
and tomorrow’s dust flares into breath.

This double perception allows us to see just what it is that Strand is doing with loss and time in these poems. For him time is a dying of the light, and what we lose is what we once saw, or might have seen. He does not suggest, as Elizabeth Bishop wryly, desperately does, that we should practice losing, as if we could undo disaster by anticipating it; and he doesn’t think our losses can be halted, even by the most sublime poetry. But he does think there is a “ghost within every experience that wishes it could be seen or felt, acknowledged as a kind of meaning.” This is why Strand loves Virgil so much, the poet who understood that possession itself is a kind of loss, but who also knew how to get the ghosts of experience to appear and reappear, however doomed they are to repeated fading.

In The Monument, a work whose irony quite deliberately allows it to keep slipping away from us, Strand shows us a writer trying to overcome time, to turn himself into the monument of the title. “Let me introduce myself,” the first piece begins. “I am…” I am what? The full sentence is simply “I am…and so on and so forth.” The next sentence is “Now you know more about me than I know about you.” Do we? Well, only if we assume he knows absolutely nothing about us. We know he is a writer, that he is writing a book called The Monument, that the book is about him—whatever else it may also be about. We can guess that he wishes to be remembered, and that this book is his bid for immortality. Or not quite: it is a puzzled (and puzzling) meditation on such bids, and especially on his own. The Monument itself may not be a monument; only the expression of a longing for one.

The writer thinks of his translator in the distant future, “imagining you at this moment trying to imagine me,” and hopes that this moment of double imagining will itself become the Monument:

Why have I chosen this way to continue myself under your continuing gaze? I might have had my likeness carved in stone, but it is not my image that I want you to have, nor my life, nor the life around me, only this document. What I include of myself is unreal and distracting. Only this luminous moment has life, this instant in which we both write, this flash of voice.

The writer continues to worry about the translator, who may in the end merely be a metaphor for the future reader, himself or herself perhaps only a fantasy:

This work has allowed you to exist, yet this work exists because you are translating it. Am I wrong? It must be early morning as you write. You sit in a large, barely furnished room with one window from which you can see a gray body of water on which several black ducks are asleep. How still the world is so many years from now. How few people there are. They never leave town, never visit the ruins of the great city.

The text becomes more playful. “Perhaps there is no monument,” it says, “and this is invisible writing that has appeared in fate’s corridor.”

Two poems are offered, both called “The Monument,” but said not to be it: “Do not be taken in by structures that call themselves The Monument.” Sightings of the Monument are reported in both hemispheres, and in certain cloud formations, as if it were not a literary work at all but some kind of vision or apparition. The writer remembers Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” with its “two vast and trunkless legs of stone” and “shattered visage” half-sunken in the desert sand, and thinks this “would be something.” But mainly he knows better. The Monument he is after is made of words, “the text already written, unwriting itself into the text of promise,” and often the words of others. The book cites and comments on passages from many authors (their names and works are listed at the back of the book), although Sir Thomas Browne, Wallace Stevens, and Miguel de Unamuno are the ones who recur, the writer’s intimates, so to speak.

But the writer’s closest companion in his Monument project is named only obliquely, as if she were a rank or a position rather than a person. “Sometimes,” the writer says, “…I hear a voice and I know that I am not alone. Another voice, another monument becoming one; another tomb, another marker from elements least visible; another voice that says, Watch it closely.” “It is the Bishop,” the writer adds, “who after all was not intended to be seen. It is the Bishop calling and calling.” “Watch it closely” are the last words of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Monument,” an evocation of a curious structure made of wood which seems to be situated in a landscape itself carved in wood, “a temple of crates in cramped and crated scenery.” The monument has life, Bishop says, and has wishes. It wants “to be a monument, to cherish something,” and its ramshackle looks are no hindrance to this:

once each day the light goes
around it
like a prowling animal,
or the rain falls on it, or the
wind blows into it.

Is it solid, or hollow? Is there anything inside it? Bones, perhaps? Strand says the Bishop “after all was not intended to be seen,” as if she were hiding in her poem, but Elizabeth Bishop herself puts the emphasis elsewhere. The monument shelters “what is within (which after all/cannot have been intended to be seen).” Her monument shelters not the poet but the very notion of privacy within a public exterior.

Strand’s monument is all about intending to be seen, even when you’re no longer there. It is to offer a “promise of adequate memorial,” as he says, although he knows there can be no such thing. “This poor document,” Strand’s prose sequence, the proto-Monument, “dwells on the absence of a self,” but dwelling on absence, as Strand suggests of Aeneas, is a way of finding it everywhere, and an endlessly missing self is endlessly remembered. The writer in Strand’s work, for all his disclaimers, wants a monument that will unmistakably be his. There is no doubt an element of vanity here, even of posturing, but this element is finally overcome. Strand, a sensitive reader of Borges, knows that good writing belongs to language, or to literature, rather than to persons, and The Monument represents his intricate and reluctant acceptance of this idea. “Now here I am at the end,” our writer says, “waiting for you, ahead of my time, ahead of yours.” But of course only his words are waiting for us, not any kind of memorialized self, and ultimately he can’t want it any other way. When he feels “a surge of power” as a writer, he calls himself “a single strand, upright.” And so he is. But “strand” is an English word, not a poet’s name.

The Monument, with its forking paths, points us to another important aspect of Strand’s work, its ever-present dream of alternatives. Many readers of the Aeneid have wondered why Aeneas should leave the underworld after receiving what appear to be entirely valid prophecies from his father, through the gate reserved for false dreams. Strand thinks the revelation of Aeneas’ father “has been compromised by…Aeneas not being a true shade,” and continues eloquently, “It is not possible to memorialize what has not happened, nor possible to pass off what has already happened as what will happen.” This is a shrewd guess at Virgil’s doubts, but memorializing what has not happened is something Strand himself does all the time. “We end up lamenting the loss of something we never possessed,” he writes in the same book, and his later poems, in particular, are full of images of what might have been. In Blizzard of One, we read:

It could have been another story, the one that was meant
Instead of the one that happened….

And:

And into the close and mirrored catacombs of sleep
We’ll fall, and there in the faded light discover the bones,
The dust, the bitter remains of someone who might have been
Had we not taken his place.

The bones and the dust and the bitterness, the poem suggests, are as real as anything that has survived into our real and waking life.

Looking for Poetry reprints three sets of poems, translated earlier (1971, 1973, 1986) from three different languages: the Portuguese of Drummond de Andrade (1902–1987), the Quechua of the Indians of the high plains of Bolivia and Peru, and the Spanish of Rafael Alberti (1902–1999). Most of Strand’s work as a translator is here. He is deft and accurate but never pedantic; he is willing to let words go if they won’t cross over into English, but also ingenious at finding the right oblique equivalent: “whispered,” for instance, for the Spanish comentaban; “heavens” for espacios, “what’s happening” for the Portuguese acontecimentos; “upright, unhappy” for melancólico e vertical. A lot of care and patience must have gone into these versions, but the effect is one of ease, and, as translations, they don’t enact loss at all. They faithfully record the interest in loss shown repeatedly by the original.

Drummond de Andrade, in a remarkable poem called “Residue,” registers loss through a minutious and wryly comic registry of what remains:

From everything a little remains.
Not much: this absurd drop
dripping from the faucet,
half salt and half alcohol,
this frog leg jumping,
this watch crystal
broken into a thousand wishes….
Still, horribly, from everything a little remains….

And the volume takes its title from Drummond’s well-known poem about poetry, with its brilliantly sardonic instructions: “Don’t write poems about what’s happening…. Don’t sing about your city, leave it in peace…. Don’t dramatize, don’t invoke…. Don’t bring up/your sad and buried childhood.” So what are we to do?

Enter the kingdom of words as if you were deaf
Poems are there that want to be written….
They are alone and mute, in dictionary condition….
Take note:
words hide in the night
in caves of music and image.
Still humid and pregnant with sleep
they turn in a winding river and by neglect are transformed.

The anonymous Quechua poems—Strand was working, he says, from Spanish translations—evoke love, sleep, sorrow, yearning, war, absence, all with tremendous compression. There are silences surrounding the poems with things not said, perhaps not sayable. Here is an instance. What is the fire? Who is the speaker? Who is the child? What caused this conflagration which only innocence, it seems, can put out?

The fire I started in the mountains,
the tough straw I lit on the peak,
will be flaming,
will be burning.
Oh, see if the mountain still is in flames!
And if there is fire, go to it, child!
With your innocent tears
put out the fire;
cry over the blaze
and turn it to ash with your innocent tears.

Alberti lost his country among other things, leaving Franco’s Spain for exile in Argentina, but he was a master of loss and anguish even when he was still at home. Many of the poems Strand chooses to translate concern secular angels (the angel of numbers, the luckless angel, the angel of ash, the avaricious angel, the sleepwalking angels), who are, Alberti says, “shaped to the most troubled and secret states of my nature.” An angel is a kind of second self, a weightless companion who remembers everything we forget, and who can himself die. We are told to look for dead angels, for instance, in a landscape that resembles Drummond’s, only slightly marked by surrealism:

You must look for them
in the sleeplessness of forgotten pipes
in sewers clogged by the silence of garbage….
Look for them
near a lost bottlecap,
near a shoe gone astray in the snow,
near a razorblade left at the edge of a cliff.

In a wonderful poem called “The Grade-School Angels, “Los angeles colegiales,” we see, delicately drawn and in advance of his turn to politics and exile, precisely the energies of imagination and resistance that are Alberti’s answer to loss:

None of us understood the dark secret of the blackboards
nor why the armillary sphere seemed so remote when we looked at it.
We know only that a circumference does not have to be round
and that an eclipse of the moon confuses the flowers
and speeds up the timing of birds.
None of us understood anything:
not even why our fingers were made of India ink
and the afternoon closed compasses only to have the dawn open books.
We knew only that a straight line, if it likes, can be curved or broken
and that the wandering stars are children who don’t know arithmetic.

If it likes” represents a child’s idea of freedom, unsustainable in the adult world, and all too easy to forget, to trade in for the already written story, the one we know too well and can’t get out of.

It is possible, Strand suggests, to know too much arithmetic, or to have too much narrative:

This morning I woke and believed
there was no more to our lives
than the story of our lives.
When you disagreed, I pointed
to the place in the book where you disagreed.

These are lines from the title poem of Strand’s The Story of Our Lives, which also tells us:

We are reading the story of our lives
as though we were in it,
as though we had written it.

The trouble is that “we” are in it and have written it. The trick would be to unwrite it:

If only there were a perfect moment in the book;
if only we could live in that moment,
we could begin the book again
as if we had not written it,
as if we were not in it.

These tensions find their perfect expression in the last poem in this sequence, “The Untelling,” a moving portrait of a man, a poet, trying to undo a precious memory in order to remember it better. There is a lake, an August afternoon, there are children, parents, a man rushes across a lawn waving a sheet of paper. The poet writes and rewrites the memory but feels he is losing it as he does so:

He would have preferred
the lake without a story,
or no story and no lake…
If he kept it up
he would lose everything…
It was late.
It did not matter.
He would never catch up
with his past.

But then he discovers a kind of silence where the self dies away, and

He felt himself at that moment to be
more than his need to survive,
more than his losses,
because he was less than anything.

More than his need, more than his losses. He begins to write a poem called “The Untelling,” not the one we have just read, but the one we can never read, and that will haunt us because we can only imagine it. Such poems are the habitat not of experience but of experience’s ghosts.

  1. *

    The Weather of Words (Knopf, 2000), p. 90.

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