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 …

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