Mark Strand died in November, at the age of eighty, leaving behind his newly published Collected Poems. This seems a bad deal: a man in exchange for a book. But Strand had long explored the feeling of having somehow disappeared into his art, which returned to him a version of himself, much altered in the process. The poems hold their author at some distance, with feelings of amusement and pity; all along those poems suspected their author to be just a ghost moving warily through them. We knew what life without Strand might be like: the poems regarded him posthumously, as though already dwelling in the life without him their maker had arranged. The poems are cautious about large claims, but there is a boast at their core: they always figured they would outlive him.
They have, and they will. The greatest work is the newest, from Blizzard of One to Almost Invisible; like Wallace Stevens, his master, Strand seemed to function best when the situation was pared to its elementals. Old age made the intelligence in his poetry seem to float almost independent of its author. The late poems taught us how to view as evanescent Strand’s worldliness, his elegance, his enviable looks, even his fame, which grew out of the very poems that ironized it. In “The Great Poet Returns,” a “limousine with all-white tires and stained-glass windows” delivers the Christ-like “great one” to an adoring crowd:
“No need to rush,” he said at the close of the reading, “the end
Of the world is only the end of the world as you know it.”
How like him, everyone thought. Then he was gone,
And the world was a blank. It was cold and the air was still.
Tell me, you people out there, what is poetry anyway?
Can anyone die without even a little?
The “great poet” confounds by paradox, timing his disappearances so as to create, in his fans, maximum emotional ruin. The rest of us are left in the “cold,” “blank,” and “still” aftermath, certain that the answer to that concluding question is “Most certainly. Yes.”
It is surprising that a poetry so skeptical of poetry’s prestige would move us, but it does. Many of the late poems end in the key of abruptness and confusion, embodying the void they describe. Here is “I Will Love the Twenty-First Century” in its entirety:
Dinner was getting cold. The guests, hoping for quick,
Impersonal, random encounters of the usual sort, were sprawled
In the bedrooms. The potatoes were hard, the beans soft, the meat—
There was no meat. The winter sun had turned the elms and houses yellow;
Deer were moving down the road like refugees; and in the driveway, cats
Were warming themselves on the hood of a car. Then a man turned
And said to me: “Although I love the past, the dark of it,
The weight of it teaching us nothing, the loss of it, the all
Of it asking for nothing, I will love the twenty-first century more,
For in it I see someone in bathrobe and slippers, brown-eyed and poor,
Walking through snow without leaving so much as a footprint behind.”
“Oh,” I said, putting my hat on, “oh.”
The poem was published in 1998, just in time for the century’s end. Even our prognostications for the future will someday be seen as features—symptoms—of the past: by far the majority of this poem’s readers will evaluate its prophecies, like those in Thomas Hardy’s turn-of-the-twentieth century poem “A Darkling Thrush,” after the fact. The weightless, wandering, “poor” man in “bathrobe and slippers” is a cipher for old age. Time will fill in the details.
A poet’s audience is chronological; his readership (those “people out there”) is cumulative across the entirety of the future. It is impossible to know what the future will think of him. Poetry is not a TED Talk, with its audience, summoned all at once and all in one place, verifiably large and spellbound. Strand’s work has a special stake in anticipated recollection, imagining itself to be the kind of experience “whose appearance would be its vanishing.” Poems synchronize arrival and departure, noting the imperceptible process by which “the architecture of our time/Is becoming the architecture of the future.” That’s a brilliant paradox, implying that “our” architecture both will be replaced by and will become “the future,” joining what T.S. Eliot, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” called “the simultaneous order” of past masterworks.
Strand takes no comfort, none, in abstraction; his work proposes its own elegance not as a stay against passing time but as a measure of it. The result, in these late poems, is often a blunt poetry of inventoried losses, fixated on the past even as it vanishes into the past:
Time slips by; our sorrows do not turn into poems,
And what is invisible stays that way. Desire has fled,
Leaving only a trace of perfume in its wake,
And so many people we loved have gone,
And no voice comes from outer space, from the folds
Of dust and carpets of wind to tell us that this
Is the way it was meant to happen, that if only we knew
How long the ruins would last we would never complain.
Strand learned from Stevens—whose austere late couplets inform these lines—the trick of bringing his wishes into being by negation: those fraying “nos” and “nots.” But Stevens held on to the idea of poetry as a plausible compensation for loss. The flatness of these lines seems to rule out even poetry, perhaps even these lines of poetry. And the disappointment is real: Who doesn’t hope that the papers will someday bring us the news of a “voice…from outer space”? Strand died after the disappearance of God but before the arrival of a suitable replacement.
Reading the Collected Poems, you realize what a personal writer, what an intimate writer, Strand was all along. He came into his own with his second book, Reasons for Moving (1968). Both the title poem and “Eating Poetry” are anthology pieces, the kinds of poems that turn up reliably on subway ads for National Poetry Month. These poems (along with others of the era) gave birth to the modern “prompt,” that mainstay of Creative Writing programs and classes. Their opening lines set the imaginative parameters. The poems, a little too predictably, then one-up themselves, line after line:
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.
The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.
The poem goes on for eighteen lines in more or less this way, a series of comic escalations of the absurdist premise. Billy Collins—whose own poems have launched a thousand writing exercises—is the contemporary heir to this kind of thing, leap-frogging his own jokes to get to later jokes. Such poems tend to be made of discreet statements, so as to allow for laughter and applause between lines. It is hard to build anything very complex if every few lines you deliver a punch line.
The slickness of the early work, profligate in its dedications to fellow writers, suggests, to me, the era when the dinosaurs had died off and a new, very attractive crop of poets, less damaged then their forebears, encountered one another at conferences, panels, and retreats, for a weekend or a month at a time. One pictures porches, tea, mosquitoes, and awards. It is hard to read these poems, especially those collected in Darker (1970), Strand’s third book, without considering the precise social usefulness of their accounts of solitude and despair. The poems may well outlast Breadloaf and Iowa City, but for me it is too early to see them as much more than a species—a very dour species—of charm.
I suspect the popularity of these poems, the effectiveness with which they greased their author’s passage from podium to podium to podium, wore on Strand, because the work after the early 1970s deepens in sudden and unexpected ways. The Story of Our Lives (1973), Strand’s fourth book, begins with an “Elegy for My Father,” a poem that right away changed the course of Strand’s career. The reader is now alone with a voice freed from the existential one-offs and surrealist zingers. “Elegy” is a long poem in numbered and titled parts, suggesting, perhaps, the stages of mourning or the stations of the cross. These are the opening lines of the first section, “The Empty Body”:
The hands were yours, the arms were yours,
But you were not there.
The eyes were yours, but they were closed and would not open.
The distant sun was there.
The moon poised on the hill’s white shoulder was there.
The wind on Bedford Basin was there.
The pale green light of winter was there.
Your mouth was there,
But you were not there.
This is the new tone of abundance tallied in light of deprivation: Strand’s way of looking for his father requires him to catalog all the usual places where he could be found, chiefly the body, now newly alien. A later section gives us the father’s biography in capsule form:
You have your shadow.
The places where you were have given it back.
The hallways and bare lawns of the orphanage have given it back.
The Newsboy’s Home has given it back.
The streets of New York have given it back and so have the streets of Montreal.
All the “places where you were”—Belém, Manaus, Rio, Mexico City, Halifax—enter the poem in this way, returning “your shadow” as though the only impress made upon the world isn’t an impress at all. “Nothing could stop you” from dying, Strand writes: “Not your son who thought you would live forever.”
“Elegy for My Father”—its title listless, intentionally devoid of invention—preserves from early poems like “My Life” Strand’s comic sense of himself as so passive he might as well be inanimate. In those poems, Strand suggested that life is a process of gradual subtraction from the sum of one’s years, perceptions, gifts, and experiences, which are all granted at birth and, one by one, removed.
“I grow into my death,” he wrote: “My life is small/and getting smaller. The world is green./Nothing is all.” This comic conceit would tend to darken over time, as it comes to seem less fanciful, more literal. Many grim poems, each grimmer than the last, would seem likely to follow. The silence after death—the final subtraction—would then seem the ultimate accomplishment. But Strand found a language that preserved his comic sense of life’s ironies while grieving for death and change. The late work is more sensuous and worldly to the extent that living in the world heightens our feeling of isolation. Strand followed Gerard Manley Hopkins in seeing his “selfbeing” as irreducibly weird, and stranger the closer it felt. Hopkins felt especially isolated when he thought about how real he seemed to himself:
When I consider my selfbeing; my consciousness and feeling of myself, that taste of myself, of I and me above and in all things, which is more distinctive than the taste of ale or alum, more distinctive than the smell of walnutleaf or camphor, and is incommunicable by any means to another man…nothing else in nature comes near this unspeakable stress of pitch, distinctiveness, and selving, this selfbeing of my own.
Late poems like “The Delirium Waltz” and Strand’s contemplation of the final words of Christ, “Poem After the Last Seven Words,” honor the “distinctiveness” of individual experience as well as its arbitrariness, the suspicion that individuality is a standard feature of all lives.
Donne had the portrait he commissioned of himself in a burial shroud, which he contemplated in his final days. Strand’s late poems are self-portraits of a very different kind, but they serve the same purpose. Here is “Old Man Leaves Party” in its entirety:
It was clear when I left the party
That though I was over eighty I still had
A beautiful body. The moon shone down as it will
On moments of deep introspection. The wind held its breath.
And look, somebody left a mirror leaning against a tree.
Making sure that I was alone, I took off my shirt.
The flowers of bear grass nodded their moon-washed heads.
I took off my pants and the magpies circled the redwoods.
Down in the valley the creaking river was flowing once more.
How strange that I should stand in the wilds alone with my body.
I know what you are thinking. I was like you once. But now
With so much before me, so many emerald trees, and
Weed-whitened fields, mountains and lakes, how could I not
Be only myself, this dream of flesh, from moment to moment?