Comic, Ironic, Grieving

Jill Krementz
Mark Strand, Joseph Brodsky, Adam Zagajewski, and Derek Walcott in Brodsky’s garden, New York City, 1986


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;…

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