25
Sep
15

Quick Notes on Mark Strand

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

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Mark StrandMark Strand (1934 – 2014) was born in Canada, but he is considered an American poet. In 1990, he his collection of poems Blizzard of One won the Pulitzer Prize.

I picked up on four themes while reading through Mark Strand Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991). The selections begin with poems from his first book Sleeping with One Eye Open (1964) and ends with The Late Hour (1978), plus some New Poems from 1980. What I picked up on is that Strand is concerned with living a life that can be reflected on without regret, the idea of time (especially the present), the intersection of the surreal and the real, and the “I” of existence.

The concerns with living an unfulfilled life are most present in Sleeping with One Eye Open and then in The Story of Our Lives (1973). In “When the Vacation is Over for Good” (Sleeping with One Eye Open), Strand uses vacation as a metaphor for life, and when one is on vacation, one sometimes acts as if “There was nothing to do,” which is a waste of a vacation and a life, especially when the unforeseen “weather turned” and then one really couldn’t do anything. And eventually the vacation is over and the vacationer is left wondering “why it is / We are dying,” the closing lines to the poem. “Violent Storm” (which is the next poem in the Selected Poems) comes to a similar conclusion after a dialectical movement between dream/fantasy imagery with the imagery of the real. And it ends, “Already now the lights / That shared our wakefulness are dimming / And the dark brushes against our eyes.” Strand will throughout his poems give examples of how to be active, especially in the present.

For Strand, the present “is a place / you’ve never been” (“Black Maps,” Darker, 1970), it is “emptiness,” and it is something to inhabit, if it can be inhabited. For instance, Strand has what I call “temporal loop” poems. These are poems you read and feel like you are moving through time, but by the end, you are where you started, and you not sure if any time has passed. This occurs in “The Tunnel” (Sleeping with One Eye Open), where the speaker sees a man “standing in front” of his “house / for days.” The speaker tries to get him to leave, but the stranger will not. The speaker then tries to protect himself and escape to his neighbor’s house by digging a tunnel. Eventually, he comes “out in front of a house,” and he gets the sensation that:

     I feel I’m being watched
     and sometimes I hear
     a man’s voice
     but nothing is done and I have been waiting for days.

The speaker and the man at the door are the same, despite the shift in time and place. Or there is the psychological thriller in “The Mailman”:

     It is midnight.
     He comes up the walk
     and knocks at the door.
     I rush to greet him.
     He stands there weeping,
     shaking a letter at me.
     He tells me it contains
     terrible personal news.
     He falls to his knees.
     “Forgive me! Forgive me!” he pleads.

     I ask him inside.
     He wipes his eyes.
     His dark blue suit
     is like an inkstain
     on my crimson couch.
     Helpless, nervous, small,
     he curls up like a ball
     and sleeps while I compose
     more letters to myself
     in the same vein:

     “You shall live
     by inflicting pain.
     You shall forgive.”

This poem is from Reasons for Moving (1968). This looping idea and uncertainty of presence in the present will really come into full being in “The Untelling,” the nine-page poem from The Story of Our Lives, but more on that later. The poems that play with time and try to define the present are also poems that blend the perceived with the misperceived and how the misperceived becomes real, much like he does with the surreal and real imagery he uses.

The intersection of the surreal and real is introduced in the title of his first collection: Sleeping with One Eye Open, so as to suggest the real (one eye open) and dream world (sleeping and surreal) coexist. Often the poems move in a dialectical movement between the real and surreal, such as in “Violent Storm” (Sleeping with One Eye Open) or in “The Man in the Tree” (Reasons for Moving, 1968). Often after alternating between surreal and real imagery, there is a moment of analysis, but eventually, the reader (or the speaker, maybe) are left wondering what is real or surreal, or how is the surreal successfully posing as the real, or how the surreal became real? For example, in “What to Think Of” (Reasons for Moving), the poem opens:

     Think of the jungle,
     The green steam rising.

     It is yours.
     You are the Prince of Paraguay.

The poem begins by asserting the imagination and the reality it can create, and it’s so real, one can own it like a prince. And as a prince, as the poem shows, the people worship you (the imaginer) and the “air” you inhabited as prince. In fact, you as prince are “almost a god.” The imagined realm, however, can come alive without your consent. It’s something you can’t fully colonize. Soon the “bats / Rushing out of their caves,” and the “coral snakes,” “crimson birds,” and “tons and tons of morpho butterflies” arrive “Like the cold confetti of paradise.” In this case, the reality is harsh, because the imaginer tried to rule over it like a prince. This poem is also a poem about how to inhabit a place.

Inhabiting a place, especially the place of “I,” is a significant theme in Strand’s poems, where things are often being filled or emptied and where there is liminal imagery like doors, windows, and horizons. Much of Strand’s poetry is concerned with what I is or can be. There is the concern with the physical I, such as in “Keeping Things Whole”:

     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.

He is not a field, but he inhabits the space that is the absence of the field. He fills the void of wherever wherever is not. He is presence where once there was absence. He’s always walking into what is missing and his presence is erased by the moving air filling his spaces when he leaves. And so he moves to keep things whole. However, as I read more of Strand, I find the physical I that fills spaces to be only a container of the life of I. The body is not the I but is a storage unit for the life of I. This sounds confusing, so let me give an example.

     The Remains

     I empty myself of the names of others. I empty my pockets.
     I empty my shoes and leave them beside the road.
     At night I turn back the clocks;
     I open the family album and look at myself as a boy.

     What good does it do? The hours have done their job.
     I say my own name. I say goodbye.
     The words follow each other downwind.
     I love my wife but send her away.

     My parents rise out of their thrones
     into the milky rooms of clouds. How can I sing?
     Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same.
     I empty myself of my life and my life remains.

This poem is from Darker (1970). By the end of the first two lines, it’s as if he is without ego (how he interacts with “others”), without an id (as he has emptied himself of possessions and thus desire), and when he leaves his shoes, it’s like he’s walked out of himself. He tries to find himself through memories and through language, but those are all fleeting ways to make a self. He realizes he, but not his body, is his “change,” his growth, his experiences through time. And if he empties the shell of the body, his life still remains, in a way similar to a photograph. It’s the living that matters, not the body or appearance or presence of body. It’s what one does while inhabiting the body. It’s the body moving through the moments of time, for in each moment “There is the sleep of one moment / inside the next” (“The Sleep,” Darker, 1970) and each moment keeps birthing another moment until the final moment, which is death, which is “like another skin which I shall never be found, / out of which I shall never appear” (“The Sleep”). Death is another space into which one grows, as he says in “My Life,” “I grow into my death” (Darker, 1970). But if one doesn’t live that life in the body, then there will be regret.

Perhaps the one poem that brings all four of these themes together is “Elegy for My Father” (The Story of Our Lives, 1973), which has six sections. The first section is titled “The Empty Body.” This section along with section three, “Your Dying,” speak harshly to and about his dead father, who did not inhabit the one body he was given, as the opening lines indicate: “The hands were yours, the arms were yours, / But you were not there,” or later where he more clearly states it, “The body was yours, but you were not there.” According to the speaker, the father found pleasure in not filling his body with life experiences because, among many things, he “went to work let the cold enter your clothes. / [. . .] But nothing could stop you” from dying, and “You went on with your dying.” Slowly, I start to realize, or conjecture, that his father is the cause for Strand’s themes of living, the presence of I, and inhabiting the present. In section four, “Your Shadow,” real and surreal imagery enter the poem in the form of the father’s shadow, which in Jungian psychology is the unconscious part of the personality and everything that one cannot directly know about him- or herself. It is repressed substance, whether good or bad. In this case, it is the father’s will to live, for the shadow, after the father dies, is excited and “rejoiced among the ruins” of the dead host. The shadow is free and feels it can finally live. The shadow makes it presence known to the speaker as the speaker recounts what happened, “It sat on my shoulders. / Your shadow is yours. I told it so. I said it was yours. / I have carried it with me too long. I give it back.” (Where “yours” is his father.) Which to me seems like the speaker is saying something like, “I’ve been living enough and trying to fill both our lives (his and his father’s). Stop projecting on me. You had your opportunity to live, and now it’s past.” In the last section, “The New Year,” he tells his dead father in the winter of the new year, “Nobody knows you. You are the neighbor of nothing.” His father failed to fill the empty body with something.

Later in Strand’s writing, the surreal imagery occurs less often, and he also starts considering how language can fill the I or the present. In “The Untelling,” for example, the poem narrates how a character is trying to write and narrate and existence through writing, which continually fails in whole, but it does minutely affect his surroundings, or so we think until we arrive at the end of the poem, which is really the beginning of the poem again. We have entered another temporal loop, but his one is more of a narrative loop driven by language, which leaves the reader wondering, again, about perceptions and misperceptions and how they affect each other. This time, however, unlike the surreal-real interactions of his earlier poetry, it is the interaction of language with the real.

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