New Selected Poems Mark Strand. Knopf. 267 pp, $21.00
When I heard Mark Strand read at Yale last spring from his New Selected (2007), I resolved to read a copy. The impression I’d had that Strand’s work inhabits a certain constant place is sustained by reading this career condensation, and it’s fitting that the New Selected should arrive after Man and Camel (2006). There is a wryness in the latter volume that, I realize now, inhabits much of Strand’s verse from the earliest, but which wasn’t quite so apparent before—to me, at least. His reading was so affable, jocose even, that the sense of Strand’s poems I’d picked up from Dark Harbor (1993), the first Strand volume I’d read, as austere imaginative landscapes into which one peers with metaphysical intent collapsed somewhat, leaving a stronger sense of a playfulness I associate with the French symbolists.
Certainly, that’s not surprising. Strand’s poems have always been inflected by a sense of words as symbolic more than descriptive. He’s about as far from being a nature poet, who yet describes a natural world, as could be. He’s also rather far removed from confessional verse, even though he does at times write about himself, or as himself. And that, to me, is the lesson of symbolist poetry: it allows one to treat the natural world, and oneself as a member of that world, as an occasion for verbal constructs that relay a sense of both connection and estrangement. Such poems are not meant to create a scene to contemplate, or to reveal the dramatic movement of events, but to make a statement about perception or representation by rendering a state of consciousness. In Strand the state of consciousness on display never smacks of life in its quotidian particulars, rather it articulates a lyric presence that a poet might spend his whole live trying to articulate.
This makes Strand sound rather abstract and the odd thing is that he really doesn’t seem to be, even though he often is. The trick of Strand’s verse is to appear completely “natural” while talking in the most indirect way possible. The reader can be fooled by the clarity of Strand’s language into thinking that the poems are simple, direct statements. It’s only when one tries to place interpretive weight on this or that word or phrase that an odd sleight-of-hand takes place: it’s almost impossible to find the load-bearing supports, as it were. Strand’s poems tell us everything we need to know at once, but almost invariably leave us wondering what they’ve said.
Sometimes, as with “Man and Camel,” the sense of parabolic meaning is so deliberate, it becomes a joke on our effort to give meanings. Seeing a man and a camel going by while he sits on a porch on his fortieth birthday having a smoke, the speaker, when he hears the duo begin to sing, identifies them as “an ideal image for all uncommon couples,” and wonders “Was this the night I had waited for / so long?” In the end, the “couple” returns to inform the speaker, “‘You ruined it. You ruined it forever.’”
Ascribing personal or symbolic meaning to objects or events, we might imagine, is something poets are authorized to do, especially in their own poems. But here the objects of this reverie rebel. It’s not to say that the meaning given to their duet is “wrong,” but it seems to be the very need to find satisfaction—something “ideal” for which one had waited so long—that ruins the spontaneous manifestation of song, a song the poem describes as: “a mystery to me—/ the words were indistinct and the tune / too ornamental to recall.” It’s not the song itself that speaks to the poet, it’s the fact of it, its presence in the air as something he can gesture to and hang a meaning upon.
Strand has a very dry sense of humor and he knows how to use it. He’s able to make us feel in on a joke that may very well be played on us nevertheless. And that “joke,” in all its wry charm, intimates that saying something profound, in poetry, is a kind of “kidding,” a way of not speaking in earnest.
Even so, the poems are often quite solemn, and can be so pared down as to seem minimalist: “I walk / into what light / there is.” To be so toneless is not easy, and reads as if the page itself speaks. Strand is fond of imperative sentences, words that simply surface and command our hearing. And the actions are generally simple: walking, looking, speaking, writing, sitting, thinking; sometimes there are dreams. Nothing very much happens, but everything is poised to happen because each poem is running a course, moving to an end that will clarify its intention, its statement.
Take for instance this poem, from Darker (1970), Strand’s first definitive volume:
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.
The poem seems a statement of Strand’s ongoing poetic project, containing everything his poems will do as he matures. And it’s significant that this project is offered as “remains”: what remains after the essential paring down is what the poetry consists of. Sometimes the statement—the actual breath of the poem—will be the entire poem, one flowing thought. But more often the movement of the thought is cut up by short sentences, or by very short line breaks. The pacing is very deliberate, and is necessary for the effect achieved, suggested by the line “The hours have done their job.” For this definite pacing is a matter of time, or, as with jokes, timing.
We arrive at completion, at what remains, by deliberate steps: names, pockets, shoes, road, clocks, photos, boy—very precise yet generic nouns. We might accuse Strand of making a generic poetry. If that were true, it might be interesting for a volume or two, but there is always more at stake. The generic easily becomes the allegorical: “The words follow each other downwind,” and the metaphysical: “Time tells me what I am.” But there are other common registers Strand exploits that are here too: the familial thread in each stanza, from “family album” to “my wife” to “my parents,” so that affective relations are always ready to burst into Strand’s meditation. And the gesture toward nature or to metaphor—”the milky rooms of clouds”—can bring a clear, unforced lyricism to bear at any moment.
And the poem’s statement? Much depends on whether you view the final verse as illustrating futility (“What good does it do?”) or whether it has managed—the very ideal of sleight-of-hand—to slyly change the terms while we were looking. “How can I sing? / Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same.” We are bordering on “I am that I am,” the claim of the absolute God. What would God praise other than himself? The parents off their thrones and in their clouds is a joke image; the wife is sent away from this paradise of self-knowing, self-perpetuating Godhead. All the other names are gone. Only the one remains. The poem is stuck in the groove of its own making, like a needle stuck on a record. Empty/remain; empty/remain, ad infinitum.
And that is Strand’s characteristic jest, to start singing when about to be cut-off. Reading through this volume, covering forty-two years of publication, one is struck by Strand’s fidelity to his task. His ability to bring it off derives from a keen sense of emptying his mind and grasping what remains, but it’s also based on what I take to be the jest of originary utterance. God, the Hebrew scriptures tell us, spoke first and created everything. After that, there can be no originary utterance. The poet, in enunciating his poem, speaks in an ancillary manner that purports to begin things again, to empty, and to select its causes for praise or blame. But the pre-existent world remains. Strand is far too canny to take that as a point of despair or futility if only because the mind allows words to happen to it, and when they do, there is no telling what possibilities for poetry might also remain.
Donald Brown reviews poetry, fiction, and theater for The New Haven Review and The New Haven Advocate.
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