RIP Mark Strand, 1934–2014
Mark Strand was one of America’s finest poets. I first read his poems Keeping Things Whole and Eating Poetry in high school, and then I remember a poetry teacher in college telling us a story about how Strand made an undergraduate cry at one of his readings. (I don’t know if the story is true.) But it was when I read his collection Blizzard of One that I fell in love with his work.
I bought the book when I was too poor to buy anything. I got home from rehearsal, and my wife was already asleep. I didn’t want to disturb her, so I shut myself in our closet and read the whole collection. It was a transformative experience. I felt a new gut understanding of the way lyric poetry works.
I went to two Strand readings while living in Manhattan. I can’t remember the order now, but one of them was at Julliard. The other was at the Russian Samovar, a restaurant and bar that used to be owned in part by Joseph Brodsky. They hold a reading series upstairs, and that particular night it was a double bill with Mark Strand and Louise Glück. I arrived early. I walked in, and there at the bar was Strand, having a beer. With some trepidation I sat two stools down from him. There was nobody else at the bar. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something typical like, “Mr. Strand, I’m a big fan of your work.” I will never forget his reply: “I’m trying to have a beer.”
I saluted and left him in peace. That night, after the reading, I had him sign section 26 of his book length poem Dark Harbor. That particular section is about a man who travels far to have a book signed by his favorite poet.
Strand set one of the cornerstones of my philosophical foundation. In his book The Weather of Words, he explains that death is the central concern of lyric poetry. That sent my mind spinning into a realization that death is in fact the central concern of all great art––that mortality is an essential element of artistic creation.
Strand stood firm in the face of criticism about his unwillingness to tackle the social and political issues of the day. He refused to sell out and write propaganda. He was working from a depth which writers of social and political tracts can never reach.
Strand wrote about what it means to exist. And he did so with serenity, humor, angst, and style. Always with style.
The first Strand poem to become my favorite was his Morning, Noon, and Night. It talks about “freakish heat/ stroking our skin until we fall asleep and stray to places/ we hoped would always be beyond our reach.” When I heard he had died, I immediately thought of this line. In it there is both a fear of and a desire for the strayed-to places. Strand was an atheist, but he was religious in his fascination with the nothingness beyond. And in that religiosity he beautifully invoked the intangible part of what it means to be human. That is the work of the poet.
Here are a few poems from Blizzard of One:
The Night, The Porch
To stare at nothing is to learn by heart
What all of us will be swept into, and baring oneself
To the wind is feeling the ungraspable somewhere close by.
Trees can sway or be still. Day or night can be what they wish.
What we desire, more than a season or weather, is the comfort
Of being strangers, at least to ourselves. This is the crux
Of the matter. Even now we seem to be waiting for something
Whose appearance would be its vanishing–the sound, say,
Of a few leaves falling, or just one leaf, or less.
There is no end to what we can learn. The book out there
Tells as much, and was never written with us in mind.
A Piece of the Storm
From the shadow of domes in the city of domes,
A snowflake, a blizzard of one, weightless, entered your room
And made its way to the arm of the chair where you, looking up
From your book, saw it the moment it landed.
That’s all There was to it. No more than a solemn waking
To brevity, to the lifting and falling away of attention, swiftly,
A time between times, a flowerless funeral. No more than that
Except for the feeling that this piece of the storm,
Which turned into nothing before your eyes, would come back,
That someone years hence, sitting as you are now, might say:
“It’s time. The air is ready. The sky has an opening.”
from Five Dogs
I, the dog they call Spot, was about to sing. Autumn
Had come, the walks were freckled with leaves, and a tarnished
Moonlit emptiness crept over the valley floor.
I wanted to climb the poets’ hill before the winter settled in;
I wanted to praise the soul. My neighbor told me
Not to waste my time. Already the frost had deepened
And the north wind, trailing the whip of its own scream,
Pressed against the house. “A dog’s sublimity is never news,”
He said, “what’s another poet in the end?”
And I stood in the midnight valley, watching the great starfields
Flash and flower in the wished-for reaches of heaven.
That’s when I, the dog they call Spot, began to sing.
And here is section two of the exquisite The Seven Last Words, from Man and Camel:
There is an island in the dark, a dreamt-of place
where the muttering wind shifts over the white lawns
and riffles the leaves of trees, the high trees
that are streaked with gold and line the walkways there;
and those already arrived are happy to be the silken
remains of something they were but cannot recall;
they move to the sound of stars, which is also imagined,
but who cares about that; the polished columns they see
may be no more than shafts of sunlight, but for those
who live on and on in the radiance of their remains
this is of little importance. There is an island
in the dark and you will be there, I promise you, you
shall be with me in paradise, in the single season of being,
in the place of forever, you shall find yourself. And there
the leaves will turn and never fall, there the wind
will sing and be your voice as if for the first time.