At the end of his visit to America in the early 20th century, the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, who spent the latter part of his career consumed by a fascination with a transcendental “mystic chord” of his own invention, observed, “I believe America has a great future in mysticism.” Mark Strand, who began himself as a visitor to America by way of Prince Edward Island, has spent his own poetic career elaborating upon, circling around, and toying with the same mystical implications of the American landscape, its suburbs and its snowfalls.
Strand’s New Selected Poems, which contains poems from “Sleeping with One Eye Open” (1964) through “Man and Camel”(2006), depicts an “America” composed of a series of local episodes, intimate and often bizarre: a man stands on the poet’s lawn day after day without explanation; someone climbs a tree, mysteriously refusing to come down; and a dream-like erotic encounter occurs on a holiday by a lake. Charged by a mournful fixation on the relentlessness of time, these episodes gesture always in the direction of an unspeakable and ultimate end. In “The Monument”, an extended sequence of prose poems, Strand exclaims, “There must be something America is first in. Death and postdeath meditations! Glory be! A crown on our heads at last! But what is America to you or you to America?” But for Strand’s speaker, an implacable Hamlet of the lawns, it seems there is special providence in the fall, not of a sparrow, but of an eyelash, or, at best, a stocking, and his focus rarely strays from his own immediate surroundings.
Strand’s poems are immersions in his experience of the passage of time. Again and again, the poet longs for a present moment to last an eternity, as in “The Story of Our Lives”, which describes a couple who read every detail of their Borgesian existence from a book:
If only there were a perfect moment in the book;
if only we could live in that moment,
we could begin the book again
as if we had not written it,
as if we were not in it.
The desire to both extricate oneself from time and to chart time’s progress watchfully is a paradox that recurs throughout. Such paradoxes form part of Strand’s poetic strategy of maintaining an open-endedness that approaches mystification: “It was impossible to imagine, impossible / Not to imagine” (“What It Was”), or “He wanted to know but not to know” (“The Untelling”), or “I cannot sleep. / I cannot stay awake” (“The Accident”). What at first appears to be a means of confronting ambiguities and forcing them out into the open comes to be a way of withholding poetic information, of not committing to the crisis that he has announced. His ironic use of ordinary language and common clichés (as in “The Good Life”, “It is always this way”, “If he kept it up / he would lose everything”) heightens the distance between his stance and the catastrophe implied: time’s ravages are visible at every moment, in every face, but the poet speaks about them in a series of everyday declarations and rhetorical questions. In other words, Strand plays at metaphysical terror, but in the language of life insurance.
In the most successful poems of the volume, Strand’s evasive statements culminate in a declarative ambush, a sudden circling back into common language that can be startlingly and brutally straightforward. In “The Mailman”, the poet is brought a letter containing “terrible personal news” by a horrified mailman. The mailman enters his house, begs his forgiveness, and falls asleep, leaving the poet to “compose / more letters to myself / in the same vein”. At the end, we read the text of the delivered letter, composed, as we have seen, by the poet himself:
You shall live
by inflicting pain.
You shall forgive.
These lines, bold and flat, not poetry at all except for their position in a poem, are perhaps Strand’s most eerily effective. The brave and wrenching reduction of life to a one-two pattern is repeated endlessly, and most painfully between the poet and himself. The letter, standing in for the poem and for poetry, is at the same time a blow, a calling-out, and an act of forgiveness; and it is Strand’s gift to have been able to give his internal struggle so raw a voice. The poem is a surreal parable, with elements of both the Marx, and the Karamazov, brothers – the slapstick quality of the physical motion, the grinding directness of the final admonition – all set in the most banal scenery and told in the simplest language. The ordinariness of the set-up both lays the groundwork for the final disclosure and makes it seem to come out of nowhere. In “Man and Camel”, the title poem of Strand’s most recent book, the structure is repeated, with a beautifully singing man and camel returning from the desert to tell the admiring poet furiously and inexplicably, “You ruined it. You ruined it forever”. Not all of the poems take the form of stories: some are simply occasions for deadpan, or alarmed, or ardent personal reflection, often triggered by a change in the weather, and concluded with a sudden formulation. But the story poems are the most successful for the arc, the reluctant or astonished characters, the off-putting surprise of their final lines.
Strand’s poems are characterised by an obsession with his own person and its accoutrements. In “The Man in the Mirror”, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice is reenacted with Strand as Orpheus and his own reflection in a mirror as his lost love: the speaker relates how “days passed / and I would rest / my cheek against the glass, / wanting nothing but the old you… / I sang so sadly / that the neighbors wept / and dogs whined with pity. / Some things I wish I could forget”. The poem ends on a typically resigned, paradoxical note: “It will always be this way. / I stand here scared / that you will disappear, / scared that you will stay”.
This obsession explains the paramount importance for Strand of his room, for him the physical extension of his own person, the lyric space he has formed or found for himself alone, the basic unit of living, the world the poet never leaves. Kept awake and terrified by a thunderstorm, the speaker looks around and comments, “No longer the exclusive, / Last resorts in which we could unwind, / Lounging in easy chairs, / Recalling the various wrongs / We had been done or spared, our rooms / Seem suddenly mixed up in our affairs”. Years later, describing the text-crazed Paolo and Francesca mentioned above who read every wish of their lives out of a book in “The Story of Our Lives”, Strand writes, “It is almost as if the room were the world”. Even longing for the past is played out in the space of a remembered room, as when, in “Nostalgia”, the poet envisions, “Dreams of motion circle the Persian rug in a room you were in”. Thus when Strand writes, “To sit in this chair and wonder where is endlessness / Born, where does it go, how close has it come”, he is, in effect, describing his own poetic process.
The imagination of a room, its carpets and the weather changing only slightly from poem to poem, seems to serve Strand as did the imagination of a town did for the American poet Richard Hugo. In Hugo’s 1979 collection of lectures and essays, “The Triggering Town”, Hugo described how, in looking for ideas for a new poem, he would begin with a blank town in his mind and gradually populate it with lost souls, waitresses (as in the hellish and desirous ending, “the girl who serves your food / is slender and her red hair lights the wall”), and prison inmates, lining the roads with water towers and abandoned cinemas, and assembling ominous and melancholy fragments of town lore until a poem took shape. For Strand, the interest is not in the particulars of a muffled, invented scandal, but in the shifting internal states he himself undergoes in each room: not the thunderstorm itself, but how it reminds him of dying; not the snowfall, but how it makes him both love and hate the passage of time.
Finally, as befits a body of work consumed by time, Strand’s poetry abounds in references to death, death’s softer cousin sleep, and a variety of endings: of evenings, vacations, love affairs, thunderstorms. There is practically a death on every page: the poet lies on the floor and pretends to be dead; a ghost ship passes by and, “like a dream of death, / It cannot be heard”; unable to sleep, the poet whispers, “I see myself float / on the dead sea of my bed”; the poet, as a boy, imagines that his grandfather, who died in an accident in a steel mill, has become “part of a Cleveland skyscraper”; the poet invites the listener or his love to visit “the dead decked out in their ashen pajamas”. And the poet tells one story over and over again: “You know the one I mean: it’s the one about the minutes dying, / and the hours, and the years; it’s the story I tell / about myself, about you, about everyone.” But, paradoxically, New Selected Poems leaves the reader with the impression of a poet who, in composing letters to himself about the ultimate end, has ended up only talking about the weather.
Alex Nemser is an MPhil student in European literature at New College, Oxford. His poems have been published in the Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times.