Mark Strand (1934-2014), who died last week, had received all the honors an American poet could dream of:(*) Pulitzer Prize, Bollingen Prize, Poet Laureate of the USA, MacArthur Fellow, Gold Medal for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, professorship at Columbia, etc., etc. More important to me personally is that reading his work (and that of William Carlos Williams) as a youngster set me wandering the paths of poetry for the rest of my life.
In 1980 he stopped writing poetry for a few years, feeling that he had reached an impasse; when he re-commenced he had changed his poetic style. Initially writing fairly short, often dark but sometimes mischievously humorous poems that were very occupied with himself (perfect for a youngster also very occupied with himself) but aimed at and often attaining a state of near-prophecy, of deep image, written in a simple diction that seemed to work as litany does, Strand began to write longer poems which broke out of the solipsism of youth; after his return to poetry his poems opened up even more to the outside world and became more expansive in vocabulary and length, a development that culminated in his book-length poem Dark Harbor (1995).
Strand also wrote some short stories, some children's books, books about the art of poetry and about art tout court, and translated Spanish language poetry. I've reviewed his (bilingual) selection of poems by Rafael Alberti, The Owl's Insomnia, elsewhere.
But since these are supposed to be reviews of books and not of lifeworks, I am, for personal and sentimental reasons, going to "review" his third collection of poems, Darker (1970), which was one of the great favorites of a much younger self.
Re-reading this again for the umptyumth time and it still catches me, pulls me down to listen closely, so closely:
Not the attendance of stones,
nor the applauding wind,
shall let you know
you have arrived,
not the sea that celebrates
nor the mountains,
nor the dying cities.
Nothing will tell you
where you are.
Each moment is a place
you’ve never been.
You can walk
believing you cast
a light around you.
But how will you know?
The present is always dark.
Its maps are black,
rising from nothing,
in their slow ascent
their own voyage,
the bleak, temperate
necessity of its completion.
As they rise into being
they are like breath.
And if they are studied at all
it is only to find,
too late, what you thought
were concerns of yours
do not exist.
Your house is not marked
on any of them,
nor are your friends,
waiting for you to appear,
nor are your enemies,
listing your faults.
Only you are there,
to what you will be,
and the black grass
is holding up the black stars.
How is it that this haunted solipsism spoke to me, speaks to me still so strongly? In certain unspeakable moments do we all fear this could be true?
Another shiver of dread:
That night the moon drifted over the pond,
turning the water to milk, and under
the boughs of the trees, the blue trees,
a young woman walked, and for an instant
the future came to her:
rain falling on her husband's grave, rain falling
on the lawns of her children, her own mouth
filling with cold air, strangers moving into her house,
a man in her room writing a poem, the moon drifting into it,
a woman strolling under its trees, thinking of death,
thinking of him thinking of her, and the wind rising
and taking the moon and leaving the paper dark.
But Strand does sound other notes in this collection:
In fact, Strand had a wry sense of humor:
All right, I'll admit it. I'm not reviewing a book, I'm burning incense. So be it.
(*) Though he was born on Prince Edward Island, Canada, he spent most of his life in the USA.