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Darker , by Mark Strand

Darker - Mark Strand

 

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:

 

                            Black Maps

 

Not the attendance of stones,
nor the applauding wind,
shall let you know
you have arrived,

not the sea that celebrates
only departures,
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,
describing,

in their slow ascent
into themselves,
their own voyage,
its emptiness,

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,

saying hello
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:

 

                        The Prediction

 

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:

 

                                   Breath

 

When you see them
tell them that I am still here,
that I stand on one leg while the other one dreams,
that this is the only way,
 
that the lies I tell them are different
from the lies I tell myself,
that by being both here and beyond
I am becoming a horizon,
 
that as the sun rises and sets I know my place,
that breath is what saves me,
that even the forced syllables of decline are breath,
that if the body is a coffin it is also a closet of breath,
 
that breath is a mirror clouded by words,
that breath is all that survives the cry for help
as it enters the stranger’s ear
and stays long after the word is gone,
 
that breath is the beginning again, that from it
all resistance falls away, as meaning falls
away from life, or darkness falls from light,
that breath is what I give them when I send my love.

 

In fact, Strand had a wry sense of humor:

 

                               The New Poetry Handbook
 
1  If a man understands a poem,
he shall have troubles.
 
2  If a man lives with a poem,
He shall die lonely.
 
3  If a man lives with two poems,
he shall be unfaithful to one.
 
4  If a man conceives of a poem,
he shall have one less child.
 
5  If a man conceives of two poems
he shall have two children less.
 
6  If a man wears a crown on his head as he writes,
he shall be found out.
 
7  If a man wears no crown on his head as he writes,
he shall deceive no one but himself.
 
8  If a man gets angry at a poem,
he shall be scorned by men.
 
9  If a man continues to be angry at a poem,
he shall be scorned by women.
 
10  If a man publicly denounces poetry,
his shoes will fill with urine.
 
11  If a man gives up poetry for power,
he shall have lots of power.
 
12  If a man brags about his poems,
he shall be loved by fools.
  
13  If a man brags about his poems and loves fools,
he shall write no more.
 
14  If a man craves attention because of his poems,
he shall be like a jackass in moonlight.
 
15  If a man writes a poem and praises the poem of a fellow
he shall have a beautiful mistress.
 
16  If a man write a poem and praises the poem of a fellow overly,
he shall drive his mistress away.
  
17  If a man claims the poem of another,
his heart shall double in size.
 
18  If a man lets his poems go naked,
he shall fear death.
 
19  If a man fears death,
he shall be saved by his poems.
 
20  If a man does not fear death,
he may or may not be saved by his poems.
 
21  If a man finishes a poem,
he shall bathe in the blank wake of his passion
  and be kissed by white paper.
 

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.