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The Monument , by Mark Strand

The Monument - Mark Strand


One of Mark Strand's collages




Ah, translation - "the art of failure." Such a complicated matter, communicating between languages, cultures, ages... It's hard enough just translating between individuals.


Mark Strand (1934-2014) was a translator on the side and a cursory websearch reveals that his own poetry has been translated into Italian, Spanish, Dutch and Arabic, at least. He said in an interview (to be found in Strand, A Profile) that he chose to translate poets who spoke to him sufficiently strongly that he could bring them into his own idiom. Some poems he found too challenging to translate but so stimulating that he wrote poems for which the originals were models or motive forces or bits of sand around which he could accrete a poem. The matter was strongly on his mind, to the point that in his wonderful The Continuous Life there is a very funny prose-poem about various views on translation. 


But, well beyond that, there is his very unusual The Monument (1978), a mixture of quotations, prose and poetry in which the controlling conceit is that he is addressing a person who will translate his (Strand's) work some time in the very distant future.


Walter Benjamin dreamed of a book that would consist only of perfectly chosen quotations that complemented and extended each other in such a manner that the reader would be stunned by the resultant insights. The Monument is not that book, but the quotations are well chosen and are not epigrammatic ornamentation but intrinsic components of this non-deductive, nonlinear, self-contradictory, deeply associative meditation.


Then do thy office, Muse; I teach thee how

To make him seem, long hence, as he shows now.


This element of translation into the future is the motive force of this book, for this poet so obsessed with death, with disappearance, with absence, already from the beginning of his work. Strand said in the above-mentioned interview, "I started writing The Monument and it became less and less about the translator of a particular text, and more about the translation of a self, and the text as self, the self as book." Oh, and how he plays with this in tones of irony, of hope, of dismissal - above all, of irony!


This poor document does not have to do with a self, it dwells on the absence of a self. I--and this pronoun will have to do--have not permitted anything worthwhile to be part of this communication that strains even to exist in a language other than the one in which it was written. So much is excluded that it could not be a document of self-centeredness. If it is a mirror to anything, it is to the gap between the nothing that was and the nothing that will be. It is a thread of longing that binds past and future. Again, it is everything that history is not.


Along with all this, Strand entertained himself by building in a parody of Walt Whitman's Song of Myself - not only is Strand's book written in 52 sections like Whitman's text, but a negation of Whitman's poem occurs as an organic component of The Monument:


                                         Song Of Myself

First silence, then some humming,
then more silence, then nothing,
then more nothing, then silence,
then more silence, then nothing.


Song of My Other Self: There is no other self.


The Wind’s Song: Get out of my way.


The Sky’s Song: You’re less than a cloud.


The Tree’s Song: You’re less than a leaf.


The Sea’s Song: You’re a wave, less than a wave.


The Sun’s Song: You’re the moon’s child.


The Moon’s Song: You’re no child of mine.


Nonetheless, he gives Whitman the last word...the last lines in The Monument are Whitman's.


Some readers will view The Monument as a rich poetic stimulus for meditation on "translation," self and continuance, but others will stare aghast as it disappears into a black hole of self-contradiction. Count me among the former.