by Mark Strand
Alfred A. Knopf, $26.00 (cloth)
A slim collection of 47 prose poems, Mark Strand’s Almost Invisible isn’t just a modest book; it is a book that seeks its own disappearance. Strand has always been drawn to evanescence and undress, to the idea “of a journey leaving behind no trace of itself.” To remove the clothing that covers the self, to shed the self’s layers and keep moving toward a center that is ultimately nothing—this has long been a primary impulse for him. In “Old Man Leaves Party,” a poem in his Pulitzer Prize–winning 1998 collection Blizzard of One, Strand imagines a speaker who might divest himself into the natural world and become “only myself, this dream of flesh, from moment to moment.” With Almost Invisible, he aims to surpass even the “dream of flesh,” leaving behind no remainder.
But then there’s that “almost.” The flesh continually obtrudes; the world stands in the way, making a passage into nothingness difficult or impossible. The poems in Almost Invisible peer over the line between presence and absence, wanting to pare themselves down, but remaining giddily, and even ardently, alive.
In recent interviews, Strand has tried to diminish the significance of the poems in Almost Invisible. While he acknowledges that this is his late work and may be the conclusion of his five-decade career in poetry, he has strenuously referred to the paragraphs that make up this book as “prose pieces,” not prose poems or poems of any sort. The distinction is nominal, but for Strand it seems like a release: by taking away the mantle of “poetry,” the pieces are free to behave as they might, to pass before the reader fleetingly, and then pass away. But the works themselves reveal a greater weight:
Lovers of the in-between, they are neither here nor there, neither in nor out. Poor souls, they are driven to experience the impossible. Even at night, they lie in bed with one eye closed and the other open, hoping to catch the last second of consciousness and the first of sleep, to inhabit that no-man’s-land, that beautiful place, to behold as only a god might, the luminous conjunction of nothing and all.
The figures that Strand describes throughout Almost Invisible are purgatorial, caught on that “in-between,” yet loving it too. And the “luminous conjunction of nothing and all” is a critical locus for Strand’s work: encased in these modest paragraphs are flakes and shavings of his entire oeuvre, his whole career compressed into these honed, miniature devices. (Consider the resonance here with his first book’s title poem, “Sleeping with One Eye Open,” which ends “I lie sleeping with one eye open, / Hoping / That nothing, nothing will happen.”)
Although the individual prose pieces of Almost Invisible are all distinct from one another—there is none of the constructed, logical sequencing seen in Strand’s previous extended prose work, 1978’s The Monument—the book’s thematic unity makes them read like successive assays at the same problem. Subject matter, tone, and style vary, but the poems repeatedly address the allure of oblivion and the prospect of unknowing. Thoughts such as these are perhaps always inseparable from thoughts of mortality, but for Strand, who is now 78, they are all but indistinguishable, and he often confronts death in its most immediate, imminent form: “I kept staring at the ceiling, then suddenly felt a blast of cold air, and I was gone.”
The figures throughout Almost Invisible are purgatorial, caught on that ‘in-between,’ yet loving it too.
Strand manages to escape bathos primarily through brevity, the absurd, and humor. Several of the poems are conceived as jokes: the organism of the short paragraph, drawing on the expectations of both poeticized language and of narrative, allows for a turn in the last sentence or two, which often functions as a punch line. Here’s “Trouble in Pocatello” in its entirety:
It was autumn. It was late in the day. A storm was coming. Flocks of birds were flying south. A pink-and-purple sunset stained the house, the wind gusted, branches tossed, leaves dropped like dead moths on a sisal rug. ‘I’m home,’ said the husband. ‘Not again,’ said the wife.
As a joke, the poem is efficient, with the final two sentences defying the dramatic and rhythmic expectations raised by the generically ominous setup. Often Strand’s humor hinges on a suspiciousness regarding relations between a man and a woman. Even when there is enmity in the encounters, they are still suggestive of flirtation, or even intimacy; they are foreplays.
But these encounters also become metonyms for the more critical confrontation between a being and his mortality, as in “The Minister of Culture Gets His Wish”:
The Minister of Culture goes home after a grueling day at the office. He lies on his bed and tries to think of nothing, but nothing happens or, more precisely, does not happen. Nothing is elsewhere doing what nothing does, which is to expand the dark. But the minister is patient, and slowly things slip away—the walls of his house, the park across the street, his friends in the next town. He believes that nothing has finally come to him and, in its absent way, is saying, ‘Darling, you know how much I have always wanted to please you, and now I have come. And what is more, I have come to stay.’
By making nothingness into a kind of idealized seductress, Strand eroticizes oblivion and death, which is conventional enough. At the same time, he transposes the more familiar erotic encounter onto what’s unknown and, ultimately, unfathomable. This is customary, too—we always use what we do know to get a handle on what we don’t. But what if what we don’t know is nothingness itself?
T. S. Eliot famously proposed that a poem is no less than a “raid on the inarticulate,” an effort to make what has not yet been said pass into speech. But Strand’s objective is somewhat different, even counter to that. He aims to engage with the inarticulate, to approach it, moving outside of the visible in order, ideally, to inhabit that unknown space. He suggests that the work of the poem could be to bear witness to that which cannot be articulated, even as it calls to us. This effort affords us no end of trouble, however, since poetry is indivisible from its articulation. If the poem is trying to get at nothing, it is always using a something in order to do so.
“The Minister of Culture” makes this trouble evident. “Nothing is elsewhere doing what nothing does,” but that expansion of the dark can never occur here: the light of the mind keeps it at a distance. The personification of nothingness in the last sentences also complicates the pursuit of oblivion: nothing becomes a love-object, and therefore loses its insubstantiality. If oblivion or cessation is something to be desired, then that desire itself makes nothingness into a something, a substantial goal. As soon as it is wished for, nothing escapes us, hurdles beyond our grasp. These are not failings of the poem so much as the ontological limitations of the pursuit of transcendence. Strand’s prose pieces mask their philosophical inquiry, but the effort to step outside experience is continually rebuffed by the experiential means we use to achieve it.
Strand’s modesty about the book, his effort to make it slender and effortless, represents a pursuit of the insubstantial. The prose form, too, follows in this vein: it is meant to be “quieter,” to make a less lasting claim than poetry. These prose pieces move always in the direction of their own obsolescence, with many of them built toward an ending that releases the reader back into the silence of white space. But in that journey, they catch and undo themselves. Consequently, Strand is probing one of the limits of poetry, and of language in general: the impossibility of silence. Every imagining of absence is constructed in presence, and the poem, like our mortal efforts to see beyond our own finitude, shackled by its own material existence. Strand’s poems are built on this tension, and their glacial calm belies a fury in the “almost” of the book’s title.
In “The New Poetry Handbook,” a poem from his 1970 collection Darker, Strand offers a proverb: “If a man fears death, / he shall be saved by his poems.” Perhaps this holds true not just for those who fear death, but for those who are enamored of oblivion. But Strand’s salvation in poetry may be a double-edged sword. The work, it seems, will save the poet, even if he does not want it to. Even as Strand attempts to move away from poetry’s shadow, even as he attempts to approach an invisibility that passes speech and understanding, the very fact of his language continues to draw him in. The liminal space between being and nothingness is tenuous on the page: it bristles and shifts underfoot, making the path to oblivion problematic, lost as soon as it’s looked at. Strand is caught—fortunately, for us—between the need to speak a nothingness and the impossibility of putting it into words.