Over a long and distinguished career, with honors that include a Pulitzer Prize and the U.S. Poet Laureateship, Mark Strand has compiled a body of poems that display a remarkable unity of vision and variety of content. Since his first book, Sleeping with One Eye Open, appeared in 1964, Strand has published eleven poetry collections, including a Selected Poems in 1980 that incorporated work from his first five books. His recent New Selected Poems both supplants that volume and picks up where it left off, setting before us the supple, luminous arc of his poetic achievement to date and testifying to his place as one of our great poets.
The most alluring qualities in Strand’s early lyrics—clean lines, taut narratives, and carefully framed mise-en-scènes—also marks his most recent poems, which, with a deepened pathos and heightened polish, work over a good deal more of life lived, sights seen, women loved, children grown, friends dead or dying, and the author’s own mortality. The breadth has widened, but the timbre remains distinct; the earliest and most recent poems mirror one another, sometimes uncannily so.
But more than Strand’s consistency of tone and insistence of subject matter, it is the capaciousness of his vision, at once haunting and lucent, that has marked his poems from the first. His imaginative obsessions continue to startle as they ramify with time. The elements of those obsessions—sleep, breath, maps, rooms, storms, snowfall, ocean, sky, and above all, the moon, about which few other poets have written so incessantly—are now couched in tenderer tones, yet with colder precision. Whether Strand is working with a short or long line, compressed stanzas or extended enjambments, his architecture is deceptively simple. He disarms us with the familiar, setting in motion complex metamorphoses that only come clear when we have left the poem with the realization that it will never leave us.
Strand is our singular poet of open spaces, the night, insomnia (“I lie in bed. / I toss all night / in the cold unruffled deep / of my sheets and cannot sleep”), the restless man who leaves his bed to wander, conjuring up the ghosts of his past, more often charting loneliness than escaping it. He may venture outside a house where others sleep—onto a starlit lawn (“For Jessica, My Daughter”), a rooftop overlooking the sea (“Black Sea”), a front porch (“Man and Camel”), or into the snow wearing only bathrobe and slippers (“I Will Love the Twenty-first Century”)—and report back to us in a measured, sometimes reluctant, voice. He is a poet of voyages and dreams, a romantic for whom dreams do not reflect, so much as inform, our everyday realities, defining, and finally determining, the continuum of our lives.
Strand absorbed the music of many illustrious precursors—Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, Giacomo Leopardi, Fernando Pessoa, Rafael Alberti (of whom he is our foremost English translator)—in shaping his own voice. He is also among the first and most important North American poets whose crucial influences were as much Latin American as European. Canadian by birth, widely traveled, Strand is, by training and instinct, among the most international of American poets.
Throughout his career, Strand has written prose poems—most notably in The Monument (1978), a sequence of 52 such poems (two of them illustrated, with stars and clouds, respectively). The five prose poems presented here work similar ground, with a freer, yet more seasoned, comedic voice. Each is a precisely drawn scene. The signature elements are witty dialogue, absurd juxtapositions, ribald satire, and philosophical flights that resemble Zen koans. Compare “A banker strutted into the brothel of blind women” (which sounds like the setup for a joke) with the opening of “No. 29” in The Monument: “It occurs to me that you may be a woman. What then? I suppose I become therefore a woman.” The tone differs, but the circularity of the poems that follow does not; like many of Strand’s poems, we seem to enter them by a given door, travel 360º, and exit by an entirely different one. That this can be both satisfying and bewildering is exactly the point.
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Clear In the September Light
A man stands under a tree, looking at a small house not far away. He flaps his arms as if he were a bird, maybe signaling someone we cannot see. He could be yelling, but since we hear nothing, he probably is not. Now the wind sends a shiver through the tree, and flattens the grass. The man falls to his knees and pounds the ground with his fists. A dog comes and sits beside him, and the man stands, once again flapping his arms. What he does has nothing to do with me. His desperation is not my desperation. I do not stand under trees and look at small houses. I have no dog.
An Event About Which No More Need Be Said
I was riding downtown in a cab with a prince who had consented to be interviewed, but asked that I not mention him or his country by name. He explained that both exist secretly and their business is carried on in silence. He was tall, had a long nose beneath which was tucked a tiny mustache; he wore a pale blue shirt open at the neck and cream-colored pants. “I have no hobbies,” he explained. “My one interest is sex. It can be with a man or a woman, old or young, so long as it produces the desired result, which is to remind me of the odor of white truffles or the taste of candied violets in a floating island. Here, let me show you something.” When I saw it, saw how big it was, and what he’d done to it, I screamed, and leapt from the moving cab.
Dream Testicles, Vanished Vaginas
Horace, the corpse, said, “I kept believing that tomorrow would come and I would get up, put on my socks, my boxer shorts, go to the kitchen, make myself coffee, read the paper, and call some friends. But tomorrow came and I was not in it. Instead, I found myself on a powder blue sofa in a field of bright grass that rolled on forever.” “How awful,” said Mildred, who was not yet a corpse but in close touch with Horace, “how awful to be so far away with nothing to do, and without sex to distract you. I’ve heard that all vaginas up there, even the most open, honest, and energetic, are shut down, and that all testicles, even the most forthright and gifted, swing dreamily among the clouds like little chandeliers.”
A Banker in the Brothel of Blind Women
A banker strutted into the brothel of blind women. “I am a shepherd,” he announced, “and blow my shepherd’s pipe as often as I can, but I have lost my flock and feel that I am at a critical point in my life.” “I can tell by the way you talk,” said one of the women, “that you are a banker only pretending to be a shepherd and that you want us to pity you, which we do because you have stooped so low as to try to make fools of us.” “My dear,” said the banker to the same woman, “I can tell that you are a rich widow looking for a little excitement and are not blind at all.” “This observation suggests,” said the woman, “that you may be a shepherd after all, for what kind of rich widow would find excitement being a whore only to end up with a banker?” “Exactly,” said the banker.
The Emergency Room at Sunset
The retired commander was upset. His room in the castle was cold, so was the room across the hall, and all the other rooms as well. He should never have bought this castle when there were so many other, cheaper, warmer castles for sale. But he liked the way this one looked—its stone turrets rising into the winter air, its main gate, even its frozen moat, on which he thought someday he might ice skate, had a silvery charm. He poured himself a brandy and lit a cigar, and tried to concentrate on other things—his many victories, the bravery of his men—but his thoughts swirled in tiny eddies, settling first here, then there, moving as the wind does from empty town to empty town.