Man and Camel
Mark Strand
Knopf, $24 (cloth)

In his eleventh collection, Mark Strand continues to refine his play with the high absurd: dark, fast-paced, spare, and thoroughly pleasurable, Man and Camel shows Strand working out the surreal eventualities of fables, be they about the twined song of a man and camel, sharing a drink with horses at a pond, or encounters with a sometimes personified Death. On the surface, there appears to be very little work for the reader, since Strand lays things out so clearly and persuasively, though the poems sometimes rely too much on the wonder inspired by grand, ponderous gestures. For example, the title poem’s epiphany, where a man and camel tell the speaker that he has “ruined it forever,” is theatrically inexplicable, and the shift, from the speaker’s observations to the man and camel’s accusation, is frustrating, both in its suddenness and in what it doesn’t reveal. What “it?” “Ruined” how? Why “forever”? But this is what Strand’s work survives on: the amorphous, unknowable “it,” almost always ruined or lost. A similar, more effective ending comes in “Black Sea,” when the speaker, thinking of a precious someone now lost to him, asks, “Why did I believe you would come out of nowhere? Why with all / that the world offers would you come only because I was here?” This is a book about loss, ruin, and endings, and thus nowhere is it better realized than in its own beautiful closing, “Poem After the Last Seven Words.” Ruminating on Jesus’s final utterance, Strand celebrates the gargantuan unknowability of faith and the afterlife: “what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, what no hand / has touched, what has not arisen in the human heart. / To that place, to the keeper of that place, I commit myself.” This echoes the sentiment of an earlier poem, “Mother and Son,” when, as one figure leaves the body of his departed mother, the poet writes, “If the moon could speak, what would it say? If the moon could speak, it would say nothing.” With this book, Strand confirms himself as the master of this grand, wondrous nothing.