Mark Strand [1934- ] has had what by now has become a long and distinguished career as an American poet; but I wouldn't have picked him for that role early in his history. I first encountered his work in Paul Carroll's ambitious (but slightly amateurish) introductory anthology The Young American Poets [Chicago: Follett Publishing Company, 1968]. Strand looked slightly out of place there, his Author photo showing him decked out in tasteful tweeds, his classic, gaunt, Lincoln-esque visage sharply contrasted with the mostly laid-back, counter-culture kids who made up the majority of Carroll's gang. Aside from Kenward Elmslie, Strand was the oldest member of the group.
Strand originally wanted to be a painter, which may account for his belated entry into the literary sweepstakes. He studied with Josef Albers, taking an art degree in 1959. Then, he turned away from the plastic arts and took up literature. Following attendance at the Iowa Workshop [MFA, 1963], he traveled to Brazil on a Fulbright. K.K. Merker [Stone Wall Press] published his first collection of poems, Sleeping With One Eye Open, in 1964. Then, in 1968, Atheneum published his first trade book, Reasons for Moving. Reasons for Moving was a tightly-controlled sequence of spare lyrics, by turns amusing and grave, which bore the influence of Borges and Alberti, among others--influences which were atypical at the time. Borges, for instance, was just beginning to be appreciated by American readers, with translations of a number of his works appearing to much acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic.
Strand's inspiration has always tended towards the macabre, the elegaic, and the ironic. He has never been interested in language as such, except perhaps in his very earliest experiments in rhyme (as see the title poem of his first book) and simple alliteration; his poems are often like very tightly controlled prose poems, or even short stories in which the action is expressed in purely poetic terms. His poems invariably revolve around specific--and frequently surreal--situations, and the effect of his technique was often reminiscent of ghost stories, or scary children's fiction.
What to Think Of
Think of the jungle,
the green steam rising.
It is yours.
You are the prince of Paraguay.
Your minions kneel
Deep in the shade of giant leaves
While you drive by
Benevolent as gold.
They kiss the air
That moments before
Swept over your skin,
And rise only after you've passed.
Think of yourself, almost a god,
Your hair on fire,
The bellows of your heart pumping.
Think of the bats
Rushing out of their caves
Like a dark wind to greet you;
Of the vast nocturnal cities
Of lightning bugs
From Minas Gerais;
Of the coral snakes;
Of the crimson birds
With emerald beaks;
Of the tons and tons of morpho butterflies
Filling the air
like the cold confetti of paradise.
Minas Gerais is a State of Brazil, not quite contiguous with the nation of Paraguay, known, among other things, for its caves.
Morphos are the beautiful shimmering metallic blue butterflies of South America, as pictured below.
This exotic, slightly pictureque quality of Strand's early work was in due course subsumed inside an increasingly arid emotional landscape of alienation, fatalistic dread, and moodiness. His next collection, Darker [New York: Atheneum, 1970], followed by The Story of Our Lives [New York: Atheneum, 1973], and The Late Hour [New York: Atheneum, 1978] exhibited a steady stream of gloomy scenes, nightmarish undertones, and the conjugation of absence and presence--which has always been one of Strand's preoccupations. The formulaic recital of sentences in "The New Poetry Handbook"  displays his signature element of gallows-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.
This incremental catechistic recitation is a rising crescendo of absurdist logic, culminating in a symbolic effacement of identity. But Strand's poems aren't only puzzles, or games, or playful gambits. What begins in casual humor, or innocent curiosity, usually ends in seriousness and even peril. In one of his best poems, "Where Are the Waters of Childhood?" , his ability to conjure up the vanished landscapes of childhood, peopled by ghosts and the scaffolds of dreams, is evoked with a kind of hypnotic obsession--
Where Are the Waters of Childhood?
See where the windows are boarded up,
where the gray siding shines in the sun and salt air
and the asphalt shingles on the roof have peeled or fallen off,
where tiers of oxeye daisies float on a sea of grass?
That's the place to begin.
Enter the kingdom of rot,
smell the damp plaster, step over the shattered glass,
the pockets of dust, the rags, the soiled remains of a mattress,
look at the rusted stove and sink, at the rectangular stain
on the wall where Winslow Homer's Gulf Stream hung.
Go in the room where your father and mother
would let themselves go in the drift and pitch of love,
and hear, if you can, the creak of their bed,
then go to the place where you hid.
Go to your room, to all the rooms whose cold, damp air you breathed,
to all the unwanted placed where summer, fall, winter, spring,
seem the same unwanted season, where the trees you knew have died
and other trees have risen. Visit that other place
you barely recall, that other house half hidden.
See the two dogs burst into sight. When you leave,
they will cease, snuffed out in the glare of an earlier light.
Visit the neighbors down the block; he waters his lawn,
she sits on her porch, but not for long.
When you look again they are gone.
Keep going back, back to the field, flat and sealed in mist,.
On the other side, a man and a woman are waiting;
they have come back, your mother before she was gray,
your father before he was white.
Now look at the North West Arm, how it glows a deep cerulean blue.
See the light on the grass, the one leaf burning, the cloud
that flares. You're almost there, in a moment your parents
will disappear, leaving you under the light of a vanished star,
under the dark of a star newly born. Now is the time.
Now you invent the boat of your flesh and set it upon the waters
and drift in the gradual swell, in the laboring salt.
Now you look down. The waters of childhood are there.
I'm not sure why this poem should resonate for me, as its narrative clearly does for the Author. I was never comfortable in or near water as a child. I learned to swim late, and always worried when in boats, that they would founder, or sink, the water level rising up to engulf me. As a child, I was taken on fishing trips by my Stepfather. He doubtless felt this was something we should share, although eventually he abandoned that fantasy--for reasons that remain unclear. We would go out in a row-boat, and there was always the danger of capsizing through unbalancing. Leaning over the edge of the gunwale, I would put my hand in the water, and trace a small soft wake in the greenish-tinged current. If there was an outboard motor, there was always the risk of its refusing to start, though when it was running, its high-pitched whine made conversation impossible. The adult men always seemed to enjoy yelling above the din--it seemed manly, I guess. The concluding stanza of the poem captures this image of childhood for me, beyond all the landscape and architecture and human archetypes, is this experience of looking down at the water, transfixed by the simple memory of something occurring 60 years before.
I have no Italian, and can't account for the accuracy of translations into English, but Strand's version of this poem or fragment by Leopardi is quite striking--
The night is warm and clear and without wind.
The stone-white moon waits above the rooftops
and above the nearby river. Every street is still
and the corner lights shine down only upon the bunched shapes of cars.
You are asleep. And sleep gathers in your room
and nothing at this moment bothers you. Jules,
an old wound has opened and I feel the pain of it again.
While you sleep I have gone outside to pay my late respects
to the sky that seems to gentle
and to the world that is not and that says to me
"I do not give you any hope. Not even hope."
Down the street there is the voice of a drunk
singing an unrecognizable song
and a car a few blocks off.
Things pass and leave no trace,
and tomorrow will come and the day after,
and whatever our ancestors knew time has taken away.
They are gone and their children are gone
and the great nations are gone.
And the armies are gone that sent clouds of dust and smoke
rolling across Europe. The world is still and we do not hear them.
Once when I was a boy, and the birthday I had waited for
was over, I lay on my bed, awake and miserable, and very late
that night the sound of someone's voice singing down a side street
dying little by little into the distance,
wounded me, as this does now.
It seems a timeless aspect, which could have happened--aside from "the bunched shapes of cars" at any point in the last 2000 years. A lonely man, unable to sleep, between buildings in the quiet of a summer night, the shining moon, and the memory of going to sleep long ago.