"Did You Bring the Key?"
Ror over 30 years, Mark Strand has been up there with America’s most prominent poet-translators. Like W.S. Merwin, Robert Pinsky and Robert Bly, his own poetic voice has served translations as much as it has been informed by them. He’s co-edited two anthologies of foreign poetry - New Poetry of Mexico in 1970 with Octavio Paz and Another Republic in 1976 with Charles Simic - and translated several collections of poetry, including Rafael Alberti’s The Owl’s Insomnia in 1972 and Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s Traveling in the Family in 1986 with Thomas Colchie. Strand revisits these last two, and a third party from the early ‘70s, in Looking For Poetry, a selection of poems by Drummond de Andrade, Alberti, and songs from the Quechua Indians of Peru and Bolivia.
The sections shift from being driven by individual to communal voice to history, three sources that seem especially relevant, almost simultaneously so, in this information age of global awareness. Luckily, these voices are more strikingly intimate and lushly visual than anything that comes across television or computer screens.
Drummond de Andrade is the most lively and playful personality in the book, what some might call “a character”, and this is why he’s quickly becoming one of the poets dearest to this reader. One of his more well-known poems, “Seven-Sided Poem”, is made up of seven un-uniform stanzas, with the content of each remaining independent of the others, not unlike the associative gaps of the Persian ghazal. They leap from a darkly comic enthusiasm (“When I was born, one of those/crooked angels who live in shadow/said: Go on, Carlos, be gauche in life”), to voyeuristic personifications and surrealist conditionals (“The houses look out on men/chasing after women./If the afternoon were blue/there might be less desire”), to a shocked fragmentation of a trolley car “full of legs”, to the detachment of a mustached man, still and silent on the street.
Next is a remarkable accomplishment, a sudden shift in diction, but not tone: “My God, why hast Thou forsaken me. Thou knewest I wasn’t God/Thou knewest how weak I was.” A playfully forced rhyme is fused with the poignant and slightly absurd “World, wide, world,/my heart is bigger/than you are”, and the poem rests with the pseudo-explanation of its own idiosyncrasies and a romantically telling confession of its speaker: “I shouldn’t tell you/but this moon/and this cognac/are hell on a person’s feelings.”
Further on, there is the hilarious “Ballad of Love Through the Ages”, the edgy and brilliant “Don’t Kill Yourself” (“Carlos, calm down, love/is what you are seeing”), a legend-ish song from a phantom girl’s perspective, the transcendent death-catalog “Motionless Faces”, a surrealist myth “The Dirty Hand”, and another persona poem “An Ox Looks at a Man”, which allows a humorous kind of objectivity. “Death in a Plane” calmly inventories, for nearly five pages, an agonizing list of details and actions leading up to a terrifying end:
Oh, whiteness, serenity under violence
of death without previous notice,
careful despite the unavoidable closeness
of atmospheric danger,
a shattering blast of air, splinter of wind
on the neck, lightning
flash burst crack
broken we tumble
straight down I fall and am turned into news.
Ultimately, after all the literary connections I could draw (surrealism, Horace, Rilke, Lorca, Whitman, Billy Collins, Elizabeth Bishop, even Edgar Allan Poe and Saturday Night Live‘s Jack Handy), Drummond de Andrade’s voice is easily one of the most unique in contemporary poetry, full of movement, humor, the ever-awareness of death, self-knowledge, and appreciation of the transitory objects of civilization (soap, trolleys, telegrams, waltzes, yachts, shoes) combined with an eye for the natural (“A mist that dissolves/when the sun breaks in the mountains”). His work has previously been very hard to find in North America, and we do owe translator/poetic anthropologist Strand the customary salty salute for making this work more widely available in English.
In his note on Drummond de Andrade, Strand tells us his poetry “enacts one of the central concerns of lyric poetry - to rescue from oblivion as much of our human experience as we can.” This entire book is essentially lyric poetrya musical embodiment of emotion, whether chanted, sung or spokenand Drummond de Andrade’s hypnotic “Residue” (“From everything a little remained”) is the book’s best bridge to Rafael Alberti.
Strand describes “the current” of Alberti’s section as being “made up strictly of elegies, remembrances, and poems of loss and exile.” His 13 angel poems (“The Angel of Numbers”, “The Moldy Angel”, “The Angel of Ash”, “The False Angel”, etc.) shimmer with melancholy, a kind of modernized Greek polytheism, where there is an angel of every thing, a type of angel for every type of personality (avaricious, sleepwalking, on and on).
What is most demanding about the Alberti selection in Looking For Poetry is how much a reader must bring to the poems. Without at least a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish history, particularly the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera, and also an imaginative mental ear to provide some kind of musical accompaniment, or at least remind oneself of the Andalusian roots of Alberti’s work, much of this final section will seem repetitive and flat.
It’s a difficult juxtaposition - elegies for early 20th century American comedians alongside Spanish poets, a seemingly endless cast - that requires a cultural and historical grounding that few “lay” people have. In this sense, the Alberti section is, as Strand admits, “perforce, a limited sample.”
If Albert is a poet of exile and loss, and Drummond de Andrade’s is delightfully eccentric consolation, then the songs from the Quechua are songs of worship and animation. According to Strand, the Quechua Indians live on the altiplano of Peru and Bolivia, and have no written language. Since at least the mid-19th century, priests and anthropologists have collected, transcribed and translated this folk poetry. “My Mother Gave Me Life” and “Song” (between a prince and princess) are immediately live call-and-response pieces, startling in their imagery and physical sense:
When my fire burns you
you change into dew
are you the wind
or are you a dream
The songs are by turns restrained and ecstatic, mournful and brimming with desire, violent and tender. They are always connected to the natural world (fire, dew, lizards, ash, moon), and that natural intimacy connotes an immediacy and range of emotion that is becoming both extinct in mainstream American writing, as well as exoticized by others. Thankfully, Strand has given us the bare basics of the Quechuas’ lives and recent history, and then left it to the words.
If we take the book’s title as a question that is partially answered by the work and lives inside, we come to an intriguing point. The book takes its title from one of Drummond de Andrade’s poems, one that echoes the ancient Latin poet Horace’s epistle “The Art of Poetry.” Both pieces note how the medium of language is an entity nearly separate from us, a powerful tool, but infinitely complex. The distance between poet and language is the distance between a swimmer and the sea; the movements of each, however, both compliment and resist each other. Both Horace and Drummond de Andrade, as they dance with this dilemma, use humor to criticize the self-important and self-interested manipulators of words (which I would say starts with bad poets and moves on over to a sizable number of politicians, advertising producers and university officials).
Finally, when we consider the sources and influences of the three speakers of this book - the natural world immediately surrounding an indigenous people, modernism, industrialization, political violence and turmoil - we see a pretty fair representation of the urges and circumstances of our planet in April 2002. There is an angel for every thing, and I don’t mean the kind that wears a white dress, a halo, is well-adjusted, and smiles constantly during its daily dozen good deeds. The Quechua want “a knotted rope/for keeping track/of moons that pass,/of flowers that die.” It is everywhere - this attraction and work ethic we call poetry - but that’s not the problem. Drummond de Andrade says as he nears the final turn of his poem:
Come close and consider the words.
With a plain face hiding thousands of other faces
and with no interest in your response,
whether weak or strong,
each word asks:
Did you bring the key?