Mark Strand's death in December 2014 casts a different light on his newest poetry volume, as it now carries the weight of summarizing a life in writing.
Collected PoemsPublisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Length: 512 pages
Author: Mark Strand
Publication date: 2014-10
I am not thinking of Death, but Death is thinking of me.
He leans back in his chair, rubs his hand, strokes
his beard, and says, "I'm thinking of Strand, I'm thinking
that one of these days I'll be out back, swinging my scythe
or holding my hourglass up to the moon, and Strand will appear…
-- from "2002" by Mark Strand
[Death is] inevitable. I feel myself inching towards it. So there it is in my poems. And sometimes people will think of me as a kind of gloomy guy. But I don’t think of myself as gloomy at all. I say ha ha to death all the time in my poems.
-- Mark Strand, in an interview with Wallace Shawn in The Paris Review, Vol. 148: Fall 1998
In October 2014, Collected Poems was one book; by the end of the next month, it became another book entirely. On 29 November 2014, former Poet Laureate and Columbia University professor Mark Strand succumbed to liposarcoma, a rare, cancerous tumor found in fat cells and soft tissue. Strand, whose career began in 1964 with the poetry volume Sleeping With One Eye Open, has left behind a literary legacy far more voluminous than the already dense 512 pages of Collected Poems suggest. As the forebodingly clever lines from the Emily Dickinson-referencing poem "2002" quoted above reveal, Strand was a poet who knew his place in the legacy of American poetry; so well, in fact, that he was able to refine his distinct voice all the while paying homage to the greats that came before him. In this, his last collection, spanning the volumes Sleeping With One Eye Open (1964) to Almost Invisible (2012), one is hard-pressed not to view this through the lens of postmortem retrospective.
Of course, once an author's written record builds up to a certain point, the impulse to summarize what it is that makes him distinct is difficult to suppress. Immediately following Strand's passing, numerous publications, authors, and fans took to the web to eulogize him, each offering slightly different takes on what makes Strand's poetry distinctly "Strandian".
William Grimes of The New York Times describes Strand's work as "spare, deceptively simple investigations of rootlessness, alienation and the ineffable strangeness of life." For Dan Piepenbring of The Paris Review, "Strand saw poetry as a humanizing influence in an increasingly inhumane world." Carol Muske-Dukes, in an obituary written for the LA Times, describes Strand as "an unconventional poet of love, due to his natural aversion to “earnest” poetry -- by which he meant the self-absorbed enshrinement of the autobiographical." Others see that "absence and loss were recurring themes for the writer, who was known for his precise language and surreal imagery", to quote the BBC's farewell ode to the poet.
It's a testament to the breadth and depth of Strand's work that all of the above descriptions hold equally true. Flipping through the 512 pages of Collected Poems, one will find a number of poems that fit the myriad adjectives pinned on Strand's poetry. But rather than go into this volume expecting to come out with some definitive understanding of Strand as a writer, it's best to give oneself up to the ebb and flow of the anthology. Though Strand is at his best when he confines himself to shorter poems, his career is a diverse one in terms of structure. HIs voice remains the same, but the forms through which expresses himself mutate over his lengthy career.
Even when bumps in the road are felt, such as Almost Invisible, which is a so-so collection of prose poems that represent some of Strand's least impressive work, there is almost always something rewarding to be found, and these rewards will invariably depend on the poetic predisposition of the reader. For example, my distaste for poems on the "prosier" end of poetry is not shared by many of Almost Invisible's critics, such as Poetry Northwest writer Justin Boening: "[Almost Invisible] is a chance to experience a poet at his most flexible and, oftentimes, his most moving." No matter the anthology, even of contemporary legends like Yusef Komunyakaa and Sharon Olds, one is bound to find stretches of poems that just don't do the trick. The compelling thing about a poet like Strand, however, is that his craft is so refined that that the bulk of Collected Poems hits home, one way or another.
Broadly speaking, Strand is a master of two primary features of 20th and 21st century free verse poetry: economy of language met with density of thought, and the subtle art of defamiliarization. Rather than aim to condense the varied common threads that interlink the volumes included in Collected Poems -- a task even the most adventurous of poetry scholars should approach with trepidation -- I will present individual highlights that, on their own, are microcosms of Strand's genius.
Sleeping With One Eye Open, the debut collection is, to this day, a marvel. Of its many gems, "No Man Is a Continent Who Visits Islands" stands out above the others. In the poem, Strand captures the follies of those who give in too freely to the life of constant travel, pointing out:
Set one foot on the shore
And islands will appear
That seem far lovelier
Than those on which you are.
You will be off again.
The philosophy of the poem, captured so brilliant in the play on words in its title, is utterly simple: we all need to set down our anchors eventually. Strand's language expresses this thought in language that is pure and direct, yet it rings with the potency of far more flowery language.
Those who are introduced to poetry through rhyme scheme and sonnet structure often come to contemporary free verse poetry with hesitation. After all what, apart from line breaks, distinguishes free verse poems like Strands' from prose that is strategically spaced out? The answer to that question is complicated, but here one can find sage advice in the infamous words of the late Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart: "You know it when you see it." While some of the more out-there 21st century poetry (see: the "alt lit" movement) and a good deal of "prose poetry" does skirt the line between poem and prose, Strand's poetic voice is never in question throughout Collected Poems.
This, of course, is evident right from the beginning, as evinced by Sleeping With One Eye Open's "Winter in North Liberty", whose frequent alliteration foreshadows the kind of stylistic devices that poets like Todd Boss regularly use. Moreover, lines like this one from Darker's (1970) "The Prediction" are tough to beat, poetically speaking: "The night the moon drifted over the pond, / turning the water into milk." Lines like those both conjure up the obvious image -- moonlight on the surface of the water -- yet phrase it in such a way that the familiar becomes brand new. This feeling of defamiliarization is more or less constant throughout Collected Poems.
When Strand describes winter as the time in which "it gets cold and gray falls from the air" ("Lines for Winter" from 1978's The Late Hour) or the "avenues of light / that slid between the clouds" (the stunning "Webern Variations" from 2006's Man and Camel), one is reminded all over again why the human race fixates on language. Through the written word, the everyday experiences of life -- watching a sky turn grey, admiring crepuscular light canvass a body of water -- suddenly become magical all over again.
The concluding poem of the collection A Continuous Life (1990) is aptly titled "The End". In its final lines, Strand posits,
Not every man knows what is waiting for him, or what he shall sing
When the ship he is on slips into darkness, there at the end.
Whether or not Strand knew what his song was at the time of his passing, only he himself could say. The rest of us are left with Collected Poems, a book of poems that, at different points, provides multiple plausible accounts of ways one might reflect on the written legacy Strand gifted the world with.
In the 1968 volume Reasons for Moving, Strand says of the dead, "We cannot remember them / Clearly enough. We never will." Perhaps he is right. However, if ever people were given a chance to remember someone in vivid memory, Collected Poems, in all of its delight in language, certainly is such an instance. Strand may have finally stopped for death, but fortunately for us, his poetry never will.