If unbalanced or strangely dramatized emotions characterize the romantic poet, then Mark Strand’s work exemplifies romanticism in the postmodern era. Harold Bloom has called him “a perpetual elegist of the self,” which places him in the flux of Wordsworth and Whitman, although Wallace Stevens is his aesthetic mentor. “Violent Storm,” from his first collection, Sleeping with One Eye Open, maps the terrain of his strongest work and suggests why his less forbidding and less aleatory poems sometimes falter:
Those who have chosen to pass the night
And intimate ideas in the bright,
Commodious rooms of dreams
Will not feel the slightest tremor
Or be wakened by what seems
Only a quirk in the dry run
Of conventional weather. For them,
The long night sweeping over these trees
And houses will have been no more than one
In a series whose end
Only the nervous or morbid consider.
But for us, the wide-awake, who tend
To believe the worst is always waiting
Around the next corner or hiding in the dry,
Unsteady branch of a sick tree, debating
Whether or not to fell the passerby,
It has a sinister air.
Those who are nervous or morbid, including the out-of-phase romantic poets among us, remain awake to the threat and tragedy of the world. Those who dream friendly dreams evade the “long night sweeping over the trees” and proceed uneventfully through life. This is rather the opposite of surrealism, which argues that the authentic life is the dream. As Strand puts it in his Paris Review interview, “There is another type of poetry, in which the poet provides the reader with a surrogate world through which he reads this world.”
Because Strand’s best poems invoke the situations and imagery we associate with surrealism, we might mistake them for fantasy. For Strand, however—and the force of his work confirms this—the apparently surreal is the actual waking world, presented through a dramatized surrogate scenario, and the ordinary world is the dream. “Poems aren’t dreams,” he insists. As he says in the same interview, speaking of the reading experience, “It’s really that place which is unreachable, or mysterious, at which the poem becomes ours.” The reader, he adds, “comes into possession of a mystery, you know—which is something that we don’t allow ourselves in our lives.” It is not surprising, then, that Strand’s lesser poems derive from ordinary experiences and occur in everyday landscapes.
After his first collection, Sleeping with One Eye Open (1964), Strand published two important collections in relatively quick succession, Reasons for Moving (1968) and Darker (1970). In these seminal collections, the more tragic poems affix the reader’s imagination. But even the poems dealing with personal tragedy, such as the death of his father, though executed with impressive rhetorical ingenuity, lack the force of poems like “The Accident, or “The Way It Is,” or the first poem in Dark Harbor (1993).
“The Way It Is,” from Darker, may be Strand’s most memorable poem. Its nightmare world is all the more nightmarish when we realize it is not a dream, not surrealism, but the strangeness of real life that skewers first the helpless speaker, then the larger world:
My neighbor marches in his room,
wearing the sleek
mask of a hawk with a large beak.
He stands by the window. A violet plume
rises from his helmet’s dome.
The moon’s light
spills over him like milk and the wind rinses the white
glass bowls of his eyes.
Strand’s psychodrama creepily externalizes the narrator and his neighbors’ actual (if secret) lives. The mask does not conceal but magnifies the neighbor’s actual character. The elemental cleansing by moon and wind prepare him for his ritual tasks, which include threatening the speaker (“I am a dog, who would kill a dog?”), sex, dancing, and apparently dying, possibly self-sacrificed. The various dramatic actions of the poem lure the speaker into a variety of postures, and finally expand to encompass a whole dark city. But no summary or quotation can convey the absorbing strangeness of this poem with its terrible closing lines: “The graves are not ready. The dead / shall inherit the dead.” Revealing the world in which such perceptions and events occur is the gift of the visionary romantic poet, and like Blake, the Mark Strand of these early books x-rays the dreamy mundane to expose its bones.
With The Story of Our Lives (1973), Strand’s work shifts ground. As Stevens might say, the pressure of reality becomes greater. The work in The Continuous Life (1990) seems to grope for the earlier visionary gleam while acknowledging its loss:
For us, too, there was a wish to possess
Something beyond the world we knew, beyond ourselves,
Beyond our power to imagine, something nevertheless
in which we might see ourselves. (“The Idea”)
But twenty years previously, Strand had possessed that power of imagination and had generated poems that accomplish precisely what he longs for. From The Story of Our Lives through The Monument and The Late Hour, his poems lose some focus, and sometimes seem too caught up in the routine of living. The familiar vocabulary stales. He sometimes drifts into the banal and awkward, as in “Pot Roast”:
I gaze upon the roast,
that is sliced and laid out
on my plate,
and over it
I spoon the juices
of carrot and onion.
And for once I do not regret
the passage of time.
The blandly comic effect suggests a parody of the so-called Iowa School of poetry, which for a time in the 1970s was the butt of many critical jokesters. The Deep Image vocabulary of Strand’s earlier poems no longer functions, and at this point in the late 1970s and 1980s he has found nothing to replace it. The Monument (1978), in particular, becomes entranced with its own daring as prose poetry, too dependent on a complex structure of quotation, surrendering Strand’s simple, earthen vocabulary and syntax for an allusive structure that doesn’t seem to work with his sensibility. Many of the poems in the second half of this collected volume feel perfunctory, only slightly animated by the poet’s latently powerful sensibility. By standards other than those Strand set for himself, most of these poems would seem adequate to their own design. But they seem predictable, argued rather than experienced, and lack the powerful and tragic contingency that fuels the best poems in Darker and Reasons for Moving.
Visionary power never entirely eludes Strand, however. With Dark Harbor he abandons his commitment to a limited vocabulary and body of imagery and opens himself to “many other things.” As he remarks in his Paris Review interview, “You have Marsyas and the Mafia, the muzhiks being slaughtered, Russian women at a dinner party . . . ” This wider sweep re-energizes his poetry and renews his visionary impulse:
The ship has been held in the harbor.
The promise of departure has begun to dim.
The radiance of the sea, the shining abundance
Of its blue, are nevertheless undiminished.
The will of the passengers struggles to release
The creaking ship. All they want
Is one last voyage beyond the papery palms
And the shoals of melancholy, beyond the glass
And alabaster mansions strung along
The shores, beyond the siren sounds
And the grinding gears of big trucks climbing the hills.
Out into the moonlit bareness of waves . . . (XIV)
Strand studied with Josef Albers, painted, and made prints and collages for all of his adult life. In his last years he moved away from writing altogether in favor of the visual arts. In an interview in 2013 he indicated that he might never write again. Yet in that same interview, he acknowledged the importance of aleatory effects in both his visual and his verbal arts: “I try to combine surprise and inevitability to make something unique, but one can’t do this rationally. The unexpected, the unanticipated must be the determining factor.” This renewed faith in contingency refreshes his last collection, Almost Invisible (2013). These odd and vivid prose poems display considerable wit and vitality. In November 2014, shortly after the publication of this book, Strand died at the age of eighty, leaving us with an impressive array of disturbing and indelible poems.