I first encountered Mark Strand through Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with him on the CBC Writers & Company podcast. Usually I do not much enjoy hearing writers read their own work, but I fell in love with Strand’s voice, in both the literal and stylistic senses, and with his dry, sudden humour which is so similar to mine. He had a long and varied career, publishing poetry for five decades as well as translating, writing children’s books and criticism, and editing various anthologies until his death in 2014. Although the interview was from 1999, I only heard it a few months back, when I began to finally listen to the years of podcasts I had downloaded, and even though it is foolish, I wish very much I had met Strand’s work while he was still alive; I would have written some sort of joyful letter of my excitement at his poetry, perhaps, although that is an easy thing to say in retrospect. It may well be that having the chance I would not have taken it. Regardless, I do feel in discovering him only just after his death that I missed some opportunity, however ridiculous it is.
As for this collection, it is slender, only 47 pages, and the poems are short and deceptively simple. I have chosen two I liked very much.
The Man in Black
I was walking downtown
when I noticed a man in black,
black cape and black boots, coming toward me.
His arms out in front of him,
his fingers twinkling with little rings,
he looked like a summer night full of stars.
It was summer. The night was full of stars.
The tall buildings formed a hallway down which I walked.
The man in black came toward me.
The waxed tips of his mustache shone
like tiny spears and his teeth glistened.
I offered him my hand which he did not take.
I felt like a fool and stood in his black wake,
shaken and small, and my tears
swung back and forth in the sultry air like chandeliers.
It is that moment between the second and third stanzas, for me, which makes the poem, the repetition that changes it from the everyday recounting to the sense of something numinous occurring, the man who is like the summer night full of stars in the summer night full of stars, suggesting the man is the night, or there is no man, only the poet seeing the night both ways — it is one of those poems where my attempt to explain what I see in it trivialises, because I cannot say it better than the poet can, but for any reader who might be mystified by my joy, read it to yourself, slowly, and linger on that repetition, that space between those stanzas, where suddenly what seems to be reality changes and becomes much larger and stranger and more mysterious — and the poet weeps because he may not enter into it even as that last image suggests that he is already there.
Here is another, shorter, and much anthologised, but I had not heard it until Strand read it during the interview and it took my breath. I am glad to be able to remember it in his voice:
Keeping Things Whole
In a field
I am the absence
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
When I walk
I part the air
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.
We all have reasons
to keep things whole.
I will share one more from this collection tomorrow, I think; I find I cannot resist, nor is there any reason to.