Reasons for Moving (Mark Strand, 1968)

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
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
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.

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Silent Pleasures of August

This life continues to be unbearably busy, as each member of my family (including myself) has taken a turn being sick, and schedules keep shifting, and each weekend is filled with a hundred tasks. Through it all I am keeping a thread of time and space to myself by reading; I have always used books to carve some order out of the surrounding chaos. Here are six of my silent pleasures in August:

Zen Pencils Volume Two: Dream the Impossible Dream (Gavin Aung Than, coming in October 2015) — An ebook graciously provided by the lovely people at NetGalley in exchange for an honest review, this is a — well, what is it? A graphic novel, I suppose; Gavin Aung Than has taken various bits of writing he finds inspirational from a wide range of authors and turned each piece into a little illustrated story. Some of them are quite effective, such as Kevin Smith’s argument for taking all artists seriously, or Amy Poehler’s words on moving outside one’s comfort zone — both of which are imagined as child-focused. Others did not work as well for me; the Camus in particular I found laboured, his lyrical writing is not improved by art. And why take the words of Margaret E. Knight, a 19th century inventor, and illustrate it as a story about wrestling? The truth of her story is inspiring enough, and unlikely to be known to Than’s readers. It was an amusing book, but perhaps most suited to early adolescents, who might take to heart some of the advice to follow one’s own dreams despite discouragement.

The Artificial Face (Fenja Gunn, 1973) — I have a soft spot for amateur social histories, the sort of book in which someone who is not a scholar collects various anecdotal detail from earlier works and weaves it together into an interesting (and often false) narrative. This book on the history of cosmetics in England seems to be precisely that — at least if Gunn is a scholar I find no evidence of it — but it was marred by the author’s misogyny. Why would someone who dislikes “feminine vanity” and believes that fashions make “a mockery of nature” choose to write a book about cosmetics? I cannot recommend it, although it did interest me enough in the subject that I am planning to read Lisa Eldrige’s Face Paint: A History of Makeup, when it comes out in October.

Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (Gloria Steinem, 1983) — This book has been sitting on my shelves for at least 15 years, but it wasn’t until I heard Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with Steinem (on the fantastic CBC Writers and Company podcast) that I finally picked it up to read it. Steinem has a strong voice, and many of her pieces are still relevant — some of them frighteningly so; she predicted the legislative extremes some parts of the United States have gone to around pregnancy and the personhood of embryos. I wish the collection had been somewhat more varied, and that the pieces which are more statistics than narrative had been omitted, but it is a fascinating look back at a particular stage in the feminist movement, and certainly both informative and inspiring to read as a feminist today.

Simple Confession (Baird Leonard, 1930) — I discovered Leonard through some very early issues of The New Yorker, which I am slowly reading week by week starting at the very beginning — an infinite task, as the magazine comes out faster than I read, but a pleasant one. She published two light sketches mocking high society in 1925, and went on to contribute a large amount of humorous verse of the next few decades. This is the only book of hers in my library system, and given the title I was hoping for an autobiography, since I am quite curious about her life. Instead it was a collection of humorous verse depicting the life of a bright (but perhaps not very young) thing in New York in the 1920s. I found it entertaining reading, especially right before bed, but not the sort of thing which stays in the mind.

Mr. Fortune Speaking and Case for Mr. Fortune (H. C. Bailey, 1931 and 1932) — More Bailey; these are two volumes of his Reggie Fortune short stories, and contain some of my favourites of them. Bailey still has his irritating authorial tics, but taken slowly the stories are entertaining, and I appreciate Mr. Fortune’s desire to pursue justice without inflicting needless suffering.