Though his work has been around for fifty years, and he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999, just a few years before I truly dove into poetry, I had never read Mark Strand’s work until his Collected Poems was long listed for the National Book Award this year. It didn’t go on to the shortlist, but I’ve been perusing this collection for the past couple of months, trying to figure out how to articulate how it was affecting me. When I found out that Strand died this past Saturday, I was saddened. I hadn’t quite realized it until the news hit, but this poet, whom I had never read, was affecting me personally. I suppose that is bound to happen when you sit down and spend time with someone’s life’s work. And so many of his poems are about approaching death, it is hard to believe he has now met the great moment, leaving the rest of us here with his words.
This collection contains hundreds of poems, beginning with Strand’s debut from 1964, Sleeping with One Eye Open, going through the years, including book-length poems like The Monument and Dark Harbor, and his Pulitzer Prize winning Blizzard of One, from 1998, and up to his last collection, 2012’s Almost Invisible. I still haven’t finished it, and I don’t want to rush myself through it. But I do want to mark Strand’s passing by going through my thoughts so far here.
From the very first poem, “When the Vacation Is Over,” I get a sense that Strand is very aware of the passage of time, of the melancholic beauty that comes when one reflects on such things:
It will be strange
Knowing at last it couldn’t go on forever,
The certain voice telling us over and over
That nothing would change,
And remembering too,
Because by then it will all be done with, the way
Things were, and how we had wasted time as though
There was nothing to do,
[. . . .]
And somehow trying,
But still unable, to know just what it was
That went so completely wrong, or why it is
We are dying.
At the end of the second part of Sleeping with One Eye Open, there is “In Memoriam,” which continues to dwell on death as a formative experience. In this poem, there is a man, and no one knows this man:
And many doubt that he ever lived.
It does not matter. The fact that he died
Is reason enough to believe there were reasons.
And the very question of existence, of this physical body and this active separate mind: “There you are, you are not there.”
It isn’t all dour, though (indeed, I don’t even get the sense that his poems on death or existence are particularly dour). The first poem in his second collection, Reasons for Moving, is “Eating Poetry” and begins: “Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.” And many of his poems are clearly about life, with many amusing side-notes. In general, I have found Strand’s poetry to be refreshingly accessible without being glib.
My favorite so far, though (and it happens to be the last I’ve read till now), is the Pulitzer winning collection Blizzard of One. By this time, Strand had been publishing poetry for over thirty years. He’s written many verses, and many of his later poems have a more prosy style to them. As in the first poem, cited in part above, this collection begins with a poem about the passage of time, about something turning to ash.
The lavender turns to ash. The clouds disappear. Where
Is she now? And where is that boy who stood for hours
Outside her house, learning too late that something is always
About to happen just at the moment it serves no purpose at all?
But besides looking back, he is also looking forward, still marveling about this body. There is a poem called “Old Man Leaves a Party”; the speaker is a man who was “over eighty” who stops in the moonlight to examine his body:
I know what you are thinking. I was like you once. But now
With so much before me, so many emerald trees, and
Weed-whitened fields, mountains and lakes, how could I not
Be only myself, this dream of flesh, from moment to moment?
It’s a wonderful collection, and I’m thrilled there is so much of it that I still have to visit, and I am excited to revisit it as the years go on.