Mark Strand’s Secular Wisdom Literature

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1.

I’ve been reading Mark Strand today, and am finding him to be a more disturbing poet than I remembered, with some caveats.  In this blog post, I want to look at some examples of the way in which Strand creates ominous textures, dark passages, through which the speaker occasionally wanders, with only a dim candle (hope, anticipation, desire, imagination) to light the way, though I will end with a poem that emphasizes that candle.  In a sense, then, Strand is writing a form of secular wisdom literature, by giving us rich and compelling insight into the world.  Let’s start with a short and late poem from Strand, from Man and Camel, entitled “Mother and Son.”

The son enters the mother’s room

and stands by the bed where the mother lies.

The son believes that she wants to tell him

what he longs to hear – that he is her boy,

always her boy.  The son leans down to kiss

the mother’s lips, but her lips are cold.

The burial of feelings has begun.  The son

touches the mother’s hands one last time,

then turns and sees the moon’s full face.

An ashen light falls across the floor.

If the moon could speak, what would it say?

If the moon could speak, it would say nothing.

The scene is a kind of penultimate dramatic scene – the son is going to say goodbye to his mother for the last time.  But the poem is so haunting because there is nothing in it to clutter up the importance of that moment, suggesting the severest of ascetic temperaments.  (Strand, like Stevens, is nothing if not a hedonistic ascetic.)  And yet, in a deeply ironic move and mood, the mother isn’t even alive – the son bends down to kiss her lips, only to find them cold.  All the mystery at the heart of the mother-child relationship remains intact, and yet nothing – nothing – is spoken, besides the poem.  Even the moon, a trope Strand returns to again and again, says nothing, even if it could speak.  The point is that, within the poem, which is spoken, heard and read, there resides a kind of alternative silence, a vast quiet that makes each word in the poem necessary, even as it surrounds the poem with an aura of finality and, to a certain extent, futility.  The grief is inexpressible, for the moon would say nothing.  Strand raises the question, How does a poem, through speaking, through language, convey the mystery (and sadness) of living and dying?

I wanted to start with this poem, because I believe it is this silence, suggesting the end of the trail, or death, out of which many of Strand’s poems spring.  There are so many Strand poems that seem to issue in some way out of an awareness of death, which manifests itself sometimes in the poem as a stillness around the words, a necessary quiet.  That is why I believe Strand composes secular wisdom literature – for to be so preternaturally obsessed with the idea of death is to force us, almost against ourselves (though Strand’s slow and siren-like lyricism is near-impossible to resist) to also contemplate the quiet awareness that we hold inside ourselves like a different room or tune, in which we keep alive the memory that we also will die.  What else is Strand singing about, when he writes, in the numbered section XVI of his book Dark Harbor,

It is true, as someone has said, that in

A world without heaven all is farewell.

Whether you wave your hand or not,

 

It is farewell, and if no tears come to your eyes

It is still farewell, and if you pretend not to notice,

Hating what passes, it is still farewell.

 

Farewell no matter what.  And the palms as they lean

Over the green, bright lagoon, and the pelicans

Diving, and the glistening bodies of bathers resting,

 

Are stages in an ultimate stillness, and the movement

Of sand, and of wind, and the secret moves of the body

Are part of the same, a simplicity that turns being

 

Into an occasion for mourning, or into an occasion

Worth celebrating, for what else does one do,

Feeling the weight of the pelicans’ wings,

 

The density of the palms’ shadows, the cells that darken

The backs of bathers?  These are beyond the distortions

Of chance, beyond the evasion of music.  The end

 

Is enacted again and again.  And we feel it

In the temptations of sleep, in the moon’s ripening,

In the wine as it waits in the glass.

Strand might as well have added, at the end of the section, “in the poem that you are reading.”  For the poem’s very music is death-haunted, i.e. the way in which it lulls the reader into its spell seems to almost parallel the lulling song that Strand argues death performs for/on us.  And yet this death-haunted song is not merely made up of gloom and doom.  Instead, the very texture of our experience of living and dying is tinged, colored, inflected, imbued with intense desire, for we can feel desire in the care of the phrases, “and the movement / Of sand, and of wind, and the secret moves of the body / Are part of the same”.  It is as though the motion of the poet’s mind, as it composes the poem, serves as a metaphor for the desire we feel, a desire to escape death through celebration or join death through sleep.  But what permeates the poem, almost like a fragrance, is this sense of the inescapability of death – “Farewell no matter what.”

2.

There is another poem that comes to mind when discussing the themes of disturbing inescapability (and the consequent desire for escape) at the heart of much of Strand’s poetic enterprise, and that poem is “The Story of Our Lives,” from Strand’s same-named collection from 1973.  In that poem, Strand meditates profoundly on the desire to escape the reading of our lives as we write it, or the writing of our lives as we read it.  That is a more complicated way of saying that Strand wishes to step out of his own story, his own life-narrative, even as he recognizes that this is mostly impossible (and that this life-narrative inevitably involves death).  In the poem, the book that he is reading serves as a metaphor for the experience he has of his own self and life.  The first section of the poem reads,

We are reading the story of our lives

which takes place in a room.

The room looks out on a street.

There is no one there,

no sound of anything.

The trees are heavy with leaves,

the parked cars never move.

We keep turning the pages,

hoping for something,

something like mercy or change,

a black line that would bind us

or keep us apart.

The way it is, it would seem

the book of our lives is empty.

The furniture in the room is never shifted,

and the rugs become darker each time

our shadows pass over them.

It is almost as if the room were the world.

We sit beside each other on the couch,

reading about the couch.

We say it is ideal.

It is ideal.

There is something very strange, even ominous and despairing, about Strand’s description of “the story of our lives.”  And it is ominous, I would argue, because Strand seems to be suggesting very disturbingly that, at a fundamental level, there is something almost illusory about the lives we live (I’ll get back to this “almost”), and that this near-illusoriness comes into effect because of death.  Let me back up.  Where in the poem do we even find death, if the word is not mentioned in this excerpt?  I think it is in the combination of images of silence and stasis (“There is no one there, / no sound of anything. / The trees are heavy with leaves, / the parked cars never move”) and the image of a darkening (“the rugs become darker each time / our shadows pass over them”) where we find a poem that is, like the excerpt above from Dark Harbor, death-haunted to an almost unbearable degree.  And this death-hauntedness manifests in images of a world that are unreal, that are seemingly virtual or illusory.  The implication seems to be (I think?) that the inescapability of death makes our lives into something different, something that is frightening and saddening to think about.  And yet: Strand is very clear that this is only a particular reading, for he says, later in the section, “It is almost as if the room were the world.”  By this, I mean Strand to be saying something sensible, along the lines of, “our current despairing interpretation of the world seems like the way the world is – “as if the room were the world” – but it is in fact only one interpretation among many.”

3.

In “The Story of Our Lives” there is a reprieve, however brief, from this inescapability, and it comes in the form of memory and dreams, though even these things are tinged with an ambivalence.  We read at the end of the third section,

This morning after you fell back to sleep

I began to turn pages early in the book:

it was like dreaming of childhood,

so much seemed to vanish,

so much seemed to come to life again.

I did not know what to do.

The book said: In those moments it was his book.

A bleak crown rested uneasily on his head.

He was the brief ruler of inner and outer discord,

anxious in his own kingdom. 

There is so much sadness and hope and desire in the lines, “so much seemed to vanish, / so much seemed to come to life again.”  So much, in fact, that the speaker does not “know what to do.”  Like the grief in “Mother and Son,” Strand’s existential bafflement here is essentially unspeakable, inexpressible.  In the spirit of this inexpressible astonishment, therefore, I want to end on a lighter note, with the first section of Strand’s “Poem After the Seven Last Words.”  It is also a poem obsessed with the “story of our lives” and the poetics of farewell but in a different way.  The first section reads,

The story of the end, of the last word

of the end, when told, is a story that never ends.

We tell it and retell is – one word, then another

until it seems that no last word is possible,

that none would be bearable.  Thus, when the hero

of the story says to himself, as to someone far away,

“Forgive them, for they know not what they do,”

we may feel that he is pleading for us, that we are

the secret life of the story and, as long as his plea

is not answered, we shall be spared.  So the story

continues.  So we continue.  And the end, once more,

becomes the next, and the next after that.

Here, the sad finality that darkens the earlier poems has dissolved, to a certain extent, and we are presented with something different, something we might call “continuity” (Strand has a book called The Continuous Life).  The story is not something inescapable, something we futilely struggle to escape, but rather stretches backwards and forwards into time, into a distance we are incapable of comprehending completely, though we can see the distance and appreciation our continuity with it.  Whereas before, the thought of a life ending is unbearable, here what is unbearable is the thought of limiting life by trying to sum it up with a word.  There is therefore a rich and layered sense of possibility and anticipation and hope in this poem, suggestive of another form of secular wisdom literature, here one which involves a sense of connection, continuity, even care.

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