Monday, November 18, 2019

Some work by Mark Strand

Image result for mark strand
Mark Strand is a poet whose work I've gagged on when I had to read him in college thirty years ago, and the effect is the same this morning with "Mother and Son". There is often something patently fake about  many of Strand's poems --so much exclaimed angst seems over rehearsed, severely so at times--and the sentiment he tries to get across, and for all the signposts that signify misery and hurt that crop up in this poem there is not a sense that he believes a word of it. He tries to be surreal and hushed in his lines, but his business is stagy and arch instead of evocative. He approaches his scenes as a scenarist would trying to pitch a movie idea to a potential financial backer.

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.


There is no empathy here, only declaration and instruction about how to appreciate what he intends. It fails even as journalism.This isn't poetry, but rather stage directions. In another medium, theatre, this might may add up to powerful, wordless acting, but it is without resonance as a reading experience; these are jottings, you think, notes at the margin of a page that might find themselves elaborated upon later, in a stronger, more vivid context.It has the feeling of summer reruns, something you've from this author before, and each exposure is more listless and bored than the last. Strand cannot purge himself of childhood images of death, and has used this seemingly autobiographical element as a running gag through his decades as published poet; there is a stifled fear and dread of death , detectable here in "My Mother on a Late Evening In August " and in "The Dreadful Has Already Happened" .The earlier poems are stronger , with greater vigor; despite the conspicuous aspects of wallowing in the mythology of traumatic childhood, Strand still writes with a power that achieves the quality of stifled terror. It becomes a different story decades later, when the sure footed moves of youth loose their grace and what was once grace of a sort becomes a leaden shuffling, wMithout uplift or rhythm. "Mother and Son" is the premise worn to it's thinnest , least viable point; if this poem were a floorboard, it would give under the weight.


The burial of feelings has begun.
This is not just a bad line, but resembles as well a grunting short hand of a writer who is too familiar with the situation he's committed to verse about over and over. In other genres Strand would be called a hack.
The son touches the mother's hands one last time, then turns and sees the moon's full face. It is a sure sign that a poet has nothing new to say about a subject if he or she employs "the moon" as the means to create an eerie mood, or suggest realities that mere human senses cannot register. One can't really ban the use of the moon as an image for poets since the phenomenon of the thing has so saturated our reference points that we would likely lose an entire literature if it were no longer available to writers to use at will, but one does expect some real work to go into the employing of such an accessible symbol. Strand's moon is something of a prop, a deux ex machina in which the white orb in the black sky makes things poetic and pregnant with nearly unsay able knowledge sans a human intelligence creating the psychological frame work for the aesthetic operation to achieve an effect of real meaning. That is the staginess of Strand again, directing our responses instead of engaging. He can be a bossy poet. For Strand, though, it has gone on too long, and it's unseemly that a poet his age still hangs around dead things in the night, refusing to let an old wound heal. But then again, more than a few poets enjoy picking at their scabs when they're looking under rocks for smoking guns.


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Mark Strand's  prose poem The Enigma of the Infinitesimal  shows us a poet who want us to consider those people we all have seen (as he claims) who have a purpose driven life consisting of one goal, to get to the nothing between the noisy and multiple somethings the rest of us have to navigate with purpose:

You’ve seen them at dusk, walking along the shore, seen them standing in doorways, leaning from windows, or straddling the slow moving edge of a shadow. Lovers of the in-between, they are neither here nor there, neither in nor out. Poor souls, they are driven to experience the impossible. Even at night, they lie in bed with one eye closed and the other open, hoping to catch the last second of consciousness and the first of sleep, to inhabit that no man’s land, that beautiful place, to behold as only a god might, the luminous conjunction of nothing and all.

It seems clear enough for me that Strand is talking the desire for a personal oblivion without having to do any of the heavy lifting, that is, he wants to witness the area between the crowded materialism of the earthly plain and the over lit expanse of whatever form of Heaven is in the collective thinking. I think what he means is that he notices his own concentration on the scant inches between things piled on one another, the remaining centimeters of space that still exist before leviathans, politics and economics crowded up the earth with a seamless babble concerning what's important. No business, no church, no politics to decide for you how to spend your time, your imagination; he wants a momentary respite somewhere that is not sleep nor death but still free of static and the overflow of voices and traffic sounds. 

This , ironically, becomes something of a reason to live, to go on despite the horror of life's eternal drudgery; in a sense that seems very much like Samuel Beckett, these numinous creatures seek that space and that state that cannot be found nor reached even with the wildest imagination; all one can do is hatch new schemes, seek new cracks in the architecture, attempt to lose a little more of themselves in the details and the grain of existence in some wan hope that they might transcend the cluttered bounds of earth and witness the perfection of nothing there at all. It would be a kind of Heaven, unspoiled, unassigned, unreconstructed, not blemished a bit by any one's lisping conceit as to how the space is to be used, purposed, designed. 

One might imagine that this  Death Wish defined, the desire for death institutionalized in our personal rituals, but what we have, I think, is Strand grabbing onto to something that Beckett surveyed so well ; the desire to live becomes, instead, the obsession to keep the ritual in order and the tedium in place; while the waking ego expounds a poetic urge to escape the mundane and to live in radical proximity to the sublime elegance of negative space, the body knows more than the spirit and maintains the grind one would other wise claim murders the soul. The soul flourishes, the body would say, because of the tedium, the grind, the unending repetition of habits we've filled the world with; without the tedium there would be only a life that is nasty , brutish and short. The same old same old is the foundation on which our hopes of deliverance rest; without it, there would be no yearning for impossible things.What the poem implies is not an envy for the otherly shadow people seeking that negative space between the brick and mortar, but rather a desire on Strand's part to achieve something like death so as to be relieved of the grind and grunt of daily life. He speaks of them in the third person, but the awareness of their routines and their desires is intimate, it has the lyric yearning of someone speaking from their own experience.  

Even at night, they lie in bed with one eye closed and the other open, hoping to catch the last second of consciousness and the first of sleep, to inhabit that no man’s land, that beautiful place, to behold as only a god might, the luminous conjunction of nothing and all..  

The "lovers of the in between" seek to "inhabit that no man’s land, that beautiful place..." which , to my mind, indicates an obvious desire for something permanent. Not death, but death like, as I mentioned before. "Oblivion" , "near death" and the like are synonyms for Mark Strand's concept of "...the luminous conjunction of nothing at all." Strand's desire is for a permanent condition, what some might consider a zen condition where the ego vanishes and there is only oneself and the verythingness of the world, unadorned by materialist clutter. Still others might equate the poem's yearning with Pink Floyd's song title "Comfortably Numb". The idea is closer, in my reading, with the poems , plays and novels of Samuel Beckett, who managed to extract a dynamic literature from the monotony of existence; as with Strand's reluctance to embrace death by name, Beckett's characters become obsessed with an irresistible urge to transcend their bounds and yet refuse to upset the stratification they claim is killing their spirit. These people Strand speaks of , meaning the poet himself, are pursuing what they know to be an impossible goal; that way means that nothing in their life has to change.

It's one thing to imagine a fictional aberration, a shadow person, lying in bed , still awake, but Strand's detail belongs to someone who them self has spent nights half awake , half dreaming of a perfect, painless oblivion. This is not a prose poem expressing envy of anyone; although he furnishes distance with by avoiding first person in the telling, this poem is a confession, a bittersweet gushing of an impossible dream that underlies all other motivations to get through another day.

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I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying this poem, as Strand, since I first read him in the Seventies, has never been one of my favorite poets; he continually demonstrated a rather fine lyric sense that could make the banal details of a street, a room, a sound transcend their roots in the commonplace and suggest something more behind the utility of mere definition. His world seemed to pulse with significance that was tangible , conspicuous, yet hidden.

 He has been, though, too much of a worry wart for me, there was nearly always something terrible that has happened or about to happen or that didn't happen at all but the thought of which gave his poems a nervous, anxious quality that stopped being exhilarating after a few dozen poems . This, though, is a collected bit of consideration, a pause to remark on a personal mood that has nothing to do with catastrophes of fact or fiction and wonders instead not about the awful things that might befall his surrogate narrators but rather what it might be to consider a space that is perfect solely because it vacant. The nervousness, real and feigned, gives way to a poem perfect for someone who is tired of holding on to the hand rail too tightly.   I am not, though,thrilled by Strand's preference for the paragraph form--I have a fondness for prose poems and enjoy the writings of Whitman, Silliman, Bernstein, Goldbarth and Gertrude Stein precisely because the paragraph is the perfect way to have unlike things collide , conflate and fuse together in radically transformations; there is a sense of havoc being visited upon a number of worn out referential templates that are suddenly made to make sense in ways no one intended.

 The language gets a long and severe road testing there and we, I think, are better for it. Strand's poem, though, is not accumulation, not collision, but a pared down consideration, observation, revelation: I am convinced the poem would be more effective, powerful, lasting in memory if there were line breaks . I hear cadences that the paragraphed original cannot suggest. There is a human voice here, detectable, vulnerable and surprised at what it finds itself talking about, and one wonders about the breathing space between the sentences, the pauses. Line breaks would have the effect of slowing down the poem, to bring to the piece a tentativeness that is already there, waiting to be discovered by the reader who has an ear for such things. The paragraph is airtight and deadens the effect, at least at first. That first impression likely prevents more than a few readers from giving it a second scan.

Here is my version of Mark Strand's poem, "The Enigma of the Infinitesimal", with traditional free verse line breaks:  
  
You’ve seen them at dusk,
walking along the shore,
seen them standing in doorways,
leaning from windows,
or straddling the slow moving edge of a shadow.

Lovers of the in-between,
they are neither here nor there, neither in nor out.

Poor souls, they are driven
to experience the impossible.

Even at night, they lie in bed
with one eye closed and the other open,
hoping to catch the last second of consciousness
and the first of sleep,
to inhabit that no man’s land,
that beautiful place,
to behold as only a god might,
the luminous conjunction of nothing and all.


I understand the attraction of a paragraph over line breaks for a reader; Strand may be intending a seduction of sorts with the form he chose, luring an audience with something that looks familiar. The effect is that they would read something unlike what they usually come across in a brief, stand alone prose block.    A free verse form suggests the in-between state or nothing at all state that Strand addresses in the poem. On the left, there is an elegant murmuring about the neutral zone as a kind of mythic Eden , and on the other, the emptiness of the right hand margin, the white space. This would suggest that the world of things , noise and motion is along side the "the luminous conjunction of nothing and all".

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Truthfully, I like noise, dissonance, blistering beats and bangs, cacophony of all sorts, screaming guitar solos, atonal saxophone pirouettes, collision prone drum work, pianistics imposing order onto uncontainable randomness. The scrape and scratch is the cadence of the urban life, due to either traffic congestion, jackhammers on every corner, crimes in progress, or downtown music’s ranging from industrial grate to loft jazz to post-vinyl hip hop; abrupt, big shouldered, bullying, the Futurist dream (or nightmare) of jettisoning the Present and blasting a tunnel through the mountain of complacency towards an unknown future. Or maybe even destroying the mountain altogether; what we can surmise, though, is that it
isn’t the future that is the matter of concern for anyone making this kind of noise, but the noise itself, the badgering, persistent barrage that will not give you a minute of quiet time. There is no room for reflection or  regret, there is only the task of making this    existence so unlivable that we will all eventually rise and demand Eden now, or at least aid in the destruction of those  technologies, customs and accumulated culture that makes the question concerning the quality of life a Moot Point.

But there comes the moment when I have to take a breather from being the frontlines of my combative aesthetic and seek tunes, poems, movies that provide respite from the grind; sometimes I wake up and think clearly for a moment that existence is already noisy and that my abrasive taste in tunes accelerates no inevitable dialectic.Fun as it may be, no universal good is being served. In fact, I am only adding to the clutter, in essence, becoming part of the problem. Sanity, for the time being, prevails , balanced on a thin sting, and my premature jitters seek , for a change, succor, not assault. The quiet side appeals to me as well, much as I love abrasive post-bop jazz improvisation ala Cecil Taylor or the raucous cacophony of Charles Ives;  there are those moods when what I need from art—and art is something which is a need—is a short harmonica solo, a small water color in a simple frame, or a lyric poem that dwells comfortably, musically on it’s surface qualities. One loves grit, but that doesn’t exclude finesse. Mark Strand’s poem here won me over with it’s surely played music.



My Mother on an Evening in Late Summer
by Mark Strand

1.
When the moon appears
and a few wind-stricken barns stand out
in the low-domed hills
and shine with a light
that is veiled and dust-filled
and that floats upon the fields,
my mother, with her hair in a bun,
her face in shadow, and the smoke
from her cigarette coiling close
to the faint yellow sheen of her dress,
stands near the house
and watches the seepage of late light
down through the sedges,
the last gray islands of cloud
taken from view, and the wind
ruffling the moon's ash-colored coat
on the black bay.

2.
Soon the house, with its shades drawn closed, will send
small carpets of lampglow
into the haze and the bay
will begin its loud heaving
and the pines, frayed finials
climbing the hill, will seem to graze
the dim cinders of heaven.
And my mother will stare into the starlanes,
the endless tunnels of nothing,
and as she gazes,
under the hour's spell,
she will think how we yield each night
to the soundless storms of decay
that tear at the folding flesh,
and she will not know
why she is here
or what she is prisoner of
if not the conditions of love that brought her to this.

3.
My mother will go indoors
and the fields, the bare stones
will drift in peace, small creatures --
the mouse and the swift -- will sleep
at opposite ends of the house.
Only the cricket will be up,
repeating its one shrill note
to the rotten boards of the porch,
to the rusted screens, to the air, to the rimless dark,
to the sea that keeps to itself.
Why should my mother awake?
The earth is not yet a garden
about to be turned. The stars
are not yet bells that ring
at night for the lost.

Mark Strand is someone who often works overtime to make the small things he chooses to write about into subjects that are poetically overpowering. Though he wouldn't be guilty of some fever pitched overwriting that makes the work of Nobel Prize Winner Derek Walcott seem like a riotous thicket of over simile’d  commonplaces--it has been said that the prize winner has never met a qualifier he didn't fall in love with and promise a home to--Strand has always seemed to fall just short of adding an item too many to his verses.

He does have a leaner, more genuinely lyric movement than does Walcott, whom I find more ornate than satisfying. Strand , to his credit , doesn't obscure the emotion nor the place from which is figurative language is inspired, arch as it occasionally reads. Walcott the poet, the world traveler, the cultivated Other in the presence of an Imperial Culture, reads like someone how is trying to have an experience. Strand convinces you that he has had one, indeed, but that he over estimates the measure of words to their finessed narrative.

That said, I like this, in that Strand trusts what his eyes sees, a series of things his mother was doing in a wonderfully framed triptych that might have been conveyed by Andrew Wyeth. It is a little idealized--the lyric spirit is not interested in the precise qualifier, but that adjective or verb , that rather, that both makes the image more musical and reveals some commonly felt impression about the objects in the frame--but Strand here has a relaxed confidence that is very effective. Brush strokes, we could say, both
impressionistic and yet exact.

Soon the house, with its shades drawn closed, will send
small carpets of lampglow
into the haze and the bay
will begin its loud heaving
and the pines, frayed finials
climbing the hill, will seem to graze
the dim cinders of heaven.
And my mother will stare into the starlanes,
the endless tunnels of nothing,
and as she gazes,
under the hour's spell,
she will think how we yield each night
to the soundless storms of decay
that tear at the folding flesh,
and she will not know
why she is here
or what she is prisoner of
if not the conditions of love that brought her to this.

This is the image of someone going about there daily chores and fulfilling their obligations thinking they are out anyone else's view, or better, the agenda of someone who hasn't interest in impressing any set of prying eyes. The mother seems less a figure in solitude than she does to contain solitude itself, comfortable and with intimate knowledge of the grain of the wood the floor is made of, the smell of the changing weather, the different pitches of silence and what the nuances of small sounds forecast for that evening and the following day. Most of all, this is about watching the world, the smallest world , both grow up, grow old, become frail and die, finally, aware of the seamlessness of going about one's tasks and the preparation for the end. This is a poem about preparation, I think; we, like the Mother, come to a point in their life when the gravity of things are finally felt through accumulated experience, as one's responsibilities have been added too over the years, and one develops a sense that what one does isn't so much about setting ourselves up for the rest of our lives, but rather in preparing the ground for what comes next, who comes next.


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