Sunday, November 18, 2007

Mark Strand's "New Selected Poems"

I met Mark Strand everywhere this weekend. In The New Yorker, Dan Chiasson reviewed his New Selected Poems, along with Hass's Time and Materials. I heard him read Friday evening at Cornelia Street Cafe. On the move, and on my back, I spent yesterday and today reading his new book. Now I meet him in my memory, remembering the Strand poem engraved in dark stone of the fountain in the relatively new Battery Park Condominiums Complex.

What do I remember after reading "New Selected Poems"? Chiefly the moving and funny sequence of poems from Dark Harbor. "XXXV" begins with the startling, and the deliberate disavowal of the drama of the startling. The disavowal is in the service of something deeper, more human, more poignant.

The sickness of angels is nothing new.
I have seen them crawling like bees,
Flightless, chewing their tongues, not singing.

Down by the bus terminal, hanging out,
Showing their legs, hiding their wings,
Carrying on for their brief term on earth.

In "XLIV," the speaker recalls his fear of the noise of the sea when he was a child. An adult now, he loves the "mystery of the sea that generates its own changes," a self-generative power the child had no way of knowing then. The poem ends:

But in those days what did I know of the pleasures of loss,
Of the edge of the abyss coming close with its hisses
And storms, a great watery animal break itself on the rocks,

Sending up stars of salt, loud clouds of spume.

There are many other strong poems, especially from the last two collections, Blizaard of One (1998), for which Strand received the Pulitzer Prize, and Man and Camel (2006). "Black Sea" appears in the latter. My favorite from the former is "A Suite of Apperances" written for Octavio and Marie Jo Paz. The fifth and last section of the suite combines Strand's metaphysical questioning and his love for earthly delights to make for a stunned conclusion.

Of occasions flounced with rose and gold in which the sun
Sinks deep and drowns in a blackening sea, of those, and more,
To be tired. To have the whole sunset again, moment by moment,

As it occured, in a correct and detailed acount, only darkens
Our sense of what happened, There is a limit to what we can picture
And to how much of a good thing is a good thing. Better to hope

For the merest reminder, a spectral glimpse--there but not there,
Something not quite a scene, poised only to be dissolved,
So, when it goes as it must, no sense of loss springs in its wake.

The houses, the gardens, the roaming dogs, let them become
The factors of absence, an incantation of the ineffable.
The backyard was red, that much we know. And the church bell

Tolled the hour. What more is there? The odors of food,
The last traces of dinner, are gone. The glasses are washed.
The neighborhood sleeps. Will the same day ever come back, and with it

Our amazement at having been in it, or will only a dark haze
Spread at the back of the mind, erasing events, one after
The other, so brief they may have been lost to begin with?

Beauty generates beauty. That is its chief distinction, argues Elaine Scarry. Reading Strand's newly selected poems makes me want to write poetry, which is how I know they are beautiful.

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