A Piece of Paper
I have in my possession a piece of lined note paper, slightly crumpled, covered with handwriting, mostly my own, but also the handwriting of my friend Mark Strand. The piece of paper is a memento from a lunch we had nearly a year ago now, in May of 2014, in New York City.
I met Mark in 1972 in the Village, introduced by another friend, Daniel Halpern. Mark looked, as he always did, remarkably handsome, but pale, almost ghostly. His marriage had recently ended and he appeared to be taking it very hard, though he smiled at me and joked about his gloom.
So we were good friends for years—and the thing about Mark: no matter how serious he was in company—no matter how weighty his subject in verse—there were sudden flashes of wild, anarchical humor. Oddly, this sly surreal wit is rarely discussed, but I think this undefined component of his style is central to his lyrical power. He was as funny in person as he was on the page. At his eightieth birthday celebration-reading at the New School on October 9th, 2014 (not long before he died) I read a “collage” of some of the funniest short passages from his poems to a packed house, who roared at each line. I glanced at Mark, in the first row, from the podium. He was laughing happily too.
There are so many things to say about my friendship with Mark. So many “stills,” unforgettable moments—I have photographs of us and a drawing he gave me, inscribed to me, of a “pink dog” (presumably a nod to his great friend, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem). I own one of his last collages. He knew my late husband and my daughter and I knew his second wife and his daughter and son— and when my husband died, he came to my house in L.A. and sat with me in grief. (Not long after, we had a “close call”—when he thought we might try our luck as “more than friends.” We dated for a while on both coasts—but I was still grieving, writing elegies, and I couldn’t get my mind around this unexpected new avatar of Mark. And he was, as always, sort of John Cleese-ish about this turn of fate. “I would seduce you, but I don’t want to impose myself,” I remember him intoning over drinks in New York —a true Mark-ism—which ended in cracking us both up. Soon we went back to being good friends.)
Which brings me back to our lunch, the written-on piece of paper. We met at French Roast, a local bistro in the Village, near where we’d first met, where I’d kept an apartment even while living in L.A., where we’d read together in the past. Mark’s cancer had advanced during his time in Europe. I hadn’t seen him for some months, though we’d been in regular email-touch. He looked thin and gaunt, even with the layers of clothing he joked about piling on. Anyone who knew Mark knew about his caviar tastes in clothing and wine, etc. Now he looked just slightly diminished in style, but weathered, tweedy, scarf-encircled. He smiled, nodded, he picked at his meal, sipped at a glass of wine. He handed me a present (Mark was a gift-giver), an art book he’d picked up at the Strand.
One of the things I loved most about conversations with Mark was how our talk would usually start out as banter or gossip (right before his death, he “rated” his contemporaries for me, with the lightest most devastating touch)—then, abruptly, the conversation would deepen into an exchange about Poetry itself. However, on this still-chilly spring afternoon in the City, I suspected that Mark would not want to leap into anything that smacked of enormity—or, possibly, of the valedictory.
I tried to keep the conversation light. We’d had a few chats, over time, about living in a moment on earth where the word “brand” had crept into poetry—(or rather the “How public—like a Frog—to tell one’s name, the livelong June—to an admiring Bog,” as Emily had it ...) the effect of the intense self-consciousness and self-celebration of social media on poetic sensibility. There was nothing particularly judgmental (or dinosaur-ish) about his reaction to all this—mainly, it bored him and he found it funny.
So I told him about the graduate seminar I was teaching (at USC, where I’m a professor) on “The Aesthetics of Translation.” A couple of my grad students (poets) had decided, in the spirit of Facebook, to “insert” themselves (in the “persona” of translator) into their attempts to render two important writers from the French and Italian, respectively. I was appalled by the hubris of this approach, but I’ve learned, after years of teaching, that, one gets nowhere by closing down whatever passes as experimentation. So I’d contacted Lydia Davis, who’d kindly responded with an explanation of, for example, some “short shorts” she’d written as “faux-translations” of Flaubert—as distinctly and importantly different from her actual deeply-respectful translations of Proust or Flaubert, as loyal as possible to the writing in the original language. She let me pass along to my students her comments regarding this reverence for the original. Extraordinarily, they did not seem impressed.
Mark laughed a long time about this, but then I could see him shifting gears. He was sometimes described as an indifferent teacher, but he was not. He was so profoundly concerned about language, about art, about translation, that his thinking raised the level of the pedagogical to illuminated discourse, from which one (if one was listening) could learn. I knew his translations of Alberti and Andrade well. He dismissed them modestly—he seemed genuinely worried about my students’ lack of humility. He began to talk about translating poetry with such eloquence that, after a few minutes, I understood that I was listening not to a lecture but to a meditation so provocative that I pulled a scrap of note-paper from my purse and I began to scribble notes as he spoke.
On this piece of paper, now before me, are quick-written bits of what he had to say about translation, then poetry itself. I wrote down what he said about a translator “being humble” about “suppression of ego,” “being invisible,” an “apprenticeship.” Then he said, “I translated to learn to write.” I wrote down, “Any writer who is translated dreams of being translated by a better writer.”
Then he took the notepaper from me and wrote in his hand (that I knew so well from funny and loving inscriptions in his books) “The Dialogue of Greater Spheres” by Tommaso Landolfi and Borges’ “Pierre Menard,” and he added, “or the translation of Quixote.”
He added the name of a young man he was mentoring, whom he much admired—he suggested I talk to him: “Jake Bittle, essay on Landolfi and Wittgenstein.”
He also wrote “Strand,” his “Translation series in his book, Continuous Life.” This series he thought might be presented to my students first—as it is wickedly satirical about pretentious ideas of translation. It begins with the speaker describing his four-year-old son’s consternation over the progress of his translations. The speaker responds, “Son ... you should find a young poet to translate, someone your own age, whose poems are no good. Then, if your translations are bad, it won’t matter.” Despite this deadly-seeming dismissal, he ended up asking me to keep him posted about the class—and he kept providing insights on email. I wish I could report that the students saw what a gift these suggestions were. They were impressed by Mark Strand’s input, but they never read the books he recommended, and when I read his “Translation” series aloud to them, they laughed, guardedly.
Mark and I sat and talked long into the afternoon. Or, he talked. Finally, after I’d filled my paper with scribbled notes, I put it aside and just listened. Of all the gifts Mark had given me, this was one of the most moving—and luminous.
And near the end of our long lunch, he leaned closer and said, “You know, I don’t want to die. But I don’t want to cling to life, that’s certain. I don’t want to cling.”
I touched his hand, which was already touched by a ray of sun. Then I folded my piece of paper and put it back in my bag. I didn’t want to lose it, ever.
Carol Muske-Dukes has authored eight books of poetry, most recently Twin Cities (Penguin), in addition to novels, essays, and anthologies. Muske-Dukes is Professor of English and Creative Writing at UCLA.