From Nowhere

“I moved around so much, and went to so many different schools, that I never found my own place,” Mark Strand has said. “I really come from nowhere.” How fitting then that his last collection is called Almost Invisible, a book which has been resting on my bedside table almost continuously since it came out three years ago. Almost Invisible, by the Man from Nowhere. It makes for good dreams.

I only met Strand once, for a few weeks at Sewanee. We had coffee one afternoon, to go over some of my poems. I can still see the little room, his long body folded elegantly into a chair. I don’t know exactly how, but he had a way of making wherever he was look like Italy.

“Do you read Saramago?” he asked. When I nodded, he offered a conspiratorial smile, as if Saramago were the bottle one had to ask for by name, the forbidden one tucked beneath the bar due to its hallucinatory propensities. He had the best crinkly laughlines I’ve ever seen.

“I don’t know how much of this can be taught, really. I can only read your work and respond to it.” Then he slipped his glasses on and began. He was a generous reader. “Don’t explain too much,” he told me. “Let the poem echo in its own chamber. This,” he said, his pen hitting a line, “is funny. When it happens a second time, it’s okay. And the third time? Do we need it? I don’t think so…”

Strand’s poems are scenes from novels I long to read, stills from the dream-cinema one can only piece together in fragments the morning after. Almost Invisible was already one of my favorite books before I’d gotten halfway through it. Its fifty pages evoke a small & wondrous library where each dusty hardcover is stranger and funnier and more tender than the last. The poems possess an uncanny ability to arrive in places that are both utterly unexpected and unexpectedly perfect. In an interview with Wallace Shawn for the Paris Review, he put it this way:

Well, I think what happens at certain points in my poems is that language takes over, and I follow it. It just sounds right. And I trust the implication of what I’m saying, even though I’m not absolutely sure what it is that I’m saying. I’m just willing to let it be. Because if I were absolutely sure of whatever it was that I said in my poems, if I were sure, and could verify it and check it out and feel, yes, I’ve said what I intended, I don’t think the poem would be smarter than I am. I think the poem would be, finally, a reducible item. It’s this “beyondness,” that depth that you reach in a poem, that keeps you returning to it. And you wonder, The poem seemed so natural at the beginning, how did you get where you ended up? What happened? I mean, I like that, I like it in other people’s poems when it happens. I like to be mystified. Because it’s really that place which is unreachable, or mysterious, at which the poem becomes ours, finally, becomes the possession of the reader.

When we’d finished that day in the coffee shop, I thanked him, and went on my way, feeling grateful and wondering about poems being smarter than poets.

I was reminded of this last year, a few months before his death. I found it odd that a poem of mine, “Holder Strand,” kept asking to be called “Holder Strand” instead of “Holder Beach.” I could see the tidal flats in the dream-cinema of the poem. I could see the dunes beyond. Maybe it was in England or Nova Scotia. That didn’t mean it was a place quite so literary as a strand, though. By both upbringing and temperament I mistrust even a whiff of affectation, and I changed the title dozens of times, only to discover that I had once again landed on “Holder Strand.” It was weeks later that I realized, as if eavesdropping on a conversation that didn’t concern me, that the poem was simply trying to pay homage to the place from which it had come. That place of flux and mystery. How natural that the place where the sea meets the land should be called Strand.

 

 

Holder Strand

It was there I discovered him,
the drowned boy

out on the cold flats.
I rolled him over with my boot,

flipping him like a slab.
His dark wet locks

were breaded with sand
and the memory of blue

hovered everywhere
just beneath his skin. It was

me at twelve, I think.
Or maybe thirteen.

The way the sodden
clothing wrapped him

flecked with bits of weed,
the wet jersey pasted

to the wicker of his ribs.
He was raw boned and solemn,

black cuts in his knuckles
from bashing rough rock.

I cannot tell you how long,
how many years have passed

since I have been myself.

 

 


Michael Bazzett’s You Must Remember This (Milkweed Editions, 2014) won the Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry. His verse translation of the Mayan creation epic, The Popol Vuh, is forthcoming from Milkweed in 2016.

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