Tribute to Mark Strand

In 1976, Mark Strand and Charlie Simic published Another Republic, an anthology of foreign poems little known in the United States: mysterious pieces, haunted and spare, many of which have since become famous—works by Paul Celan, Zbigniew Herbert, Czeslaw Milosz, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, and others. I’ve always thought that Mark Strand himself came from Another Republic. It wasn’t only that he was born in Prince Edward Island, and that his first language was French—spoken to him by his mother, who was part Rumanian, part Russian. Nor was it his peripatetic youth, as his father’s job for Pepsi-Cola moved the family to Cuba, Mexico, and Colombia—so that Mark thought and dreamt in Spanish as well as in French and English. No, Mark’s Other Republic was nothing so crude as a geographical or national otherwhere. His only real citizenship, I think, was in the Republic of the Imagination. To understand that language, you need a passport stamped with Kafka, Italo Calvino, Wallace Stevens, Octavio Paz, and Bruno Schulz. It’s a realm of weird parables, impossible logics, self-devouring stories; a realm flooded with moonlight, at times lush, at times vacant.

It’s as if Mark, so marvelously present as friend and father, a bon vivant, enthusiast of superb wine and food, from his earliest poems had been preparing us for his vanishing. Way back in 1964, in the poem “Keeping Things Whole,” he warned:

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

No other poet of his generation found so many ways to evacuate the phrase, “I am.” Listen to him in 1970 in the poem “The Remains”: “I empty myself of the names of others. I empty my pockets. / I empty my shoes and leave them beside the road ...” Often these disappearances had the feel of philosophical conundrums, or of an ascetic exercise to whisk the ego off-stage and let the Muse step in. But at other times the poems more distinctly imagined their maker’s real vanishing, the deathward drag to which we are all subject, and to these scenes Mark brought a combination of classical amplitude, wit, stoicism, and elegance that was all his own. Here he is in “The Next Time,” a poem from The Blizzard of One, the book that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998:

Nobody sees it happening, but the architecture of our time
Is becoming the architecture of the next time. And the dazzle

Of light upon the waters is as nothing beside the changes
Wrought therein, just as our waywardness means

Nothing against the steady pull of things over the edge ...

At other times, Mark confronted that fell arrest with zany humor, and maybe that’s the best way, after all, to checkmate our extinction. The poem entitled “2002” starts this way:

I am not thinking of Death, but Death is thinking of me.
He leans back in his chair, rubs his hands, strokes
his beard, and says, “I’m thinking of Strand ...”

Mark changed the tone and manner of American poetry in the early 1970’s by the severe austerity of his early books. But with The Story of Our Lives in 1973, he began to use longer lines, and more complex vocabulary, syntax, and cadences. By The Continuous Life in 1990 Mark had shown himself as much an artist of luxuriance, even of the Romantic Sublime, as of his famous leanness; he handled strains of the gorgeousness of Wallace Stevens, the sonorities of Dylan Thomas—yet kept them in balance, always, with ironic dissonance. The poem “A.M.” begins:

and the word “here” is spelled HERE

... And here the dark infinitive to feel,
Which would endure and have the earth be still
And the star-strewn night pour down the mountains
Into the hissing fields and silent towns until the last
Insomniac turned in, must end, and early risers see
The scarlet clouds break up....

It is in The Continuous Life that Virgil entered his imagination, inspiring a number of poems, but most signally the masterpiece “Orpheus Alone,” in which Mark attained a fullness of language and vision one wouldn’t have thought possible in our time. The poem—Mark’s dream of Orpheus—ends:

... it came in a language
Untouched by pity, in lines, lavish and dark,
Where death is reborn and sent into the world as a gift,
So the future, with no voice of its own, nor hope
Of ever becoming more than it will be, might mourn.

But even as the late poems gained in majesty of wonder and sorrow, they intensified, too, in wicked humor. Mark’s poetry readings had audiences in spasms of helpless laughter. When he read his Great Dog poems, you thought he had missed his calling as a comic actor, so mischievous and masterly were his pacing and intonation:

Now that the great dog I worshipped for years
Has become none other than myself, I can look within
And bark...

Mark not only wrote poems. He started out as a painter, studied with Josef Albers at Yale, and over the years he returned now and again seriously to painting. This was intensely the case in his last years when he began making his own paper and constructing ravishing collages. His gallery couldn’t keep them on the wall, so many people clamored for them. The word “collage” doesn’t communicate their fleshly, pictorial, light-soaked feel. He wrote three books of art criticism, including one on his lifelong friend, the painter Bill Bailey.

Who was Mark Strand? Poet, painter, art critic, yes. But also a master of kindness, a genius in friendship. In my family, we can count three generations of friendship with Mark. I met him when I was in my teens, when he became friends with my parents. I remember the young Mark of those days, looming, angular, charming, mysterious, self-possessed: he reminded me of The Cat Who Walked Alone from Kipling’s Just So Stories. Mark and I became friends independently: I recall vividly, among so many encounters, lunch at a Cuban Chinese diner on the lower West Side, and then strolling over to the 8th Street Book Store where Mark insisted on buying me a copy of Octavio Paz’s The Bow and the Lyre—which I still cherish. And years later, Mark reached out affectionately to my daughters and to my nephew.

The Cat Who Walked Alone didn’t really walk alone. His life was ardent, as rich in love and friendship as in poetry and art. His later years were illuminated and warmed by his love for his daughter Jessica and his grandson Lucian, and by the miracle of happiness he and Maricruz Bilbao composed together.

When he died last fall, Mark left us shocked and grieving:
it seemed impossible that such vitality should disappear. But he
has not fully disappeared. As he told us years ago in the poem
“Breath,” “I am becoming a horizon.” And so he has.

   

Delivered at the American Academy of Arts & Letters, April 7, 2015.

 

 


Rosanna Warren is a professor with the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. She is the author of five books of poetry as well as translations, essays, and literary criticism.

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