The Wish To Be Mark Strand
“If one were only an Indian, instantly alert, and on a racing horse, leaning against the wind,” Mark Strand read aloud to a cramped seminar room at Columbia in 2010. Slowly, carefully— because that’s how Mark was—he read: “... kept on quivering jerkily over the quivering ground, until one shed one’s spurs, for there needed no spurs, threw away the reins, for there needed no reins, and hardly saw that the land before one was smoothly shorn heath when horse’s neck and head would be already gone.”
The listeners—sitting around the table, on the floor, standing in corners—had anxious expressions, as though trying to come up with an answer as to what the piece meant. As Kafka’s “The Wish To Be a Red Indian” ended, Mark’s appreciative silence followed the piece, and, slowly, a grin. The nervous expressions of some of the students dissolved; the listeners realized that Mark was never going to ask them to give him an answer to the question the enigmatic existence of “The Wish To Be a Red Indian” posed. This was not his way.
That Mark Strand was an incredible listener, even when he was speaking, was one of the things that made him such a great writer. He listened to the work, without trying to prove anything about it. He recognized that a work of art is a question that can not be articulated except through the work of art itself. It is at once its own question and its own answer. It is its own becoming.
I was concerned with the notion of becoming, at that time, but was focused on my own. I had moved to New York the year before to become a poet and I wanted to know how to be the unimpeded red Indian. I spent a lot of time, back then, wanting to be what I believed I wasn’t. I had just completed a writing workshop with Mark Strand, and was sitting in on his seminar on Kafka the next semester. He welcomed me. He welcomed anyone who wanted to squeeze into a room and talk about Kafka. Or, rather, listen about Kafka. I was young and anxious—we were all young and anxious, and we looked up to Mark Strand (literally and figuratively) as he glided into the classroom and towered above the puzzled and nervous dozen of us in workshop the semester before, and grinned.
“Don’t worry about ‘your style,’” he told the workshop once, “Don’t worry about sounding like yourself. The work comes from you. It will always sound like you.” Mark Strand gave incredible advice because he recognized the delicate absurdity of one person giving advice to another, especially in regard, not to the pragmatic dealings of the world, but to the reaches of the poetic imagination. “Who am I to give advice?” he seemed to say, as the wise fragment crystallized naturally during the course of even simple conversations. Mark Strand told us what he thought, he saw us looking up to him, holding our breath, waiting. We wished for a guide, and so he guided us.
“Tell yourself / as it gets cold and gray falls from the air / that you will go on walking, hearing / the same tune no matter where / you find yourself—,” he writes in “Lines for Winter.” And when Mark was off traveling, or living in Spain, I would turn to the poems of his that sounded most like him, to bring him closer when he was far away.
“I want a book out by the time I’m thirty,” I proclaimed once, over salad, across from Mark at a restaurant on Tenth Avenue. At this point, we’d become friends. We talked about relationships and writing process all in one breath. We shared early drafts. Where in the past I would have been embarrassed to sit across from Former Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winning Mark Strand shoving goat-cheese speckled leaves of arugula into my mouth, there I was. We were shoving leaves into our mouths together. “I want a book out by the time I’m thirty,” I proclaimed, and when Strand finished chewing and gently told me that that’s fine. But it also doesn’t matter. “It will happen,” he said. But I wanted to know when. He just smiled. “Write and be patient,” he said.
I turned thirty in December 2014. Just a few weeks before that, I received news that Mark Strand had died. It was shocking, and not in the regular way a run-in with death is. For all his talk of it, in his poems and in conversation, death seemed to be one of the few things of which Mark Strand was not capable. After hearing about his death, all I wanted to do was to email him, and figure out when we could meet for lunch or Hendrick’s martinis, to talk to him about this new, puzzling phenomenon— his death. (Even as I write this, I catch myself thinking about what his reaction to it might be.)
And so I turned thirty. And at thirty, I had not achieved what the younger, salad days Sarah had wanted to.
Some days I open to “Lines for Winter,” (“And if it happens that you cannot / go on or turn back / and you find yourself / where you will be at the end, / tell yourself/ in that final flowing of cold through your limbs / that you love what you are”), and other days I remember the advice he gave me during those years when I thought only about becoming what I wasn’t yet and the talks that we had closer to the end, as friends. This is how I bring him closer. Even now.
He told me once, “Don’t listen to anyone.”
And I said that by that logic, I shouldn’t even listen to that.
And he grinned.
And I think it was then that Mark saw I was starting to throw away the reins.
A man I once loved has now built a mountain.
You’re avoiding something, I said when I’d climbed to its crest.
That’s a projection, he said, repairing the thatched roof on his modest hut.
You’re projecting that I’m projecting, I said, because your parents were psychoanalysts.
I sat down in the plastic grass, which he’d woven leaf by leaf into the turf.
You’re using description of a moment to avoid what’s really at hand, he said.
But I live for my art, I said. I don’t have anything else.
You had me once, he said, and you still said that.
When I ask if he would like to go swim in the Lake of Remembrance,
he says, Don’t change the subject. When I ask what I can do to help, he says,
Here is a shovel. When I ask what to do with the shovel he says, Start digging.
The mountain never brought him happiness. The mountain never brought him peace.
Now we will bury the ash of our teachers, he said. On this we could agree.
Sarah V. Schweig is the author of the chapbook S and her poems are published widely in journals and magazines. She studies philosophy at The New School for Social Research, works as an animal news journalist, and lives in Brooklyn.