The Great Poet Returns, a poem by Mark Strand, starts like this: When a light poured down through a hole in the clouds, We knew the great poet was going to show. And he did. Then Strand goes on to describe a poet with great wings in a white limousine, appearing for the adoring crowd. The poem ends:
Tell me, you people out there, what is poetry anyways?
Can anyone die without even a little?
Carlo says there are no great poets left. I’m not so sure. He kept saying it to me even as we got off the train and approached the building where we would see and hear Mark Strand read. He has a new book coming out in March 2012, a collection of prose poems. But he doesn’t call them prose poems. “I don’t know what prose poems are…” Strand says from the stage. The hall could hold a hundred people, maybe two hundred. At first, Carlo and I were one of only a handful. We went to the fourth row then tried to go into the first, but the seats were reserved. So we settled into the second row. Two pretty but fairly conservative but good-looking women, long hair half-up and plainly down, sat to our left. To our right were two old Upper East Siders, poring over the program, fawning over Strand’s biography. “He’s so accomplished.”
Indeed, looking over his short bio, I couldn’t help but be impressed myself. He has written such a volume of work and done so many different translations, that even a non-poetry reader like myself couldn’t help being curious. He also taught at Columbia University and lived in Spain when he wasn’t living in New York. Not bad for a poet. A Canadian poet. The hall, which was like a more luxuriousn school cafeteria stage, filled quickly, and the poet – the Great Poet – arrived.
The reserved seats were for him and the other poet. Two women approaching that point of middle age where they might stop being attractive laughed and flirted with him. He indulged them, mumbling under his breath, which elicited a few girlish titters from these shameless women. Then he handed them a some folded up bills, another action that made them laugh all the more. The man, who was well over eighty, was thin, wrinkled, and he wore a hearing aide. Still, he was magnetic and sexy that was made almost perverse by his old age. Carlo would later show me the picture used for the cover of his Selected Poems. He couldn’t have been much older than 30, and the man was enviably handsome. Even though when I saw him, his good looks had faded, he still walked and talked like he was the sexiest man at the reading.
First, Susan Stewart read. While she was quite talented, her poems were a bit more abstract, fluid, and dreamy than Strand’s. They were so beautiful and lulling that I caught Carlo and other members of the reading audience falling asleep. Then, when she finished her noticeably nervous reading, Strand’s man went up for his introduction. He made remarks about Strand’s accomplishments, citing a specific collection, Darkness, as one of his favorites (Out of the Selected Poems, it was one of my favorite sets of poems, too). Then he goes on to remark that Strand disappears from the poetry world for a number of years, only to reemerge with longer lines and a great deal of humor. Then the poet approached the stage.
Strand’s poetry career can be divided into two eras or phases, much like Dylan’s folk and rock phase. His early poems indeed have shorter lines, and the subject matter is almost exclusively darker and more treacherous than his later poems. Still, his talent is apparent in lines like these:
The house is set.
The carnation in my buttonhole
precedes me like a small
(“The Man in the Mirror”)
The door is before you again and the shrieking
Starts and the mad voice is saying here here.
The myth of comfort dies and the couch of her
Body turns to dust. Cloud enter your eyes.
It is autumn. People are jumping from jetliners;
Their relatives leap into the air to join them.
That is what the shrieking is about. Nobody wants
To leave, nobody wants to stay behind.
(“The Door”) In the transition from young Strand to older Strand, what doesn’t change is the clear and straightforward use of language. Neither does his penchant for strange, absurd, and surreal images and situations. In one poem from the earlier era, “The Tunnel”, a man is at home, afraid because there is a watcher out on his lawn. To escape, he digs a tunnel to another person’s house, waiting for them to come out because he needs their help. In another earlier poem, a group of adults gather around a baby and ask the speaker to break its legs. Then from a newer collection, “Five Dogs” muse about the universe and their place in it. For all this silliness and absurdity, there is also seriousness, tragedy, fear, and despair. And hope. And revelation. And beauty. And mystery.
Even this late it happens:
the coming of love, the coming of light.
You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,
stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows,
sending up warm bouquets of air.
Even this late the bones of the body shine
and tomorrow’s dust flares into breath.
(“The Coming of Light”)
To stare at nothing is to learn by heart
What all of us will be swept into,
(“The Night, The Porch”)
But for all the seriousness and mystery that one comes to expect from a “Great Poet,” the man read in his gravelly voice with the pride and arrogance of a drunken rock star. There was a flippancy in his tone that night. He read a lot towards the front row, towards his opening act, as if challenging her. As if challenging us. It belied the spirit and generosity of what I read and what Carlo told me. But still, we laughed, every single one of us, even when it might not have been appropriate.
Carlo and I left, opting to skip the wine reception. Carlo had many questions, but he was feeling intimidated by the whole proposition. On the train, we discussed the even, and he said to me, “Even though I was slightly disappointed or maybe just taken aback, I couldn’t get these words out of my mind:
The worm of desire bore into the heart of everyone there.
There were tears in their eyes. The great one was better than ever.”