Monday, June 30, 2008

What I'm Reading: Mark Strand

A surprising thing happened to me when I went to the bookstore last week. I found two books of poems that I liked.

Now, this wouldn't seem to be such as surprise -- I like modern poetry. However, in most visits to the bookstore they either stock books I've already read or books I already decided not to read. For example, I love Robert Bly's work, but I have more of his books than the bookstore does. Same goes for Charles Simic. On the other hand, I find the work of May Sarton and Mary Oliver boring and pretentious. (Ditto Stanley Kunitz, Donald Hall, etc.) And as shocking and titillating as Charles Bukowski can be, his poems are pretty shallow. After 2 or 3, the persona starts to grate on me. So I have no need to read or own any of his 20+ volumes that every store seems to make available.

But last week was an exception. I found two books of interest. One is not so surprising: James Tate's The Ghost Soldiers. I've been a fan of Tate's work for a long time, starting with his first book The Lost Pilot. However, I went through a period (or more correctly, he went through a period) that put me off his writing. Starting around Riven Doggeries he published a number of volumes that seemed more interested in poking fun at language (and by extension, the people who use such idioms) than illuminating the small actions and inconsistencies that make up our lives.

Not that every poem has to be instructive or informative. (Frank O'Hara has brilliantly proven that.) But at some point poetry -- serious or not -- has to have some touch points with the readers' lives if it is going to have any lasting impact. And Tate's work of the late 70's and 80's seemed to lose that connection.

But Tate's recent books seem to have brought him back from whatever jag he was on. His work is still irreverent (if not more so) and almost frightening in its ability to switch between the glaringly realistic and clownishly absurd within a single sentence. So finding a new volume of his poems was a pleasure.

The second book was more of a surprise. I read Mark Strand's books many years ago and despite my friends' fascination with his work -- and my own best efforts to like it -- I was put off. In fact, rather than growing on me, his work became more painful and annoying over time. To the point where I haven't read any of his work, except a stray poem here or there, for thirty years.

So I don't know what came over me at the bookstore but I picked up Strand's latest book, Man and Camel, and started leafing through it. Rather than flipping through a couple of pages, grunting disapprovingly and putting it back, as I expected to do, I found myself attracted to the poems I read. Why? They were recognizably Mark Strand poems with his spare, objective writing style. But something was different. Something held my attention, was speaking to me like his previous work never had.

Maybe it was just the one or two poems. Maybe I was in an overly receptive mood and tomorrow I would wake up and recognize the poems for the pretensions they ultimately were. Whatever. I was intrigued enough to take a chance and buy the book.

And a good thing I did. Despite whatever reservations I had, the book turns out to be one of the best books I have read this year.

But how did this happen? What makes this book different than the rest of Strand's works I read before? Did I misjudge the earlier ones?

Unlike Tate, where there was a clear change in style and content, Mark Strand's writing doesn't appear to have changed. Either there was a change in my perception of his work or something more subtle was going on. So when I got Man and Camel home, I not only read it but pulled out his older books and started looking through them to find out what had happened.

It turns out my tastes haven't changed, at least that much. I still have difficulty reading Strand's earlier work, like Reasons for Moving and Darker. At the same time, my suspicions are correct: that earlier writing and his recent book are very, very similar. Which baffled me further.

At first I suspected it was something specific but minute, like a change in verb tense or a switch from second to first person. Because the new poems at least seem more personal:

On a warm night in June
I went to the lake, got on all fours,
and drank like an animal. Two horses
came up beside me to drink as well.
This is amazing, I thought, but who will believe me?
from "Two Horses"

But looking back at his earlier poems, many of them are in the first person as well, like this poem from Reasons for Moving:

A man has been standing
in front of my house
for days. I peek at him
from the living room
window and at night,
unable to sleep,
I shine my flashlight
down on the lawn.
He is always there.
from "The Tunnel"

These poems demonstrate the consistency of Strand's style and tone over time -- a sense that you were reading the diary of a visitor from a strange but parallel universe. But at the same time, these poems hint at the difference.

In Man and Camel, Strand the narrator is not so definitive, not quite so self-assured as before. In "The Tunnel", as in the majority of Strand's earlier work, the actions are absolute, unequivocal, as if the narrator controlled his (or her) own destiny, as bizarre as that might be. Later in the poem he says:

I weep like a schoolgirl
and make obscene gestures
through the window. I
write large suicide notes
and place them so he
can read them easily.
I destroy the living
room furniture to prove
I own nothing of value.

In Man and Camel, the actions are not so definitive, not so much like some magical incantation. But at the same time, they seem more realistic and more humane. Again, from "Two Horses":

The horses eyed me from time to time, snorting
and nodding. I felt the need to respond, so I snorted,too,
but haltingly, as though not really wanting to be heard.
The horses must have sensed that I was holding back.
They moved slightly away...

"From time to time", "as though", "moved slightly away". The language is approximate, like human perception is. And the reaction is equally based on assumption rather than fact; the narrator "felt the need" and the horses "must have sensed".

Now, not all of Strand's new poems are as equivocal as "Two Horses". Many still carry the absolute statements familiar from his early work. But the overwhelming feeling is that there is human frailty involved, even if it is simply the uncertainty of the narrator's own perception. This may be a small point, a tiny point, but it makes a world of difference in the poems themselves.

The absolutism of Strand's early work is what affords the poems their power, a sort of magical aura based on the incantations of the narrator. And it is that power that my friends saw and appreciated. The problem is that if you have any doubt in the narrator's authenticity -- if you don't accept the absolute statement -- the spell is broken and the poem fails and fails badly. It becomes unbelievable. My problem was that I didn't accept many of the narrator's absolutes.

The change I see in Strand's latest work as represented by Man and Camel is the narrator's acceptance of his own fallibility. This not only makes the narrator seem more human and more believable, it makes them more empathetic and powerful as a consequence. The narrator is not me, the reader. Strand's poems still take place in a world apart from reader. But now the narrator could be the reader, if the reader inhabited that world. And that makes all the difference.

1 comment:

Peter said...

Heh. Mark Strand. "Keeping Things Whole" is just about the only poem I know by heart.