Somehow Mark Strands enigmatic The Story of Our Lives suggests to me the idea that not only are we reading, or examining, the story of our lives, we are also writing it. Its not enough to merely know what weve done. In a very real sense, we must also write ourselves into existence.
We are reading the story of our lives
as though we were in it,
as though we had written it.
This comes up again and again.
In one of the chapters
I lean back and push the book aside
because the book says
it is what I am doing.
I lean back and begin to write about the book.
I write that I wish to move beyond the book,
beyond my life into another life.
I put the pen down.
The book says: He put the pen down
and turned and watched her reading
the part about herself falling in love.
The book is more accurate than we can imagine.
The book, the story of our lives, seems to have a life of its own, determining what the narrator does and what he writes. Furthermore, the book seems self-limiting, almost as if it has predetermined the narrators life, for the book is accurate in a frightening way. Though, the author wants to move beyond the book, perhaps to move beyond the past, he seems unable to do so. The past binds us, just as it makes us possible.
The people in the poem want to believe there is more to life than what is written in the book, but when they disagree whether there is more to life they discover that it is written in the book that they disagreed:
This morning I woke and believed
there was no more to our lives
than the story of our lives.
When you disagreed, I pointed
to the place in the book where you disagreed.
You fell back to sleep and I began to read
those mysterious parts you used to guess at
while they were being written
and lose interest in after they became
part of the story.
Before we participate in events, they often seems appealing, even mysterious, but once we have experienced them they are dull and ordinary, drained of interest, though still part of who we are.
Only when seen from considerable distance, when half-forgotten, does the book regain interest:
This morning after you fell back to sleep
I began to turn pages early in the book:
it was like dreaming of childhood,
so much seemed to vanish,
so much seemed to come to life again.
I did not know what to do.
The book said: In those moments it was his book.
A bleak crown rested uneasily on his head.
He was the brief ruler of inner and outer discord,
anxious in his own kingdom.
Apparently, because we have forgotten what it is to be a child, re-examining that part of the book becomes interesting again. What vanishes is the cynicism that most of us bring to our mature life. Seen from a distance, childhood seems a time of unfettered optimism.
Dreaming, like looking back at our childhood, is another way to transcend, or, at least escape, the book:
Before you woke
I read another part that described your absence
and told how you sleep to reverse
the progress of your life.
I was touched by my own loneliness as I read,
knowing that what I feel is often the crude
and unsuccessful form of a story
that may never be told.
I read and was moved by a desire to offer myself
to the house of your sleep.
Dreaming is an attempt to reclaim control of your life, to transcend the story of your life, to become more than the sum of your past. It doesnt even have to be literal dreaming; personal longings, an unsuccessful form of a story, may also be a way of trying to be more than who you are.
As we turn the pages of the past, they illuminate what we think and what we have come to believe:
Each page turning is like a candle
moving through the mind.
Each moment is like a hopeless cause.
If only we could stop reading.
He never wanted to read another book
Unfortunately, merely looking at the past does not always inspire us; in fact, it is just as apt to create a sense of hopelessness. It is the future, the hope of better things to come that is most apt to inspire us.
Part of what is wrong with the book is that it only reveals what has happened in the past:
The book never discusses the causes of love.
It claims confusion is a necessary good.
It never explains. It only reveals.
A record of past events only reveals what happened; it doesnt explain why they happened. By themselves, events do not even truly reveal who we are. Of course, knowing what happened is the first step to self-discovery.
It has gradually become obvious during the poem that the man and woman in the poem have gradually fallen out of love with each other:
We cannot bear to be alone.
The book goes on.
They became silent and did not know how to begin
the dialogue which was necessary.
It was words that created divisions in the first place,
that created loneliness.
They would turn the pages, hoping
something would happen.
They would patch up their lives in secret:
each defeat forgiven because it could not be tested,
each pain rewarded because it was unreal.
They did nothing.
Though it is words that have caused the divisions between the two, only more words, words that have never been spoken, can bridge the gap that exists between them. Because they had not heard the words from the other that would overcome their differences, they had to patch up their lives in secret. Looking at the past, though, accomplishes nothing unless people are willing to do something as result of looking back.
Ironically, the people in the poem seem less real than the people in the book:
They sat beside each other on the couch.
They were the copies, the tired phantoms
of something they had been before.
The attitudes they took were jaded.
They stared into the book
and were horrified by their innocence,
their reluctance to give up.
They sat beside each other on the couch.
They were determined to accept the truth.
Whatever it was they would accept it.
The book would have to be written
and would have to be read.
They are the book and they are
The people in the poem are no longer really alive; they have allowed themselves to become mere shadows of what they had once been, horrified by their earlier innocence, ready to give up, to accept the truth. Where they had once been unwilling to accept defeat, they have now accepted the idea that they are merely their past, nothing more.
Thankfully, we do not have to be like these people. We do not have to accept the idea that we are nothing more than our past actions. We can also be our dreams. We do not have to be bound by our past, we can learn from it and emerge as stronger, better people, people closer to our dreams than to our past actions.