I started reading Mark Strand’s poetry many years ago after I took one of his classes when he was a visiting professor at the University of Washington. Today his poetry is quite popular and several of his poems can be found on the web at sites like: A small collection of Mark Strand poems or Mark Strand (Bold Type Magazine)
I’m not sure I would have appreciated his poetry as much if I had taken his class as an undergraduate, but having just returned from Vietnam, I found his dark, surrealistic poems particularly moving.
When I started teaching poetry several years later, I always handed my students a copy of Eating Poetry as an introduction to my course to dispel any notions that poetry was merely sentimental verses written by lovesick romantics.
The ongoing anthrax letter scare reminded me of the following poem.
It is midnight.
He comes up the walk
and knocks at the door.
I rush to greet him.
He stands there weeping,
shaking a letter at me.
He tells me it contains
terrible personal news.
He falls to his knees.
"Forgive me! Forgive me!" he pleads.
I ask him inside.
He wipes his eyes.
His dark blue suit
is like an inkstain
on my crimson couch.
Helpless, nervous, small,
he curls up like a ball
and sleeps while I compose
more letters to myself
in the same vein:
"You shall live
by inflicting pain.
You shall forgive."
Mark Strand in Reasons for Moving
"The Mailman" is one of those foreboding poems that sits in the back of your mind until it is triggered by a certain event.
The poem’s ambiguity suggests the horror of having good news turn into bad news. We rush to the mailbox in hopes of hearing from loved ones or details of Apple’s long-awaited iPod. Imagine our horror, then, when we are greeted by the ever-friendly postman weeping loudly over the terrible news he is delivering.
In the past, the poem reminded me of the "Dear John" letter I received before shipping out to Vietnam, a little good news before sailing off to war.
Today, though, the poem seems to take on added significance in light of recent events. No matter how irrational the fear, today there is a moment of uncertainty when you receive a letter in an unknown handwriting and without a return address – even if does turn out to be an invitation to a baby shower.
Even the surprising ending of the poem where we discover that the protagonist is writing the messages to himself seems strangely appropriate: "You shall live by inflicting pain." On whom? "You shall forgive." Yourself? Your enemy?