Mark Strand’s The Late Hour

There seems to be a subtle shift in Mark Strand’s later poetry, as a touch of optimism has somehow crept into the poems.

Perhaps the cause of this optimism is hinted at in the short poem, “The Coming of Light:”

The Corning of Light

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.

There’s certainly no rush to optimism here, and still a touch of despair, “even this late.” However, the “coming of light” definitely seems like something new in Strand’s poetry, particularly when seen in light of his earlier poems. Of course, the coming of light seems to come from “candles,” and while candles don’t provide much light, they do have romantic associations. This infusion of love into his poetry is later reflected in the touching “For Jessica, My daughter,” where he suggests, “Afraid of the dark/ in which we drift or vanish altogether,/ I imagine a light/ that would not let us stray too far apart,/ a secret moon or mirror, a sheet of paper,/ something you could carry/ in the dark/ when I’m away.”

My favorite poem from this volume, though, is probably chosen for very personal reasons. Though my family could seldom afford steak when I was a child, a pot roast, smothered in vegetables freshly picked from the garden was a special treat:

Pot Roast

I gaze upon the roast,
that is sliced and laid out
on my plate
and over it
I spoon the juices
of carrot and onion.
And for once I do not regret
the passage of time.

I sit by a window
that looks
on the soot-stained brick of buildings
and do not care that I see
no living thing-not a bird,
not a branch in bloom,
not a soul moving
in the rooms
behind the dark panes.
These days when there is little
to love or to praise
one could do worse
than yield
to the power of food.
So I bend

to inhale
the steam that rises
from my plate, and I think
of the first time
I tasted a roast
like this.
It was years ago
in Seabright,
Nova Scotia;

my mother leaned
over my dish and filled it
and when I finished
filled it again.
I remember the gravy,
its odor of garlic and celery,
and sopping it up
with pieces of bread.

And now
I taste it again.
The meat of memory.
The meat of no change.
I raise my fork
and I eat.

No fall day is so bleak that a pot roast simmered half a day over a warm stove and covered in carrots and potatoes freshly dug from the cold, wet clay cannot warm my heart. In a time when I’ve grown more accustomed to eating Pad Thai or shish kebab, there is something particularly comforting about an old-fashioned pot roast cooked precisely the same way my mother, and her mother, I would venture to guess, cooked it. “One could do worse/ than yield/ to the power of food,” indeed.

4 thoughts on “Mark Strand’s The Late Hour

  1. God how I loved Strand’s first couple of books when I was a young man; god, how I loathe him now. I heard him read four or five years ago at the Eliz. Bishop Conference in Worcester MA & it was the most mannered, pretentious, empty performace of poetry I have ever seen. Talk about a small talent inflated to maximum entropy.

  2. I guess I was lucky I caught him early in his career at the University of Washington because I didn’t get that impression at all from his class when I took it.

    I must admit that it seems to me that his earlier poems do seem more powerful than most of the later poems.

  3. God, how I loved Mark Strand’s poems in 1984…and now, 20 years later catching up with him again…I still love him. It’s incredible, how his words heal me or provide me with this deep peace and calm unlike any other poet. I am deeply grateful for his work. It’s funny, people talk of his pessimism, and I can see why. Yet, I who am an arch optimist oddly enough don’t find it despairing or depressing or cynical or pessimistic. I find he comes from a deep zen-like place that sees life like it is and then wraps it in beauty and longing and acceptance…a voice of fortitude in the face of the storm not shirking from it.

  4. I really love Mark Strand’s poetry and am glad that i stumbled across it. His poem “Elegy” is extremely heart felt and seems full of despair.

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