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.

The Story of Our Lives

Somehow Mark Strand’s 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. It’s not enough to merely know what we’ve 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 narrator’s 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 o
wn 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 doesn’t 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 doesn’t 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 waited.

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 nothin

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

nothing else.

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.

Watching Me Make a Fool of Myself

Just in case you thought that after watching too many war scenes on TV that I’d gone mushy, I’ll let you know that I’ve been reading Mark Strand Selected Poems, a healthy antidote to any sense of romanticism you might be harboring.

Strands’ poems are dark and mysterious. Like Bei Dao’s poems, they often remind me of The Surrealists, particularly in their dream-like, or nightmarish, qualities:


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.

After a while
I open the front door
just a crack and order
him out of my yard.
He narrows his eyes
and moans. I slam
the door and dash back
to the kitchen, then up
to the bedroom, then down.

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.
When he seems unmoved
I decide to dig a tunnel
to a neighboring yard.
I seal the basement off
from the upstairs with
a brick wall. I dig hard
and in no time the tunnel
is done. Leaving my pick
and shovel below,

I come out in front of a house
and stand there too tired to
move or even speak, hoping
someone will help me.
I feel I’m being watched
and sometimes I hear
a man’s voice,
but nothing is done
and I have been waiting for days.

Sometimes when I write entries for this blog, I feel like there is someone “out there” waiting for me to make an inevitable mistake, someone who thinks I’m a “raging liberal.” Not that there isn’t also a part of me that sits back thinking that much of what I write is meaningless drivel. In fact, isn’t there always a part of us, a critical part, that always waits, watching the other part make a fool of itself by weeping over the casualties of war or by making obscene gestures at those who would march in parades or even at those who would kill innocent women and children trying to rid the world of evil?

Sometimes we would do almost anything to escape that “watcher,” even if it meant tunneling through the subconscious in an attempt to escape, in the end only to discover that we can never escape the “watcher” because, as Pogo used to say, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Too often in moments of great despair, we discover that both parts of ourself are frozen in time, incapable of solving the problems that face us, the hysterical part raging against the injustice of the world, the watcher “too tired to move or even speak,” only able to sit there watching the other driven crazy by fear.

You’ve Got Mail

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.

The Mailman

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?

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