Academic journal article Hollins Critic

The Waiting Dark: Talking to Mark Strand

Academic journal article Hollins Critic

The Waiting Dark: Talking to Mark Strand

Article excerpt

It is dark and I walk in It is darker and I walk in

In mid-career, a year or so before the publication of his Selected Poems (1980), Mark Strand began publishing humorous stories in the New Yorker. They acted as a relief perhaps from the sameness of dark tone that stamped his poems--although his poems were often marked by wit, a certain dry humor that may be a distinctive feature of his voice, and that laces the dreamlike, haunting, impressionistic nostalgia that characterizes a great many of his poems. For example, the poem I like best, "Keeping Things Whole," handles serious paradox with a playful tone--although when I remarked how funny it is, Strand demurred:

--It's a paradox. I wouldn't put that in the class of humor. It's a paradoxical situation: wherever I am, I am what is missing. I mean, in effect it simply says, I suppose, in the end, that the world can get along very well without me, and in fact that my being there is ... an interruption. The presence of consciousness is altering, disturbing, isolating ...

--But then the wonderful throw-away humor of "We all have reasons for moving. / I move to keep things whole." ...

--It's rather jaunty, you're right.

With that concession, the conversation moved on to the stories, but I wish I had pressed the question of the poem a moment longer. The seriousness of the subject was not in doubt, but it may be that the handling appears more complex--more humorous--to me than it does to its author. A similar subject, a paradox of negative definition--absence is presence--is handled with more solemnity, and less charm, in "The Guardian":

   The sun setting. The lawns on fire.
   The lost day, the lost light.
   Why do I love what fades?

   You who left, who were leaving,
   what dark rooms do you inhabit?
   Guardian of my death,

   preserve my absence. I am alive.

It seems to me that "Keeping Things Whole" is a far better poem precisely because of its humor, the complexity of its tone.

   In a field
   I am the absence
   of field.
   This is
   always the case.
   Wherever I am
   I am what is missing.

   When I walk
   I part the air
   and always
   the air moves in
   to fill the spaces
   where my body's been.

   We all have reasons
   for moving.
   I move
   to keep things whole.

Earlier, in a letter, I had asked him about the inspiration for the poem. He replied: "'Keeping Things Whole' came out of nowhere. I was playing cards with Don Justice and the idea came to me. I told him to wait a second while I went out to the kitchen, and I jotted the poem down. It came out whole. I never changed a word. The game we were playing was cribbage. It was about 11 at night." Poetry's play and the play of the poets are nicely attuned in this anecdote. I might cite it as evidence of a seriocomic mixture of tone at the root of the poem. But in any case, the very division of our responses to the poem may illustrate the difficulty of a critical description of Strand's style.

Thinking of the fiction as a clue, a new approach, I asked him about the stories. But first, since the stories entail a more complex texture of writing, and in view of the fact that Strand comes to poetry from painting (he was a student of Joseph Albers at Yale), I asked whether the spare style of the poetry derives in any way from minimalism in art.

--No, he replied, it derives from insecurity to write more complicated sentences. I mean I think I began with such uncertainty as a writer that I clung to the simplest formulations, verbal formulations, that I could, in order to stay out of trouble. And it took years and years for me to gain confidence enough to write in a more complicated fashion. These stories would've been unthinkable years ago--though my turn of mind hasn't changed or altered so much. It wasn't suddenly that I discovered a funny-bone in my body and began writing this sort of fiction. …

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