Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

I Am Not What I Am: The Poetry of Mark Strand

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

I Am Not What I Am: The Poetry of Mark Strand

Article excerpt

I Am Not What I Am: The Poetry of Mark Strand Man and Camel, by Mark Strand. Knopf, September 2006. $24


Stop me if you've heard this. A beautiful blonde steps into an elevator with George Clooney. Once the doors close she sidles up to him and, in a sultry whisper, offers him "the best blow job you've ever had." And Clooney says, "What's in it for me?"

The joke works in the same way a good poem should work: it manifests in language what's already vaguely understood. Elaboration is of no avail; the good joke is its most essential reduction. There are countless variations of this one-celebrities and athletes are frequent subjects; I specifically recall a version I heard at a writers' conference a few summers ago, related with the suspicious earnestness of an anecdote. Its subject was Mark Strand.

But here's a different joke. Marvin Bell and Mark Strand walk into a bookstore in Iowa City. Neither of them sees any of his books on the shelf. Dejected, Bell says, "They must not stock any of my books." Strand replies, "They must be sold out of mine."

Even in an age so densely populated with poets, few escape anonymity, and those who do usually escape into a life as the circus animal of some university's English department. A few of these poets, such as Billy Collins, Seamus Heaney, or Ted Kooser, even sell a hundred thousand copies of their books. But Mark Strand embodies a different sort of "celebrity."

After all, how many contemporary poets are reviewed in the pages of Elle (where Blizzard of One was praised as a "beautifully wrought collection of poems")? Good luck finding Kooser's name in Liz Smith's gossip column, or Collins's among the elite of the New York art world. Elsewhere, a former colleague at the University of Chicago writes, "He's also deadly handsome, tall and rugged; classic good looks. If God were to put an instrument on earth to make women suffer, Strand is it." (As if his Pulitzer were not enough . . .) Not only do Strand's poems, stories, and reviews appear frequently in The New Yorker, but the magazine also made his film debut (in Ethan Hawke's Chelsea Walls) the subject of a "Talk of the Town" piece.

It is strange, then, that most critical responses to Strand's work have emphasized his evacuation of the self. Linda Gregerson writes, "When Mark Strand reinvented the poem, he began by leaving out the world." David Kirby, in his Mark Strand and the Poet's Place in Contemporary Culture, goes further: "Both the pleasure and the paradox of reading Mark Strand lie in the realization that the Strand persona, even though he seems at first to be withdrawing into the cocoon of self, is in fact stepping away from the self, away from the Technicolor cartoon of contemporary life." True enough, Strand's early poems-often inspired by surrealist painting and poetry-are filled with self-annihilation. "In a field / I am the absence / of field" ("Keeping Things Whole"). "I empty myself of the remains of others. I empty my pockets. . . . I empty myself of my life and my life remains" ("The Remains"). "I give up my clothes which are walls that blow in the wind / and I give up the ghost that lives in them. / I give up. I give up" ("Giving Myself Up"). "More is less. / I long for more" ("The One Song").

As his reputation has grown, however, into that oxymoronic epithet "famous poet," Strand has engaged that self, satirized it, and refashioned it as a subject for his poems. If Richard Howard is right when he says that "the poems . . . narrate the moment when Strand makes Rimbaud's discovery, that je est un autre, that the self is someone else, even something else"-then in the early poems the Strand persona rejects itself.

And in the later poems the Strand persona mocks the persona of Mark Strand.


Strand's career divides conveniently along the decade of the eighties, during which he published fiction, reviews, children's books, and art monographs, but rarely any poems. …

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