We are reading the story of our lives as though we were in it
The world lost a great voice and vision with the passing of Mark Strand in November, 2014.We are reading the story of our lives as though we were in it
The world lost a great voice and vision with the passing of Mark Strand in November, 2014. ‘Wherever I am / I am what is missing,’ wrote Strand, and nothing could be more apt than this about his eternal, poetic mark upon the world. Strand built prose that probed the ineffable, arranged words that pointed to the absences and loneliness of life. His poems reflect ‘the one clear place given to us when we are alone’, and these moments of clarity fill the unlit rooms of the soul with a bright light of beauty and empathy. New Selected Poems is a luminous voyage across Strand’s career, displaying his early promise to the refined poetry of his later years that mined his early ideas and sent them soaring with elegant grace that feels more like a causal breath than a great endeavour. Included are the selected poems from his early work in Sleeping With One Eye Open (1964) through Man and Camel in 2006, and includes his brilliant, Pulitzer Prize winning Blizzard of One. Strand has a natural gift to single out the moments of solitude and alienation in our lives that speak greater volumes on the language of our souls than any of our actions could ever manage.
The Night, the Porch To stare at nothing is to learn by heart What all of us will be swept into, and baring oneself To the wind is feeling the ungraspable somewhere close by. Trees can sway or be still. Day or night can be what they wish. What we desire, more than a season or weather, is the comfort Of being strangers, at least to ourselves. This is the crux Of the matter, which is why even now we seem to be vanishing— The sound, say, of a few leaves falling, or just one leaf; Or less. There is no end to what we can learn. The book out there Tells us as much, and was never written with us in mind.
‘Once you start describing nothingness, you end up with somethingness,’ said Strand in an interiew with the Paris Review. Strand creates a poetic dialogue out of his tender and daring examinations of nothingness, giving voice to our silences, our awkward pauses, our feelings of loneliness, inadequacy and self-reflection. Born on the Price Edward Island in Canada to American parents, Strand came to Philadelphia at the age of four speaking little English and was ‘mocked and brutalized’ by his classmates for his thick French accent. Summers spent in Halifax brought him to the soul-bearing freedom of the wilderness which he ‘internalized.’ Much of this internalization is evident in his matured poetry, and the surreal introspection coupled with the eye for the beauty of the natural world makes one want to call his poetry the offspring of Charles Simic (with whom Strand was friends with beginning in the Sixties) and Mary Oliver, though such a statement bastardizes the integrity and uniqueness of each respective poet in an effort to shamefully categorize what need not be categorized. I was particularly moved by his poems involving solitude and soul-searching while dwarfed by the wilderness, which dredged up precious sun-soaked memories of my own childhood summers spent wandering the dense woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with a wonderment that I would suddenly stumble upon a fairy-tale epic adventure in the rich smelling overgrown foliage to match the stories that I had read or were currently writing in my head, a gnarled twig as my sword and a Detroit Red Wings jersey as my armour. How time disillusions us, and how I’d spend my late teens in the same woods hiding a smoking habit while gazing at the Milky Way and hoping that I had some place in it. These thoughts come alive through Strand’s poetry.
Those nights I would gaze at the bay road, at the cottages clustered under the moon’s immaculate stare, nothing hinted that I would suffer so late this turning away, this longing to be there.
Lines such as these took my soul in hand and made me believe that both the words and my soul were cut from the same cloth and same memories. Strand fully captures those moments of wishful thinking, late night longings and the blissful pains of loneliness that visit us all. There are moments that are outright tragic like dreams of lost loves suddenly showing up at your doorstep and throwing themselves upon you, or of truth and faith being outright denied to you when it lingers in the air just beyond grasp, and there are moments of utter beauty and empathy that make the reader cry out in joy for being felt—if only for a brief passing of lines—understood and not so alone in the world as once thought.
A Piece of the Storm From the shadow of domes in the city of domes, A snowflake, a blizzard of one, weightless, entered your room And made its way to the arm of the chair where you, looking up From your book, saw it the moment it landed. That's all There was to it. No more than a solemn waking To brevity, to the lifting and falling away of attention, swiftly, A time between times, a flowerless funeral. No more than that Except for the feeling that this piece of the storm, Which turned into nothing before your eyes, would come back, That someone years hence, sitting as you are now, might say: "It's time. The air is ready. The sky has an opening."
To have lost Mark Strand is a true tragedy, and all the more so that I have only learned of him posthumously due to notices of his passing. He was a beautiful soul who captured the world and human emotion in a jar of prose unlike any other. ‘It is easy to lose oneself in nothing because nothing can interrupt and be unnoticed,’ Strand wrote, but I have conviction that Stand has not been another victim to Nothing, and the chills that coursed through my veins and soul upon reading him are testimony that somewhere, somehow, he is still as alive as ever. 4.5/5
Black Sea One clear night while the others slept, I climbed the stairs to the roof of the house and under a sky strewn with stars I gazed at the sea, at the spread of it, the rolling crests of it raked by the wind, becoming like bits of lace tossed in the air. I stood in the long, whispering night, waiting for something, a sign, the approach of a distant light, and I imagined you coming closer, the dark waves of your hair mingling with the sea, and the dark became desire, and desire the arriving light. The nearness, the momentary warmth of you as I stood on that lonely height watching the slow swells of the sea break on the shore and turn briefly into glass and disappear . . . Why did I believe you would come out of nowhere? Why with all that the world offers would you come only because I was here?
Old Man Leaves the Party It was clear when I left the party That though I was over eighty I still had A beautiful body. The moon shone down as it will On moments of deep introspection. The wind held its breath. And look, somebody left a mirror leaning against a tree. Making sure that I was alone, I took off my shirt. The flowers of bear grass nodded their moonwashed heads. I took off my pants and the magpies circled the redwoods. Down in the valley the creaking river was flowing once more. How strange that I should stand in the wilds alone with my body. I know what you are thinking. I was like you once. But now With so much before me, so many emerald trees, and Weed-whitened fields, mountains and lakes, how could I not Be only myself, this dream of flesh, from moment to moment?
For Her¹ Let it be anywhere on any night you wish, in your room that is empty and dark
or down the street or at those dim frontiers you barely see, barely dream of.
You will not feel desire, nothing will warn you, no sudden wind, no stillness of air.
She will appear, looking like someone you knew: the friend who wasted her life,
the girl who sat under the palm tree. Her bracelets will glitter, becoming the lights
of a village you turned from years ago.
¹ this and The Night, the Porch are my favorites of the collection. My love and adoration of Simic seems to find something so magical in the final few lines, the choice of the word ‘village’ that gives this mystical quality to the past that lies behind us. Love fades, love dies, lovers drift into oblivion, but still they mark a spot on the withered maps of our lives like a village within whose walls we once spent a fortnight of emotional sacrifice....more
‘Were it not for the way you taught me to look at the world, to see the life at play in everything, I would have been lonely forever.
This quote, the fi‘Were it not for the way you taught me to look at the world, to see the life at play in everything, I would have been lonely forever.
This quote, the final few lines from the American Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s emotionally charged poem Mother, works equally well as a depiction of how Kooser himself shows the reader ‘life at play’. In this Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poems, Delights & Shadows, we watch life come alive on a grand scale in small observations, and hear the language of the land and the people who dwell upon it flow forth from each page. Each poem enters the reader then seeks that place deep within them where their joys, loves, fears and sadness reside - a place some call the soul, and wraps it up in a soothing and loving poetic embrace.
A HAPPY BIRTHDAY
This evening, I sat by an open window and read till the light was gone and the book was no more than a part of the darkness. I could easily have switched on a lamp, but I wanted to ride this day down into night, to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page with the pale gray ghost of my hand.
The title of this collection is an excellent choice for the poem found within. We have ‘delights’ and ‘shadows’, both bound together as something inseparable instead of being two differing ideas. Through Kooser, we see how life is illuminated by death, and vise versa, both achieving poignancy through the presence and awareness of the other.
There are days when the fear of death is as ubiquitous as light. It illuminates everything. Without it, I might not have noticed this ladybird beetle, bright as a drop of blood on the window’s white sill. Her head no bigger than a period, her eyes like needle points, she has stopped for a moment to rest, knees locked, wing covers hiding the delicate lace of her wings. As the fear of death, so attentive to everything living, comes near her, the tiny antennae stop moving.
He lovingly reminds us to take joy in everything around us, to treasure it, because life is fleeting and suddenly we discover beauty in the tiniest of objects simply because we remember both the objects and ourselves are merely temporary. This ever present cloud of death does not hang heavy on the poems or in our hearts through Kooser, as he views it as just another state that we all go through and never once does foreboding taint his imagery. Even in the poem Mourning, focusing on a funeral, we see people who ‘came this afternoon to say goodbye,/but now they keep saying hello and hello,’ showing how deaths message of our own mortality offers a more weightier, positive message to cherish those still with us than to fear the end. Even in the poem Father, reflecting on his fathers death twenty years prior to the writing of the poem, the focus is on how death was kind to allow his father to pass with his ‘dignity intact’ instead of having to suffer endless trips to hospitals as ‘an ancient, fearful hypochondriac’ caught In a downward spiral that would have made everyone miserable. The poem is so uplifting, speaking of lilacs blooming as they did on the day of his birth to still welcome him, placing such a peaceful tone to smother the darkness of death. We all must endure it, and we might as well accept it.
THE OLD PEOPLE
Pantcuffs rolled, and in old shoes, they stumble over the rocks and wade out into a cold river of shadows far from the fire, so far that its warth no longer reaches them. And its light (but for the sparks in their eyes when they chance to look back) scarcely brushes their faces. Their ears are full of night: rustle of black leaves against a starless sky. Sometimes they hear us calling, and sometimes they don’. They are not searching for anything much, nor are they much in need of finding something new. They are feeling their way out into the night, Letting their eyes adjust to the future.
Kooser chronicles all change as a transformation that blends two states from one to the other. Through this collection he always selects phrases ‘slowly tipping forward into spring’ or ‘lean into wave after wave of responsibility to reflect how one state flows into the other, making them somehow inseparable as opposed to there being a clear dividing line. Often we never realize our transformations in life until after they have already occurred unbeknownst to us, such as in The Skater when the woman is ‘smiling back at the woman she’d been just an instant before’. These transformations come alive in Kooser’s words.
What once was meant to be a statement— a dripping dagger held in the fist of a shuddering heart—is now just a bruise on a bony old shoulder, the spot where vanity once punched him hard and the ache lingered on. He looks like someone you had to reckon with, strong as a stallion, fast and ornery, but on this chilly morning, as he walks between the tables at a yard sale with the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt rolled up to show us who he was, he is only another old man, picking up broken tools and putting them back, his heart gone soft and blue with stories.
Another wonderful aspect of this collection is the way the American landscape comes alive through his prose. Even a quick shuffling through the pages engulfs the reader in a vivid transportation from their reading chair to the American farms, fields, creeks, cities and deep into the heartland as the sights, sounds, smells and language of these areas rise from the page.
MEMORY (You can hear Kooser read this poem himself here)
Spinning up dust and cornshucks as it crossed the chalky, exhausted fields, it sucked up into its heart hot work, cold work, lunch buckets, good horses, bad horses, their names and the names of mules that were better or worse than the horses, then rattled the dented tin sides of the threshing machine, shook the manure spreader, cranked the tractor’s crank that broke the uncle’s arm, then swept on through the windbreak, taking the treehouse and dirty magazines, turning its fury on the barn where cows kicked over buckets and the gray cat sat for a squirt of thick milk in its whiskers, crossed the chicken pen, undid the hook, plucked a warm brown egg from the meanest hen, then turned toward the house, where threshers were having dinner, peeled back the roof and the kitchen ceiling, reached down and snatched up uncles and cousins, grandma, grandpa, parents and children one by one, held them like dolls, looked long and longingly into their faces, then set them back in their chairs with blue and white platters of chicken and ham and mashed potatoes still steaming before them, with boats of gravy and bowls of peas and three kinds of pie, and suddenly, with a sound like a sigh, drew up its crowded, roaring, dusty funnel, and there at its tip was the nib of a pen.
The American heartland sings loud and clear through each word, bringing all these images and emotions alive and collecting them at the tip of a pen to comment on the power of poetry to be able to harness and contain all the powers of the world into carefully selected, beautiful words. This poem is one of the finest arguments for the power of poetry that I know of, all managed through those final two lines. Simply stunning.
This is a marvelous collection of poetry and I fell in love with each and every word. Ted Kooser has a magical ability to bring his words, and the world, alive through these short poems. What impressed and satisfied me most was the sheer joy that shines forth from each phrase and page and the general uplifting attitude that echoes out of each poem, especially those dealing with death. Every minute detail of existence is told to stand up and dance their hearts out, coming alive in such a joyful, seemingly effortless manner. In his series of poems about four Civil War paintings by Winslow Homer, the image of the sharpshooter in the tree has a great bit comparing his finger waiting to pull the trigger being like ‘the chord behind the tight fence of a musical staff, the sonnet shut in a book’. Kooser makes the everyday a cause for celebration. This is an absolutely delightful collection. 5/5
Look at how awesome and happy Kooser is.
He just wants to relax and let perfect prose dance from his mouth. You can watch and listen to him read another poem from this collection here. Also, he wrote a children’s picture book, Bag in the Wind, focusing on the importance of recycling. What a cool guy. He just wants the world to smile.
HOME MEDICAL JOURNAL
This is not so much a dictionary as it is an atlas for the old, in which they pore over the pink and gray maps of the body, hoping to find that wayside junction where a pain-rutted road intersects with the highway of answers, and where the slow river of fear that achingly meanders from organ to organ is finally channeled and dammed.
W.S. Merwin’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poetry, The Shadow of Sirius, is an enrapturing look at th‘Stories come to us like new senses’
W.S. Merwin’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poetry, The Shadow of Sirius, is an enrapturing look at the memories which have shaped our lives and send us forward into eternity. Poet Laureate of the United States from 2010-2011, and recipient of numerous awards, including two Pulitzer’s, one for this collection and a previous award for The Carrier of Ladders in 1971, Poet Laureate of the United States from 2010, W.S. Merwin has proven himself time and time again to be a champion of the pen and prose, and this slim collection may be one of his very best.
‘From what we cannot hold the stars are made’
The Shadow of Sirius spends much of it’s time winding through Merwin’s memories, which are viewed as a shadow on the mind, a contrast of light and dark that corresponds to present and past. These memories form the building blocks of our character, and are always hand in hand with the present forming the bigger picture of everything we do. Merwin reflects often upon his mother, now gone into the shadow, and the lessons and values she instilled in him. From Rain Light: All day the stars watch from long ago my mother said I am going now when you are alone you will be all right whether or not you know you will know
Merwin demonstrates how life is a collection of wisdom we gain through experience. He shows how each day, each vision, each color, smell and feel of the world which we pass through, leaves an imprint upon our minds and souls. We are always growing, always changing, always learning.
Worn Words: The late poems are the ones I turn to first now following a hope that keeps beckoning me waiting somewhere in the lines almost in plain sight
it is the late poems that are made of words that have come the whole way they have been there
As the title implies, we are in the shadow of Sirius, the shadow of the heavens and of eternity. We are doomed to return to the dust, mortal in an vast endless sea of space. Like the star Sirius, we are a bright shining speck in the void, our memories and actions blaze through the darkness of existence until we are extinguished, but such a blaze of light is what casts shadows. Without life, without light, darkness and death would take no meaning, As in the poem Youth (included in it’s entirety below as it is too beautiful to miss), without loss we could not ‘learn to miss you’. Through the collection of memories, through the fusion of past and present, through our acquisition of wisdom, we form a space in the void of existence that leaves a shadow, leaves a mark, leaves a legacy, that is both ephemeral and eternal. Through Merwin, all those he has known and lost exist forever in his prose: ‘As those who are gone now keep wandering through our words sounds of paper following them at untold distances’
Merwin writes with little to no punctuation, in one long strand, broken occasionally into stanzas, that flow endlessly and tirelessly in a river of thought. The language is simple, the metaphors and similies are nothing that will baffle the reader, but it works well to create a visceral vision inside the reader that is vibrant and immediate, while also haunting and translucent as a dream from which you have just woken.
‘a vision before a gift of flight in a dream of clear depths where I glimpse far out of reach the lucent days from which I am now made’
The words from Merwin are each a little gift to the world. For those who love poetry, for those who love words, and for those who love life, this is an extraordinary collection and a great introduction into the works of an American treasure. The great W.H. Auden, a personal prose hero of mine, hand selected Merwin’s first book of poetry to be published, and if he speaks truth in Worn Words, than here in his later life we have an even greater wealth of insight and wisdom. 5/5
Through all of youth I was looking for you without knowing what I was looking for
or what to call you I think I did not even know I was looking how would I
have known you when I saw you as I did time after time when you appeared to me
as you did naked offering yourself entirely at that moment and you let
me breathe you touch you taste you knowing no more than I did and only when I
began to think of losing you did I recognize you when you were already
part memory part distance remaining mine in the ways that I learn to miss you
from what we cannot hold the stars are made
One of the Butterflies The trouble with pleasure is the timing it can overtake me without warning and be gone before I know it is here it can stand facing me unrecognized while I am remembering somewhere else in another age or someone not seen for years and never to be seen again in this world and it seems that I cherish only now a joy I was not aware of when it was here although it remains out of reach and will not be caught or named or called back and if I could make it stay as I want to it would turn to pain.
A Codex It was a late book given up for lost again and again with its bare sentences at last and their lines that seemed transparent revealing what had been here the whole way the poems of daylight after the day lying open after all on the table without explanation or emphasis like sounds left when the syllables have gone clarifying the whole grammar of waiting not removing one question from the air or closing the story although single lights were beginning by then above and below while the long twilight deepened its silence from sapphire through opal to Athena"s iris until shadow covered the gray pages the comet words the book of presences after which there was little left to say but then it was night and everything was known
Just This When I think of the patience I have had back in the dark before I remember or knew it was night until the light came all at once at the speed it was born to with all the time in the world to fly through not concerned about ever arriving and then the gathering of the first stars unhurried in their flowering spaces and far into the story the planets cooling slowly and the ages of rain then the seas starting to bear memory the gaze of the first cell at its waking how did this haste begin this little time at any time this reading by lightning scarcely a word this nothing this heaven ...more
‘Whatever it is you try to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you like the dreams of your body’ I’ve always found that the world outside my wi‘Whatever it is you try to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you like the dreams of your body’ I’ve always found that the world outside my window, deep in the immersion of nature, is where I feel most alive and at peace. I love to travel into the wild woods of Michigan, off from the beaten path, and lose myself among the trees. I look up and feel dwarfed and insignificant among the leafy giants that stretch towards the limitless sky, and allow the breeze to blow through me, taking my worldly thoughts away with its passing. Sometimes it feels as if I could just dissolve from my physical form, meld with nature, and become counted among the countless trees and plants. Perhaps this is the primitive animal instinct in us all, calling us back to simplicity. The pristine beauty of Mary Oliver’s Pulitzer Prize winning collection, American Primitive, is the voice of this wild world and celebrates the unity of the animals and Earth. Her words are a trek through the seasons, a nature walk of words across meadows and streams and deep into the mysterious forests of our hearts.
Oliver has a gift to bestow all the sounds, smells and feelings of the wilderness through mere words. You will feel the drops of rain, hear the babbling brook, and watch the animals scurry about all within a white page. She harnesses the rhythm of nature, from winding rivers to the sight of two snakes slithering through a field of flowers ‘like a matched team / like a dance / like a love affair’. Poems such as Bobcat use the form of the poem to reflect the darting movement of the beast across the land, or to elevate the imagery of waves in The Sea. The language is always simple, yet intensely eloquent.
All four seasons are accounted for within this volume. Her poems of the Ohio winters hit close to home, detailing the muted silence of a snow covered night, beneath a starless sky such as in First Snow:
Its white rhetoric everywhere calling us back to
why, how whence such beauty and what the meaning
There are the blossoming poems of spring, bringing us rain ‘soft as lilacs and clean as holy water’, and the glorious warmth of summer.
There is no end, believe me! To the inventions of summer, to the happiness you body is willing to bear
While much of the works are directed towards the blooming and buzzing of life, the river of her poems travel to darker territories at times where the land reclaims the living. The poem The Kitten, about a stillborn cat, is particularly moving:
But instead I took it out into the field and opened the earth and put it back saying, it was real saying, life is infinitely inventive saying, what other amazements lie in the dark seed of the earth, yes I think I did right to go out alone And give it back peacefully, and cover the place With the reckless blossoms of weeds
There it the fall poetry of the falling leaves and dying warmth, and the wet smell of damp decay rises up from sweet stanzas to fill your nose. I once worked at a large park and was lucky to spend my summers surrounded by miles and miles of wilderness. This collection really brings back the joy from those times, yet one poem in particular hits close to home. Something mentions a man who goes into nature to end his life, which is something that commonly happened at this park as well and her words brings back the unshakable memory of an early morning discovering a swinging form engulfed by the rising sun. From the earth we came, and to the earth we will return.
If you love nature, or poetry, or just good writing in general, do yourself a favor and introduce yourself to the poems of Mary Oliver. She gives Robert Frost a good rival with American Primitive, and upon reading it you will most likely find yourself lacing up your shoes and setting forth into the woods with a new found synergy with the rhythm of the wild. I highly suggest you do so. And now, nature calls and I must go. 5/5
Fall Song Another year gone, leaving everywhere its rich spiced residues: vines, leaves,
the uneaten fruits crumbling damply in the shadows, unmattering back
from the particular island of this summer, this now, that now is nowhere
except underfoot, moldering in that black subterranean castle
of unobservable mysteries - roots and sealed seeds and the wanderings of water. This
I try to remember when time's measure painfully chafes, for instance when autumn
flares out at the last, boisterous and like us longing to stay - how everything lives, shifting
from one bright vision to another, forever in these momentary pastures.