Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end

Mark Strand, 1934-2014




Mark Strand is one of a trio of connected American poets who seem to sometimes inhabit the same poetic space: Charles Wright, Charles Simic and Mark Strand certainly knew each other and have occasionally written to and about themselves as friends and fellow writers.

Of the three, and I have many books by each of them on my shelves, my favourite has always been Charles Wright, but for a while Mark Strand's Selected Poems (Carcanet, 1995; not the earlier USA Selected) was a book that I carried around in my bag and re-read constantly for several months. I use the first poem in that collection, 'Sleeping With One Eye Open' with students as an interesting example of near- and in-your-face rhyme, 'Eating Poetry' as an example of poetry about poetry, and 'The Prediction' as an example of a poem within a poem, and also its first and last lines as a workshop exercise to write between.

But it is the more mysterious poems that I love: 'From a Litany', 'My Life by Someone Else' and the 'Elegy for My Father' sequence, along with the book length poem
Dark Harbour, and especially this, the poem at which my Selected Poems falls open:

   A Morning

   I have carried it with me each day: that morning I took
   my uncle's boat from the brown water cove
   and headed for Mosher Island.
   Small waves splashed against the hull
   and the hollow creak of oarlock and oar
   rose into the woods of black pine crusted with lichen.
   I moved like a dark star, drifting over the drowned
   other half of the world until, by a distant prompting,
   I looked over the  gunwale and saw beneath the surface
   a luminous room, a light-filled grave, saw for the first time
   the one clear place given to us when we are alone.

I'm not alone in loving this poem, and although I wouldn't go along with it (or any other poem) being 'lifesaving' there's a lucid, personal exposition of the poem over at Anthony Wilson's blog.

I remain unsure if this is a poem about death, about realising we all die, which the mention of  'a light-filled grave' suggests, or just (perhaps also?) a poem about that elation of being along out on the ocean watching the interaction of light and water. Either way, it's a magical short poem, as are many of the others in the Selected volume, although I confess I haven't quite recovered all of my previous enthusiasm rereading the book after hearing the news Strand had died last weekend.

What I do know is for a while he was an important author for me, someone who bridged the lyrical and experimental, explored notions of faith, doubt and grace through ideas of the secular other, and offered carefully refined and structured poems to his readers. Recent volumes have in the main felt lightweight and thin, but his
Selected Poems along with Dark Harbour remain outstanding achievements.

I haven't much else to say, just wanted to mark the passing of another important poet who has slipped away into the darkness. If you don't know his work, take a look. If you do have a re-read. Here's another Mark Strand poem I thought appropriate:

   The End

   Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end,
   Watching the pier as the ship sails away, or what it will seem like
   When he's held by the sea's roar, motionless, there at the end,
   Or what he shall hope for once it is clear that he'll never go back.

   When the time has passed to prune the rose or caress the cat,
   When the sunset torching the lawn and the full moon icing it down
   No longer appear, not every man knows what he'll discover instead.
   When the weight of the past leans against nothing, and the sky

   Is no more than remembered light, and the stories of cirrus
   And cumulus come to a close, and all the birds are suspended in flight,
   Not every man knows what is waiting for him, or what he shall sing
   When the ship he is on slips into darkness, there at the end.



      Rupert Loydell 2014