This eleventh collection by Mark Strand is a toast to life’s transience and abiding beauty. He begins with a group of light but haunting fables, populated by figures like the King, a tiny creature in ermine who has lost his desire to rule, and by the poet’s own alter ego, who recounts the fetching mystery of the title poem: “I sat on the porch having a smoke / when out of the blue a man and a camel / happened by.” The poet has Arctic adventures and encounters with the bearded figure of Death; in his controlled tone, he creates his bold visions and shows us, like a magician, how they vanish in a blink. Gradually, his fancies give way to powerful scenes of loss, as in “The Mirror,” where the face of a beautiful woman stares past him
into a place I could only imagine . . .
as if just then I were stepping from the depths of the mirror into that white room, breathless and eager,
only to discover too late that she is not there.
Man and Camel concludes with a small masterpiece of meditations crafted around the Seven Last Words of Christ. Here, this secular poet finds resonance in the bedrock of Christ’s language, the actual words that have governed so many generations of thought and belief. As always with Mark Strand, the discovery of meaning in the sound of language itself is an act of faith that enlightens us and carries us beyond the bounds of the rational.
As fastidious as he is famous (both qualifications remarkable for an American poet of this day and age), Strand allows this new book to show all the signs of pruning and purging. The sieve of art descends into the well of intimate contemplation and retrieves 23 closely reasoned poems remarkably consistent in the character of the Baffled Seer persisting in the double terror (or is it joy?) of all Strand's expression: evanescence of the longed-for Other, desolate wonder of the self. It is no surprise, rather a sort of consolation, that except for the two poems commissioned to be read between movements of three Webern quartets and a Heyden quartet, most of these poems scrupulously record the actions and adventures of that wonderful "I," the character whose accents it has been Strand's genius to create in book after book: "I went to the middle of the room and called out," "I closed my eyes briefly," "I filled page after page," "I am not thinking of death," "...there would be a fire and I would walk into it," "I said that the dawning of the unknown was always before us," "I ran downstairs and called for my horse," "I'm going down," said I. And in the archetypal title poem: "I sat on the porch having a smoke" when the Other (here the Muse, the Mirage and what Strand calls "the ideal image for all uncommon couples") appears to the expectant smoker, "...just as they were vanishing/ the man and camel ceased to sing." The vision fades, the bereft self cannot be accommodated. The two chamber music commissions are curiously Miltonic (impersonally sumptuous) in their chastened baroque tonalities, but however grandly invested in the mysteries of music ("the secret voice of being telling us/ that where we disappear is where we are") and of spiritual dedication ("to know/ at last that nothing is more real than nothing"), Strand more characteristically winnows a familiar comfort from "My Name," one of the loveliest and humblest poems he has yet written, from whose 12 lines I cite only the final few as a sort of hostage to greatness: ...and I heard my name as if for the first time, heard it the way one hears the wind or the rain, but faint and far off as though it belonged not to me but to the silence from which it had come and to which it would go. (Sept.) Richard Howard is a poet, critic and translator. He teaches in the School of the Arts at Columbia University. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.