Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley


Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Monday, April 9, 2007

Mark Strand: MAN AND CAMEL

By mere coincidence rather than any overt intention to connect the holy days to a specific text, this weekend I found myself returning to read again Mark Strand’s latest collection of poetry, Man and Camel, which includes as its culmination an extended piece concerning the crucifixion of Christ. “Poem After the Seven Last Words,” commissioned by the Brentano String Quartet, originally was written to accompany a performance of Haydn’s quartet opus 51, titled “The Seven Last Words of Christ.” The poet’s contribution contains seven sections, designed so that each part would be read between the music’s movements. In Strand’s notes on the poem, he also reports the content “relies heavily on the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.”

Certainly, if one considers poets who produce work associated with religious themes or theological philosophy, Mark Strand’s name does not naturally rise to the top of such a list. Indeed, even in this instance, the poet’s approach to his subject matter appears reverent but appropriately distant, continually controlled by an apparent attempt at gathering together a series of scenes or statements that evoke emotion and initiate thought, but which avoid any of the overly wrought language one might expect in some religious verse or the intense imagery of a vivid Mel Gibson movie version.

“Poem After the Seven Last Words,” which fills the final of this book’s three sections, displays some of the subtly lyrical and restrained meditative language Strand has demonstrated in previous volumes, although in those instances the persona spoke of incidents or relationships mostly provided by personal experience. In this piece, the poet shows readers narrative moments or dramatic situations the way a painter might set colors and shapes beside one another, arranging elements separately on a canvas then standing back to contemplate their cumulative impact. In fact, at times the imagery even seems cinematic, as if a camera has panned across a fictional landscape: “a dreamt-of place / where the muttering wind shifts over the white lawns / and riffles the leaves of trees, the high trees / that are streaked with gold and line the walkways there.”

However, the speaker concedes such scenery sometimes supplies false hope, especially in “the days of spring when the sky is filled / with the odor of lilac, when darkness becomes desire.” The poet knows nature’s beauty combined with human nature can act to conceal harsh realities, particularly our own mortality: “the world’s great gift for fiction gilds even / the dirt we walk on, and we feel we could live forever / while knowing of course that we can’t.” Indeed, although this long poem addresses the death of Christ, it also serves as a reminder to everyone of the inevitability of an end for all: “No one escapes. / Not even the man who believed he was chosen to do so.”

Therefore, in a certain sense, the narrative of this poem leads to one conclusion, already suggested in the poem’s opening lines: “The story of the end, of the last word / of the end, when told, is a story that never ends.” Although spoken about the sacrifice of Christ, Strand’s poem more importantly forces each of us to examine our own fate in the face of an uncertainty we all encounter. “Such is our plight,” the narrator declares, as we are left with the realization, “at last that nothing is more real than nothing.” By the last lines of the final section, the closing sentences of the collection, Strand’s narrator acknowledges and accepts his destined end, “what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, what no hand / has touched, what has not arisen in the human heart. / To that place, to the keeper of that place, I commit myself.”

This declaration becomes more compelling when one recalls earlier poems in Man and Camel that grapple with the concept of one’s own death. In “My Name,” the piece that closes section two and serves as a perfect transition to the third section, the poem again paints the scenery with its initial lines: “Once when the lawn was a golden green / and the marbled moonlit trees rose like fresh memorials / in the scented air, and the whole countryside pulsed / with the chirr and murmur of insects, I lay in the grass.” The speaker retreats to a time long ago when the terrain of his life lay ahead like an unmapped territory. He recalls hearing his own “name, as if for the first time.” Bestowed with an identity at first verifies one’s existence; however, later recognizing one’s mortality, the speaker concludes: “it belonged not to me but to the silence / from which it had come and to which it would go.”

Elsewhere in the collection, despite an apparent attempted avoidance of thoughts about mortality, an eventual awareness of one’s death opens a poem: “I am not thinking of Death, but Death is thinking of me” (“2002”). The name of the poem’s persona is later spoken, its revelation diminishing any division between the speaker and the poet, as Death “strokes / his beard, and says, ‘I’m thinking of Strand.’” In “2032,” Strand again personifies “Death, who used to love me,” and his figure is depicted almost as a cross between the personifications of Death by Emily Dickinson and Woody Allen.

As readers often have seen in Strand’s poetry, the poet focuses on impermanence and nothingness, the void one temporarily inhabits in this life. Even in “The Webern Variations,” another commissioned piece by the Brentano String Quartet, during lines citing the language of leaving or loss for which Strand has become well known over the last four decades, the poet alludes to absence and endings: “Into the heart of nothing, / into the radiant hollows, / even the language of vanishing / leaves itself behind.” In fact, in one section of this piece, Strand’s enigmatic words seem reminiscent of those from one of his most famous and most anthologized early poems, “Keeping Things Whole,” written nearly forty-five years ago. There, the poet discloses how “the air moves in / to fill the spaces / where my body’s been.” He confides his “reasons / for moving. I move / to keep things whole.” Here, the speaker asks: “What should we hear but the voice / that would be ours shaping itself, / the secret voice of being telling us / that where we disappear is where we are?”

The other night when I brought home bright yellow roses to lighten our dining room during Easter, I thought of a poem in this book that reads almost as if it were a parable. “The Rose” opens with another image of the transitory nature of life and beauty: “Twisted in a field of weeds, the helpless rose / felt the breeze of paradise just once, then died.” However, the poem also explores one’s sense of self, as well as a contrast between the figurative language of art and the literalness of encountered reality. When children mourn the loss of the rose, they are encouraged to look with imagination into a pond at their own reflections, and are asked: “Do you see it, / its petals open, rising to the surface, turning into you?” But the response offered by the innocents demonstrates clarity of vision, seeing what exists for what it is, not hampered or fooled by creativity: “‘Oh no,’ they said. ‘We are what we are—nothing else.’”

Contrary to that view, the poet usually chooses to conceive of an alternative perception of the world, often one in which he requests readers visualize a rearranged reality. Indeed, Strand’s reputation as a writer who likes to employ surrealist images and actions in his work continues in this volume, especially in the selection of poems for the book’s first section. As I have written about before in a longer essay for Valparaiso Poetry Review, Strand’s poetry could be split into three categories—short surrealist lyrics, introspective poems of personal reflection, and more intricate meditative works. Likewise, the poems in Man and Camel appear partitioned somewhat into three sections mirroring these types of poetry.

The title poem fits into the first section as a typical surrealist piece in which humor and absurdity are employed for effect and the poem closes with a final phrase or sentence akin to a punch line. In this poem a speaker who pauses to smoke a cigarette on his porch is approached by a man and a camel. The two drift down his street toward the edge of town as they begin to sing: “Into the desert / they went and as they went their voices / rose as one above the sifting sound / of windblown snow.” When the speaker seeks to place meaning upon their appearance, to find additional significance, the pair confront him and protest: “They stood before my porch, / staring up at me with beady eyes, and said: ‘You ruined it. You ruined it forever.’”

On occasions like this, Strand seems to suggest readers should enjoy imagined art for what it presents rather than analyzing for underlying layers of messages or self-fulfillment. Nevertheless, an irony presents itself, as no poet’s poems invite such scrutiny any more than Mark Strand’s surrealist lyrics. Yet, Strand’s comical and self-mocking poems, whether they are funny fables or bizarre vignettes, frequently seem to me the least engaging upon repeated readings, sounding almost like old jokes told a second time. Even the elliptical phrases from the first section that at times appear reminiscent of Wallace Stevens’s poetry do not linger as long or as well as the more meditative and introspective monologues later in the collection might. In fact, one wishes this volume’s title instead spotlighted an example of the more substantial poems from the last two sections of the book.

Unlike the works in section one that remind readers of Strand’s earliest surrealist poetry or his brief pieces of fiction, poems in the second section of this volume sometimes revisit the wonderful narrative monologues witnessed previously in The Story of Our Lives, Blizzard of One, and elsewhere. In “Black Sea” a speaker stands at night on the roof of his house: “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.” Staring off, as “slow swells of the sea / break on the shore and turn briefly into glass and disappear” (and echoing language also seen in “Poem After the Seven Last Words”—“the dark became desire”), the speaker eloquently remembers the nearness of one who was absent. In “Mother and Son” the speaker recalls mortality and loss once again as he makes a deathbed visit: “The son leans down to kiss / the mother’s lips, but her lips are cold. / The burial of feelings has begun.”

The persona in “Mirror” reports a party where he “was standing with some friends / under a large gilt-framed mirror / that tilted slightly forward / over the fireplace.” The metaphor of the mirror as an instrument for reflection provides opportunities for the speaker’s introspection as he notices “a woman in a green dress leaned / against the far wall.” She also appears to be gazing into the mirror, he confides, “but past me, into a space / that might be filled by someone / yet to arrive.” However, friends suggest it is time to move on, and now a long time later he still remembers “seeing the woman stare past me / into a place I could only imagine.” Perhaps a chance has been lost, since when he recalls the incident, “each time it is with a pang, / 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.” The fleeting image of the woman might remind one favorably of the famous anecdote, told during a scene from Citizen Kane, about the brief glimpse of a woman in a white dress seen on a passing ferry remembered by a character nearly fifty years later, who confesses, “I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”

Much of Man and Camel concerns one’s contemplation of the past, as well as its influence on the present, and one’s confrontation with the future accompanied by an increasing awareness of the inevitability of death. The poet continually links passage of time with feelings of love and loss or desire and desperation. One comes to understand the kinds of destruction done by time’s passing, as even each exhalation of air escaping the body may be seen to be a measurement of mortality: “the first / gray flags of their breath being lifted away” (“People Walking Through the Night”).

One of the great strengths in this volume is its ability to allay anxiety even while elevating recognition of human limitations through the offering of often disturbing messages. Indeed, the personae in these poems themselves sometimes seem to be seeking comfort or consolation in their conclusions, although they are persistently preparing for more ominous moments ahead. Additionally, readers of Mark Strand’s poetry who search for solace to soothe their spirits in Man and Camel, despite the presence of humor or an assuring tone of language, might instead eventually discover distress in some of the poems’ surprising and discomforting disclosures about the complex circumstances of our lives and deaths, “the secret voice of being telling us / that where we disappear is where we are.”

Strand, Mark. Man and Camel. Knopf, 2006.

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