‘Old Man’ collects genius in one book

The object of a book of selected poems, one imagines, is two-fold. It functions first of all as a general introduction to a body of work, allowing us to access small portions of individual collections so that we may begin to recognize thematic and stylistic trends. Additionally, the book’s structure (almost always chronological) encourages us to create a linear narrative in which the poet evolves into his current — and best — incarnation.

Mark Strand’s recently published “New Selected Poems” is incredibly strange, in part because his work has always been a meditation on various kinds of stasis. Reading his new collection, these meditations seem like an obsession, and the weight of stagnation in each individual poem makes an arc of poetic evolution nearly impossible to trace.

Strand — who has won the Pulitzer and Bollingen prizes and served as Poet Laureate of the United States — took up writing after having studied painting at Yale, and in the quiet calculation of each poem’s composition one feels the effects of that visual legacy. These poems are intensely — even violently — contained, as if they were placed individually into a series of frames. Consequently, they are refused the possibility of opening outwards, but this constriction never comes to feel stifling; instead, it allows Strand the freedom to form an atmosphere marked by an unsettling and revealing internal logic.

In “The Mailman,” featured in his second book, causation is at once uncertain and forever displaced. The speaker finds a mailman at his door who arrives “weeping, / shaking a letter” containing “terrible personal news,” but the contents seem to affect the mailman more than the addressee. “Helpless, nervous, small, / he curls up like a ball,” the speaker notes, “and sleeps while I compose / more letters to myself / in the same vein: / ‘You shall live / by inflicting pain. / You shall forgive.’ ” When we realize that the letter written at the end of the poem is the counterpart or continuance of the letter delivered at the opening, we understand that the speaker is forever writing and sending words only so that they will come back to him. The pain created is inflicted only on those who do not understand his personal logic. Upon repeated readings, the poem itself “curls” — as many of Strand’s other poems do — into the very position it describes, circling around so that it becomes a single unbroken unit on infinite repeat.

The performance of the speaker in “The Mailman” is exactly that of Strand himself: in each poem, interiority makes its way outside the mind and shapes an individual universe. In the best poems, these motions read as gentle, even perfect, ironies. “The moon shone down,” he writes in “Old Man Leaves Party,” “as it will / on moments of deep introspection.” What the mind needs is produced in the world, and each image encountered holds the possibility of profound symbolic significance. “In a field,” Strand writes, “I am the absence / of field. / This is / always the case. / Wherever I am / I am what is missing.”

Over the course of “New Selected Poems,” what might be read as secretive poetic narcissism comes to feel more like the ultimate form of self-disclosure. As Louise Gluck writes in her review of the book, “As Mark Strand has come to inhabit, in reality, the conditions of his imagination, the poems have grown less remote.” This move lies at the heart of Strand’s genius: he fashions a world out of not only “imagination” but also sheer, undeniable necessity. Of infinite interest, this move repeats itself again and again throughout his work, but an inexhaustible variation of needs saves it from growing old. Strand’s mechanism doesn’t radically alter, but its material does, and behind the material we come to see the poet.

Strand, of course, says it best himself. “You sit in a chair, touched by nothing,” he writes, “feeling / the old self becoming the older self. …”

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