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I fell in love with the poetry of Mark Strand via the enthusiasm of Rupert Loydell sometime in the late 90’s. Every time I bumped into him, it seemed, he would impress upon me why I needed to buy Strand’s Selected Poems and right now, what the hell was I thinking of not owning it? (This is consistent with much of what Rupert used to say to me in that a) it would often come in the form of a bollocking and b) it contained much wisdom, had I ears to hear it). As I understand young people are given to say, good times.

I owe Rupert a great deal for his championing, not least for the gift, from one of his trips to the US, of Strand’s Dark Harbor, as mesmerising and beautiful a book-length sequence of poems as you will find. Not that I would have known it: ‘It’s no good really,’ he told me, as he handed it to me, ‘but you should still have it.’

So I gave in and bought the Selected and fell in love again and the rest is history.

What I love about Strand’s work is its immersion of the reader in both the everyday and the mysterious. His poems are populated by speakers who are suddenly knocked sideways by the ineffable. Perching on thresholds of grief, separation, restlessness and solitude his characters seem to plunge into new layers of understanding about their lives in dreamy voices audible as whispers.

This is true of ‘A Morning’, I think, bringing to us that ‘deep down sense of things’, to borrow from Hopkins, both at the conscious level of thinking and experience, and that ‘drowned other half of the world’. There is a clotted Hopkinsian relish in the watery plash of syllable and sibilance  in the lines:

Small waves splashed against the hull

and the hollow creak of oarlock and oar

rose into the woods of black pine crusted with lichen.

The brilliant transparency of the lines that follow it remind me of  Seamus Heaney’s fishing boat poem of ‘seeable-down-into-water’, ‘Seeing Things’. They also bring to mind that other great poet of submergence and emergence, Tomas Tranströmer: ‘I moved like a dark star, drifting over the drowned/other half of the world’.

The poem’s final line is also worthy of Tranströmer at his best, recalling his famous poem of solitude, ‘Alone‘. I wonder if this is not the secret desire of every poet, to answer the call of ‘distant promptings’ where we arrive at and capture places stripped clean of both language and experience,  and which hint at our pre-verbal and inmost selves, without fully revealing them.

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.

Mark Strand, from Selected Poems (1995)

Lifesaving Poems

Lifesaving Poems: Tomas Tranströmer’s ‘Alone’