Today I read the news that Mark Strand, one of my favorite poets, passed away last Saturday in his daughter’s home in Brooklyn, New York. He was eighty years old. The poet had lived in Madrid from 2011 until the spring of this year.
I don’t remember precisely when it was that I read Strand’s poem “Keeping Things Whole” for the first time, but I have carried it around in my head like a mental talisman ever since.
Keeping Things Whole
In a field
I am an absence
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
When I walk
I part the air
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.
We all have reasons
to keep things whole.
Before turning to poetry, Strand studied painting at Yale University under Josef Albers and was an accomplished artist in his own right. During his career as a writer he also produced short stories, children’s books, several respected works of art criticism, and translations of the poetry of Rafael Alberti and Carlos Drummond de Andrade.
While researching for this post, I came across an interview with Strand on the More Intelligent Life website that contained the following exchange about looking at art through the mind’s eye:
Interviewer: I was intrigued by the way you said that a lot of what you see in a painting comes from what you picture when you turn around. I’d never thought of using my minds eye (literally) to decide what I felt was important in a piece of work.
Strand: After I’ve looked at a painting and I turn around, I try to remember what I have seen. I try to think about what the experience of looking at it was. It really is not so much the physical properties of the painting that I retain, but the experience of looking at it that I try to hold onto.
I found the “hold onto” in Strand’s reply touching. After all, this is the poet that wrote: “I empty myself of the names of others. I empty my pockets / I empty my shoes and leave them beside the road . . .” All the same, it squares with the exploration of the boundaries of one’s existence he seemed to be referring to when, during an interview with Wallace Shawn, he described his “poetic territory” as “the self, the edge of the self, and the edge of the world.”
About halfway through that same interview (for The Paris Review), Shawn asked Strand if translating the poetry of others had been a valuable experience in terms of his own work. The poet’s reply touched on some of the points that mark the difference between translation, in which one grapples with something that already exists, and writing something completely new into existence:
Translating is almost like a game. It is a serious game, because, finally, it’s your reading of another poet’s work. But you develop a sense of syntactical possibility—you make choices, you have to say to yourself, when you’re translating, Should I do it this way, or should I do it that way? When you’re writing your own work, you’re not asking yourself those questions. Maybe at some much later stage in the writing of a poem, you may say to yourself, objectively, I need a two-syllable word here, with the accent on the first syllable. The line should end here, instead of there. There should be a slant rhyme, some assonance, or something here . . . But when you’re writing, at the beginning, when you’re writing, you’re not asking yourself those questions. When you’re translating, you always are.