The self, the edge of the self, and the edge of the world: The poetry of Mark Strand

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
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
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.

mark-strandWhile 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.

New York Times obituary

El País obituary


A Winter Daybreak

daybreakCaptura de pantalla 2013-12-06 a la(s) 23.44.34When I received this month’s Poetry Foundation’s online newsletter, I immediately clicked on a link that led to a list of winter poems. There, below Kenneth Patchen’s “The Snow is Deep on the Ground” and William Carlos William’s “Blizzard,” the title of a poem by James Wright caught my eye. I read it once to make certain that my eyes hadn’t tricked me and a second time to be sure my memory hadn’t failed, but there it was: “A Winter Daybreak above Venice.”

The early dawn in 1978 that left James Wright feeling as though he were “sitting strangely on top of the sunlight” was written in southern France, not northern Italy. The city below him was Vence, not Venice. The error, which originally appeared in two places on the Poetry Center website, has since been corrected in one, but not the other. As of December 10, the copyright notice at the end of the poem still erroneously identified it as “A Winter Daybreak Above Venice.” My eyes narrowed and Captura de pantalla 2013-12-06 a la(s) 23.37.00squinted as they homed in on the treatment of letter “a” in the word “above.” It appears in lowercase in the title directly above the poem as stipulated in Chicago 8.157, but has been capitalized in the initial list of winter poems and the copyright notice. This is not meant to be a criticism of the Poetry Foundation website, which adheres to very high standards, but rather a confession of a possessed copy editor who never stops scanning texts for infelicities, not even while reading a few poems to relax before turning off the computer at the end of the day.

As I buried my head in my pillow that night, “A Winter Daybreak above Vence” sparked reveries of poets staring out at the Mediterranean Sea and contemplating the splendors of Venice (for Wright, in fact, also wrote poems in Venice) as well as reflections about how people move from one point to another in their lives. Wright James Wrightstudied English at Kenyon College on the G.I. Bill after leaving the army. As I lay in bed, I wondered what chance the children of working class parents anywhere in the world today have of growing up to be university professors, receiving Guggenheim Fellowships or Pulitzer Prizes, traveling to other countries, or translating poems from other languages. I felt a sudden, sharp pang of gratitude for the scholarships granted to American World War II army veterans to study whatever they wanted – including the humanities, even if the main purpose of the G.I. Bill was to control post-war unemployment rather than educate university professors and poets. I thought about Wright’s translations of George Trakl, César Vallejo, and Pablo Neruda, and I struggled to recall fragments of his poem about Dwight Eisenhower’s detente with Francisco Franco (Antonio Machado follows the moon down a road of white dust . . .) and reconstruct his description of Indian ponies in “The Blessing” (the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear that is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist . . .) One of the last things I remember doing that night was chuckling to myself over the title of his poem “Depressed by a Book of Bad Poetry, I Walk Toward an Unused Pasture and Invite the Insects to Join Me” before I drifted off to sleep lulled by the music of the dark cricket he captured in that verse. I too have occasionally trotted off to a deserted pasture somewhere in my mind to recover after a long session with a less than perfect text.

The short excerpt below about one of Wright’s many trips to Europe is from a long and fascinating conversation between Wright and Peter A. Stitt published in The Paris Review No. 62.

We’d planned a trip to Europe, but it was late spring and I was trying to finish up the Collected Poems. I felt empty, but Annie kept me going. She even did all the typing. So we finished the book, the contract was signed, the manuscript delivered, and off we went. And for the second time in my life I thought I was done with poetry forever. I always think I am done with poetry forever. We stayed several days in Paris, where we would walk out in the morning. We would go to market, then we would go to a cathedral to see what was going on in town. Then we would go with our cheese, our paté, our wine, and have lunch. Then we went to bed. Then in the late afternoon we would go out and have an aperitif. And to my utter, miraculous astonishment, I started to write poems again. And they turned out to be love poems, love poems of gratitude. And that went on all summer, all the way drifting down through from Paris to the south of France, and then to Italy.

James Wright died of cancer in 1980. His son, Franz Wright, is a fine poet in his own right. They are the only father and son to have ever won a Pulitzer Prize in the same category.


Today is Bloomsday. As I’ll be spending the day in Pamplona with an international group of translators, I’m taking along a copy of one of my favorite James Joyce poems to recite at lunch. Whenever I read “Ecce Puer,” I hear the sweet voice of Joan Baez, who included a musical version of it on her 1968 album Baptism: A Journey Through Our Time.


Of the dark past
A child is born;
With joy and grief
My heart is torn.

Calm in his cradle
The living lies.
May love and mercy
Unclose his eyes!

Young life is breathed
On the glass;
The world that was not
Comes to pass.

A child is sleeping:
An old man gone.
O, father forsaken,
Forgive your son!


Del oscuro pasado
Nace un niño;
De gozo y de pesar
Mi corazón se desgarra.

Tranquila en su cuna
La vida yace.
¡Que el amor y la piedad
Abran sus ojos!

Joven vida se exhala
Sobre el cristal;
El mundo que no era
Se llena de existencia.

Un niño duerme:
Un anciano ha partido.
¡Oh padre abandonado
Perdona a tu hijo!

Translation by José Antonio Álvarez Amorós

A Literary Christmas: Emily Dickinson’s Recipes

As the holidays draw near, my Spanish family begins to lobby for “American” Christmas cookies. It’s impossible to give them the excuse of professional deadlines: some free moments have to be found to bake their favorites. I should, indeed, be flattered. My husband’s family has more than its share of good cooks and Christmas Eve supper would be brilliant without my finishing touch.

Dividing my time between Christmas baking and translation projects, I often think about the American poet Emily Dickinson’s passion for baking. Although Dickinson was reticent to share her verses with others, she was generous with the bounty of her New England kitchen. She might have even found inspiration there. According to The Emily Dickinson Museum website, she dashed off snippets of verse on the wrappers of bars of baking chocolate and wrote “The Things that never can come back, are several” on the back of her favorite recipe for coconut cake. The Museum provides one of Dickinson’s gingerbread recipe (reproduced here) in its website and sells a collection of the poet’s favorites through its online store. These are hearty, old-fashioned types of sweets—good choices for anyone who might be thinking of sending a Christmas care package by messenger service or post. Authors suffering a writer’s block might try a few hours in the kitchen with Dickinson’s gingerbread recipe; inspiration just might come to them as it did to the belle of Amherst.

The Things that never can come back, are several —

The Things that never can come back, are several —
Childhood — some forms of Hope — the Dead —
Though Joys — like Men — may sometimes make a Journey —
And still abide —
We do not mourn for Traveler, or Sailor,
Their Routes are fair —
But think enlarged of all that they will tell us
Returning here —
“Here!” There are typic “Heres” —
Foretold Locations —
The Spirit does not stand —
Himself — at whatsoever Fathom
His Native Land —

Dickinson scholar Nelly Lambert has adapted the poet’s coconut cake to modern tastes. You can compares the original recipe with Lambert’s modern version in the NPR website. Lambert’s updated version unfortunately relies heavily on a number of products not found in Spanish supermarkets, so one day I’ll have to make my own adaptation of the original. Food writer and cookbook author Stephanie Stiavetti invited fellow foodie Vera Marie Badertscher to share her adaptation of Dickinson’s recipe for “Black Cake with readers of her blog The Culinary Life. Badertscher’s recipe for Black Cake calls for a whopping nineteen eggs, two pounds of butter, and half a pint of brandy. She wittily shares Dickinson’s personal note (not my father’s BEST brandy) and advises not admitting to your cardiologist that you ate such a thing. I agree with her.

The things that never come back are several, if not many, but Christmas is a time for calling up sweet memories of the past and bringing traditions to life. Out come the worn and spotted cookbooks, my grandmother’s maple rolling pin, the cookie cutters, and the bars of baking chocolate. The following is a recipe for the malted milk cookies I make every year. As sour cream is difficult to find in Spain, I use creme fraiche.

Malted Milk Rounds

4 cups all-purpose flour                    2 cups packed brown sugar

3/4 cup malted milk powder            2 eggs

2 tsp. baking powder                         1/3 cup sour cream

1/2 tsp. baking soda                          2 tsp. vanilla

1/2 tsp. salt

1 cup butter or margarine

Sift flour and blend the first five ingredients thoroughly. Cream the butter and gradually add the sugar. Blend in the eggs and beat mixture well. Add half the dry ingredients and mix well. Add the sour cream and vanilla and stir in the remaining dry ingredients. Chill dough for at least 4 hours.

Pre-heat oven to 375º. Roll the dough to a thickness of 1/4″. Cut shapes with metal cookie cutters and plave on ungreased cookie sheets. Bake for between 12 and 15 minutes. When cool, ice with malt frosting. These cookies are also wonderful with a chocolate glaze.

Malt Frosting

1/2 cup packed brown sugar                   1/3 cup malted milk powder

1/4 cup butter or margarine                    1/2″ tsp. vanilla

1/4 cup milk                                                 3 cups confectioners’ sugar

Cook brown sugar, butter, and milk in a saucepan until the sugar is melted. Remove from heat. Stir in malted milk powder and vanilla. Blend in confectioners’ sugar until the frosting has the right consistency for spreading.

These cookies freeze well and are great “dunkers” in a cup of hot chocolate or coffee.

Silvia Plath’s drawings on view at the Mayor Gallery in London

The Mayor Gallery in London has mounted an exhibition of forty-four pen and ink drawings executed by the late poet Sylvia Plath. Although the sketches seem oddly out of synch with the art of the period in which them were created, they do show meticulous craftsmanship and a good eye for composition. Plath’s drawings—landscapes, portraits, studies of common objects—are devoid of the personal angst and emotional engagement that permeated her written work. They seem to have been the result of a conscious effort to depart from the confessional style of her writing and record only the spare outlines of the physical world around her. Readers may recognize some of the images on display at the Mayor Gallery as illustrations included in paperback editions of Plath’s autobiographical novel The Bell Jar released in the 1980s. Several of the drawings date back to a 1956 honeymoon trip taken to Paris with her husband Ted Hughes. Had she overcome her suicidal tendencies, Sylvia Plath would have celebrated her seventy-ninth birthday yesterday, October 27. The exhibition of her drawings will remain on view at the Mayor Gallery through December 16.

The Mayor Gallery

22A Cork Street
United Kingdom

Yes, it was wrong; no, we can’t fix it: the Spanish judicial system and the poet Miguel Hernández

“It’s paradoxical that we are celebrating the centennial of a poet whose death sentence has never been annulled.”

Luis Pesquera, Miguel Hernández Commemoration, 2010

The Spanish “Law of Historical Memory” was enacted in 2007 to end the amnesia that had shrouded the fates of thousands of hapless Republican loyalists for more than three-quarters of a century. Although it was drafted during the administration of Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, whose own grandfather was executed by pro-Franco troops, the legislation has fallen short of legally exonerating the names of the many Spaniards who defended a democratically elected government in the face of a military coup in the 1930s. The present Spanish government has had limited legal resources with which to amend the harm done to Republican loyalists. As Diego López Garrido, the Socialist Party’s spokesman, explained during the drafting of the legislation, the Spanish parliament could not annul the sentences imposed by the military and civil courts during the Falangist regime as such an action would constitute an invasion of “the territory of judges”; the best it could do was to declare the trials undertaken during that period illegitimate.

The main provisions of the Law of Historical Memory are the recognition of victims of political, religious, and ideological violence perpetrated by both factions involved in the Spanish Civil War; the prohibition of political events at the Valley of the Fallen, a massive monument to the followers of Franco who perished in the war built by forced labor; the removal of Francoist symbols from buildings and public spaces throughout Spain (except for those on property belonging to the Roman Catholic Church); the rejection of the legitimacy of laws enacted and trials conducted during the Francoist regime, the granting of Spanish nationality to surviving members of the International Brigades who defended the Second Republic, and State cooperation in the identification of what are estimated to be hundreds of unmarked mass burial grounds where executions took place during and after the civil war. As a result of this legislation, tours of the Pardo Palace in Madrid no longer include a viewing of Franco’s living quarters, Franco’s heirs have been forced to vacate a mansion in Galicia that the dictator and his family had used as a summer residence since 1940, various statues and other monuments linked to the Franco and the Falange Party have been removed from public view, and streets in towns and cities throughout Spain formerly named for individuals connected to the Franco regime have been changed. However, none of these actions can be taken as permanent. Recent electoral victories by the Partido Popular, a right-wing party founded by one of Franco’s ministers, Manuel Fraga, have given rise to a spirited cultural backlash that has entailed yet another renaming of public thoroughfares and public institutions. The new mayor of Elche, Mercedes Alonso, inaugurated her administration by  changing the name of a public garden located on the city’s Avenida de la Libertad from the Jardin de Dolores Ibárurri (La Passionaria) to the Jardín de la República Argentina, declaring that Ibárurri “had no link to the city,” and flatly stating “It’s destroyed, it doesn’t exist, it’s a part of the past.”

Unlike Germany and Italy, whose brutal but short-lived totalitarian regimes were defeated, dismantled, and judged by external powers, Spain has had the onerous burden of reconstructing civil society on its own after almost forty years of rule by a single political party that suppressed all dissent. Although democratic political processes were established and a new constitution was written following the death of Franco, these were forged during an extended period of transition in circumstances that permitted many of the social, political, economic, and religious structures of Francoism to remain largely intact. Unlike Mussolini and Hitler, Franco was never defeated or judged for his actions, nor were any of those responsible for the actions of his regime brought to account. The constitution and institutions of the new “Kingdom” of Spain were negotiated under tensions created by separatist movements and fears of another military coup d’état. Those who had enjoyed almost unlimited power during the dictatorship were expected to relinquish a part of their prior privileges and the dictatorship’s victims were expected to relinquish their individual claims against a government that now aspired to full recognition within the international community. History would be brushed under the rug for the sake of a better future. What has resulted from this “pact of silence” has been an uneasy truce between those who seek to keep a turbid past hidden beneath the rock of time and those who wish to expose it to the light of day.

The drafting of the Law of Historic Memory coincided with plans for nationwide commemorations of the centennial of the birth of Miguel Hernández. His heirs considered the circumstances propitious for requesting the annulment of the charges brought against the poet in the wake of the Civil War. At first, their case showed promise. Armed with a “Declaration de Reparación y Reconocimiento Personal” authorized under the recently enacted Law of Historic Memory that had been presented to them by Vice President María Fernández de la Vega in a public ceremony held at the University of Alicante, Hernández’s daughter-in-law and granddaughter sought the annulment of the death sentence dictated to him by the military “Tribunal de Prensa” in Madrid in 1940 and later commuted to a thirty-year prison sentence.

The charges brought against Hernández in 1940 were “adherence to the rebellion” and “carrying out an intensive literary activity,” both ironic considering that the military tribunal judging him represented an insurrectionary faction that had brought down a democratically elected government by armed force and intensive literary activity is what one would expect a poet to engage in. The peculiar logic that underpinned political persecutions during Franco’s dictatorship was the concept of “inverted rebellion.” In a concise but informative summary of the early Francoist judicial system, Miguel Gutiérrez Carbonell stressed that Spanish military tribunals in the 1940s showed no impartiality, the laws that instructed them were a travesty, and as the Law of Historic Memory has since conceded, the sentences dictated by such a system were “very unjust.” He noted, “reviewing the sentences related to this type of charge handed out during the period one can identify a general set of criteria: a charge of supporting rebellion was sustained on the basis of a person’s ideological sympathy towards ‘red subversion’; merely espousing a leftist or republican ideology or belonging to any political party that was not patently right-wing without engaging in any other incriminating activities was sufficient to establish a person’s adherence to a revolutionary cause.” He goes on to enumerate the violations of judicial process that were institutionalized in Franco’s summary judicial proceedings: “the defense lawyer was always a member of the military and was not required to hold a law degree. There was no provision for the accused to be represented by his or her attorney of choice.” The lawyer assigned to the defendant had no more than three hours to prepare a defense: “Three hours to find and present relevant evidence, study the case, and present court documents, when what was at stake for the accused was the death penalty or a thirty-year prison sentence.” The rulings of these military tribunals could not be appealed.

Spanish courts have refused numerous petitions to annul summary judgments passed during the Franco era on the grounds that they conformed to the laws in vigor at the time they were issued. Nonetheless, the heirs of Miguel Hernández hoped to prove that the poet had been denied a fair trial even from the point of view of the abysmal judicial system that had condemned him. A folio of documents that authorities in Alicante failed to transfer to Madrid for presentation at Hernandez’s trial had recently come to light during the digitization of historical archive material. It contained a letter from Juan Bellod, a military official in the Francoist regime, asserting the poet’s innocence. In an act of generosity that might have had consequences for his own future, Bellod wrote:

I have known Miguel Hernandez since he was a boy . . . He is a person with an impeccable past, generous sentiments and deep religious and humanist training, but whose excessive sensitivity and poetic temperament have led him to act in accordance with the passion of the moment rather than calm, firm will. I fully guarantee his behavior and his patriotic and religious fervor. I do not believe that he is, at heart, an enemy of our Glorious Movement.

The family of Miguel Hernández pinned their hopes on the presentation of this new evidence, but last June, in a closed session, the Spanish Supreme Court refused to consider the case. Other individuals who hoped to clear the name of a family member through new legal channels created by the Law of Historic Memory have likewise been disappointed, and there have been calls to amend the law to allow for the annulment of unjust sentences meted out to victims of the dictatorship. However, given the current political climate, any possibility of changing the law in favor of the victims of the Franco regime now seems remote. As he was dying in his prison cell, Miguel Hernández stubbornly refused to sign a confession that might have led to the commutation of the remainder of his thirty-year prison sentence and perhaps even the right to leave Spain. To the end, he maintained that he had not committed any crime against his country and he steadfastly refused to bow to the new regime. For decades after his death, his family paid the price for Hernández’s decision to defy the will of the dictatorship. For them, a government declaration that they have suffered unjustly is not enough; they maintain that until a judge declares him officially innocent of the crimes attributed to him in Madrid in 1940, the sentence stands as a blot on the reputation of both the poet and Spanish society.

For those interested in knowing more about the experience of Spanish citizens subjected to Francoist reprisals following the fall of the Second Republic, the University of California maintains an English-language website documenting its Spanish Civil War Memory Project, which contains subtitled interviews with survivors of the period.


“A fresh access to reality”: the Poetry of Tomas Tranströmer

Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer has just been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel committee justified its decision with the simple statement “through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.” English translations of several of Tranströmer’s poems  can be found on the Poetry Foundation website and a Tom Sleigh’s reflection on the his work from the perspective of “deep image” is accessible through Sleigh makes the apt observation, “The true marker of Tranströmer’s poetry is not deep image’s desire for unmediated process or the current fascination with stylistic bricolage, process ‘liberated’ from its historical origins. His intention isn’t to suppress or outmaneuver the shocks of experience for the sake of primal purity or a portentous, knowing tone, but to make the poem a place where these shocks can occur. . . . Tranströmer’s sense of the continuity between history and our private fates sets up what Baudelaire called ‘correspondance’ in which ‘the lyrical stirrings of the soul, the wave motions of dreaming, the shocks of consciousness’ vibrate with and against the specific social conditions we are born into.”

Tranströmer’s poetry has been translated into more than sixty languages. A number of translators, including Robin Fulton, Robert Bly, Michael McGriff, and Mikaela Grassl have carried his poetry into English. Here is one of his shorter poems translated by Robert Bly titled “After a Death,” which appeared in yesterday’s edition of  Galleycat.

Once there was a shock
that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail.
It keeps us inside. It makes the TV pictures snowy.
It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires.

One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun
through brush where a few leaves hang on.
They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.
Names swallowed by the cold.

It is still beautiful to hear the heart beat
but often the shadow seems more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armor of black dragon scales.

Transtörmer is known for his wide-ranging interests and social commitment. During the same years that he forged a career as a poet, he was also employed as a trained psychologist, a position that brought him close to the personal realities of  disabled people, juvenile offenders, and drug addicts. In addition to his writing and his work as a psychologist, he has somehow found time and energy to maintain enduring friendships and collaborations with fellow poets and publishers around the world and polish his considerable skills as a pianist. In 1990, Transtörmer  suffered a stroke that affected his speech and left him without the use of  his right arm; nevertheless, he retrained himself to play with only his left hand. Galleycat reports that the poet intends to play a selection of left-hand piano pieces at the Nobel ceremony ceremony in December in lieu of presenting a traditional acceptance speech. The website features a digital guest book where poetry lovers around the world can offer their congratulations to the new Nobel laureate. The greetings expressed by well-wishers on this site constitute their own charmingly offbeat poetry.