Mark Strand by Peter Moysaenko

Books as objects, collage, and the difference between “mystery” and “ignorance.”

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Markstrand Cover Body

Collage by Mark Strand. From the cover of Mystery and Solitude in Topeka.

Mark Strand’s one of those poets with the power to make (good) poetry (an incremental bit more) popular. His best poems are deceptively straightforward, and their spooky genius resonates with readers in that way spooky genius often does, as a memory you had once but misplaced. His work doesn’t hand out revelation though—it prompts questions to questions. It’s an invitation to the exhilaration of uncertainty and the generative potential of loss. And his talent is prodigious. On top of all the verse (and that Pulitzer, which I nearly neglected to mention), he’s penned children’s literature, critical essays, and short stories. More recently, he’s responsible for a gorgeous book of collage and prose poems from a gorgeous press you probably haven’t heard of yet.

Mystery and Solitude in Topeka marks the maiden voyage of Monk Books, an outfit whose mission it is to create artifacts befitting the art they cradle, that is, “to make books as deliberate and artful as the texts within.” It’s something of a noble boast perhaps, but this slim square of a collection from the self-appointed “son of evening”—nine blocks of prose and five full-color lithographs, including the one on the cover—is a reminder of how damn lovely paper and ink can get. Printed on fantastic stock, the collages appear as stills of smoldering landscapes strung between the poems’ scenarios of subdued humor and unease, encounters with paradox and reverie, premonitions of a past disguised as future. The Minister of Culture lies in bed and amounts to nothing. A nameless man stares at a blank page. The poet is “drawn through daylight into the bronze corridors of dusk and thence into the promise of dark,” the poet dies and fears he’ll die again, and though the nighttime travelers raise such dust to darken stars, the stars, they assure the poet, will return.

These poems are adventures, tinged with the undulating glow of the collages’ horizons. They hazard extinction (as genuine adventures do) and, as they meander toward their unchartable destinations, they make of their prose a restrained anthem to the terror and splendor of matter, the inscrutable joke of time. The text, the visual art, the book itself—bound to sell out, if not already gone—comprise a celebration of finitude, of the unobtainable, of all our stuff too magnificent to last.

I sent Mark some questions before he left the States for the summer. He let me know what’s what.

Peter Moysaenko What if, instead of publishing books, poets put their final texts to massive canvases? If poems were hung on walls, how might the creation and consumption of poetry alter? Or is it all too improbable to entertain?

Mark Strand I think if poems were hung on walls they would be looked at but not read. They would exist as a hybrid. That is, something between a work of art and a work of literature but without the authority of either one.

PM What are some of your favorite books? And I mean the object as a whole—its heft, its fiber, its encoded intelligence. Does such concern veer too near to fetishism? Or is the poet, the artist, a fetishist in disguise?

MS Well, I don’t think the poet or artist is a fetishist in disguise. Unless, of course, he or she is overly passionate about disguise. I can’t think of any book that, as an object, has moved me. I like the look of some books—that is, I like some book jackets more than others, but this doesn’t constitute a serious interest in book-making.

PM What effects do you imagine that ongoing technological advance might have on the evolution of poetic forms, styles, topoi?

MS I don’t know. I suppose if I could read the future, I would know. Poetic forms and styles are always changing. Amazingly enough, topoi have remained remarkably consistent and have really to do with something embedded in the language of poetry. That a place can exist actually and metaphorically is at the very center of what we think of as poetic imagery.

PM What’s the difference between mystery and ignorance?

MS I’d like to say scrambled eggs, but I suppose I have to be serious. Mystery has to do with the unknowable; ignorance has to do with the avoidance (willed or unwilled) of knowledge.

PM What’s the difference between urgent and instant?

MS Urgent has to do with necessity. Instant has to do with quickness. They don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other.

PM What sort of relationship exists between your poetry and your visual art? Does your practice of visual art move along a course, according to a drive, largely distinct from that of your poetic practice?

MS I think the two are very distinct. My visual art is an escape from poetry, and my poetry—well, I leave that to you.

PM What advantage, if any, does collage have over painting?

MS Collage is easier to do.

PM What advantage, if any, do small presses have over larger houses?

MS They can make more beautiful books, if they’re funded. And a writer is less anonymous if he’s published by a small press—that is, he receives more personal treatment.

PM What is it, do you suppose, people fear about death—having no future or having no past? Is it a fear of simple selflessness?

MS Well, it’s not having a future or a past or a self or anything. Imagine never being asked to go to a party again, or being able to travel. Imagine not having a body. Imagine, if you can, nothing.

PM What’s a favorite bird of yours? What’s your favorite tree?

MS I have no favorite bird. If I did, I would commit myself to an insane asylum. If I had a favorite tree, I’d go to another insane asylum.

Mystery and Solitude in Topeka is available now from Monk Books.