Mark Strand Standing at the Head of a Sea of Sweater Vests and Retro-Chic Black-Framed Glasses

I haven’t seen so many sweater vests and cardigans in my life.

From Time Out New York

I understand how glasses might’ve become a symbol of intelligence–if you read all the time, or need to see in a giant lecture hall the notes you are attempting to share with the class, you will probably want to keep a pair of spectacles on your face rather than hidden with deepest shame in the bottom of your bag or desk drawer. But sweater vests? Not that I’m complaining, I think they’re rather dashing, but… still.

I went to see Mark Strand read from his latest collection, Almost Invisible, this evening. I have to admit, I don’t think poetry readings are really my thing. I don’t think I’ve read enough of it, haven’t leafed through enough literary journals in public with a carefully crafted expression of erudition and contemplation. However, I don’t think I would mind turning into one the plain, grey-haired ladies there,  no offense meant to any plain, grey-haired ladies (though I think I’d prefer if I cut to the chase and go straight for white hair). I think they fall under the same general category as the cat-lad y, these women, eternally preoccupied and occasionally speaking to entities which are not truly there, or aware enough to answer them. Books, cats, students, same thing really.

At some point I should probably start talking about the poet, and the poetry, which is ostensibly the point of the meeting, rather than glorying in the fact that You are a Person of Intellect, who attends Poetry Readings by Famous Poets, and when someone in the audience asks after his influences and he name-drops obscure French and Spanish poets You can nod and say, I am a part of this Secret Club of Obscure Poetry Aficionados, I Understand, I am Smart Enough and here is my concrete evidence to support this assertion.

It’s hard to judge scale when you are sitting in an audience, but Mark Strand is a still-mostly-slender man, though the black jacket he never took off could not hide an old man’s stooped shoulders and  slight paunch. He also wore jeans that would not look out of place on a man more than half his age. He’s slow-speaking, and comes off as both rehearsed and casually charismatic– either he’s done this so many times he’s got the script down cold, or got in some practice on the flight in. His smile is magnetic, full of old-school clean-cut frat-or-prep-boy charm, and interviewers still ask about his good looks at 77. I don’t know the guy, let me say, but he seems like he’s gotten pretty accustomed to being Mark Strand, the Famous Poet, rather than Mark Strand, a guy who writes poetry sometimes. (I wish I’d thought to ask about that, and how he decided what he was going to read. Ah, the staircase wit of poetry readings.)

The guy who introduced him, from the Michener Center though I did not catch his name, sounded like he was going to take flight on the wings of ecstasy that Mark Stand, Famous Poet, was doing a reading to an only mostly-full auditorium, in a room I’d have to deem moderately-sized. Something about how his poetry was like he leads you to meet with the angel of death and comments on the weather once you get there; on the moon; on the starlight across a still, still lake. I wanted to scoff, but I stopped myself, not wishing to face the wrath of even a moderately-sized lecture hall of offended academics and poets and fans of poetry. I’m not going to lie, my most overriding feeling during this part of the reading was one of thirst. The whole drive there, the walk there, I’m fine, but the instant I sit down I realize my mouth is a desert and my throat a gulley, cracked and desolate, and I wonder how rude it would be to leave to find a water fountain.

This feeling did not last long. I don’t have much of a memory for this kind of thing–individual titles blur together into a vague jumbled mess, the blurry ghosts of signified concepts naked and shivering in the cold wasteland of my brain without their sign. Sort of pretentious, with a nice flow regardless. He mentioned that several of them started as just orphan titles, and quipped that he realized just then that he should’ve written them mother-poems and father-poems. (He read the title of “In the Grand Ballroom of the New Eternity,” and stopped there, saying the poem itself was a failure but that the title was so good.)

He split the reading in two, between poems and the prose poems with which he said he had finally escaped the influence of Wallace Stephens, whom he assured us would’ve quite disliked them. (Though he admitted to having fled to the warm, Austro-Hungarian embrace of Franz Kafka.)

The guy’s got a sense of humor. He stopped about two poems in. “I’ve not been anywhere near a white tablecloth or napkin, and yet my black coat,” he commented, pausing to gesture down the length of his torso, “is covered in lint.”

“It disturbs me.”

And then it was on to the next piece. He paused later, told us he would be reading something whose title I have forgotten, then reached for the water bottle and said with a smirk, “Mark Strand… drinking.” Exciting stuff. Someday I will be able to tell my hypothetical children and grandchild (or pets) that I saw a Poet Laureate drinking from a bottle of Aquafina. I get shivers just thinking about it. I shall never drink another brand.

I wish I could say more about the actual poetry. All the Strand I’ve read, however, is “Eating Poetry,” and I’m convinced that everyone who takes creative writing classes has read it, in the same way that every poet has written about being unable to write, or about the act of writing itself, or both. So I make any sort of call on where he is going and where he has been, stylistically. But what I heard very much backs up the (overly florid) description on Amazon of Almost Invisible: deceptively plain, macabre and charming and dusk-dark. Images of leaves and of the cold, of death being a bright blue sofa in an endless field of grass, and one poem meant to be read to Haydn’s “The Last Seven Words of Christ Upon the Cross,” which is, unsurprisingly, about Christ on the cross, which led to an unwelcome urge to turn my phone back on and ask wikipedia about Mark Strand’s religious beliefs.  But that was the longest poem, coming in seven parts.

I liked the prose poems. They reminded me strongly of Borges, which is one of the foreign famous poets Strand listed as an influence. Strand called several of them fables. A lot of them made me chuckle, and some were beautiful, and some were… well. I don’t know if I have the tenses exactly correct, but one was named, “Dream Testicles, Vanished Vaginas,” and featured a talking corpse named Harold. And walking out, I felt the blurry, dream-fogged abstraction I get after consuming Good Art.

I had fun. I’m glad I went, and I guess the fact that I just wrote about a thousand words about a poet of my own volition, and pre-ordered the book*, means I, too, am one of the Sweater Vestian Hoard.

There are worse things to be.

*Interesting factoid. The book was supposed to be out already, but there were so many mistakes the whole lot of them, a million and a half, had to be pulped, which Strand thought was quite amusing given its title.