Monday, March 8, 2010

Introduction to "Keeping Things Whole"

Mark Strand’s poetry confuses me. It’s often, though not always, a pleasant confusion, but a confusion nonetheless. This might be what that AP prompt from twenty years ago refers to as a “healthy mix of pleasure and disquietude,” though I have a feeling they mean something more along the lines of the fractured chronology of, say, Catch-22, or the fantastic imposition of a nightmare upon reality in Metamorphosis. Strand’s words, his images, give me pleasure (think of “Eating Poetry,” with its panicked librarian, its dogs on the stairs), but they also unsettle me, not because they raise uncomfortable questions for me (like, say, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”), and not because they disturb me (as, say, The Road, might), but because I feel like I don’t quite get them, like I can’t quite put them together into a coherent whole. I understand the words. I can make sense of the images. He’s not writing sentences like “toothbrush flies painted a dog,” sentences that syntactically and grammatically work but which convey no meaning. But they resist – just a little bit, just enough to unsettle me – quick readings, quick understandings.

That said, I enjoy this poem a lot. I’m continuously startled by the opening stanza, by the sense I have, reading it, like I’m seeing a fundamental truth fresh and anew, like I’m seeing something that I should know but have never thought about, like I’m seeing something that was always there but whose thereness I couldn’t see until Strand pointed it out to me. “In a field / I am the absence / of field.” How perfectly true, no? If I step into a field, I fill a piece of that space that was formerly field. I replace a piece of field. I become, in essence, what simultaneously becomes missing from that field, from that space.

And then, when I move, the field returns, becomes whole again.


And made better by the turn: the speaker then tells himself, insists to himself that this is why he moves: in order to keep things whole. What a perfect reason. I move to keep things whole. It’s justification and rationalization all at once. It’s what we tell ourselves whenever we can’t handle what we’ve become, whenever we don’t want to accept the responsibility for being the absence of the thing that we have replaced: this is what I do. This is who I am. It’s my responsibility. I have to move or things won’t stay whole. “We all have reasons,” Strand writes. And he’s right. We do. We might invent them, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re there. Nor does it change the fact that we might invent them because we’re unable, or unwilling, to face the truth of what they cover, to face the reality behind the illusion they create.

Note, by the way, how the last stanza moves from four words, to two, to two again, and then back to four. Symmetry. And the total: twelve words out of four lines. Twelve words that could have been twelve lines, that could have been the foundation of a sonnet, that could have been everything but a sonnet’s payoff – that payoff that, in a sonnet, is revealed in the final couplet, in the final comment that tells us how to read what came before. In this poem, in this stanza, that final couplet is missing. It is the absence.

Note, too, the absence of sense in that last paragraph. It’s a nonsensical argument. It’s a desperate reach – albeit a deliberately desperate reach, an attempt to create an understanding where there isn’t one. An attempt to cover a truth that I might not be willing to face, to create an illusion that allows me to live, to live both with the poem and with myself. After all, we all have reasons. For moving. For creating. For believing.

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