Book Reviews, Features

2012 Staff Picks: Justin Boening reviews Mark Strand’s Almost Invisible

mark-strand

Almost Invisible
Mark Strand
Knopf, 2012

By Justin Boening, Associate Editor for Poetry Northwest

2012 was a remarkable year for poetry. From Eduardo C. Corral’s outstanding debut, Slow Lightning, to Jorie Graham’s finest effort in years, Place, there was much that dazzled, provoked, and inspired. When pressed to make a choice, however, as to which 2012 collection could be called my absolute favorite, I landed firmly on a book of poems not even considered a book of poems by its author: Almost Invisible. Mark Strand’s most recent collection of short prose pieces (as he calls them) has all the trappings of his previous attire—the infamously repetitive diction, the drippy nostalgia, and, of course, that hallmark debonair fatalism. But these poems are far from being placid guff. The poems of Almost Invisible are nimble and tonally varied, smart and introspective—the epitome of Strand’s best late-period work.

In an episode of the Poetry Foundation’s podcast Poetry Off the Shelf, Vijay Seshadri says of Strand:

“…to some extent all of Strand’s poems are about the situation of the artist. He sort of sees the situation of the artist as being co-extensive with the situation of the human being or the situation of consciousness itself…”

Never has this aspect of Strand’s project been more apparent or persuasive. Through a series of parables, Strand again and again depicts the complacency of an apathetic people who have lead the world into an rut of spiritual stagnation—no doubt a figure applicable to each of Strand’s selves (the artist, the human being, and his own consciousness). One poem, “You Can Always Get There from Here,” ends:

“There were once many buildings, but now there are few and each of them needed repair. In the park where he played as a child, dust-filled shafts of sunlight struck the tawny leaves of trees and withered hedges. Empty trash bags littered the grass. The air was heavy. He sat on one of the benches and explained to a woman next to him that he’d been away a long time, then asked her what season had he come back to. She replied that it was the only one left, the one they all had agreed on.”

Here, the buildings, as everything else, need repair. The leaves are tawny, and hedges withered. Of the four seasons that keep track of time only one remains, as if time has stopped or as if the passage of time has become irrelevant. These are the parts of Mark Strand’s world, just as they have been since the beginning, unchanged. But this world is not simply the world he’s inherited; not this time, these are the beleaguered conditions “(we) all had agreed on.”

Longtime readers of Strand will especially enjoy Almost Invisible for the way it humorously converses with past poems, such as in “The Mysterious Arrival of an Unusual Letter,” which seems to talk back to both “The Mailman,” a poem from Reasons for Moving, and “Elegy for My Father,” which appears in The Story of Our Lives. They’ll also enjoy the way these poems continue to build on the frivolity and dark comedy that has been present in his work since Dark Harbor. New readers will respond, just as they always have, to Strand’s impeccable timing, the paradoxical, and the haunting manner in which the poems enact “slowly things (slipping) away.” If you missed this book, then run, don’t walk. This is a chance to experience a poet at his most flexible and, oftentimes, his most moving.