September 2013

Matt Hartman

poetry

Almost Invisible by Mark Strand

The title of Pulitzer Prize winner Mark Strand's newest collection of poems, Almost Invisible, already conveys the sense of transition and contention that structures the poems themselves. It brings to mind the double take one makes when she finally recognizes the person she's been speaking to for the last ten minutes, the unease of thinking that there's something lingering nearby -- right there, can't you see it? -- but being unable to verify it. It's a feeling rendered beautifully by Strand throughout, holding a mirror to our world that's all the more clear for the shifting image it reflects.

The poems are both comic and tragic -- some transform from one to the other between readings, many are both at once -- and Strand blends the two together amongst the grandiose and the petty. In one poem, he narrates:

After years of marriage, he stands at the foot of the bend and tells his wife that she will never know him, that for everything he says there is more that he does not say, that behind each word he utters there is another word, and hundreds more behind that one. All those unsaid words, he says, contain his true self, which has been betrayed by the superficial self before her.

"That you barely exist as you are couldn't please me more," the wife responds. But the poem is titled "Harmony in the Boudoir," a title that brings to mind the always-dumb jokes in which one hears the word boudoir. Strand brings out the uncanny from the ordinary, combines metaphysical speculation with common marital relations. It's funny and terrifying in turns, and each because of the other.

Strand's prose poetry style is important in keeping the effect alive. His writing is light and deft, full of images that dance across the mind and words that carry more weight than they should be able to. They poke and prod, uncover hidden depths in everyday syntax and find beauty in the most ordinary of places.

In "The Nietzschean Hourglass, or The Future's Misfortune," Strand tells of hearing "the hourglass calling for someone to turn it over and show that the future is just an illusion." But Strand "was too young for such an idea, so it came back years later as if to prove its own point."

Almost Invisible is similar. It resists understanding by seeming so simple, yet just strange enough to give pause, like looking through dissipating smoke. "There is no way to clear the haze in which we live, no way to know that we have undergone another day," Strand writes in "Bury Your Face in Your Hands." But he can still show us the humor of grasping around in the dark, no matter -- or maybe only because of -- the futility of the search for light.

So Strand celebrates the futile moments of clarity, the moments that "still come back, but briefly, like fireflies in the perfumed heat of a summer night." It's those moments -- when we can see the hourglass being turned, when we can bask in sunset, when we can saver the feeling of change (the feeling of having a new feeling) -- that Strand captures here. They're elusive, ephemeral, but only because we know them so well.

Strand treads along well-worn paths and absurd moments -- "A Banker in a Brothel of Blind Women" opens the collection; there are also well dressed men building giant gallows and mysterious letters from dead relatives, but also "The Everyday Enchantment of Music" and spouses talking in bed. And it takes his agile touch to bring these moments to life without distorting them into something we wouldn't recognize.

Almost Invisible by Mark Strand
Knopf
ISBN: 978-0375712180
68 pages