Dec 13, 2009

Poem for a Day: "Keeping Things Whole" by Mark Strand


and things in fields

One of the most youthful, most basic of our philosophical ponderings is, "Who am I?" For most of us, it probably remains relevant for a lifetime, though we might blush to admit it.

But maybe our most sophisticated add-on makes it just a bit less narcissistic: "What am I?" -- as if we can know. But we should want to; we should be Sisyphus rolling our rocks up that hill.

I don't know Mark Strand's poetry as well as I intend to, but I stumbled onto "Keeping Things Whole" a couple of years ago, and this or that cue keeps me coming back to it. The poem strikes me as simple and playful on the one hand, but as profound as subatomic particles on the other. It is as self-important as its conclusion, "I move to keep things whole." But it's also humble--literally self-effacing: "I am the absence" . . . . That is, absence of field. And who doesn't like a field? A field is an intuitively good thing unless added information convinces us this is one of those rare malevolent fields.

The other day (Dec. 9), in talking about Grace Paley's "Walking in the Woods," I mentioned the uses of white space in poems. In "Keeping Things Whole," notice the way Mark Strand's trail of words is much thinner than the white space surrounding it, as if the poem is a thing like its speaker, moving into and out of spaces in a mysterious, ineffable way. And the inked words are not loud or bellicose or imperialistic; they are not bombs, but small, soft-spoken shapes, wondering about themselves and space and matter, as they wind and sneak along.

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Anonymous said...

I've always thought our basic question was "why am I."

I like the way his poem moves. Very graceful.

don't you think it refers to the curse of self-awareness -- the observed vs the observer. Forever on the outside looking in?

Banjo52 said...

Forever the alien? And therefore, isolated, lonely. Yes, I think so.

I guess I'm also trying to see the the scientific or philosophical possibilities. In those contexts, where is the boundary between the me and the not-me? A couple of breakfast buddies like to "go there," and they can be convincing about the meanings of atoms, particles, molecules moving around and morphing and so forth.

I don't really know what I'm talking about in those arenas, but sometimes I find such issues (about tipping points?) to be fun--for awhile.

Also, what do we make of the poem's last stanza? Surely its irony is hyperbolic or downright cocky, but the word "playful" seems right too. On the other hand, his "moving" might also refer to dying and thereby keeping things whole. We let the air close--become whole--around the space where we were, AND we get recycled. By getting the hell out of the way, or by deleting ourselves, we allow everything else to become whole or return to wholeness. Yes?

What is this, Philosophy 101?

Barbaro said...

Re Rita Dove, a couple days back: impressive choice. Some of her stuff is pretty awful, but that one certainly packs a punch. A nice modern spin on A Room of One's Own.

Barbaro said...

Re Rita Dove poem a couple days back: impressive choice. Some of her stuff is pretty awful, but that one sure packs a punch. Virginia Woolf, eat your heart out!

Brenda's Arizona said...

I guess I am with your breakfast buddies? Where you are, nothing else can be. In a field, the field isn't. As you walk thru air, the molecules are displaced, meaning they aren't there. You are. Your own signature, your own molecules, take over. Maybe in the field, the 'field' is still there, but a radar signal from a plane would show a gap in the field. where you are... the signature would be yours and no one elses. But it seems Mark Strand is also saying it is lonely, never being a part of anything. The signature might be unique but it is lonely, never a part of the field...

Yikes, yes, philosophy 101. Maybe 102, also??

Banjo52 said...

I don't think I'd compared "Daystar" to "A Room of One's Own," but it certainly works, doesn't it. Rita Dove has a few I really like; maybe I'll try her again ina few days.

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, so my science isn't completely off-track? Thanks for corroborating.

Next month I'll put up a Wallace Stevens poem set in January; it's also about presence and absence, probably in a more challenging way than Strand's poem.

Knowing how everyone loved Stevens' "Anecdote of the Jar," I just want to make sure you stay tuned.

Anonymous said...

Wallace Stevens is my hero. You know how we've said knowing the personal life of the artist does not serve the work? (Ok, I've said that.) Such is not the case with Stevens.

Banjo52 said...

AH, you apparently know more about Steven's life than I do (lawyer, insurance company, Hartford, that's all). Now that you bring it up, it interests me that I don't recall ever hearing anyone call him their hero, though many admire his intellect. Should we all read up on him?

(To anyone interested, "Anecdote of the Jar" was discussed here on Nov. 12 [talk about "time flies]").

Brenda's Arizona said...

I "think" I am looking forward to January's edition of W. Stevens... It feels like the excitement of going swimming, but the caution of the cold cold water. Once you dip your toe in the cold water, you decide your next move - jump in all at once or slowly work your way in the water. Wallace Stevens is like that to me - the possibility of having fun with a sigh of the work to do so.

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, I don't want to give anything away, but in terms of fun, it won't be like a box of chocolates . . .

Maybe some of those before and after. I've gotta get organized.

Lovers' Lane