American poetry's recognition of the prosaicness — if not profanity — of our age and culture takes many forms. Poets embrace pop or pursue the workings of the mind with what Robert Bly called associative leaping. They examine rhetoric by mashing up archaisms with the hypernew. They resist poetry's traditional resistance to technology, fashion, advertising or fad — or they follow someone like Ashbery into poetic abstraction.
Mark Strand's Almost Invisible leans on yet older forms, veiling its poetry in a fabulistic shell. The book consists of 47 deadpan, mildly absurdist parables on aging, failure and incapacity. While Strand has done this before, the poems bank on the possibility that the reader will appreciate how his form has matured.
In "The Students of the Ineffable," the poet is distracted by something resembling the march of history. "I had rented a house by the sea. Each night I sat on the porch and wished for some surge of feeling, some firelit stream of sound to lead me away from all that I had known." He is called by "long lines of people shuffling into the distance" who insist, "Our work is important and concerns the self." When shown how all the dust they've stirred up veils the sky, one such marcher replies, "We are only passing through, the stars will return." The dialogue works on the public level, suggesting both the ephemeral (a protest movement, a file of monks) and something more lasting than history. The meaning deepens — as in a riddle or a Buddhist koan — as it proves most elusive.
Dialogue works so well in Almost Invisible because, like many Americans, Strand is anxious about the role of poetry within the greater culture, unsure whether, as he has mused in his essay, "Poetry in the World," whether poetry does any "good." The exchange in "The Students of the Ineffable" allows Strand to voice his anxiety, even ambivalence over his wish "for some firelit stream of sound," and at the same time for questions that "concern the self."
If Strand is drawn to the ineffable, he is as amused by the profane: the declining body, bureaucracy, sex, folly, the diminishing mind. In "The Minister of Culture Gets His Wish," Strand's bureaucrat "goes home after a grueling day at the office. He lies on his bed and tries to think of nothing" but cannot muster even this. "Nothing is elsewhere doing what nothing does, which is to expand the dark. But the minister is patient, and slowly things slip away — the walls of his house, the park across the street, his friends in the next town." This bit amounts to little more than a lazy reordering of many of Strand's best lines from Reasons for Moving and Darker on emptiness ("In a field / I am the absence / of field / ... Wherever I am / I am what is missing."), darkness ("I have a key / so I open the door and walk in. / It is dark and I walk in. / It is darker and I walk in."), and nothing ("where nothing, when it happens, is never terrible enough.").
In his classes at Columbia, the poet and critic Richard Howard has often described a major poet as one whose work has a distinguishable beginning, middle and late period. While Strand may be the most successful American at bringing inklings of Kafka's DNA into verse (Jesse Ball is a recent exemplar in fiction), this was already Strand's project four decades ago in his best books. By Howard's standard, Strand — an acknowledged self-imitator who rarely reads new poets — would seem to have long given up the anxiety of his own influence. Almost Invisible offers small treasures of wry amusement, elegance, effortlessness and pleasure in contradiction. But in asking us to indulge so much well-trod territory, it may be asking a bit too much.