Existing and Loving in Mark Strand’s Poetry

In the beginning of Samuel Beckett’s Murphy, the titular character has tied himself naked to a chair in the dark, rocking back and forth, doing absolutely nothing beside. This is a kind of dream-state for him. He’s a dreadful solipsist, refusing ever to take any responsibility for himself or others, attempting to come as close to some form of non-existence as possible. Without taking a drastic final step, this is to him the height of being.

Of course this is the mindset of a fictional character, but that doesn’t mean there is no such thing in reality. There are enough people who just exist as they do, living from one day into the next, with no real sense of progression. This is perfectly justifiable. Mark Strand in his poem “Coming to This” captures the same sort of spirit in a couple that has become passive later on in their lives:

And now we are here.
The dinner is ready and we cannot eat.
The meat sits in the white lake of its dish.
The wine waits.
Coming to this
has its rewards: nothing is promised, nothing is taken away.
We have no heart or saving grace,
no place to go, no reason to remain.

The obvious benefit of not tackling life head-on is a pure absence of pain. There is little loss since there is little of value; a valueless life can be the same thing as a painless life. And so even the end of life itself can be faced  since it doesn’t matter either way. Suicide doesn’t become desirable, necessarily, but the whole question of whether that’s a valid way out receives a strange answer: “meh.”

But the stages one must progress through to reach such a state are many. I guess a sort-of switch-off of the self: if pain becomes overbearing and there is no way out of it, switching off the emotions is not an uncommon defence. After all, if I don’t feel anything, you can’t hurt me. It’s as simple as that. And it’s a life that by definition doesn’t risk anything – a life quite opposed to the drive most people feel in some form. Again, Strand writes beautifully on this in “Keeping Things Whole”:

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.
We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

It’s like an inner drive just to do stuff. This is in no way a celebration of the more frantic capitalism-driven burnout-culture we live in, but just an observation that humans, in general, wish to act, whether it be for pleasure, work, or just out of a stale sense of duty. The feeling of boredom is abhorrent: many people would do anything to avoid it. One of the strong reasons we may feel a proclivity towards addiction – including addiction to entertainment – might very well be the desperate need to have the feeling of doing something, even if it is an illusion. Without it, we don’t feel whole, as Strand says.

But the issue here is the question of how to act, of what to do, and how to keep on doing it. The world is a terrifying place and uncertainty governs every step. On this, Strand is also vocal. His “Black Maps” highlights the difficulty of finding the right path:

Nothing will tell you
where you are.
Each moment is a place
you’ve never been.
You can walk
believing you cast
a light around you.
But how will you know?
The present is always dark.

And this is, in essence, part of the human condition. There is a drive in humans to keep going; to press on, always, to discover – to map things out – to produce, to create, always with the hope of filling the void of existence with something to do. I have written about this absurdity of existence before and Albert Camus’s solution in embracing this condition, though our concerns don’t end here. Strand actually offers a lovely view when facing one’s own existence along these lines in “Lines for Winter”:

Tell yourself
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
walking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself-
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon’s gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.

This would of course remind us of a winter poem by Wallace Stevens, although the tone is much more negative – “The Snow Man”

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Both poems offer a vision of life with imagery relating to winter, both tackle the problem of existence, but while both contain the struggle to be and to act in the world, Stevens offers the more chilling nihilistic perspective, whereas Strand gives us a glimpse of the end – and that with an urge to love oneself. 

And indeed therein may lie the secret. In a social media-driven society where the divination of one’s narcissistic tendencies is ubiquitous in one large slice of the world, and self-righteous self-contempt in another, finding a healthy balance of self-love and love for others can seem particularly difficult to achieve. A lot of it has to do with the struggle we have with our thoughts. As Hamlet says in Shakespeare’s play when telling his former friends what he thinks of his home, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.” There is no greater struggle – or more important struggle – than the struggle with one’s own self.

Murphy’s problem is, essentially, that he does not struggle with his self. His downfall comes when he works as a nurse at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat hospital – a parody of Bethlem Royal Hospital – and struggles to keep afloat his solipsistic beliefs.

No – a life well lived would be one in which we act in a way that shows signs of improvement and growth in an effort to be content with what we have done. This isn’t measured by external achievement, but is very much a life that relies on our own journey with ourselves. And in the end, we may find satisfaction in meeting an end such as described by Strand in “In Celebration”:

You sit in a chair, touched by nothing, feeling
the old self become the older self, imagining
only the patience of water, the boredom of stone.
You think that silence is the extra page,
you think that nothing is good or bad, not even
the darkness that fills the house while you sit watching
it happen. You’ve seen it happen before. Your friends
move past the window, their faces soiled with regret.
You want to wave but cannot raise your hand.
You sit in a chair. You turn to the nightshade spreading
a poisonous net around the house. You taste
the honey of absence. It is the same wherever
you are, the same if the voice rots before
the body, or the body rots before the voice.
You know that desire leads only to sorrow, that sorrow
leads to achievement which leads to emptiness.
You know that this is different, that this
is the celebration, the only celebration,
that by giving yourself over to nothing,
you shall be healed. You know there is joy in feeling
your lungs prepare themselves for an ashen future,
so you wait, you stare and you wait, and the dust settles
and the miraculous hours of childhood wander in darkness.