I’ve been making my way at a glacial pace through Mark Strand’s Selected Poems. Plodding of this sort tends to happen with me and poetry; I’m usually so wary of careless gorging on line and meter that a thin volume could take months for me to get through.
I found this copy in a new-to-me used bookstore at the beginning of the year; it was the first of this poet’s works I’d ever picked up, although I’d gone to a reading of his. The piece that convinced me I couldn’t do without the book was “The Coming of Light”*– but what I’ve come back to ever since I grabbed it from the shelf is the author’s photograph on the front cover, a black-and-white shot of a handsome man in confident middle age, assured of his place in the world, maybe a bit cockily so. I continue to be struck by the totally conventional portrait, because I would never have recognized the man staring out at me; that reading I attended, mentioned earlier, took place only a few years ago, right before the poet’s death at age eighty. The thirty-four years that intervened between my book’s publication and the night I watched him discuss poetry and libretti with Renée Fleming meant, of course, a marked change in physical appearance. And I could be incredibly wrong, but I’m guessing the mellow gent who seemed unconcerned with letting the opera star take over would have looked with a bit of amusement upon his younger self’s relaxed photographic pretension.
I thought of that (possible) difference when reading “Old People on the Nursing Home Porch.” The title makes it evident whom we’re observing here– and I have to wonder if the Strand who would have been one of their peers might have shaken his head at the vaguely arrogant assumptions the younger Strand had made in the prime of his life, about the “dullness” of their past, and their “ending up with nothing/Save what might have been” in “the wasted/Vision of each one.”** Did this slightly pitying observance contain the fear of a possible personal future– and perhaps because of that fact, make it impossible for the observer to imagine these seniors as they once were, as presently happy, and/or as more than the sum of their slow rocking? Or might the poetic voice (and not necessarily the poet) feel itself immune to this variety of ravaged fate? I wish I’d known more (anything at all, actually) about Strand’s work before listening to him talk not so long ago; he seemed approachable, and I might have felt comfortable enough to ask him about that earlier piece. Now, though, I’ll have to settle for a more discomfiting, because less theoretical, search for answers: namely, coming back to this particular dilemma, and asking myself the same sorts of questions, if I’m lucky enough to be able to do so another three decades or so down the line.
* “The Coming of Light”
Even this late it happens:
the coming of love, the coming of light.
You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,
stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows,
sending up warm bouquets of air.
Even this late the bones of the body shine
and tomorrow’s dust flares into breath.
Mark Strand, Selected Poems (New York: Atheneum, 1980), 115.
** ibid., 8.
Fresh off a couple of nights of artistic hobnobbing and occasional puzzlement, I’m going to attempt with this post to shake off the last lingering hangers-on from yesterday evening’s production of Mememtos Mori, a live rendering of what may have been intended to be an exploration of death from a variety of angles. A combo of paper puppets and human actors projected using transparencies, we see Death going around with her iPhone, being alerted when to knock someone off, and doing so with an easy swipe of the finger. Connecting all of these people being felled by an app is a little girl apparently being made aware of life’s end.
I’ll not go into the execution or, for the most part, plot; it makes me happy to see people trying something new and different. But here’s the tangle in this whole scheme: in the midst of a project intentionally and assertively analogue (the troupe’s name is Manual Cinema), everything revolves around the reality of virtual command. The first character to be offed, Marie, finds herself as a ghost walking through walls and people, invisible to everyone except Death and unable to grab or to hold anything tangible– with the sole and inexplicable exception of her iPhone, which she grabs off her own corpse and manipulates with ease.
On the one hand, the whole scenario is like a transhumanist’s dream; essentially, we’re only forgotten when our social networking– or the battery on the smartphone– goes. No need to be bound by a body, as long as we’re still networked to the ether. But that consideration was also depressing for the fact that what it additionally conveys is that, in such a situation, we’ve really been invested in nothing other than virtual life. If apps and notifications are what keep us in the existential loop, we might as well have been dead all along.
My other complaint: even Death is seemingly so unimpressed with and lazy about her job that only cigarettes and wine can compete with the glowing rectangle she keeps checking, afflicted, like so many of her human victims, with the fear of missing out. Odd, too, that the universe, after eons of bringing people over to the other side just fine, and in all-too-efficient fashion for most of us, has also bought into Silicon Valley’s design for optimal living.
Well; it’s no secret that I’m wary at best, where constant connection is concerned. But I don’t think I’m being harsh in declaring that this L.A.-based troupe revealed that their fetish for cute analogue projects may be little more than nostalgia for something, considering the age of the cast, they may never have experienced. There’s a conversation in there about the validity of keeping long-dead crafts alive, and/or of master weavers, etc., etc., being more than a nice sideshow at Renaissance fairs– but I’m not certain at this point why I’m much more favorable to those latter exemplars than to the work Manual Cinema is doing. Maybe– and this is a premature maybe– it’s because the projected puppet people so far don’t seem to have taken seriously the connection that interactions with old-fashioned tangible things, including people, both make possible and require– that, to put it badly, you can’t have your analogue cake and eat it digitally, too.