I don’t know how many times the word “dark” appears in Mark Strand’s Collected Poems, which recently appeared at our doorway with a glorious thump. I guess someone at Knopf can tell us. But I can tell you that the word “dark” appears 126 times in L’uomo che cammina un passo avanti al buio, a bi-lingual selection of his poems from 1964-2006, which was published here in Italy in 2011. And yet, when, early on, his poems were criticized as being too dark, he famously replied, “I find them evenly lit.”
Mark and Dark. There have been some dark hours over here, as the phone calls and sympathy messages keep pouring in, from poets, editors, critics, publishers, and admirers of his work. We're functioning as the Italian center for condolences, and it's so sad, yet it's also a great honor. Mark himself referred to Damiano as his “voice in Italian,” even inscribing one book to Damiano “from his American brother, or twin. Or author of twin texts. Or necessary precursor of Damiano’s poems.”
In another book (which one it is will become immediately obvious), he has written: “The man cannot thank you enough—and the camel thanks you too. Seriously, thank you for this second life.” Much has been (and will continue to be) written about Mark’s place in American letters. But this “second life” as a major force in Italian poetry has grown exponentially since 1999, with the publication of L’inizio di una sedia, the first bi-lingual edition of his work here.
Here I sit, surrounded by upwards of a dozen of Mark’s books in translation, “a cura di Damiano Abeni,” and, more latterly, with my name on the cover, too. They were published by various houses, ranging from the small, beautiful, and arty to, well, about as big as they get—and in the series that’s considered by many to be the most prestigious for contemporary poetry in Italy. In Italy, too, Mark won just about every prize that can be awarded to a foreign poet. There’s even a DVD, “Ehi, Mark! Scusa il ritardo, scusa il ritardo...” which features Mark and Damiano reading poems in various locations around Rome, playing, too, on that idea of the “necessary belatedness of the translator.”
But it’s not just the influence of Mark’s own work, nor that “second life” that his poems took on in their beautiful and fated-seeming Italian versions. In 2003, Mark and Damiano co-edited West of your cities: nuova antologia della poesia americana. It was the first time in large circulation that the Italian reading public came to know work by the contemporary American poets, born in the 1930s up through the 50s, whose names are so familiar to us: Bidart, Gluck, Graham, Hass, Koethe, McHugh, Pinsky, Simic, James Tate, C.K. Williams, Charles Wright, and yes, Mark Strand. In his introduction, Strand explains (and I’m back-translating from the Italian here): “for a large number of foreign readers, American poetry seems to have stopped with the Beats, the Black Mountain poets, and the New York School. This volume is an attempt to update the attentive reader and to show that American poetry is alive and well.”
There’s comfort in knowing that the mind and heart of a poet will remain ever “alive and well” in his or her books. A number of friends have made that observation to us in the past few days. I take that to heart, here among these books that offer darkness and light, wisdom and humor, and some brand of comfort, on an afternoon that can’t decide if it wants to be cloudy or bright, dark or light.
Tucked inside one of these books is an airmail envelope, the old-school kind, postmarked June 5, 2002, 80 cents to wing it over from The University of Chicago to Rome. It’s too perfect. It’s this poem:
I am not thinking of Death, but Death is thinking of me.
He leans back in his chair, rubs his hands, strokes
His beard, and says, “I’m thinking of Strand, I’m thinking
That one of these days I’ll be out back, swinging my scythe
Or holding my hourglass up to the moon, and Strand will appear
In a jacket and tie, and together under the boulevards’
Leafless trees we’ll stroll into the city of souls. And when
We get to the Great Piazza with its marble mansions, the crowd
That had been waiting there will welcome us with delirious cries,
And their tears, turned hard and cold as glass from having been
Held back so long, will fall and clatter on the stones below.
O let it be soon. Let it be soon.”
This typescript has a different phrase at the end of the ninth line, as well as a penciled-in revision. But the poet has chosen well with his “delirious cries,” which is the way the poem appears in his Collected, that gorgeous, 510-page celebration of “his canonical work.” He’s inscribed our copy:
For Damiano and Moira
And we’d like to take this opportunity to say the same, back to him.
Moira and Damiano
Non sto pensando a Morte, ma Morte pensa a me.
Si rilassa in poltrona, si sfrega le mani, s’accarezza
la barba e dice «penso a Strand, penso
che nei prossimi giorni uscirò in cortile, brandendo la falce
o guardando controluna la mia clessidra, e Strand si mostrerà
in giacca e cravatta e insieme sotto gli alberi spogli
dei boulevard passeggeremo fino alla città delle anime. E quando
giungeremo nella Gran Piazza dai palazzi di marmo, le moltitudini
che lì attendevano ci saluteranno con pianti deliranti,
e le loro lacrime, rese dure e fredde come vetro dall’essere state
tanto a lungo trattenute, cadranno e scrosceranno sul selciato.
Oh, che sia presto. Che sia presto.»