Mark Strand, who died in November at the age of eighty after a long battle with cancer, is the first among my oldest friends to go. Having known him for forty-six years, I’ve come to realize since he passed away what a huge presence he was in my life and still continues to be. Every time I read something interesting, hear some literary gossip, have a memorable meal, or take a sip of truly fine wine these days, I want to get in touch with him and tell him about it. It’s not that we talked every day when he was alive, but he was often on my mind as I went about my life and it was the same with him.
I happened to see him one day just hours after he got back from Italy. After showing me the beautiful socks and shoes he bought in Rome, he said he had something exciting to tell me. When he was in Sicily, he discovered that there were magnificent old palazzos in Siracusa selling for peanuts. He thought he and I should buy one, move our families there and commute back to the States, he to his job at John Hopkins and I to mine at the University of New Hampshire. First we’d drive to Palermo and catch a flight to Rome and then he’d fly to Washington and I to Boston and we’d fly back every couple of weeks or so. I burst out laughing, but he kept after me for weeks about those cheap palazzos, until I was just about convinced that we could pull it off.
That’s what made being with Mark so much fun. He was a restless man, always ready to start a new life and obsessed with money-making schemes. One time he and I were making plans to import Australian and New Zealand wines, which were then little known in this country; another time we were thinking of opening a restaurant in Inverness, a town fifteen miles or so away from Drake’s Bay north of San Francisco, where the waiters would be well-known poets of our acquaintance who’d work there for a week or two and then be replaced by other poets. He thought the public would go for it and our place would be a great success. “Imagine having a Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award winner bring you a plate of cheese and a glass of wine,” he said. Even our wives loved the idea at first, until they discovered that they were the ones who were going to do all the cooking, while Mark and I took turns serving as hosts and chitchatting with customers.