"These socks?" he said to me, leaning in with a big conspiratorial grin, and lifting the leg of his absurdly high-end-looking jeans.
When Mark Strand smiled, you could almost see the little 1960s Tony Curtis special effects "pling!" of light glinting off his teeth.
"They're cashmere." And he sat back in the porch rocking chair with a distinctly canary-eating look.
They were. They were, really, splendidly nice socks.
Mark Strand died Saturday from liposarcoma. He was 80. Many have, and will, write about Mark with far greater perspicacity and depth than I ever could, so I'm not going to pretend this is at all scholarly or profound. But Mark was one of those writ-large personalities who just seemed to generate legend everywhere he went -- minimalist on the page, Strand's personal presence was massive. In fact the majority of poets over the age of about 26 probably have a Mark Story. So... this is mine.
First of all, poets are supposed to have the decency to be dumpy, or homely, or slobs, or jerks, or mildly autistic and incapable of normal social interaction; or hacks. I mean -- aren't we? Awkward and weird, at the least?
But no. Mark was cool. He was bright, witty, talented, debonair to the nth, highly charismatic, and, it mist be said, head-turningly handsome even decades after AARP must've started haunting his mailbox. He talked like Clint Eastwood and that smile of his could just about blind you -- and he smiled a lot. Because that guy was always in on the joke.
But what annoyed me was that sort of Majestically World-Weary schtick that he sometimes had. I think it bugged me because everything about him seemed so effortless and I would have given anything I had to have one twentieth of his CV or body of work and he just semed so utterly Over It I wanted to scream "Pay attention!" When we first met, at Sewanee in 2008, we bonded over a shared admiration for James Merrill and Constantin Cavafy. Then we bonded over my alma mater -- Mark had briefly taught at Mount Holyoke in the 60s, discussion of which put him in a sort of grin-trance during which he seemed to be seeing a potentially scandalous movie on the ceiling. I tried to imagine a guy like Mark presiding over a literature class at Holyoke and immediately came up with an image sort of like this:
Then he promptly forgot who I was. Anyway, I didn't know what to make of him. At one point I was sitting behind Mark in the reading room at Sewanee when the announcement came that that later that evening there'd be the annual book signing party at the cute college bookstore. Mark moaned loudly enough to be heard at the podium: "Awwwwww... I don't wanna sign BOOKS."
Well, this gal, who'd have given her teeth to have a book on which people actually wanted my autograph, unfortunately lacks the Shy and Retiring gene that runs through the Swiss side of the family, so naturally I leaned forward and whispered into the ear of one of the most famous poets writing in English: "Yeah, well, god forbid you burn a calorie, Mark."
The much, much more polite poet sitting next to Mark turned turned a distressing shade of purple around the ears, and for half a second I wondered what amount of therapy it would take for me to learn not to say stuff just because I was thinking it. Why in God's name would I be impolite to Mark Strand? So I had a bone to pick with his Magnificent Ennui thing and he looked at a point somewhere over my head when he spoke to me. So what? The man had enough laurels on his head I'm surprised he could turn around.
But his did. With alacrity. And grinning as if I had just said the funniest thing ever.
"You don't get it," he said in his Eastwood growl. "There are more signed Strands than unsigned Strands. It's a devalued currency!"
And we laughed, and the reading started. However, at the book signing, I couldn't leave it alone. I gathered copies of every Strand volume in the bookstore and whomped them down onto the table in front of him.
"Mr. Strand," I said, pompously as I could. "Would you do me the immense honor of NOT signing these for me?"
The grin again; bigger than ever. "Why, yes, I would be delighted not to sign those books!"
"Fabulous! I'll just go put them back on the shelves then," I said. And did.
Mark and I developed a ribbing, slightly snarky, bantering style much colored by the fact that it was a continuum for me and apparently a totally new conversation for him every single time, because he never, ever, ever remembered who I was. Not that year, not the next, not the time I ran into him downtown, not the time we met through a mutual friend and not the time we shared the podium at the Best American Poetry launch reading in 2012 -- a peak experience for me, during which I am pretty sure he checked his watch twice while I read.
In New York, after forgetting for the 93'd time that we'd met 92 other times, he tried to get around the "should I know you?" thing by saying, "And... where do you go home to?" When I said San Francisco he literally recoiled, saying with disbelief, "You came all the way here? For this?"
"This" was a killer reading that included Mark, and a chance to visit a number of good friends in one of my favorite cities in the world. "Strand," I said, "It's Manhattan. Yeah, I came here for this."
"I live in Chelsea," he said airily, and walked away as I said "I know..." to his retreating back.
When I saw him nine months later, again at Sewanee, I instantly knew it would be the last time. He'd lost half his body mass -- people were discreet and professional about it but he was obviously dying. Now, Mark has written so hauntingly on the subject of death and particularly of his own erasure from this life that I don't stand a chance of saying anything about it that he didn't already say better. I had a lot of questions, big questions, as I looked at him -- things I couldn't ever ask. Like was he scared or had all those poems somehow exorcised the existential dread of nonexistence from his psyche? Was he in pain? He didn't seem to be -- a little more easily tired than I'd seen him in the past, but also a lot more lively. Did talking about it make it feel better or worse? Had different things become important to him? Or unimportant?
But even I am not quite that impertinent as it turns out. Or, even if I were, I'd have choked on the words because it was just so shocking to see Mark Strand look so... mortal.
He gave a wonderful craft lecture and the best reading I had ever seen from him that week, footage of which is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VJylQzQBxKQ
If you listen carefully there is some ambient noise in the room which is probably me sobbing. It starts around "Almost Invisible," which is where I started to realize I had never given Mark Strand his propers as an artist. Not that I didn't admire his work; I did. But I'd dismissed him too, in a way -- something about his work seemed so effortless that I mistook it for easy. No: not easy. I heard things I'd never heard before; a longing to be understood, an awe at the immensity of death; a self-deprecating charm made the more poingnant because it was just so clear he was becoming one of those poems, cell by cell. He was funny. Gracious. Stirring. It was one of those hours you just feel privileged to have been a witness to. And the immensity of knowing I would never see him again was all the more overwhelming because he held that understanding, that the clock was ticking, so incredibly lightly.
A few hours before this reading, I'd been sitting with a friend having a glass of wine on the porch of the Have a Glass of Something building. Suddenly Mark appeared, and sat in the chair next to me, holding a bottle of beer.
"You changed your hair color," he said.
I almost choked. "You... remember me?" I said, stupidly. But... seriously. After all that?
"Of course," Mark said. "You like James Merrill."
I laughed. "I wanted to be James Merrill when I grew up," I said.
"You know, I kind of did too," said Mark.
And we chatted for a while, and then I pulled my copy of one of his books out of my bag and asked him if he'd sign it. "Of course!" he said. And I started laughing and couldn't stop. Mark handed me back my book, leaned in close and said, "You know what? These socks -- they're cashmere."
I'll sign off with this poem, which he read delightfully that night. Mark, you will be deeply missed, and I hope there are Ferragamo bedroom slippers and $25,000 cases of Bordeaux in the afterworld.
Harmony In the Boudoir.
After years of marriage, he stands at the foot of the bed and
tells his wife that she will never know him, that for everything
he says there is more that he does not say, that behind each
word he utters there is another word, and hundreds more be-
hind that one. All those unsaid words, he says, contain his true
self, which has been betrayed by the superficial self before her.
"So you see," he says, kicking off his slippers, "I am more than
what I have led you to believe I am." "Oh, you silly man," says
his wife, "of course you are. I find that just thinking of you
having so many selves receding into nothingness is very excit-
ing. That you barely exist as you are couldn't please me more."