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The Art of Revising
Mark Strand’s Twelve Canvases are made almost entirely of words, handwritten in a mildly feverish black cursive, which compose discrete block-like units, oftentimes demarcated by a space, or border-generating black lines, blocks which appear to move down then back up then down again, there being usually three or four columns’ worth, making a vaguely Japanese scroll-like path the eye feels rewarded for journeying—up and down, left to right, along the grid—arriving at what feels like a solid terminus somewhere at bottom right. It could be a city seen from above but it is not. It could be a two dimensional non-inwardgoing space of city structures, but it is not. It could be a series of still-lives of molecular building-blocks, but it is not. It both is, and tracks, in each canvas, an attempt to rework the language of an incipient poem until that poem is achieved. The “finished” poem occurs somewhere on the right hand side of the canvas—where the eye accustomed to reading left to right would normally land. That poem is felt to be, as well as understood to be, a poem “by Mark Strand”, the poet. The revisions include cross-outs, hatching, swelling and shrinking of line-length, rewrites (sometimes quite thick) of words over words, darker eddyings where an emotion such as rage seems to overwhelm the writer/reviser, light marks where a hand seemingly other than the poet’s seems to scrawl—or is it utter?—a line with flawless (never again to be revised) precision. Then there are the silences—which translate here as unmarked “canvas”, but which could be temporal spaces [in other words emotionally-laden, filled with hesitation, say, or indecision preceding decision, or moments of held breath occasioned by a sudden overwhelming feeling, or doubt-the lifted hand everywhere present like a hovering night sky full of the momentary stopping-points of stars over the topography of feeling, thinking, rethinking, refeeling, sudden understandings, breaks in thought, rushings-in of the imagination suddenly “getting” an idea—] or atemporal spaces, where the line of human consciousness is interrupted by brute matter: cloth, some kind of linen, stretched, nailed into a rectangle of sorts, braced, stapled tight, utterly indifferent to all but the slowest passage of time, dust, or perhaps, on some rare occasion, fire. I should add theft. As they are so valuable as “unique drafts of composition by a major American poet”, one can imagine someone’s desire to steal them. The act-of-mind they hold can never be duplicated. It can even seem, given the indistinguishable nature of the “act” of writing/thinking and the “writing down” of that act, that something much stranger than an “aura” is missing from their reproduction. Something which only exists in Real Time and of which even the canvas in front of one catches only the trace or residue. They feel incomprehensible, these interminglings of death and life. One fears one could be, oneself, even from one’s self, stolen, as the poem has been, here, stolen both from the poet and from the unsaid. Who could be speaking? Who would one be if one were not there except as a trace of just-having-been there? Would one’s absence, at every station, be a filling-in or an erasure? Is erasure always, and only, a void?
Mark Strand’s twelve canvases are all itineraries: a strange comic inferno complete with arrows, signposts, little creatures to greet you at the various circles or stages of revision—birds, camels, harps. One often feels one’s self to be in one of those terrestrial zones that are all flux—sea, desert—all rippling and eddying—such as lines of verse where the process of revision becomes a process of revisiting, where one is becoming a place as much as a thought, where the mappings of the topography are not just of consciousness but of the actual movements of consciousness as it, syllable by syllable, or rather inch by inch, moves across what remains a perceptible emptiness even as it is gradually filled-in. We are watching a life. We are just minutes-seconds?—too late. Without even the tools of brain imaging techniques, we are watching (but no, how can that be?) somebody draw: a thought, a breath. This seems to be truly original.
Looking at Mark Strand’s twelve canvases we can see the speeding up and slowing down of the process of thinking. I look very carefully at what happens in the lull, how the thinking-one stops along the journey and knows nothing, or laughs, draws, doodles—[what is happening in the mind when the doodling occurs?—as if an other than the self—(a large blue man thinking)—were hovering over the man whose hand-traces and thought-traces we see]. And we feel how this other one is looking down over it all, musing, its “creator”, dilating and shrinking time in order to make something of it.
In Mark Strand’s twelve canvases what we see primarily of temporality which is, more than ink, or thought, his ultimate medium, is simultaneity. Simultaneity rather than a finished thought completely displacing its precursors. Each drawing [of breath, of line] remains side by side, in spite of time, with its predecessors as part of a larger composition. Each painting itself a score of such atemporal Escher-like variations that fizz and recombine and yet remain utterly still, never able to cease their constant transformation, yet never able to get outside its loop. It is mesmerizing to undergo this, as well as beautiful to see it: shiftings of musical movements, of emotional positions, of narrative events, each folding in upon each new version without that erasure, that disappearance which gives rise to the thing-as-itself, what we call the “created thing”. Here, no creation, only creating—as a dune falls in on itself, as a wave does, constituting nonetheless at any given moment some real moment of the sea. And as a subset of these infoldings,—[ many involve doublings-mother and son, the man and the camel, the man and the seal-Strand’s mirror process gives rise to, as well, a rigorous reading-pace [determined by the constantly shifting illegibility/legibility drama] in which we feel in ourselves the slow movements of squinting-in, of “understanding”. Our reading—apart from our seeing—by such self-division slowed down to the speed of “mere being”, as within a mirror.
In this way Mark Strand, renowned poet of scrupulous erasure, enacts a very moving erasure without being able to erase the exposures such erasures erased: for example, this excised but still (visually) present (as far as the not-being-in-time of the canvas)—this nakedness and truth from an early “draft” of the poem “Mother and Son”: “mom it’s me, your only son”—and then this, a little “later” on, from her, “I can tell you you’re not Mark”... None of this is going to “appear” on the final draft but is being allowed to leave its mark—[Mark becoming now increasingly a series of marks]—even as it is submitted to poetic discipline. Thus visual expansiveness is allowed to supplement poetic asceticism. Because the poem—(what is “aimed” for)—(the point in the future which is enveloped by finish as it is cut off by the arbitrary margin it both heads for with headlong abandon and then is suddenly felt to be cut off by) is always whittling and refining itself down, while the visual is always, as it cannot abandon its wake, more inclusive, more filled with opposing options, paradox, competing emotions, more “personal”. How much person is cut out to make the final poem is an almost prurient question we ask ourselves, how much person is left in the “poem”, where is the whole personhood located, in the visual or in the uttered?
What we see in the drawings of Mother and Son is not just the moon but the actual phases of the moon from crescent to full-a visual track for revision further represented by the long cursive arrows of the lunar and perhaps lunatic marks across the page of time and emotion—leading to the final line IF THE MOON COULD SPEAK IT WOULD SAY NOTHING. These poems reveal much of the nothing that is not spoken but which is not simply thought. It is as if a whole new area in the nothing is being uncovered in these canvases. Is being uncovered and recovered. In this way they make the silence—at once physical, acoustic and spiritual—deeper.
The imperviousness of the canvas: it can be scrawled-upon, covered-up, but it feels impenetrable. Whether it is in the nature of the canvas used, its finish, or in the nature of the instrument used (some kind of felt tip or ballpoint), one can feel there’s still a resistance between the two, and, therefore, a blank canvas right beneath all this effort at vision and revision. The sensation of imperviousness stresses the degree to which language and thought are up against some surface that cannot be entered, cannot be marked. They remain spume on the face of some dimension we think of as the silence, as the yet-unsaid, the not-yet represented. Much of the power comes from this sense of fragility: they feel, as made things, in terms of material, fragile; they feel, as musings, in terms of finality of seized meaning, in terms of even the so called “final draft” of the so called poem itself, tentative. It feels as if the so called finality of the poem is only a running out of space, breath, frame. Also a submission to this particular “framing”—he could have done this in a notebook and revised further. One might have lost the simultaneity but ended up with a poem that had been “taken further” on its journey. Does the size of the canvas dictate the duration of the attempt at revision? Is a larger canvas the housing and tracking of a more finished poem? Valery says poems are never finished only abandoned, but this is a most literal enactment of that frontier-zone one enters into when one begins to deal with the “finished”.
So we end up with the unique status of these objects. How do these differ from the drafts of any poet’s notebook? By choosing the material of canvas rather than of paper Strand emphasizes the work of visual and not merely verbal composition. He’s drawing our mind, or our way of looking, into conversation with other perspectives—such as that of the history of 20th-century art—of art that tracks between the illegible chalkings of early Twombly on the one hand, and the ingenious inventions of a Steinberg on the other. On the other hand had he worked on paper-which would have accepted, absorbed his mark more-as opposed to here where one feels the pen bump over the weave, the ink simply glide over the surface of finished linen which seems to be still waiting for another kind of mark to descend upon it-he might have made works where the tension between the written and the visual was not as dramatically pronounced.
The poems, too, give rise to, in their finished versions, an admission of possible failure. Not only is their circularity emphasized [see CAKE] as a journey, but these paintings are crowded and yet, at the same time, emptied out, as it were, from “version” to “version”—the populous nature of a solitary mind. In addition, some of the thematic polarities are produced visually: between the crowded thickets of the words, and the sea in its breakers, you have a version of what you’re looking at: waves and woods, columns of trees, waves of words, lines that crash, emptiness of the sea that is ever filling itself and ever emptying what it has just filled. What fills is ruining: the immaculate is being not only trespassed upon—(and there is a sense of deep adventure and risk in these poems)—but also being somehow ruined. Indeed, Man and Camel, at the bottom of the page, in its extremity—(as if literally drawn and written into a corner)—ends with the mysterious Camel reproaching the speaker of the poem by saying: “you ruined it. You ruined it forever.”
What about the sheer beauty—the elegance and apparent randomness and freedom Mark Strand’s poems exhibit, as we are made to see the whimsical and sketchy notations and imaginings of the previously unimaginable becoming the inevitable? There’s the almost wrenched excitement caused by the difference between reading and seeing. The difference between the eye’s undisciplined spatial roving—free, really, to go in any direction—and the more limited tracks of readings. Reading and rereading, writing and rewriting are still quite different sensations than “-garding” and regarding: one tends to look and then keep looking (which is a way of describing the way the gaze grows conscious and then floods with thought). Is there no equivalent to that initial gaze in the act of reading? It feels as if, if you could feel both at once, you could have a printout of the whole brain at work, and that in it you’d see joy and humor. Look, and there’s something almost lighthearted: the sketchy way in which man moon camel palm tree table cake are drawn-in as if by a knowing child; there’s a kind of levity regarding the heaviness of making—of literal touch; what is emphasized is 10 the poet’s hand, not just his mind. One thinks of Keats’ hand—the weight, the mortality. And then Strand’s strange light hand where utterance meets the buoyant atemporality of spatiality. The weight of mortality, where a period is a stopped breath and a re-intake, is beautifully balanced by the sempiternal stillness of the drawing (where a period is a dot of ink in space).
There’s a kind of suspense when one looks at these, a fear of running out of space, not just running out of time. The poem has to be completed before there’s nowhere left to record it.”1 am not thinking of death but death is thinking of me” . Could these canvases be more alarming than one thinks: perhaps what death has been thinking about all along? They certainly enact a balance between the desire to continue and the desire to end, between one’s desire for perfection and one’s longing to continue, until a man has reached his final version of himself. This lends a real mixture of pathos and anger to the drama: the poem which “ends” “2002” ends with the shortest line (“O let it be soon let it be soon”) in which the only word that is not itself a repetition is the sheer circle, both empty and full, of the word O—
The columns swerve, making these abstract paintings, as in: what makes the shape move is the mind making mistakes, or taking change on, or trying out variations until the right one appears and stills the mind. All this jostles shape in space. Yet the three-dimensionality of the temporal in which speech occurs does not seem to attach itself to the two dimensionality of the visual forms. There is some very firm barrier in the viewer’s mind that holds these apart. So that even if these “illuminated manuscripts” would seem to be in the tradition of a book of hours—although these are the pages of a book of minutes, a book of breaths—those prior models have a stillness of forethought, in that the drawings are given over to illustrating a pre-existing text. Here the drawings come in to disturb that tradition by having a text generated in and among the pictorial drawings so that everything seems to be happening at once. A Book of Hours would seem to want to distill and summarize, while these actions appear immersed in what refuses to be summarized because it needs to be taken down as it’s happening.
Doodling, scribbling. One question that emerges for the viewer is to what degree did visual drawings enter into the verbal making. Did the poet draw at an impasse in the process of verbal revision—did the next draft respond to the drawing—then did the drawing mark an arrival point—are they keys that close and open verbal doors—the way doodling can when a person is musing. Do the drawings provide a more literal presence for images that might otherwise evanesce into the nothingness out of which they came? Once you establish a motion, do they become more real? What is more capable of representing reality—a drawn image or a word? There seem to be in fact two kinds of representation going on at once: from a purely aesthetic formal point of view one can see the passages of densely revised inscription (as if they were also the hatching and cross hatching of shadows lending both density yet immateriality to the words). So that what one is seeing are not the poems, but the shadows of poems. One is seeing not just mirrorings but rather, also, shadings of the mind. Here we can link our way back to the ghostliness—the shades of a poem—where the word shade itself takes on its more ghostly, apparitional sense.
These shades of meaning bring us back to the essential feeling here that words won’t actually be accepted by the canvas in the way the son will not be accepted by the mother. They are held, they are housed temporarily on the cloth. They feel as if a moist thumb could smudge them not only into meaninglessness, but into a purely visual phenomenon-one which would delete all the work they do. One finds oneself wondering what it would mean if there were no copy of this painting, no other place where this poem would ever appear. It could be memorized of course—but what if no other locus than this were its site. How then—no photo, no copy—does the fragility feel? How like the thin, terribly thin, strain into which the poet listens, trying to hear the rhythm dictated from the strange music. It is being heard here. It is here that it is turning material, that Orphic music. Here are its notes. One mist and it would disappear again into the unsaid, the inaudible. Yes, something would remain. An image. A trace. Keep it safe, we think. And then, no, put it into Apollo’s next rain.