Man and Camel

by Mark Strand
Knopf 2006
Reviewed by Melinda Wilson


The Axiomatic Stargazer

Man and CamelBeing a Mark Strand fan means an indefinite suspension of disbelief. It means becoming disoriented, then refamiliarizing yourself with your environment so as to romantically abstract it. It undoubtedly means embracing surrealism. He’s got a new one; count me in.

72-year old Strand’s new collection, Man and Camel, offers, in typical Strand fashion, poems obsessed with the infinite. The opener, “The King,” provides a stellar invitation into his world. The poem is centered on a king, his empty kingdom, and the speaker, the king’s lone subject, who continuously summons him. The king is perhaps a stand-in for God in this case and he says, “‘I have lost my desire to rule’” The speaker tries to object but the king “entered his dream / like a mouse vanishing into its hole,” and we too vanish into this dream.

Mostly, the poems remain dreamy and astral throughout the book, though some, such as “I Had Been a Polar Explorer,” are more crepuscular with an ominous tone. “Polar Explorer” is composed of the cold, eerie imagery you might expect: “blank” places, “icebergs,” and “glaciers.” But the most ill-boding of these images is one you wouldn’t expect: “a man wearing a dark coat and broad-brimmed hat.” The poem addresses the inevitable fading of desire and, though sad, suggests that the act of desiring is what sustains us. Axiomatically, all things must pass.

This passing is another of Strand’s fixations. In “2002” he personifies death. “Death” seems lonesome and states that he is “‘thinking of Strand.’” This depiction reduces mortality to something digestible, makes it friendlier than it is chilling. The speaker projects some of his own feelings on Death by the end of the poem; the last line, spoken by Death, is as follows: “O let it be soon. Let it be soon.” Death too wants companionship, and the speaker wants the wait for death to be over, implying the backwards wont of death implicit in us all.

As the book progresses we see a speaker increasingly baffled by his own longevity. In “2032,” he is still waiting, and so is Death. Death is older, less capable, but tirelessly waiting. What is most interesting about this characterization is that he is “in a limo with a blanket spread across his thighs.” A limo? He also has a long beard and is reminiscent of traditional renderings of God—an interesting connection yielding the idea that Death is very much like—and simultaneously the opposite of—God.

Strand deals with the subject of death in a variety of ways. In “Afterwords” the tone is unnerving: “…a river of cold people with canes and flashlights / were inching their way down through the dark to the sea.” Conversely “Elevator,” which comprises two stanzas, is comical. Here’s the first stanza:

The elevator went to the basement. The doors opened.
A man stepped in and asked if I was going up.
‘I’m going down,’ I said. ‘I won’t be going up.’

Here’s the second:

The elevator went to the basement. The doors opened.
A man stepped in and asked if I was going up.
‘I’m going down,’ I said. ‘I won’t be going up.’

The obvious antic here is the suggestion that the speaker will be going to hell rather than heaven. Perhaps the repeated stanza emphasizes time passing, the continual movement to the end, and the tendency for that feeling to be drawn out. So, the repetition demonstrates the aging process, the wait, but it seems that the poem on the page might fare just as well without it.

Repetition is one of Strand’s trademarks throughout Man and Camel. Sometimes it is more successful than other times. “Mother and Son” contains a beautiful and touching bit of repetition. A mother is on her deathbed and her son says goodbye: “what he longs to hear—that he is her boy, / always her boy.” Unfortunately the poem “Moon” doesn’t produce the same effect with “the moon, always the moon.” Eh.

It can’t be ignored that Mark Strand has been around for a long time and has penned many lyrics; it also can’t be ignored that he continues to maintain his ability to turn clichés into “ancient” beauties, timeless images. One example is “The Rose,” in which a rose standing among weeds dies. Mostly, I’m sick of the rose, but this rose is different. Some children are upset by the rose’s demise and are taken to a pond to look at their reflections (gasp). But the last three lines of the first stanza are unexpected and stunning:

    ‘Now do you see it,
its petals open, rising to the surface, turning into you?’
‘Oh no,’ they said. ‘We are what we are—nothing else.’

These lines are followed by a final line that comprises its own stanza: “How perfect. How ancient. How past repair.”

The only criticisms that would be fairly made of Man and Camel would be that sometimes Strand falls victim to common phrases (“Conversation” ends with a line that begins “all roads lead…”—I already don’t care) and perhaps to say that he has digressed a bit into his surrealist roots (see the title poem), though I’m not convinced that this is a criticism. He also falls victim to a number of what can only be called “Strandisms,” but what more could you expect from the man who once offered these lines:

He would look at the stars
and their distance confirmed what he felt.
If there was order, he was a part of it;
if there was chaos, it was not his fault.

It seems to me the less reality we have to hold on to as a stabilizer, the more we’re forced to submit to the demands, and often the charms, of the poem.