Breath and Being in the Poetry of Mark Strand

NOTE: This is an essay I wrote as an undergraduate at the University of Utah almost thirty years ago. I am republishing it here as a remembrance of my favorite professor, Mark Strand, upon the occasion of his passing.

Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live… and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood up upon their feet.

-Ezekiel 37:9, 10

An overwhelming presence of the invisible pervades much of Mark Strand’s poetry, a presence which is manifested as both a life force and as a vital catalyst of self. This presence is breath, an image which recurs repeatedly in Strands work and seems to stand for evidence of the existence and continuation of life, a vehicle or impetus for speech, a shared, universal spirit, and a perpetually pent-up possibility of redemption and renewal.

Breath is irretrievably linked to being in Strand’s work, and in this recurring image of breath, we glimpse all of the sometimes horrifying, sometimes stultifying shades of gray that lie between life and death. The cessation of breath; death, and its attendant loss of self are the first, and most obvious, of Strand’s explorations of the link between breath and being. “The Accident” illustrates death by railway, and an engineer’s guilt:

He sees me sprawled
and motionless
beside the tracks
and the faint blooms
of my breath
being swept away;

Much of the enigmatic meaning that the poet finds in breath is here revealed for the first time. The “blooms” of breath signal both the image of life’s perennial renewal and the traditional funereal image of life’s fragility and evanescence; the nearness of death. These blooms are “swept away” by the wind, the archetypal breath, the breath of the world. This universal breath and its effects on the ever-flowering, living, more personal breath of each individual are images that recur again and again in Strand’s work. Uniquely in this passage, the breath of the speaker is visible, however faintly. It is as if this normally invisible life force becomes visible only as it ebbs away.

An almost identical image of breath in “The Kite” also heralds death: observers stand “as mourners” and “breath blooms” like “small white roses.” It is no coincidence that the word following “breath” in “The Accident” is “being,” nor that the line break falls between the two words. The spatial relationship between the words on the page underscores the relationship the two concepts bear to each other in Strand’s work.

Other poems which continue the theme of the loss of breath are “Tomorrow” and “My Life.” The first of these is a poem of dubious reassurance, of whistling in the dark:

Your best friend is gone,
your other friend, too.
Now the dream that used to turn in your sleep,
sails into the year’s coldest night. What did you say?
Or was it something you did?
It makes no difference – the house of breath collapsing
around your voice, your voice burning, are nothing to worry about.

Tomorrow your friends will come back;
your moist open mouth will bloom in the glass of storefronts.
Yes. Yes. Tomorrow they will come back and you
will invent an ending that comes out right.

The relevant image is “the house of breath collapsing around your voice, your voice burning,” and it is a mysterious image, for though it is possible that Strand is here referring to the body as “the house of breath,” there is no way to be certain about that meaning. The collapsing house of breath in this poem is being destroyed by “your voice” as if something communicated is causing this disaster.

A similar sort of personal catastrophe is experienced in “My Life,” but here it is coupled with a strange reduction from man to inanimate plaything, suffered at the hands of the speaker’s female relations. The central problem is slowly revealed: “I moved my mouth but words did not come,” and later, “We suffer the sickness of self.” Near the end of the poem we are told, “Out of breath, I will not rise again.” Though it is not clear whether this last pronouncement is cause or symptom of the disease, it is evident that the poem is, once again underscoring the direct relationship between breath and the self.

The image of “the house of breath” from the first poem can now perhaps be seen, from the context of the second poem, to be not only the body but the entire “self” of the speaker. Being “out of breath,” signals a corresponding reduction of “self,” and though slow, this sickness is fatal:

I grow into my death.
My life is small
and getting smaller. The world is green.
Nothing is all.

The enigmatic last line leaves several possibilities. It is a common experience to find Strand’s poems dwindling to a reverberating “nothing,” echoing Wallace Stevens in “The Snow Man.” But Strand explores the subject more deeply than Stevens. Certainly, the shrinking self of the poem must come to an eventual nothingness, meaning, “nothing is all [that is left],” but there is more to this image. The last line states an absolute that is discovered in the course of the poem: “nothing” has significance in and of itself. The slow decline into nothing suffered by the speaker parallels a slow exhale of the invisible nothingness of breath. It is in the act of exhalation that the essential loss takes place. In some sense, then, as the voice burns down the house and the absence of breath prefigures a slow decline into nothingness, it is breath that is both the impetus behind these crises of self and the nothingness that is left behind at the end. The self of these poems burns up or shrinks down and then vanishes in a puff of breath, vanishes into nothing, and yet it is this same nothing that sustained the self of the poem all along.

Recall Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man,” to which this poem pays homage:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

The snow man, because he is “nothing himself, beholds nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” In other words, the “self” of the snow man is nothing because he has become wholly that which he beholds, a sort of fanatical supplicant at the altar of wintry experience. It is his complete nothingness that gives him the ability to perceive his nothing world.

This oneness between the individual being and the universal being is the crux of the recurring breath/being issue in Strand’s work. Breath is the primordial incarnation of a fundamental paradox of existence: it is nothing, yet somehow it both defines and sustains the self. Defines it by carrying the words with which the self communicates, and sustains it by keeping it alive and connecting it to the breath of the world, the source and repository of all individual breath, and the source of the redemption of its being.

This paradox is further defined and reaffirmed in two other poems representing the two sides of the breath/being dilemma: “Black Maps” and “The Coming of Light.” In “Black Maps,” the bleak, dark nothingness of breath and being are dramatized by showing the self adrift in the uncharted present. “Black Maps” are no maps at all, and life with such maps as guides is dark and frightening:

Nothing will tell you
where you are.
Each moment is a place
you’ve never been.

These useless maps are like breath, we are told, “as they rise into being,” a being that is utter meaninglessness. This bleak view contrasts sharply with the proximate optimism of “The Coming of Light,” where “tomorrow’s dust” is anticipated today, but is transfigured overnight:

Even this late it happens:
the coming of love, the coming of light.
You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,
stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows,
sending up warm bouquets of air.
Even this late the bones of the body shine
and tomorrow’s dust flares into breath.

Death is transformed into life in this stunningly beautiful image, which describes breath both as a signpost for being and as the ultimate force of life, the “all” that is, in Strand’s work, so often obscured by the “nothing.” In this poem, at least, the universal breath (the “warm bouquets of air”) triumphs over nothingness in a rare unalloyed victory.

The climax of this breath/being battle is “Breath.” As might reasonably be expected from the title, this poem embraces all of the shades of meaning found in the other poems involved in the interplay between breath and being. The poem is organized into fourteen messages to be delivered to “them.” Who is this “them” to whom the messages are addressed? It seems that Strand is anticipating here that all of the various images throughout his work that raise the issue of breath and being will inevitably generate questions about what it is he is getting at. This poem seems to be the answer to those questions.

The first six of the poem’s messages relate to being and the last eight to breath. The “being” messages move gradually from mere affirmations of existence (“I am still here”) to a delineation of existence and its limits. The borders of being are defined by the day’s beginning and end (“as the sun rises and sets I know my place”). It is a flowing description of the connection between the individual being, and the universal being:

When you see them
tell them I am still here,
that I stand on one leg while the other one dreams,
that this is the only way,

that the lies I tell them are different
from the lies I tell myself,
that by being both here and beyond
I am becoming a horizon,

that as the sun rises and sets I know my place,

The “breath” messages, by contrast, describe breath as the ultimate redemptive force (“breath is what saves me”), that is present and powerful even as it is expelled in the self’s inevitable decline. It is the power by which being is; and appears, unlike being, to have no limits (“from it all resistance falls away”). As before, the power of breath as the agent of communication is reiterated, but breath is here shown to be the means of revealing the self, it is not the communication which reveals, because it only obscures (“breath is a mirror clouded by words”). Even when it reaches others, any communication carried by breath is secondary to the transference of breath from one individual to another (“breath is all that survives the cry for help/as it enters the stranger’s ear/and stays long after the word is gone”). Every new breath brings the perennial possibility of redemption:

that breath is what saves me,
that even the forced syllables of decline are breath,
that if the body is a coffin it is also a closet of breath,

that breath is a mirror clouded by words,
that breath is all that survives the cry for help
as it enters the stranger’s ear
and stays long after the word is gone,

that breath is the beginning again, that from it
all resistance falls away, as meaning falls
away from life, or darkness falls from light,
that breath is what I give them when I send my love.

It is impossible to read “Breath” without being drawn into this fascinating question regarding the significance of breath to the poet. This poem confirms the hints we get from the other poems that address this issue and serves as the key to understanding the redemptive power of breath in Strand’s work.

This concept of breath as the possibility of continual renewal is also echoed in “The Man in The Tree.” As “the wind fits into my breath,” the speaker is partaking of the breath of the world, the collective self, and a renewal of the breath of the individual self. In “Breath,” The body is said to be both “a coffin” but also “a closet of breath,” i.e., a storage space for death but also a storage space for the possibility of renewed life, as a closet contains the possible choices of clothing for the body. The two images of “coffin” and “closet” recollect the mysterious image from “Tomorrow:” “the house of breath.” With the context provided by “Breath” we can have more confidence in suggesting that “the house of breath” is an image for the same thing, the body or the self.

Another image from “Breath” is repeated and further explained in “The Man in the Mirror.” Words, or breath formed into meanings, obscure the reflection of the self:

and how we watched our words
cloud that bland,
innocent surface, and when our faces blurred
how scared we were.

Again, breath is the vehicle and impetus of speech, and the words carried by breath blot out the speakers’ view of the self. It is a subtly terrifying image, like so many in Strand’s work, but the restorative power of breath always buoys up the imagery, not allowing us to fully succumb to the darker meanings.

The peculiar resilience of breath, its ability to survive its message even as the message itself is spent in the ear of a stranger, is reflective of the resilience that this powerful image has in Strand’s work. Breath, though it has no meaning of its own, has permanence. Breath is powerful precisely because of its lack of definition, it needs no meaning or substance because these are limiting, and while being has limits, breath has none. Breath is nothing, and nothing is liberating, it is endless possibility. Nothing, then, is what is given when love is sent in the last line of “Breath,” but at the same time, all of the self and its redemptive possibilities are given.

This paradoxical gift of nothingness and all of the self is the long sought-for token that provides the source of the quietly beautiful scenes found in poems such as “The Coming of Light,” and “For Jessica, My Daughter.” These poems seem to achieve the redemption only glimpsed in the other, darker poems. In “For Jessica, My Daughter” the image of breath appears to, at least temporarily, banish all the trepidation and fear of separation and loss that the speaker is experiencing:

Tonight I walked,
close to the house,
and was afraid,
not of the winding course
that I have made of love and self
but of the dark and faraway.
I walked, hearing the wind
and feeling the cold,
but what I dwelled on
were the stars blazing
in the immense arc of sky.

Jessica, it is so much easier
to think of our lives,
as we move under the brief luster of leaves,
loving what we have,
than to think of how it is
such small beings as we
travel in the dark
with no visible way
or end in sight.

Yet there were times I remember
under the same sky
when the body’s bones became light
and the wound of the skull
opened to receive
the cold rays of the cosmos,
and were, for an instant,
themselves the cosmos,
there were times when I could believe
we were the children of stars
and our words were made of the same
dust that flames in space,
times when I could feel in the lightness of breath
the weight of a whole day
come to rest.

But tonight
it is different.
Afraid of the dark
in which we drift or vanish altogether,
I imagine a light
that would not let us stray too far apart,
a secret moon or mirror,
a sheet of paper,
something you could carry
in the dark
when I am away.

The serene perfection that is expressed in the third stanza of this poem is the effect of the grand and simple figure of breath, through which we are born over and over again in a pageant of endless possibility, re-creating us in each new moment.

2 thoughts on “Breath and Being in the Poetry of Mark Strand

  1. Thanks for posting your essay. I’ve been mourning Strand’s passing the last few days myself. Wallace Stevens and Mark Strand have been favorites of mine for many years. And the Strand poem the resonates with me the most (Proem, from the volume Dark Harbor: A Poem [Alfred Knopf, 1993]) carries the same breath imagery, the protagonist leaving the city to follow his own main street, ending with this:

    “This is the life,” he said, as he reached the first
    Of many outer edges to the sea he sought, and he buttoned
    His coat, and turned up his collar, and began to breathe.

    As one who has tried to find his own main street over the years, I hope Mark has arrived at the outer edges of the sea where he can begin to breathe.


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