The anxiety in so much American poetry often comes from a desire not to just be understood but to understand the self in a complete, complicated way. But it is not enough to just examine one’s orientation with the world in a self-reflective way, part of that examination comes through breaking down the interaction between people and place, the individual and the whole of the world. In Mark Strand’s Almost Invisible, you find a series of ruminations on the state of the self-presented in prose parables wrought with dry humor and condensed tragedy.

Mark Strand was a staple of American poetry for almost half a century, accruing almost every award for writing poetry this country has to offer. Before his death in 2014, he published over a dozen books of poetry, three children’s books and edited dozens of other works. His style has always been clean and sober, and his wit came from a straightforward approach to language and semi-surreal imagery and storytelling. Throughout his career, identity had been a central concern, and that concern, once again, raises its head in what is his last collection.

Though the central motifs and themes are ones that had become wrought by his later career, his new-found form of prose poems is what really dazzles in this collection. In previous decades, he made a name for himself with his intense lyricism, but this later Strand found a fruitful hold in writing these parable-like pieces that encounter the reader in a style similar to Rimbaud’s 1871 book-length prose poem series Une Saison en Enfer. But where Rimbaud is audacious and sprawling, Strand is clearheaded and calculated.

The most exciting element of the collection is his mixture of the misanthropic and the humorous. In “An Event About Which No More Need be Said,” he tells a story of riding in a cab with a secretive “prince” who has no hobbies but whose “one interest is sex.” The poem ends with the prince showing the speaker his penis, and the speaker leaping from the moving cab. It’s a cheap laugh, and it breaks the seriousness of the other poems rather awkwardly. There are other such funny moments – though none are as explicitly humorous as this one is supposed to be.

But this collection succeeds in poems whose insight is mediated through somber observations and stories that end on a note of hopelessness. “The Buried Melancholy of the Poet” is a not so veiled reflection of the poet’s own love life and longing for female attention. He is remembering the summer and the women who would sit by the ocean. There is deep loneliness, and it ends with a sorrowful note found in many of the poems in the collection:

“This was the summer he wandered out into the miraculous night, into the sea of dark, as if for the first time, to shed his own light, but what he shed was the dark, what he found was the night.”

Ultimately, Almost Invisible is a collection that any late-career poet would hope for. It touches on central themes that Strand had played with throughout most of his career and presents these themes in a new way. The prose in his prose poems is moderate and clear, while remaining delightfully surreal and introspective. It’s always a shame when a poet passes, and doubly so now that we will never get to see to what extremes Strand would have taken this newly-adopted form.

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