Mark Strand (1934-2014), Dark Harbor: A Poem

DARK HARBOR: A POEM, Mark Strand. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1994, 54 pages, $11 paper.

I forget who told me that I must read this book. I had, previously, read only a handful of anthologized poems by Mark Strand, and decided it was time. And then the book sat on my shelf. Until this morning. Well, until Sunday, when I began it, and Monday, when I utterly failed to “get” it, until this morning when I decided to sit quietly and ask nothing of myself except to reread the book all the way through.

Dark Harbor: A Poem consists of a proem and 45 numbered sections. I knew, from quickly browsing the internet, that it was about death, about loss. I recoiled from it, feeling “the emperor has no clothes.” But rereading it helped me to see the arc of the narrative, how Strand turns aging and death into a journey, escorting us through a geography that is both surreal and familiar. “I would like to step out of my heart’s door,” begins section XVIII, a quotation from Rilke, and continues:

I would like to step out
And be on the other side, and be part of all

That surrounds me. I would like to be
In that solitude of soundless things, in the random
Company of the wind.

On my second, more patient reading, when I reached the last poem—“I am sure you would find it misty here, / With lots of stone cottages badly needing repair. / Groups of souls, wrapped in cloaks, sit in the fields // Or stroll the winding unpaved roads”—I knew this geography, and could feel my own feet on the path.

Strand takes us both forward, into death itself, and backward along corridors of memory opening into the rooms of mature life (sex, wine, music, books), and all the way to childhood, where, frightened, the poet runs from the roar of the ocean into his mother’s arms. In XL, these lines: “And after I go, as I must / And come back through the hourglass, will I have proved / That I live against time, that the silk of the songs // I sang is not lost?” There’s melancholy here, but also a playfulness, poet as astronaut/time-traveler.

Dark Harbor challenged me, made me feel as though I was in graduate school again. At the same time, knowing I would have to write about it made me stretch myself to find a place to stand. I’d be remiss if I didn’t credit this over-the-top review by David St. John, in the Los Angeles Times. Noticing, or letting myself notice, Strand’s poetry—for instance, his use of meter and anaphora (repetition at the beginnings of line or phrases)—also helped.

When I came (again) to part XVIII, with its quote from Rilke, I suddenly knew what was going on (so much so that I turned back to the beginning and began yet again). Yes, this is Earth, perhaps, but brooded over by angels, “Flightless… / Down by the bus terminal, hanging out, / Showing their legs, hiding their wings…” like in the film, Wings of Desire, directed by Wim Wenders…, but, I digress.

Here is one section, from early in the book:


I am writing from a place you have never been,
Where the trains don’t run, and planes
Don’t land, a place to the west,

Where heavy hedges of snow surround each house,
Where the wind screams at the moon’s blank face,
Where the people are plain, and fashions,

If they come, come late and are seen
As forms of oppression, sources of sorrow.
This is a place that sparkles a bit at 7 p.m.,

Then goes out, and slides into the funeral home
Of the stars, and everyone dreams of floating
Like angels in sweet-smelling habits,

Of being released from sundry services
Into the round of pleasures there for the asking—
Days like pages torn from a family album,

Endless reunions, the heavenly choir at the barbecue
Adjusting its tone to serve the occasion,
And everyone staring, stunned into magnitude.

—Mark Strand, from “Dark Harbor”

I learned on Saturday that a former colleague of mine, younger than I, and also a poet, a woman I greatly admired, has died. Standing back from this book, I see in retrospect that the news of her death made me reluctant to embrace this poem. She had worked at the college as an adjunct for several years, and I’m proud that I served on the hiring committee that chose her for a full-time position; I remember running poems past each other, back when her office was on the hallway near mine; I regret that I so profoundly lost touch with her. Life is a journey, and our choices can narrow our passage, or expand it.

Mark Strand was one of the greats, with many books, and was elected Poet Laureate of the United States in 1990. His 1999 book, Blizzard of One, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. You can find out more at Poetry Foundation.


Monica Sok, A Nail the Evening Hangs On

A NAIL THE EVENING HANGS ON, Monica Sok. Copper Canyon Press, Post Office Box 271, Port Townsend, Washington, 2020, 64 pages, $16 paper,

You know those poems you write into your commonplace book or send to friends when they go through a hard time? The poems in A Nail the Evening Hangs On are not those poems.

“A daughter of survivors” (“Self-Portrait as War Museum Captions”), Monica Sok acts as witness for the Cambodian diaspora. Although she was born in 1990, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and now teaches in California, Sok’s relationship to America feels tenuous, on trial, as she retells, re-imagines, and brings to vivid life the 1970s genocide previous Cambodian generations escaped, and the trauma they brought with them and handed down.

Words such as “unflinching,” “powerful,” and “loss” abound in the reviews. From the cover:

“Embracing collective memory, both real and imagined, these poems traverse time to break familial silence. Through persona, myth, and invention, Sok joins voices and fragments in a transformative work that builds toward wholeness.”

The book is arranged in three sections: the first section is set in Cambodia; the third in the poet’s contemporary life (riddled by memory); the second section is one poem in parts about a visit with a six-year-old to a war museum, Tuol Sleng:

A boy runs through the halls of Tuol Sleng,
his narrow footsteps turn it back into a school.
He checks every classroom for the other kids.
He sits in a chair and waits. When I walk in,
he whispers, ghost.

In short, these poems struck me as both haunted and necessary. By the time I reached the final poem, “Here Is Your Name,” I, too, felt transformed by the poet’s memory, by her powerful witness of war’s legacy.


The fishermen, desperate, poisoned them with a cloudy gasoline
so they dropped like apples to the ground underneath a tree.

Except these were birds out of water, the conservationist said.
Sarus cranes, their long legs still wet, were sold for $200 each

at the border market, where Thais bought them and turned around.
After the war, that was how the local villagers made money.

The cranes, near extinction, migrated to waters near a Khmer Rouge holding,
where no one dared go, not that a mandate said keep out, no sign written

in blood. They rationed their food, knowing the pendulum of war
could swing anytime, and they’d need something to eat before evacuating.

They were sure it wasn’t over. Invisible the egrets and ibises, invisible
the forests of the eastern border to the one they shared with Laos.

This is why the wind blows a drought hard across the land, tonnage of life
destroyed in the invisible, invisible land.

—Monica Sok

So there is beauty in this book, but it breaks your heart.

To find more poems by Monica Sok, visit her webpage:, or The Poetry Foundation.

In the Hour of War: Contemporary Ukrainian Poetry

Despite my best intentions, I am not going to get a book of poems read today. A few days, ago, however, I came across this review, at, of a new anthology of contemporary Ukrainian poetry, edited by Carolyn Forché and Ilya Kaminsky. The review is well worth reading, and the book? One more I am going to have to buy.

Luci Shaw, Eye of the Beholder

EYE OF THE BEHOLDER: POEMS, Luci Shaw. Paraclete Press, Brewster, Massachusetts, 2018, 96 pages, $19 paper,

When I decided to co-teach the Advent & Poetry class last December, someone told me about Luci Shaw, born 1928 and still writing, living somewhat local to me, in Bellingham, Washington. I read a few of her poems on-line, stumbled onto Paraclete (also the publisher of Christine Valters Paintner), liked the cover of Eye of the Beholder, and purchased it.

Some of the poems are overtly religious, some simple prayers of gratitude, quite a few are about nature or family, and some are about writing, a discipline Shaw has practiced for a very long time: “To be a poet you must write / more than you know, hoping it to be true, // that the words will have a life beyond the moment, / taking the shape of their meaning, like rain // filling a bowl” (“Take These Words”).

Sunday morning seems the right day to post one of her poems, and why not one about spring?


Noon, early spring. I tingle with
the promise of warming air, thrusting my hands
up to the wrists in the dark soil of a flowerbed,
willing a root to spring from each of my fingers,
joining me to the humid rot whose smell rises from
underground, where moles with their flat paddle feet
swim the soil, and worms dance, rejoicing.

I await the electric blue of hyacinths, and long for
other perennials to lift radiant flags like
oblations. Even under the last rags of snow
tulip bulbs dream their own vegetable praise—
a field burnished with chalices of pink and red

—Luci Shaw

To learn more about Luci Shaw, visit her website, or Paraclete Press.