Man and Camel, By Mark Strand
Reviewed by Michael Goodfellow
In Mark Strand’s brief and forcible new collection Man and Camel, the speakers are often travellers. At fifty pages, the collection focuses upon dialogue spoken in chance encounters between people and even animals. As well, the environments surrounding the speakers are blank and collapsing. These elements cause the speakers to have disorientation and failure to communicate – failure with the urgency as if all air were within seconds of slipping away. The chance encounters and the dialogue are desperate. This collection is about the desperation in their voices.
The poems of Man and Camel contain environments, landscapes, and rooms. All are sparse and spacious, if not outright blank. The poems take place in a variety of urban and natural environments: from the arctic to the desert, from ruined cities to marble-gated prisons. In I Had Been a Polar Explorer, the speaker travels through “one blank place and then another.” In Error, travellers find themselves as if in outer space, on the blank grey surface of the moon itself: “we got to the capital, / which lay in ruins […] then continued on foot into regions / where the sea is frozen and the ground is strewn / with moonlike boulders.” Elsewhere, people wander across “an island in the dark, a dreamt-of place / where the muttering wind shifts over the white lawns” (Poem After the Seven Last Words). These spaces can seem unreal in their white and grey tones, and indeed become uninhabitable for the speakers. Beyond the content, the poems are double-spaced on the page, making the poems white and spacious.
In addition to being blank, the environments around the speakers are collapsing, both physically and metaphorically. Space collapses in a physical way in The King, a poem mostly composed of a dialogue between a king and his royal subject. The only subject left in the kingdom enters the king’s chamber. The king, who has lost his desire to rule, says: “‘My kingdom is empty except for you, / and all you do is ask for me.’” The kingdom has been abandoned, effectively shrunken to the size of a room, populated by two people. The royal subject responds desperately to this collapse: “‘But Your Majesty—’ / ‘Don’t “Your Majesty” me.’” And space collapses further: “[the king] tilted his head / to one side and closed his eyes. ‘There,’ he whispered, / ‘that’s more like it,’ and he entered his dream / like a mouse vanishing into its hole.” While this example from The King contains metaphorical and physical collapse of space, the collapse in People Walking Through the Night is solely metaphorical. Unknown travellers are described as they approach a town. Space narrows and collapses around them, as each piece of description in the poem luminously portends their death. They are “winding down” country roads; the city they are approaching is a kind of cemetery as they travel “onto numbered streets, by rows / of leafless trees”; their souls lifting up as they sit “smoking, watching the faint / gray flags of their breath being lifted away.” This kind of coordination gives the reader an incredible focus upon the travelers, a focus so strong that surrounding space implodes.
While collapse within poems has been illustrated, Strand seems to suggest that space can collapse or narrow between poems; an event that affects the reader rather than the speaker. This suggestion can be disorienting. The poem Mother and Son (quoted in full) is set within the narrowness of a room. The repetition of “The son” at the beginning of most sentences works to further narrow the environment by creating the impression that the reader can only see through the son’s eyes:
The son enters the mother’s room
and stands by the bed where the mother lies.
The son believes that she wants to tell him
what he longs to hear – that he is her boy,
always her boy. The son leans down to kiss
the mother’s lips, but her lips are cold.
The burial of feelings has begun. The son
touches the mother’s hands one last time,
then turns and sees the moon’s full face.
An ashen light falls across the floor.
If the moon could speak, what would it say?
If the moon could speak, it would say nothing.
By the end of the poem, space narrows and collapses from the room in general, to the narrowness of the son’s vision of the mother and the moon, and finally to the moon itself. Two poems later, in Moon, space collapses further. The reader sees the moon and only the moon, as the speaker gives instructions to “Open the book of evening to the page / where the moon, always the moon, appears / / between two clouds, moving so slowly that hours / will seem to have passed before you reach the next page.” This is where the disorientation can occur: when the reader is tempted to see common space between poems. The two moons are not the same, as the second is simply a metaphor. Space has collapsed so much in Moon that there are no human speakers left, because there is no longer a physical environment. The only entities left are the reader, and a non-human speaker who speaks from outside the setting of the poem.
In these strange blank environments, the desperate speakers are unable to communicate or gain insights about their surroundings. Such is the case in I Had Been a Polar Explorer, when the speaker returns from an arctic exploration, writes about his experiences, and looks up to see “a man wearing a dark coat and broad-brimmed hat / appeared under the trees in front of my house. […] But when I raised my hand to say hello, / he took a step back, turned away, and started to fade / as longing fades until nothing is left of it.” Communication is similarly distressed in the title poem, where the speaker, sitting on a porch, sees a man and camel pass by. As the pair disappear into the distance, the speaker thinks they are “an ideal image for all uncommon couples” (Man and Camel). The two hear his thoughts, and “galloped / back […] staring up at me with beady eyes, and said: / ‘You ruined it. You ruined it forever.’” The speaker’s thoughts are communicated impossibly across a distance that collapses in response, which incurs a negative, incomprehensible response from the man and camel. Another exchange of frantic, desperate words occurs in Storm, where two lovers are virtually free after their guards abandon the prison where they are held:
“Darling,” I said, “let’s go, the guards have left,
the place is a ruin.” But she was oblivious.
“You go,” she said, and she pulled up the sheet
to cover her eyes. I ran downstairs and called
for my horse. “To the sea,” I whispered, and off
we went and how quick we were, my horse and I,
riding over the fresh green fields, as if to our freedom.
The creatures in all of these poems have something to offer one another, but they never seem to execute a valuable exchange and in the end seem quite doomed. They all share desire for stable and inhabitable space, all move about in search of sound environment, and struggle against the disorientation caused by shifting space. Is there any hope for them? It seems not. These speakers maintain their hold in space for but a time. When the spaces in these poems are stable, the speakers from different poems may seem to hear each other speaking desperately through the blank spaces. There is a temptation to see common speakers or spaces from poem to poem. Although the poems share themes, none have the same speaker, or the same space. To believe they do suggests the reader becomes as disoriented as the speakers – these poems do not have doorways into each other. Each speaker is in their own room. If something ultimately sounds the same between poems, the sound is muffled, as if through walls, and heard only within the reader’s imagination. Strand’s collection holds this tension: though muffled, the sound is not always drowned out by the desperately clear voices within the poems.