“Clouds are thoughts without words…”
Scientists may now be able to tell us how a cloud keeps the weight of 100 elephants in the air and even to demonstrate the psychology of why cloudy days help us think more clearly, but there is something eternally elusive about the immaterial mesmerism of clouds — something, perhaps, which only the poet and the artist can access. (And, most of all, the ultimate poet-artist: Joni Mitchell.)
In 1999, Pulitzer-winning poet Mark Strand, a man of enormous wisdom on the heartbeat of creative work, and artist Wendy Mark teamed up on a most unusual collaboration: a miracle of a book titled 89 Clouds (public library) — a single poem composed of eighty-nine numbered reflections on the atmospheric phenomena that have tickled the human imagination since the dawn of our species, alongside the artist’s subtle and breathtaking paintings of clouds.
The poem stretches between the poignant and the playful, the cryptic and the profound, the meditative and the mirthful. It projects onto clouds, once the screen of children’s simple fantasies, the complex preoccupations of an adult reality — our anxieties, our loves and losses, our longing for grace, our restless pursuit of self-transcendence. In Strand’s carefully crafted words one finds, if one is looking, beautiful and poignant metaphors for the human experience — for relationships, for self-doubt, for the maps of our interior worlds, for the fleeting flash of existence we call a life.
Strand — who started out as a visual artist and studied under the great Josef Albers — writes mesmeric lines like:
1. A cloud is never a mirror
2. Words about clouds are clouds themselves
3. If snow falls inside a cloud, only the cloud knows
Some seem at first silly, but like Gertrude Stein’s love letters to language and meaning, become more and more beautiful, more and more sapient, with each reading:
5. A cloud dreams only of triangles
20. Clouds are thoughts without words
Some weave alternative mythologies, the fanciful stories with which ancient folklore explained the unfathomable facets of the natural world:
12. If a parrot is lost in a cloud, it turns into a rainbow
13. Clouds are drawn by invisible birds
In some, Strand’s elegant precision cuts straight to heart of love and longing, and simply takes the breath away:
13. Clouds are in love with horizons
18. The cloud that was gone would never come back
35. Every lake desires a cloud
Some are ingenious play with language:
25. A cloud without you is only a clod
Clouds are also spaces for experience:
52. A cloud is a cathedral without belief
54. A cloud is mansion without corners
55. A cloud lit from within is somebody’s study
Some are pleasurably mischievous and lyrical at once:
67. Clouds cannot see what we do under the umbrella
80. A poet looks at a cloud the way a man looks at a shrub
89 Clouds is the kind of book so deeply rewarding to hold and behold, to read and reread — a “calming object, held in the hand,” to borrow Maira Kalman’s perfect phrase — that no pixel or prose can do it justice. Although it is long out of print, surviving copies are findable and more than worth the search.
For more of Mark Strand’s subtle and electrifying genius, see his moving reflection on the artist’s task of bearing witness to the universe.