When the Sky Is No More Than Remembered Light: Mark Strand Reads His Poignant Poem “The End”
“Not every man knows what is waiting for him, or what he shall sing / when the ship he is on slips into darkness, there at the end.”
By Maria Popova
“It’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention,” the Pulitzer-winning poet Mark Strand (April 11, 1934–November 29, 2014) observed in contemplating the artist’s task to bear witness to the universe. And yet this universe in which we live is predicated on impermanence, and the lucky accident of our existence is crowned with the certitude of its end from the start. Why, then, are we always so shocked by the finitude of all we hold dear and, above all, by our own mortality? Few are those who can say with sincerity, like Rilke did an exquisite 1923 letter, that “death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love.” Instead, we spend our lives shuddering at any reminder of our inevitable end, unsalved by the miracle of having lived at all.
Montaigne articulated the central paradox of being perfectly in 16th-century meditation on death and the art of living: “To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.” Still, lament we do, and some of our greatest art gives voice to that lamentation.
That paradox is what Strand explores with transcendent courage and curiosity in his poem “The End,” found in his Collected Poems (public library) — the trove of truth and beauty that gave us Strand’s love letter to dreams.
In this hauntingly beautiful recording, courtesy of The New York Public Library, an aged Strand reads his poignant poem shortly before he repaid his own debt to mortality:
Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end,
Watching the pier as the ship sails away, or what it will seem like
When he’s held by the sea’s roar, motionless, there at the end,
Or what he shall hope for once it is clear that he’ll never go back.
When the time has passed to prune the rose or caress the cat,
When the sunset torching the lawn and the full moon icing it down
No longer appear, not every man knows what he’ll discover instead.
When the weight of the past leans against nothing, and the sky
Is no more than remembered light, and the stories of cirrus
And cumulus come to a close, and all the birds are suspended in flight,
Not every man knows what is waiting for him, or what he shall sing
When the ship he is on slips into darkness, there at the end.
Complement with the lyrical Duck, Death and the Tulip, Marcus Aurelius on mortality and the key to living fully, and the great Zen master Seung Sahn Soen-sa’s explanation of death and the life-force to a child, then revisit Strand’s celebration of clouds and everything they mean.
Published October 18, 2016