2014. New York City. Before Mark Strand died, we had a cup of coffee at the French Roast between 6th and 11th in Greenwich Village. Behind Mark, a large plate glass window across which were moving huge swathes of humanity: a throng of Eastern European women in babushkas, then a dwarf, then students with back packs, then the poet, Sharon Olds, her hand shaking with a cup of coffee, then a muscular black gay man in a tank top with biceps large and gleaming and undulating as anacondas. Couldn’t stop staring at his build. Manhattan often seems to me like an aquarium and I am observing from the other side of the plate glass looking in.
“When do you leave for Madrid?” Mark asked. I had been back and forth between Spain and the US, presenting documents with gold seals and wax seals, hoping to get government approval for the post I had just accepted at the Episcopalian cathedral. Behind inch-thick bullet-proof glass, clerks were stamping my paperwork, their staplers moving as fast as the heels of flamenco dancers.
“Soon, I just have to wait for the visa to come through now,” I said.
“I love that city,” Mark responded. “The light… just before it gets dark.” His voice was that of someone who had spent time in museums.
“Did you know Elizabeth Bishop?” I asked suddenly. It was a jump but he wasn’t surprised. Who loves a jump in thought more than two poets in a coffee shop in New York City? I have a little theory that poets better understand their genealogy through story swapping, and that through this story swapping poets make up their own tribe or class—a purely egalitarian class—based on their shared art.
“Yes… well, I met her a couple of times… I wouldn’t say we were friends, really, the first time in Brazil; frankly, I don ́t think she cared for me that much, or for my poems…,” Mark said.
“Tell me about her…” I asked, like a child beseeching a parent for a bedtime story.
“She asked me a lot of questions about Lowell. About who had won which prize. She was keenly aware of the prize winners.” The waitress came near, her breasts jacked up and pushed forward with tombstones tattooed on each one. Mark admired this unique presentation of breasts.
“Elizabeth was so proud of her lover’s physique,” Mark said.
“Lota,” I asked.
“No, this was later with Alice,” Mark said.
Bishop, the reticent alcoholic lesbian who lived in Brazil for seventeen years, writing poems that eschewed her humiliating drinking and her difficult orphaned childhood. I related to leaving a great deal unsaid. I was eager — no earnest, that quality I’d mainly kept tamped down, to learn everything I could about her from him. I wanted to connect to her. And I wanted to connect to him.
Mark Strand and I met shortly before he died. “I have cancer,” he said right away.
We were eating cupcakes. Mark had kindly offered to treat me. I tried to appreciate the waitress’ breasts along with Mark. Fall was tumbling down the canyons of New York City: orange, yellow, brown. Everyone on a cellphone, wearing Irish fishermen sweaters and Calvin Kline black turtlenecks. People moved as if they were on a gigantic chessboard. The sky the color of a weathered wood shingle.
I uncrossed my legs. Too feminine. To be feminine as a male meant not passing. Mark Wunderlich when he read a draft of this said, There’s no gay man that won’t relate to the quandary about crossing or uncrossing your legs.” This neurotic self-monitoring had followed me nearly my entire life. To appear too feminine translated as failure. “I knew you were gay,” as a statement was a switchblade. I was fifty one years old and the year was 2014.
Strand had written in a poem in my high school anthology:
We all have reasons for moving.
I move to keep things whole.
I had my reasons for moving, as Bishop had hers, as Strand had his. I think my gypsy nervousness, the need to always keep the suitcase open, goes back to my Mom. It surprises me now in my fifties, sometimes, that I ́ve moved so much. I thought, sometimes, Mom, Dad, Carter and I would just stay put in the Midwest forever. Fragmented and fractured — Mom changing who she was, Dad changing who he was, me changing me, my dear brother witnessed our folly. I felt responsible for him in my teenage brain. I felt we had ruined my brother because we were all so broken. And maybe that is why we had moved so much. To keep things whole.
I uncrossed my legs. I stopped looking at the handsome black man out the window. Yes, Mark Strand encouraged me: he offered me a kind of blessing before our cupcakes. “This is good, you moving to Madrid. This is good,” he said. As he said it, it became real, like a photograph that was materializing from its chemical bath after having been in a dark room for nearly forty years: I was moving to Madrid.
Mark’s tone about the cancer sounded like he was talking about a vacation spot he was going to visit although he wasn’t enthused. He had a very handsome face. I imagined women had fallen in love with that face, not to mention that mind. Perhaps a man or two had as well. I don’t know. I never really got to know Mark Strand that well. A bit like my cousin in that way, yet both stand in for something larger, as if their brief brush against my life somehow intensifies their significance.
“Do you want me to place your name on the list of those wanting healing when I get to the Cathedral?” I said. And I felt like my young six-year-old self next to my father. For Mark felt distant and with distant men I seemed to somehow thrive — I knew all the moves.
“I’m not religious,” Mark said, bemusedly. “My father was Jewish,” he said. I think now he said that to put me off more. I wanted to assure him that I was not meeting him to evangelize. That, in fact, for those competitive priests that whispered behind my back in seminary, I wouldn’t be surprised if they thought of me as the worst evangelist in their company, maybe even some kind of embarrassment.
Yet, there I was.
“My mother is half-Jewish, just like you then…” I added. Which felt sort of daring, revealing the part of my mother that moved so much in her unconscious, like a shark, never resting. Felt almost like coming out of the closet. Why doesn’t anyone ever say, “I am a quarter Christian?” Mark left his cupcake uneaten. He looked sad. The grit of New York, the air rubbing against our cheeks like sandpaper. I thought of Mom again that New York day. Slowly sliding down the wall when I was six. I never could fix her. There was so much I couldn’t fix.
New York moved all around Mark and me — one poet about to die, the other about to be a priest. Mortality must have been with him at every moment. I didn’t know what that felt like: being tested for HIV after a promiscuous bout comes close. After testing negative I remember it made me want to push death as far from me as possible, like it could never touch me, but of course it would and will.
The smell of coffee and trash and baked bread moving up our nostrils. In the news John Hinckley Jr. had been released from St. Elizabeth’s now and was going home to live with his mother. He was sixty years old. Jodi Foster had given birth to two children and not unlike the Madonna they seemed to have been born through some kind of immaculate conception. She was ready in her fifties to say, accepting an award, that she was lesbian.
I didn’t understand how or why I had become a poet any more than how or why I was becoming a priest: the more people asked the less I knew. All the answers seemed uninspired or verging on the bromides you could find in the literature of the meetings with their twelve steps. The answer lay in the air. The air was my business. The air was where I worked, between me and the page, or me and God.
What I was fairly certain about was that humanity, in its best moments, was trying to move towards illumination and acts of mercy, each and every one of us, atheist or believer, Jew or Christian, mentally ill or not, famous or anonymous, with a kind word, an invitation to read a poem, or eating a cupcake, or saying “I’m one too,” or electing to give birth to a child or welcoming a child home who’d made an unimaginably horrible mistake. And in that moment, Mark dying before me, I felt mercy for everyone I could think of who’d ever crossed my path. Mercy.
One day as the goldfinches were coming to the thistle feeder, and just before my mother fell down once more, upon my computer screen came a note from Mark Strand:
Well, we’ll have lunch again. The reduced dosage has meant a lessening of those onerous side effects. I am feeling quite a bit better. Regarding our conversation, I ́d like to have a soul, and perhaps I do, but I can never find it. I never write about it myself because I can ́t find it. Or, if I find something I take for it, it seems remote, embedded elsewhere, in a fable perhaps, or a joke, or some fictive concoction.
The note, written on the screen, was like the messages biplanes write in the sky — ephemeral, not to last long. So much felt like it was going fast now, too fast. I didn’t like it. I knew Mark had cancer and was searching for his soul. I was no expert on soul finding. I wanted to slow things down.
I told Mark I would see him in New York soon. It would be my last time to see him.
“I’ve been doing collages lately, I am done with writing poems. I don’t have anything more to say,” Mark Strand said to me in New York City, his head in profile. I wanted to fix the statement, remove the negative, but I’d been in Al-Anon just long enough that every once and a while I stopped throwing myself into someone else’s life. I had to bite my tongue not to say anything. Had a terrible time with patience, not wanting to fix Mark or my mother sliding down the wall. Wanted to say, “No, no, you will write more.” But a silence sat between us. A homeless man came to the table where we were eating cupcakes. We lowered our eyes to avoid his gaze.
“Time to go, kid,” Mark Strand said. “Yes, but,” I stuttered. “No, I really must go. I am tired, very tired.”
“Yes,” I said, “Yes.”
I perhaps will always hate endings. I wanted to say something more to him, but what more was there to say to someone I wanted to know better but did not know that well? We weren’t that close. So why does this moment stay with me so?
“Give my love to Madrid. Remember me on Horteleza Street,” Mark said. Then I watched him step down, off the curb, and cross the street, becoming part of the vast human stream of New York City, stepping down into the subway, his body submerging like in a baptism — Mark, tall, stately, Lincoln-esque —his gray kind head gone without a trace into the distance of the bells and traffic of Manhattan. One month later he was dead.
SPENCER REECE is an Episcopal priest and author of two books of poems, A Clerk’s Tale and The Road to Emmaus as well as a forthcoming memoir, Devotions. In 2017 he edited a book of poems, Counting Time Like People Count Stars, by the abandoned girls of Our Little Roses, the only all girl orphanage in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.