Thursday, September 10, 2015



It was clear when I left the party
That though I was over eighty I still had
A beautiful body. The moon shone down as it will
On moments of deep introspection.  The wind held its breath.
And look, somebody left a mirror leaning against a tree.
Making sure that I was alone, I took off my shirt.
The flowers of bear grass nodded their moonwashed heads.
I took off my pants and the magpies circled the redwoods.
Down in the valley the creaking river was flowing once more.
How strange that I should stand in the wilds alone with my body.
I know what you are thinking. I was like you once. But now
With so much before me, so many emerald trees, and
Weed-whitened fields, mountains and lakes, how could I not
Be only myself, this dream of flesh, from moment to moment?

~ Mark Strand, “Blizzard of One”

I found this poem among my recycled sheets of paper, and I was totally stunned. Not the kind of poem you read every day and then forget, so how could I have forgotten it? Ah, memory, if only you were a more intelligent resource . . .  And another thought joins in: perhaps when I first read the poem, I was too young to really understand it.

At the literal level, the poem is astonishing enough, though it could be dismissed as not especially credible — surreal even. There’s a mirror somebody left leaning against a tree? And the octogenarian speaker, reflecting that he still had a beautiful body, simply begins to strip in the moonlight, to the applause of nature? Hmmm, we could say, perhaps some old people really are that eccentric.

Of course the poem needs to be read symbolically. It is an astonishing poem, as poems about old age go. It is not an elegy, not a meditation on diminishment and dying. I think it outdoes any of Jack Gilbert’s poems on the subject, though Gilbert also takes a very affirmative stance toward aging. The title is very much what we might expect from Gilbert, except that Gilbert would continue in the third person. But this poem is much more startling as the first-person confession. For the sake of authenticity and intimacy, it has to be in the first person. The speaker needs to make us believe him.

Just the title, “Old Man Leaves Party,” can have multiple meanings. But first, let’s note the omission of articles: it’s not “An Old Man Leaves the Party.” The terseness of “Old Man Leaves Party” suggests a newspaper headline, like “Man Shoots Family, Self” — men do those things, such a headline suggests. It’s not a special old man who leaves a special party. It’s everyman. Leaving the party is the human condition. 

 OK, let’s discuss the party. It can be a literal party, maybe in honor of the speaker’s most recent prize (and Strand has certainly had a few). But then there is always that memory of a party that we had to leave as children just because it was bedtime. But now, over the age of eighty, that big party is life itself. Others are still having a good time, but for a few guests it’s already time to leave. Or the “party” could mean the active part of life, when the future tense still made sense. One could argue that we become posthumous even before the ultimate leave-taking.

Now, Mark Strand (1934 -2014) really was quite a handsome man, even in his seventies (he didn’t live past eighty, alas). Not even Robert Pinsky was as handsome as Strand managed to be at any age (oh well, perhaps equally handsome; we don’t have to choose, though I'm somewhat pleased at the fantasy of a male poet beauty contest). As if his many prizes and jobs at prestigious universities were not enough, Strand was tall and had good hair. But let’s not be literal. The point is that the human body is endlessly interesting. We never tire of looking at paintings of nudes, though we’ve seen thousands of such paintings. The human body is a marvel, for all the sagging, brown spots, and other signs of aging. I keep thinking of a white-haired old Chinese woman painter I met in Vermont. She was so beautiful I couldn’t stop staring at her.

But let’s linger a bit on that shocking beginning:

It was clear when I left the party
That though I was over eighty I still had
A beautiful body.

In our much-bewailed “culture of youth,” the statement “I still had a beautiful body” is indeed shocking. The speaker is totally self-accepting. Perhaps the word “narcissistic” comes to mind, but is that not a culturally conditioned judgment? How dare he perceive himself as beautiful in old age? How dare he not apologize for being old, stating he’s no longer handsome, strong, sexy? Yet there it is: he finds his body beautiful. He doesn’t just accept his body; he celebrates it.

There is also an inescapable symbolism of taking off one’s clothes. Just as a party is a contrived social situation, so the clothes are a mask. They conceal. The old man is naked now, authentic, completely himself.

And nature approves. As is typical in poetry, the speaker projects his own mental state on nature. Thus, “the wind held its breath.” And when the speaker takes off his shirt, the flowers of bear grass nod with seeming approval (“moonwashed heads” is lovely). When the pants come off, magpies circle the redwoods — never mind that it’s night time. Even more dramatically, the previously frozen or half-frozen river is flowing once more!

It is a winter night — need we talk about symbolism? Yet as the man admires his own beautiful body, entirely without lamentations about aging, birds begin flying and the “creaking” river starts flowing.

If you’re thinking, “What??” the speaker has anticipated that too. He assumes you, the reader, are younger and know nothing about what it’s like to be in the last years of life — “I was like you once.”

And here comes the most marvelous and affirmative part of the poem:

. . . But now
With so much before me, so many emerald trees, and
Weed-whitened fields, mountains and lakes, how could I not
Be only myself, this dream of flesh, from moment to moment?

This is perhaps the best “comfort poem” I’ve come across. The speaker, though at the end of his life, does not feel old and pathetic, inadequate, fit only for dying. Again he startled us by saying he has “so much before me.” He doesn’t have much time, but he has a wealth of moments, and the beauty of nature to take in. He feels rich beyond compare.

Ambition is over; one more prize doesn’t mean anything. Simply existing is transcendent.

I will not babble about the power of now and living in the moment. Strand’s final lines are exquisite. It’s amazing that one needs to be past a certain age — past ambition — to be able to

Be only myself, this dream of flesh, from moment to moment


There is another Strand poem that I love. It’s interesting that Strand started out “on the dark side:  — even the title of his early volume, the one that made him famous, announces it: “Darker.” It’s not his best volume. Strand become better the older and less trendy he grew, the more delighted with simply being alive, the joy of having a body, of being, in a way, the same boy that his mother used to kiss, her love never erased by time. I don’t know if any other poet wrote with greater affirmation about aging, though Jack Gilbert comes close.


Even this late it happens:
the coming of love, the coming of light.
You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,
stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows,
sending up warm bouquets of air.
Even this late the bones of the body shine
and tomorrow’s dust flares into breath.

~ Mark Strand

All this year I’ve dealt with the dust of many yesterdays — which also made me aware that today’s wonders will also be dust in the infinity of tomorrows. As for the coming of love, there is nothing like love late in life: drop everything and dance that last dance. 

Addendum, 1-5-2016

Cats know they need no self-improvement. And talk about "this dream of flesh, from moment to moment" . . .


  1. This is a very interesting post. I love the way the old man celebrates his aged yet beautiful body. and why not? It's a liberating concept to be 80 years old and still be able to see yourself as beautiful. I wish to be so liberated. The stark winter day, contrasts the humble, fragile, human body... aging just as the earth does through it's wintery cycle. The man leaves this world, and moves on to the next, perhaps. the party of surviving... and accepting oneself. I love your writing...I had the pleasure of being in an online class with you a couple years back with the Rooster Moans.

  2. What an unexpected pleasure, this comment that actually addresses the poem, and does it well at that! Thank you!! Much has happened since that time at Rooster Moans -- a lot more practical chores have fallen on me, as if to say, Welcome to the REAL adulthood! But life is too short to waste any of it on complaining. As Strand teaches, there is so much still ahead, the beauty of each moment, the beauty of the night and winter included. Let's feast on the beauty of nature and the beauty of our bodies while there is still a chance.

  3. what a gift, finding you. I was looking for Rilke's Unicorn, arrived here and started with your beginning, which in a way I shared [legs too thin in '45 ;-)] though I wasn't prodded like the testing of doneness in a cake :-),
    This poem is delicious, as is your analysis. I was diagnosed with cancer a few months back and now have life with a stoma/ my own personal rosebud: Worthy of celebration, and leading me back to my body in the way you explain.
    Amazing that Rilke would make me the gift of finding you here; you with the pen of an angel.

  4. Thank you, Joanna. It's comments like yours that keep me going. Yes, the primacy of the body. The body is an animal, and animals are more beautiful than prayers.

    You are probably receiving a lot of unsolicited advice because of your diagnosis. All I'll say is that these days a lot of cancer is survivable, and the most potent medicine is joy.

    Still, about two weeks from now I'll have a blog in part about fucose and fucoidan. Those strange sugars -- galactose, mannose, xylose, ribose, fucose -- it turns out they are major players in the body. The wild mushroom soup that my grandmother made -- the closest I can get to that is shiitake mushroom soup. I recognize the smell! Using at least some dried shiitake (or other dried mushroom) makes it more intense.

    Rilke taught me seriousness. That was the dividing point: I left facile juvvenile humor behind and started my journey toward real poetry. And now Rilke is bringing me readers from around the world. Yes, just to be here is magnificent. Just to exist is transcendent.

    Wishing you much joy, Oriana

  5. Miranda via Oriana: I agree that it is a marvelous poem and also agree that it is unusual that you would have read it and forgotten it. Your hunch that maybe you were too young for it at the time may, indeed, be true, because I don't think a young person can easily and deeply feel what life is like after the ego quiets down and ego-projects are over. Life lived more fully in the right brain is a gift that old people can enjoy and appreciate, if they have the capacity. The demands of development (youth) and surviving/thriving (early adulthood/middle age) are over and the bliss and thrill of complete right-brain engagement of the moment is finally revealed.

    I really love this poem. Thanks for sending it along. It is uplifting

  6. So true: this is a poem for the older reader, one who has stayed at the party for a while and has gotten used to the idea of leaving. There is no more striving for accomplishment; we've done what we've done, and it is enough. Now it's time to see, at last, how beautiful we are and how amazing life is. No wonder older age has been called the "great liberator." Finally we are happy to be alive, to have our amazing bodies, and to have had the fascinating lives (so many lifetimes just in this one life!) we can now view in the mirror of memory.