Sailing to Italy
Published in The Atlantic in 1963
When the poet Mark Strand was a child, his family was constantly in motion; he lived in Cleveland, Halifax, Montreal, New York, and Philadelphia, then Colombia, Mexico, Peru. “I moved around so much, and went to so many different schools,” he once said, “that I never found my own place.” Apparently, he never stopped reflecting on what that lack of a stable place meant, either—on how one’s identity can emerge from their environment, and how it can crumble without a consistent one. The task of poetry, he wrote, is to examine “the edge of the self, the edge of the world—that shadow-land between self and reality.”
Given Strand’s interest in dislocation, many of his poems feel haunted, compelled not by a subject but by the lack of one. Take his celebrated work “Keeping Things Whole”: “In a field / I am the absence / of field,” he begins. “Where I am / I am what is missing.” He even wrote a whole book on Edward Hopper, the painter famous for scenes of eerie isolation in which transitory spaces such as diners or gas stations are perhaps as important as the lonely figures within them.
The poem “Sailing to Italy” certainly fits Strand’s framework. After a year in Florence as a Fulbright scholar from 1960–61, Strand could have written about any number of experiences abroad. But instead he chose to describe the voyage to the country, and the strangeness of being between two places. Who are we, he asks, without our usual “props” and “habits”? Does any solid sense of self remain?
Not really, he implies—he’ll find himself only when he reaches his destination. And yet, however uneasy Strand seemed about uprooting, he kept traveling for the rest of his life: He lived across the United States, as well as in Brazil and Spain. Perhaps he came to value not having a static life and character—or maybe he realized that wherever he went, there he still was. “I change and I am the same,” he wrote in 1970, roughly four decades before he died while in the process of moving from Madrid to Brooklyn. “I empty myself of my life and my life remains.”
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