The poetry world was recently hard hit by the death of Mark Strand in November, 2014. Mark, who had been a frequent visitor to Umbria and to Civitella Ranieri Foundation, had been planning a return visit in the summer of 2015. His lifelong friend, Yale painter Bill Bailey, lives just minutes from the Castle, and during the summers when Mark was not visiting Civitella, he was visiting Bill.
It was at Civitella that Mark wrote most of his last book, Almost Invisible, a collection of prose pieces. He usually wrote sitting in the sun at the picnic table in what is called the Fellows’ Garden.
Over the past several years, Mark had moved from Chicago to New York, and then from New York to Madrid, and back to New York. With each move he pared down his library. “There’s only about 400 books that really mean anything to me anymore,” he said. “I just want to get down to 400 books.” Civitella was the lucky recipients of his cast-offs.
His initial gifts of books to Civitella numbered 1200 volumes, primarily poetry in English, but many books of poetry in Spanish and Italian. There were numerous volumes of literary criticism, philosophy, the Classics, and books on theory.
Many of the books were sent to him from hopeful writers with handwritten notes still inside them reading something like, “Dear Mark, Great to meet you last night and thank you for your interest in my work. Here as promised is my latest book….”
The last time Mark was a Director’s Guest at Civitella, in 2011, he was reading the new translation of Don Quixote. “I don’t want it to end,” he said, “I am reading it so slowly because I don’t want to finish it.”
Shortly before his death, writer Jean McGarry was a Fellow in residence at Civitella. She had been a friend of Mark’s during his Baltimore Johns Hopkins days, and she wrote often to him to tell him about her experience in Umbria. It was she who convinced Strand to give the balance of his library to the Foundation, to keep the collection together, to which he agreed. He wrote to her, “I love giving books to Civitella. They are needed. I just keep thinning out my library.”
While she was still in residence at Civitella, Jean helped Executive Director Dana Prescott prioritize his books for cataloguing.
Jean wrote to Mark, “What an experience today, going through the boxes of books you sent to Civitella. I always knew you were a reader, and you never recommended to me anything that didn’t become a part of my brain and soul, but still, I was staggered by what I saw. Dana and I made a short list of things that need to be catalogued and shelved NOW. We will return and make a second, third, and fourth selection, but every one of these books is a treasure. I hope you plan to promise the rest of your library to this magical place, where you are the genius loci. They will be read and treasured (and studied) with the utmost reverence. (I hate to use that word, but yesterday, we went to San Sepolchro, and I am suffused with the spirit of your beloved Piero.)”
With Mark Strand’s will just out of probate, his daughter, Jessica, has told the Foundation that Civitella stands to inherit the balance of this great personal library. Another 3500 books will arrive shortly and the Foundation will begin the work of cataloguing each volume, and making the books accessible to its Fellows and Director’s Guests. Eventually the collection will be posted on line and also made public to visiting scholars.
Donations to support the installation and cataloguing of the collection at the Castle are welcomed. Please visit www.civitella.org for details about giving to the foundation or to contact us with questions. Civitella Ranieri Foundation is a non-profit 501(c)3 operating foundation based in New York. All US contributions are tax deductible to the fullest extent of the law.