'Blizzard of One' & 'The Weather of Words' by Mark Strand
Blizzard of One, former poet laureate Mark Strand's ninth collection, is a mixed bag. In some ways it's surprisingly slight. With only 20 poems, it's much shorter than its immediate predecessors, The Continuous Life (1990) and Dark Harbor (1993); the book design is attractive, but it's also clearly intended to add page length. On top of this, several poems are simply fluff: "The Beach Hotel," "Old Man Leaves Party," and "I Will Love the Twenty-First Century" are quickly dismissed, the sort of thing a music critic would unhesitatingly call album filler. "Here" and "The Delirium Waltz" are interesting technically (the latter is a variation on the pantoum) but thin on substance.
That said, there are poems here that have to be ranked among Strand's very best. One of these is "The Philosopher's Conquest," an exquisite villanelle based on Giorgio de Chirico's 1914 painting of the same name. Strand deftly evokes De Chirico's troubling cityscape, but he also offers context and interpretation: "Somewhere to the south a Duke is slain, / A war is won. Here, it is too late. / This melancholy moment will remain." "Morning, Noon, and Night" is one of Strand's most densely woven poems, its grand cadences and rich imagery as haunting as the sense of failure dogging its speaker, who dreams of drifting "forgotten / On a midnight sea where every thousand years a ship is sighted, or a swan, / Or a drowned swimmer whose imagination has outlived his fate, and who swims / To prove, to no one in particular, how false his life had been." A half dozen or so poems are equally remarkable, including "In Memory of Joseph Brodsky," "Five Dogs," "A Suite of Appearances," and "The Next Time."
That last-mentioned poem declares that "Life should be more / Than the body's weight working itself from room to room." One thing Strand argues in The Weather of Words, his first collection of literary essays, is that poetry is essential to a full, meaningful life. Consider this passage from his introduction to The Best American Poetry 1991:
The way poetry has of setting our internal house in order, of formalizing emotion difficult to articulate, is one of the reasons we still depend on it in moments of crisis and during those times when it is important that we know, in so many words, what we are going through . . . Without poetry, we would have either silence or banality, the former leaving us to our own inadequate devices for experiencing illumination, the latter cheapening with generalization what we wished to have for ourselves alone, turning our experience into impoverishment, our sense of ourselves into embarrassment.
And this from "On Becoming a Poet":
A poem is a place where the conditions of beyondness and withinness are made palpable, where to imagine is to feel what it is like to be. It allows us to have the life we are denied because we are too busy living. Even more paradoxically, poetry permits us to live in ourselves as if we were just out of reach of ourselves.
Strand made his reputation early, with poems evoking paranoid fantasies and horrifying dream-visions; who could have foreseen him evolving into such a romantic? Yet it is easy to read his recent work, including much of the best of Blizzard of One, in terms of these ideas. He's arguably becoming a more Stevensian poet, and his essays likewise often echo Stevens; it should be said, however, that Strand is by far the better prose writer.
A winning aspect of The Weather of Words is its sense of humor. In addition to the wit often on display in the essays, there are wry "creative" pieces—chief among them "Workshop Miracle," a miniature drama satirizing university creative writing classes. The book offers something rare: meditations on poetry that are thoughtful and authoritative, but also highly engaging.