A cleareyed poet's searing questions

Mark Strand wonders where we're going.

BLIZZARD OF ONE By Mark Strand Alfred A. Knopf 55 pp., $21

What does it take to catch one of poetry's biggest prizes? Sometimes just a very small hook.

With "Blizzard of One," Mark Strand, former US poet laureate, has now become one of the Pulitzer anointed. This slim volume follows the arc of his earlier work. There is a sharpness, a harsh beauty to the world he describes. His landscapes exist both in the physical realm and in the world of imagination.

A Piece of the Storm

From the shadow of domes in the city of domes,

A snowflake, a blizzard of one, weightless, entered your room

And made its way to the arm of the chair where you, looking up

From your book, saw it the moment it landed. That's all

There was to it. No more than a solemn waking

To brevity, to the lifting and falling away of attention, swiftly,

A time between times, a flowerless funeral. No more than that

Except for the feeling that this piece of the storm,

Which turned into nothing before your eyes, would come back,

That someone years hence, sitting as you are now, might say:

"It's time. The air is ready. The sky has an opening."

Strand's work is spare and chiseled, always swirling with mystery and the awareness of absence. Time after time, he reminds readers that the physical world has currents and urges of its own.

But more than that, Strand struggles with the question of the self: How does it intersect with time and space? What is its relation to the seen and the unseen?

Implied is a search for spirituality, but Strand doesn't offer salvation. Instead, he looks unblinkingly at his life. If there is any solace to be found, it comes from being cleareyed. Comfort comes only in moments:

And you think that perhaps you are not who you thought, that henceforth

Any idea of yourself must include a body surrounding a song.

- Part III, 'A Suite of Appearances'

And then the moment is gone:

... Will the same day ever come back, and with it

Our amazement at having been in it, or will only a dark haze

Spread at the back of the mind, erasing events, one after

The other, so brief they may have been lost to begin with?

- Part VI, 'A Suite of Appearances'

Some readers may find fault with Strand's perspective. His vision, they could argue, is too wedded to earth's cold kisses. Others could point to places in this book where Strand's eerie magic falters.

"Five Dogs," for example, is surreal, but perhaps not surreal enough. The speakers of the poem - the dogs themselves - don't have the insight or edge that's needed to make their perspective compelling. And "The Delirium Waltz," with its necessary, frenzied motion, goes on too long.

But none of that detracts from Strand's technique. This poet knows how to make language sharp, how to make it sing as it burns his vision into readers' minds.

And perhaps that vision, honed in nine earlier books, is what pushed "Blizzard of One" to win this year's Pulitzer. The questions Strand has been asking for years are now being asked by many. As the century nears its end, just what is real, and where will imagination transport us?

*Elizabeth Lund is the Monitor's poetry editor.

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