Charles Jensen reviews
Natural History and Other Poems
by Dan Chiasson
This omnibus volume collects together under one title the lion's share of poems from Chiasson's first two American books, The Afterlife of Objects and Natural History, with a few new pieces tacked on the end for good measure. It's always instructive to read a poet's work in depth, granting the reader the rare opportunity to witness a poetics as it coalesces over the course of what amounts to many years of the poet's work; this volume does just that, presenting a cohesive and fully-rounded perspective on Chiasson's body of work thus far.
Chiasson's poetry can be characterized by its dualities. As a poet, he is concerned both with the ancient world and its contemporary counterpart, locating between them a sort of formed conclusion—that one leads decisively into the next. This is most succinct in the long poem "Natural History," which takes as its formal and thematic source the Historia Naturalis of Pliny the Elder.
In part III of the poem, "Pliny," Chiasson writes: "I stepped on a bird this morning. It had fallen between /two parked cars. My boot heel made it quiet, // sobbing noise, not at all like birdsong. It was / brittle and soft at once, like matchsticks inside // chewing gum. As a child in Rome, I dreamed someday / I would be Emerson's 'transparent eyeball'". This poetry seems predicated on an instinctual belief that implies, perhaps, all knowledge is accessible at all points in history—that our separation from the classical world of Greece and Rome is not so disparate as we might believe.
Is Chiasson revising the Jungian collective unconscious into a theory more akin to collective history? Chiasson himself manages the duality often in his work by placing side by side "one-half Latinate and / one-half shit," ("My Ravine"), causing the language of knowledge and science to collide unapologetically with the gutteral and often confrontational parlance of our times. Or, as he phrases it in "Cicada," this is a poetry of both "doctrine and dog shit." In this way, Chiasson bridges many further dualities—the world of the academy with the world of the trailer park; the immortal world of ideas with the fallible world of the body; the self and the perception of the self. It is between these discrete entities that Chiasson locates the worlds of his poems.
Chiasson's work can be characterized by a deep, entrenched sadness. Poems frequently find themselves, sometimes inexplicably, worrying the concepts of death, decomposition, departure—even the implication of death, what Chiasson refers to as "the kitsch / of death" ("'…and yet the end must be as 'tis'"). Particularly in The Afterlife of Objects does this preoccupation hold center stage as it creates tension between the inevitable failures of the body against the static persistence of things.
In "My Ravine," the speaker describes a place in which a landfill for box springs, bookcases, desks, and even "somebody's hairdryer" becomes the irresistible resting place for deer, who ultimately "stare at each other and wander / bewildered down my ravine and turn into skeletons." Later, in "Natural History," the image appears again, but as an elephant: "Worn out by suffering, we lie on our great backs, / tossing grass up to heaven – as a distraction, not a prayer. // That's not humility you see on our long final journeys: / it's procrastination. It hurts my heavy body to lie down."
Many of the poems strike at the nerve center of tragic events. A child in the neighborhood dies, or a speaker's father suffers toward death, or another child is tortured by sexual abuse at the hands of his father. "You are an elegist at heart," he writes in "Coda," "but loss shocks you." In recounting any of these small stories, the poems' speakers remain detached, untouched—uncannily akin to a nightly news anchor who, deadpan, reports yet another victimization in our culture. In the last example, the speaker recounts his suffering at the hands of a neighborhood bully, who, in retrospect, writes how "Then one / gray ordinary day // his father held him / down and nearly fucked / the life out of him. // Then he was quieter, and I / became sole / ruler of the neighborhood." ("Blueprint") Even the line breaks here enhance the sense of cognitive dissonance: the speaker is aware of both the horror of the crime and its seeming "ordinariness," yet instead chooses to focus on what it won him rather than what the boy experienced.
There's a resistance of the redemptive quality of the confessional mode—instead of learning from these experiences, characters are trapped within them, or unaware of their role in these human dramas. It's precisely this turning away from horror, or a refusal to comment on it directly, that is Chiasson's true strength. He smartly leaves all judgment and commentary for the reader to determine, much like an attorney merely presenting facts, not rhetoric.
There is also a playfulness at work in these poems, an awkward playfulness in which Chiasson's speakers often comment on the poems as they narrate them. This heightened self-awareness of these pieces as both art and something that can never quite capture the function of art would be reminiscent of a self-referential poet like Billy Collins were it not for the poems' darkness, layers of surprising imagery, and embrace of human emotional failures. While several pieces seem strike the pose of "the poet at his window contemplating life," Chiasson's preoccupation with decay and disappointment trump the mode and, wittingly, critiques it.
Chiasson's work collected in this volume is as varied in content as the broad catalog of Pliny's Historia Naturalis, absorbing into it objects, animals, and people alike; it cuts across eras writ large and lifetimes cut short, maps geographies mundane and exotic. The book leaves you with an exhaustion you might recognize as a kind of poetic jet lag. You've traveled long distances with Chaisson, seen unforgettable things—and, once home again, it's hard not to return to the memories of his stark images and surprising turns of phrase, haunting as they are.
Charles Jensen is the assistant director for the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University. He holds an MFA in poetry from ASU. He is the author of three chapbooks, including Living Things, which won the 2006 Frank O'Hara chapbook award, and The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon. He was a recipient of a 2007 Artist's Project Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts. His poetry has appeared in Bloom, Columbia Poetry Review, Copper Nickel, The Journal, New England Review, spork, and West Branch. He is the founding editor of the online poetry magazine LOCUSPOINT, which explores creative work on a city-by-city basis.
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