Dan Chiasson Natural History

ISBN 13: 9780375711152

Natural History

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9780375711152: Natural History

Dan Chiasson, hailed as “one of the most gifted poets of his generation” upon the appearance of his first book, takes inspiration for his stunning new collection from the Historia Naturalis of Pliny the Elder. 

“What happens next, you won’t believe,” Chiasson writes in “From the Life of Gorky,” and it is fair warning. This collection suggests that a person is like a world, full of mysteries and wonders–and equally in need of an encyclopedia, a compendium of everything known. The long title sequence offers entries such as “The Sun” (“There is one mind in all of us, one soul, / who parches the soil in some nations / but in others hides perpetually behind a veil”), “The Elephant” (“How to explain my heroic courtesy?”), “The Pigeon” (“Once startled, you shall feel hours of weird sadness / afterwards”), and “Randall Jarrell” (“If language hurts you, make the damage real”). The mysteriously emotional individual poems coalesce as a group to suggest that our natural world is populated not just by fascinating creatures–who, in any case, are metaphors for the human as Chiasson considers them– but also by literature, by the ghosts of past poetries, by our personal ghosts. Toward the end of the sequence, one poem asks simply, “Which Species on Earth Is Saddest?” a question this book seems poised to answer. But Chiasson is not finally defeated by the sorrows and disappointments that maturity brings. Combining a classic, often heartbreaking musical line with a playful, fresh attack on the standard materials of poetry, he makes even our sadness beguiling and beautiful.
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About the Author:

DAN CHIASSON was born in Burlington, Vermont, and was educated at Amherst College and Harvard University, where he completed a Ph.D. in English. His first book of poems, The Afterlife of Objects appeared in 2002. A widely published literary critic, Chiasson is the author of One Kind of Everything:Poem and Person in Contemporary America. He is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and a Whiting Writers’ Award, and teaches at Amherst and Wellesley colleges. He lives in Sherborn, Massachusetts.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

LOVE SONG (SMELT)
When I say 'you' in my poems, I mean you.
I know it’s weird: we barely met.
You must hear this all the time, being you.

That night we were at opposite ends of
the long table, after the pungent
Russian condiments, the carafes of tarragon vodka,

the chafing dishes full of boiled smelts
I was a little drunk: after you left,
I ate the last smelt off your dirty plate.
THE SUN
There is one mind in all of us, one soul,
who parches the soil in some nations

but in others hides perpetually behind a veil;
he spills light everywhere, here he spilled

some on my tie, but it dried before dinner ended.
He is in charge of darkness also, also

in charge of crime, in charge of the imagination.
People fucking flick him off and on,

off and on, with their eyelids as they ascertain
with their eyes their love’s sincerity.

He makes the stars disappear, but he makes
small stars everywhere, on the hoods of cars,

in the compound eyes of skyscrapers or in the eyes
of sighing lovers bored with one another.

Onto the surface of the world he stamps
all plants and animals. They are not gods

but he made us worshippers of every
bramble toad, black chive, we find.

In Idaho there is a desert cricket that makes
a clocklike tick-tick when he flies, but he

is not a god. The only god is the sun,
our mind–master of all crickets and clocks.
THE ELEPHANT
How to explain my heroic courtesy? I feel
that my body was inflated by a mischievous boy.

Once I was the size of a falcon, the size of a lion,
once I was not the elephant I find I am.

My pelt sags, and my master scolds me for a botched
trick. I practiced it all night in my tent, so I was

somewhat sleepy. People connect me with sadness
and, often, rationality. Randall Jarrell compared me

to Wallace Stevens, the American poet. I can see it
in the lumbering tercets, but in my mind

I am more like Eliot, a man of Europe, a man
of cultivation. Anyone so ceremonious suffers

breakdowns. I do not like the spectacular experiments
with balance, the high-wire act and cones.

We elephants are images of humility, as when we
undertake our melancholy migrations to die.

Did you know, though, that elephants were taught
to write the Greek alphabet with their hooves?

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.
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