Monday, October 31, 2005

I got hold of Dan Chiasson’s new book today, a book which I think will be very much in the minds of poetry-folks for a little while. I was skeptical, filled with a tinge of bitterness about why Chaisson gets to come to the forefront of his generation by publishing a book with Knopf. I read Josh Corey’s blog posting about it, and the correspondence alluded to there, which encouraged me. I should admit that I prefer to like a book than not to like it—poetry is more useful to me if it makes me want to write or read more poetry. So I like Chiasson’s book. In fact, I think it’s pretty damn great. There are some major poems in it. Look at this wonderful stanza:

When you ran towards me, I said, Stop there,
stop now, you’ll end up
in a stranger’s life; and when you ran away
I said the same words over again, louder.

There are many moments which are that accessible, that plain, that full of truth about an experienced phenomenon. What’s more true of love than that? It reminds me of the scene in Me and You and Everyone We Know (Miranda July) in which she labels her shoes “Me” and “You” and films them approaching each other and backing away. So Chiasson accomplishes many things like that. but there are also many moments of highly self-aware language, moments when we are reminded that we are constructing our world through words, in which multi-layered speakers describe language and experience simultaneously, as in this snippet from “The Elephant”:

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.

(blogger won't do it for some reason, but the second line of each stanza should be indented)

The proposition that we should accept this serious speech from an elephant is ridiculous, which the poem acknowledges with silly details—which are silly even if they’re true—such as the second stanza quoted above. And yet, it’s also rendered with such gravity (“as a distraction, not a prayer”) that we can’t help but superimpose the poem into our own human voice. The serious, human language, a combination of carefully modulated tone, vaguely timeless vocabulary, and dark subject matter, creates a speaker who is simultaneously poking fun at humanity and also deeply empathizing with human suffering. The elephant is heroic in its denial of death, but also pathetic, too lazy to die, too lazy (and too afraid) to face that its time is over. It’s very subtle and masterfully done. And, of course, it’s more accessible than the work of many other younger poets, hence a good vehicle for bringing contemporary concerns about the lack of faith in language as a tool of communication to a broader audience.

1 comment:

howie said...

i really enjoyed your thoughts on this collection. now, i'm curious.