Poetry

From The Math Campers

Dan Chiasson

Q&A
I owned “East Coker” on cassette.
We’re close to Middlebury now, I pause
and ask my girlfriend how she likes
the line, “In my beginning is my end.”

She’s deep inside her mind; a memory
of her father, this would have been
the farm in Charlotte, highbush blueberry
under a canopy of Red Pines.

He’s picking blueberries for pies,
she rolls in a bed of fragrant needles;
she’s nine or ten. Later, by the lake,
they eat leftovers with lemon juice.

Now the houses rise and fall, I pause—
isn’t that beautiful? Are extended, are removed…
And now she’s in the backyard
of the house on Pearl, Reggae Fest weekend,

high: this was the summer the stars
could physically be touched,
palmed, released like butterflies
in the electric heat of the city.

***

How beautiful it was.
How beautiful we were,
growing up beside the lake,
with the west right over there,

back east where we still were,
and in between, Juniper Island
where we paddled our kayaks,
got high, tied up, and slept.

Past campfires: little ash-smudge
flowers in the sand.
Ours is still visible
from the pier, the balcony.

I swear I was in both places—
on the balcony, on the beach—
not as a metaphor, I swear,
but split, or doubled—

that was me and that was me,
with Sean and Mike and Dave
and the star cattle and Tom
whose rat-a-tat-tat was shame,

Tom’s brother too, his Adonis
turbo boost backhand
that rent in twain the Mt. Mansfield
first doubles team, the champions.

At least the island wasn’t
someone’s failed attempt
to halt time. It had that in common with
Pinhead and The Decentz

and the other bands, whose homegrown new wave
was Television plus The Clash
divided by Sunday Reggae on RUV.
The dread DJ ripped hits on air.

***

The balcony, the might have been,
wasn’t mine. The party
on the balcony, not mine,
was mine; the when belongs to nobody.

Josh True was there, his kids like
little animals around his knee,
my kids in the phase before the phase
when they’re impressionable.

I could touch you, though I
never touched you, not
until this chain-link conundrum
made space-time belly flop.

That’s me, much farther on in time;
you lag behind, in bright blue
flashing neon I Love You
cornflower shadow on snow.

***

We made out lazily, for hours—
cf. the underwater scenes in “L’Atalante.”
It was late, our dreams crossed
and we were nine together, walking home.

It was getting late, and
you could feel the strain
of all the things that
hadn’t happened yet not happening

or getting ready to happen,
or the period prior
to their happening ending, the lead up
to the prize bull’s for-profit climax.

***

Euphrasy & Rue
He was writing an autumn journal, he wrote, because in autumn everything abundant was dying. The old themes had “proven
true.” A source confirms.

His own death and the death of everyone he loved confronted him on his long runs at dusk, in the woods.

He went into nature, to make a pinprick of his eyesight. He focused on small blossoming things and magenta berries at the end of fall.

Lines of poetry came into his mind as he ran: The tangled bine-stems scored the sky. An artery upon a hill.

It may just be my mind, he thought. It may just be my mind. He wrote: “It may just be my mind.”

He wrote:

“In the branch overhead,
the nightjar,
The manic neighbor,
told dirty jokes.

Mothers moved their babies
to another tree
alarmed to see
how far he had fallen.”

***

That fall, he had been invited to live, for a time, in a famous poet’s apartment, among the books and objects that the poet had left behind when he died. The apartment was on the Sound, on a little V of land with rocky beaches and foggy moors, high up where the steeples and cupolas were his neighbors.

He described the light as it moved from room to room, across an eccentric palette of colors from flame to teal to cherry.

Then the darkness took the colors away, in the same sequence, flame, teal, cherry, and this happened every day.

He could read about these walls, those colors, that light, that dusk, in the poet’s poems. Or he could put the poems down and look at the walls, or run his hands up and down the walls he’d been reading about all afternoon and ever since he was young, when the poet was alive, standing where now he stood.

He wrote: “I met him only once, when I was in college. He was elfin, skeletal, kind, flirtatious. His mind operated almost apart from his strange body, like a drone piloted by a faraway stranger.”

Now the drone flies through time, not space. Its controller, long dead, still flies it over our heads.

A source confirmed: “His body was a stick insect, but his smile flashed the news of immortality.”

***

He patrolled the sound in his mind, counting the buoys as they bobbed in the tide.

Every buoy was an age he’d been, every age he’d been could be found among the low-lying hulls and docks, dusk settling down, the long, empty sidewalks leading to nowhere, leading to water…

Nine and thirty-one were side by side. They shared more than he had known: the correspondences were hidden under the heavy cover of chronology.

His life, he wrote, was not a line.

His life was not a ladder.

His life was not a long walkway leading to nowhere.

Here, side by side, were sixteen and four.

***

It was already November when he wrote again. The first frost ruined all the Nippon Daisies, and spoiled a single holdout bright pink Starlight Hydrangea.

He had arrived at a trio of symbols: the drone, which he associated with the imagination; the GPS, which connected time
and place, and suggested those few places in his childhood that remained, to this day, unchanged, and which he visited when he too wished to seem unchanged after so many years; and the buoys, which bobbed independently as aspects of symptoms of the greater force, call it God, call it the ocean, call it chance, the buoys which drifted this way and that, amicably, like stars in the night sky.

The drone, the GPS, and the buoys, symbols which he said would tie his book together, ways of understanding himself in the enormity of time, his book only a sliver of the slightly larger sliver his life represented.

***

Coda: Stonington
On the deck upstairs, I read about
the deck upstairs. In the daybed
I read about the daybed. In the books
I read I read about the books I read.

*

High up, all night, I thought about
my sons, how when they wake
I will be finishing this line:
my night their day from here on out.

*

Birds, check. First light. Sunrise.
Pole vaulting all night long.
My outline splayed on the guest bed
Where Mary McCarthy stayed.

*

The sponsors: the bats, the bottles;
The milk-glass tabletop, the china cup.
The Santorini guide and smiling lads from 1982.
A tin mini-license plate read “Jim.”

*

In a book on one of the shelves
I left a copy of this poem
changed slightly since that night
changed crucially yet slightly

since the night I lay on the star deck
and made my body an angel
in the warm September night
above the Sound and its bright buoys

the way I did when I was a small child
in a snow bank in my zippered snowsuit
you can find this poem inside a book
on the shelves in the hidden study

three to the left of the Santorini guide
though when you find it you will see
the poem changed slightly, crucially—
because, you know why: because time.

Dan Chiasson is the author of six books, including The Math Campers. He is the poetry critic for The New Yorker.
Originally published:
June 1, 2020

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