Poem of the Week

The Math Campers

Dan Chiasson

Johnson/Shelburne/Ripton, Vermont, Spring 2019

A mayfly born at the break of dawn
Dies when the sun goes down.
A tortoise on an English lawn
Outlives his master’s son’s son’s son.

An ancient shark shakes off another century;
Eerie and pristine, a fetal dolphin,
A steamship and a sea anemone
Hang near her, lifeless in the jellied ocean.

This shark read over Milton’s shoulder.
In her extreme old age, she’ll stare
Eye-to-eye, into a skyscraper’s foyer,
At gilled, amphibious corporate lawyers.

***

The big night stares us down from space;
We figured we would have more years;
Annihilation in her prom dress
Greets her platonic date, despair;

The black hole poses for her picture
Wearing a coronet of stars;
A glacier, like a mountain, only bigger
Rides southward on its own shed tears;

The deserts parched for centuries
Put on their snorkel gear;
Scorpions write their obituaries;
A cactus curtsies, then disappears.

***

First in their class, the lichens
Sprawl like a rash or a blush
On the face of a glacial erratic.
A thunderclap deafens the marsh.

This who’s who comes from all over:
A thawed field is a goldmine,
An uproar over winterberries,
Chitchat along the powerlines …

What happens happened later earlier;
What happens earlier happened later.
Now frost is a shallow passenger
And biohazards ride the white tail deer.

***

A beetle polishes its psychedelic shell.
Fireflies splatter-paint the night.
The keeper’s Honda’s battery failed
Parked near the cemetery gate.

The cemetery overlooks the brook
That blazed the highway’s route.
A hurricane washes out the highway.
The cemetery see-saws on its bank

Then makes a break for the valley.
Caskets line up for the slip-n-slide.
A collarbone surfboards down the alley.
Into the mudslide we wade.

***

In April, when the animals
In April when the animals emerge
One by one from their holes
As from an advent calendar

To meet their awaiting identities
The mouse shimmies into her fur
The patch of blue expects its jay
Hello chipmunk I am nervousness

In April when the animals
In April when the animals emerge
As from their office cubicles
And the world wakes up, enlarged—

***

The spring held all its dividends
Then shed them like confetti;
Home in Vermont last weekend,
I saw biofuel silos in the country,

Farmers returning to farming,
Asparagus, ramps, hemp;
New ferns along the paths unfurling,
And robins waking sleepily.

In middle school, if two boys
Want to kiss, or hold hands, they can;
Sixth graders learn sea-level rise
And march with their friends against guns;

***

The hills say there’s no single way
To be, up here, this time of Spring:
Swimmable water in the valley,
Snow on Mt. Mansfield still falling.

In Greensboro, the Saabs
Transformed to Priuses,
Crustier than the ones in cities,
Driven by retirees and heiresses.

Near Caspian Lake one day
Chief Justice Rehnquist
Swore Stephen Breyer in, only
A part-time village clerk to witness.

***

The Circus Camp patches its tents;
The Farm Camp rouses on the hill;
A goat behind a wire fence
Prepares to be clumsily milked.

Hard problems at the Math Camp wait
All winter for solutions;
Engorged sums hibernate
And dream of consolation;

A raft dry-docked through winter
Gets its feet wet and waits
For July, when the math campers
Arrive, to stare at the stars and calculate

***

The absolute value of fifteen
Or how the summer might expand
And prove eternal by division
Of days into hours, minutes, seconds;

They’re factoring love in suddenly
And measuring how the stars in pairs
Create the sky’s geometry,
And measuring their hearts spheres,

Skew lines of who they are and were;
They know, year over year, you grow
By comparing consecutive summers
And expressing them in a ratio.

***

Now, in the interval between
Dodge ball and snack, the Math Campers
Back-of-the-envelope equations
They must solve to make the summer longer.

They’ve meted out the summer
With the math they’ve done so far;
If they want a longer summer,
Oh they’ll have to practice harder:

For every correct answer, one more hour;
A furlough from the changing leaves.
The daisies cheer from the bleachers
And bumblebees gossip about love.

***

Rationalists will say they failed.
Fall came and bulldozed the bees.
The daisies saw their heads explode
And parents returned in their SUVs.

The raft was dragged to a frozen lawn.
The January stars withdrew
Into relations of their own.
Ice strangled the bright yarrow.

Black Adder has a restraining order
Against Hyssop: fucking psycho
Arrived in a three-wheeler
And did donuts in the meadow;

***

An astronaut unzips his suit
And masturbates to the turning Earth,
While distant galaxies ejaculate
In acid trips of death and birth;

First in his class, he spends the day
On jacking off and solo chess,
And writing in his diary
“I left the earth for fucking this—”

An organ on the TV mass
Plays all day for his company;
The wonders of the Universe
Turn into drudgery;

***

The Universe, first in its class,
Elaborates its origin
In the enormity of space;
Light finds its lost horizon

Then vanishes in ecstasy;
A dust-cyclone undoes the sun
And kills our Opportunity.
The little rover lost its friends.

First in his class, he toiled hard
Upon valedictory remarks
For his own graduation:
“My battery is low. It’s getting dark.”

Dan Chiasson is the author of six books, including The Math Campers. He is the poetry critic for The New Yorker.
Originally published:
September 17, 2020

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