Natural History by Dan Chiasson“Such then is the present state of the world, and of the countries, nations, more remarkable seas, islands, and cities which it contains. The nature of the animated beings which exist upon it, is hardly in any degree less worthy of our contemplation than its other features; if, indeed, the human mind is able to embrace the whole of so diversified a subject.”
-from the Historia Naturalis of Pliny the Elder
Pliny the Elder published the first ten books of his Historia Naturalis in C.E. 77. Thirty years after his death, his nephew (unexpectedly called “Pliny the Younger”) published the all 27 volumes of the collection. This massive text covers a veritable amusement park of topics: geography, ethnography, anthropology, zoology, botany, agriculture, horticulture, mineralogy, art, and physiology. And my list here is by no means representative. Pliny claims in the preface to have curated 20,000 facts and relied on one hundred sources -- though contemporary scholars disagree about the sources from which he culled this wealth.
Enter Dan Chiasson. Natural History takes as its model, abstractly speaking, Pliny’s wonderfully weird world of ancient factoids and records. Chiasson’s notes indicate that he read Italo Calvino’s essay on the text and took off from there. The lucidity of Chiasson’s poetics reveal a looming and unfathomable composure of the intellectual self. There are three notions for which I’d like to argue.
1) Chiasson made some very smart choices about how to “use” Pliny -- that is, while Historia Naturalis does act as an exciting model from which to work, Natural History does not re-appropriate the text in a recognizable manner. The material directly quoted and the images directly lifted are slight. What Chiasson was looking to mimic was a different kind of information (and this is right from the book’s notes) -- “stance, voice, and cadence.” And as scholars debate what fine treats Pliny lapped up from what honey pot, Chiasson’s “materials” are various and hazy. His citations include Forrest Gander, Maxim Gorky, Robert Frost, and David Ferry's translations of Horace. Chiasson draws from his sources carefully and tenderly -- and it is obvious. The book seems to be a genuine and thorough processing of the “idea” of Historia (with its charming “index of life” quality and odd tonal presence) and the nuanced comprehension of reality one gleans in one’s life as a reader.
2) This “stance” leads Chiasson to adopt an unexpected new voice -- a well-measured dramatic composite -- alter ego playing a character that plays the self playing an alter ego and so on... jumbled, and sometimes on the outside of it all.
. . . is poetry picking a pretty word,
say, “charred” instead of “burned” --
as in “charred in a fire”? Real life is so raw,
all on its own; it hurts; words should perhaps
protect us from real life.
Perhaps words should be a shield, rather than
a mirror; and maybe poems should be
an ornamented shield, like the shields
gods made for their favorite soldiers,
sons and lovers. Poems should be
like people’s faces by firelight:
a little true, for verification’s sake,
but primarily beautiful. Or like
pomegranates: hard to open at first
but, when you get them open, full of sweet granules
of meaning. Once, when I was bathed in wine
as part of a military victory parade,
I was purple for a month --
I liked the looks of me that way,
like a giant pomegranate seed!
That’s what a poem should be:
recognizable reality, but dyed,
a sign that someone here felt joy,
someone was released from pain...
And what a great way for both Chiasson and his reader to maneuver through a series of narrative strands, confessional interruptions (“...so I did it, though my lungs hurt,/ though my lungs felt sandpapered after./ I almost wrote ‘sadpapered’ there; isn’t it weird...”), and a watching-a-sunset-creep-its-way-along-a-valley-while-you’re-high style of emotional content. By this last statement, I mean: Chiasson knows how to get right at the silly, sad “heart” of a story.
3) The poetics being flexed and flaunted in Natural History are constructed, partly, within the juxtaposition mode of metaphor -- various objects and sensations are placed together to create a metaphorical (too messy to be allegorical) setting. Chiasson ups the ante. The world his juxtapositions suggest does something more than affirm itself cleverly in the poems. This world flickers. Or it crosses other worlds. Imagine how it sounds when your radio dial settles tentatively on two stations at once; and when one is not more prominent, you hear them both or you hear something you can willingly misunderstand -- throaty alien bell voices. And it’s kind of a good cheap thrill. Now imagine that in poetry form. And of course, this all makes logical sense given Dan Chiasson’s project with crazy old Pliny. Additionally, the whole process lends itself to a truly eerie “sound sense.” The cadence sought to be emulated comes off as sheer song.
Natural History is the kind of book that offers its readers an actual experience -- much in the same way that a dream or visual art installation does. The thing is structured for both flighty entertainment and heady contemplation. “[Y]our voice says my poem says my voice/ doesn’t say a thing. Your parents own the tulip tree we lie under, but they don’t own the night.”
(A final note of interest: a seemingly complete and excellently formatted translation of Historia Naturalis is available, for free, at www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin./ptext?. Thank you Wikipedia for leading me there.)
Natural History by Dan Chiasson