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In his poems and essays, Dan Chiasson proves equally adept at rigorous self-interrogation and at an intellectual probing of the outer world.
Where’s the Moon, There’s the Moon
Knopf, $25 (hardcover)
In his poems and essays, Dan Chiasson proves equally adept at rigorous self-interrogation and at an intellectual probing of the outer world. Chiasson is concerned primarily with the relationship between autobiography and identity, and even his best poems have a narcissistic sheen. But his poems are nonetheless fetching because they are layered with enough imagery and philosophical challenge to reward our following the self-examination, and because ultimately they invite us to set off on our own expeditions through (and for) loss, hurt, parenthood, and love.
In the poem “Aquarium,” the speaker, seeing his reflection in the glass, examines how his faint image relates to the larger, more dynamic container: “His mind contains everything except for fish.” Chiasson’s speaker possesses the qualities of a tragic hero facing up to his own sense of anchorlessness. Even as he confronts this prison built for amusement, he cannot bear his own emptiness: “The rumor of depth is your new atmosphere. / You can’t confide in me. I’m not an aquarium.” No wonder that, in “Tree,” he remarks, “One day I’ll feel the wind again. / A moment later I’ll be gone.”
Chiasson’s preoccupation with himself throughout the book’s first section, while directed inward, also is connected to his relationships with others, and particularly with the experience of having two small children. Unsure of his fitness to bear the responsibility of fatherhood, Chiasson uses a number of these poems to search for familiarity and affirmation. Instead of easy assurance, however, the search inevitably leads him into the future and its frightening landscapes, as in the gorgeously haunting “Man and Derailment”:
When the man took his son down the ravine
to view, along the opposite bank,
the pileup of a passenger train,
backhoes and cranes, things the child had seen
only in miniature, now huge, hauling
life-size train cars out of the deep ravine,
inside his life-size head the quiet boy
wondered how he would remember the scene
and, once he knew his father better, later,
and later, knew himself better, what it would mean.
Standing at the metaphorical abyss between life and death, the man and his son are witnesses to a catastrophe whose lessons are life-changing. No doubt the father has his son’s best interest at heart, which is why, ironically, he takes the child out of his playroom and introduces him to the world’s less idyllic side. But here, too, there is an inward turn, for ultimately the vulnerability of the child is also evident in the speaker. Having been to the other side of the ravine, the father fast-forwards and meditates on what his relationship with his son might be in the years ahead.
These meditations deepen in the collection’s long title poem, subtitled “A Story for Children.” Based on William Steig’s children’s book Sylvester and the Magic Pebble—about a donkey who, to protect himself from a lion, asks a wish-granting pebble to turn him into a rock—“Where’s the Moon, There’s the Moon” presents a speaker who has been turned to stone, an object whose stoic self-denial abuts his insistent self-inquiry. The moon of the title, as the actual moon on any cloudless night, represents something familiar yet mysterious, easy to describe yet firmly out of reach. Hence the speaker remarks, “When I picture my father I see the surface of the moon.”
Tossed into the deep end of his own painful past, he weighs his ability to comprehend the causes and effects of personal misfortune, and he invents a microcosm centered on “my father’s distance and yet the tendency of distant things / to become central.” Conscious of the pitfalls awaiting him, the speaker points out that having a firm grasp on one’s intentions doesn’t guarantee that things will go according to plan, since the moon, “despite its best attempts, cants / a little (feel it?) to the right, like a boat without / the starboard oar, and soon its straight-line ambitions / pass the point where they began, as indeed they must / if counteracted by a force designed to keep them close.” Our connection to others, while mitigating the loneliness we feel as we face the world’s risks, makes the world riskier in turn.
Chiasson underscores how we pay both risk and reward forward; gradually, the poem becomes a meditation on generational role-playing. Reflecting on his father’s absence, Chiasson looks upon his own son and wonders if there is any misfortune in store for him. While the poet balances his father’s absence against the presence of those around him, he understands that any respite is short-lived, since the child in whom he sees himself reflected—everything here reflects the poet back to himself—literally grows up before his eyes. This perennial changing of the guard takes place because
This mouth is being erased before your eyes. Goodbye.
These eyes are being erased before your eyes. Goodbye.
No chin anymore. No nose anymore. These cheeks are gone.
The outline of my head, my wild Dan white-man Afro, gone.
Without a head you do not have a mind. Without a mind
even the little confidences, sotto voce, dry up.
Now the eraser passes over my limbs, and now
the ground I rested on, the cartoon tree, all gone.
In the final octave the speaker chastises himself for having been weak enough to wish for solace in the first place:
but quit your weeping, your thrashing
at your shirts, your pacing up and down the floor;
mule-child, your angel, is not dead; on page four
he is changed into a rock, a sketch of a rock;
But lo, I bring the news of page eighteen: there, you three
embrace again, all grief erased. A family: a sketch of joy.
The ending is bittersweet: the family comes together, but it is merely a sketch for a happy life. Love and grief feed off each other.
In “Where’s the Moon, There’s the Moon,” the poet enforces a certain distance from himself through the swiftness of his observations and the practiced sobriety of his judgments. The speaker steps outside of his personal victimhood in order to articulate his doubts and feelings about being a father, only to find himself with yet another game to play in the book’s third section, which is also its conceptual coda. In “Hide-and-Seek,” a memory poem that sounds like fable (“Once, north of here, a child played / hide-andseek”), it is the child who hides, while the seeker, “embarrassed by his role, / thinking it beneath his dignity, / developed instead a personality disorder.”
Accepting that his family and emotional well-being take precedence over his inferiority complex, the speaker seems to realize that each meditation and analysis, whether visited by fear, doubt, or willful sense of closure, must lead to action. By the collection’s penultimate poem, aptly titled “Hide-and- Seek (II),” the speaker is reaching out to the loved ones around him. This sequel showcases an understanding that loss and recovery leapfrog one another until something goes terribly wrong, or else the human aspect of wanting to recover more and lose less takes over, as when the speaker says, “you want / a new game whose object isn’t loss. / The rule is: everyone stay close by, in sight.” Unlike the celestial bodies earlier in the book, which orbit and keep a close eye on each other as much out of love as mistrust, the game of hide-and-seek at least offers some closure each time it is played.
The ordering of the poems, which provides the clearest expression of the poet’s desire for familial security, also pulls the plug on any false assurances the poet might have found in knowing his roles. In the collection’s final poem, “Previews,” the speaker goes to the movies with his family and discovers that the previews are not so different from the main feature. He realizes uneasily that he, too, is neither here nor there, but rather stuck in the uncertain, “Infinitely elongated Beforehand, bright Not Yet.” First, the children grow impatient. Then the whole family heads for the exit “before the movie began.”
It’s an ominous conclusion, one that suggests that the speaker in these poems might never free himself from the demons of the parental absence he suffered, and that any hard-won equilibrium (“Sweet-hearted mules, living in a village near kind chickens, / constable pigs,”) is tentative at best. Which is why it seems more and more like an act of defiance that he chooses to stand on the side of love, knowing that catharsis never comes, yet happy to have it promised nonetheless.
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