Monday, February 26, 2007

Lucid Dreaming? Literary Men: Dan Chiasson and Thomas Tranströmer

Dan Chiasson: Natural History &Other Poems (Bloodaxe)

Natural History &Other Poems is a selection from Dan Chiasson’s two previous American collections with new poems. The first striking thing about the book is how unashamedly literary it is. References abound writers from the past: Gorky, Plato, Pliny and Horace, some of whom also appear as characters in the book. Right from the start, it announces high ambition with a quotation on the nature of consciousness and a second warning that we cannot fall out of this world.

We are taken into a lucid-dream world where objects are imbued with human qualities including consciousness. The most successful poems are ones, like “Cicada”, and later poems in voices of a mosaic and an aquarium, where they keep their physicality. Equally effective are poems on the elusive, chaotic nature of self and the role of the poet, even if what is said here is less original.

This approach at times risks accusation of cleverness. At best, the writing avoids this with its elegance and lyricism. But there are irritating poems where one feels the poet has taken eye off the subject matter and is looking more towards his critics. The most extreme example of this is a poem where Randall Jarrell speaks about Dan Chiasson. This may be tongue in cheek, and has literary precedents in writers such as Borges, but it still comes across as self-congratulatory.



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