Dan Chiasson’s new poetry collection “The Math Campers” is not a volume that can be read passively. In fact, the very style and construction of the collection demand the participation of the reader. Instead of including dozens of different short poems, which is the norm for most poetry collections, “The Math Campers” contains several long-form poems over 20 pages long. Instead of wrapping up every poem nicely in one page, the poems take shape over time and space, meaning that the reader must make a concentrated effort to maintain focus. This can be difficult because the poems often have no clear beginning, middle or end. Freed from the constraints of linear narrative, Chiasson experiments with form and function. Lesser poets, perhaps, would get lost in the myriad voices and seemingly rambling trains of thought Chiasson incorporates, but he proves himself to have a true mastery of language and his own writing style.
As just one example of Chiasson’s playfulness with form, much of the first part of the collection, “Must We Mean What We Say,” is written in a back-and-forth quasi-epistolary format. Chiasson alternates between lyric form — “The sky was impossible, / then our heads turned. / The noon midnight came / it came to us one by one.” — and prose — “He viewed the Druidical majesty of the eclipse from the stone steps of Memorial Church, and it was then, a source confirms, that he knew all about New England.”
While at times the dialogue of the narrator and the unnamed correspondent seems grounded in reality, with details like “It was already November when he wrote again” and “Before the correspondence slowed that fall,” the end of the poem calls this reality into question in a way that makes the reader want to go back and read it from the beginning.
The narrator writes, “It was painful to imagine that someone I had imagined had imagined me, and could simply stop, leaving me stranded, without oxygen, like an astronaut alone in deep space.” Suddenly a mysterious and often philosophical back-and-forth between two unknown characters becomes a meditation on the nature of reality itself. Chiasson asks us if we even exist if we do not exist in the minds of others: “Now, since he was gone, I was gone, and since I was gone, he was gone.”
After indirectly posing this question, Chiasson proceeds to directly involve the reader. He transitions to the use of “you,” a subtle grammatical shift that could be overlooked because it is often used as a general term instead of a specific one, especially in the context of a poetry collection. However, Chiasson quickly makes it clear that he means you, the person literally reading his words at that instant. He is wittily self-referential, writing, “By the way: I know what you know about me. / And by I, I mean me, the author, Dan.”
He goes on to speak in an even more direct way to the reader, creating intimate moments that shock you into understanding. These are not just vague allusions to the author-reader relationship; Chiasson is specific and pointed, asking, “if the reader will please turn over / her hands to expose her palms / I will do so too and together, stranger / together we shall contemplate enormity.”
Chiasson’s careful manipulation of reality and exploitation of the author-reader relationship create a space where the reader is an active participant in the poetry. We never know when the author will turn to us and expect us to contemplate our relationship with him next. As a result, we are always on edge, waiting to be written into the poem once again.
At some point, we realize that the initial question — do we exist only if someone else is imagining us? — is answered by our own participation in the poetry. Chiasson writes, “if the reader will now step away from the page / if the reader will now step away from the screen / together we will ponder who imagined whom,” thus implicating us, the reader, in the central philosophical question.
By digging deeper into the complexities of the author-reader relationship — the pact that is made between reader and author to agree to a shared reality, the relinquishment of the reader’s own reality and yielding to the author’s — Chiasson manages to take us one step further into his philosophical meditation by making the reader a participant.
Focusing solely on Chiasson’s philosophical overtones would be a disservice to his writing, however. He is also incredibly talented in the most basic poetic skillset: simply creating beautiful and moving turns of phrase. These include lines like “this chain-link conundrum / made space-time belly flop,” and “A beetle polishes its psychedelic shell. / Fireflies splatter-paint the night.” He breaks new lyrical ground in subjects well-trodden by many poets before him with such eloquent phrases as “galaxies ejaculate / in acid trips of death and birth” and “annihilation in her prom dress / greets her platonic date, despair.”
None of this is to say that Chiasson’s poetry is immediately evident in its meaning. In fact, most of the time, it feels impenetrable — but not in a frustrating way. It is exciting to read poetry that is so fantastically incomprehensible. It’s reassuring to know that we do not know everything yet, that there are some things that remain tantalizingly out of reach.
Perhaps this is a poetry book that I will return to in 10 or 20 years and understand much more deeply than I do now. Maybe it will always remain somewhat of a mystery to me, evasive of my every attempt at definition. Either way, it will be one I revisit.
Daily Arts Contributor Emilia Ferrante can be reached at email@example.com.