Dan Chiasson – Bicentennial: Poems
Release date: March 4, 2014
In the forward address to his Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957, W.H. Auden speaks about dishonesty in poetry. He explains how a dishonest poem is a piece of writing that expresses “feelings or beliefs which its author never felt or entertained.” And while some poets might fall victim to this philosophy, Dan Chiasson clearly writes from experience, carving truly honest poetry as he revisits his past in his third collection, Bicentennial.
Growing up in Vermont in the seventies, Chiasson writes through observation and experience. As he explains it, Bicentennial is a collection that includes: “early VCRs, snow, erections, [and] pizza.” While the collection focuses on adolescence and growing up, Chiasson is not shy of mixing memories from the past to address larger implications.
Take for instance “Star Catcher,” a nineteen-line poem that focuses on the New York Yankees and their former Hall of Fame catcher, Thurman Munson, who died in a plane crash. Speaking from a Boston Red Sox fan’s perspective, Chiasson’s opening stanza offers a somber tone, yet hints at brighter times from someone else’s tragedy, with just enough ambiguity to keep the reader guessing:
“We felt like dying when the Yankees won.
In 1979, they seemed to win all summer.
Our luck changed when the plane went down.”
What is noticeable with “Star Catcher” is how Chiasson immediately places his reader back in time. The use of “1979” effectively evokes the original experience, inviting the reader to look at the incident through Chiasson’s mature lens. And while specifically focusing on the 1979 baseball season, Chiasson throws a curveball to the reader at the start of the second stanza: “My friend was born because his brother drowned.” Tangling something distant from his control, like a death of an all-time great baseball player, with a personal experience reflects the majority of Chiasson’s poetry in Bicentennial, but throughout the effort is polished and potent.
While these poems display their regionalism for the northeast, specifically Vermont, the title poem, “Bicentennial,” captures the reader in an adventure celebrating the United States’ anniversary. Chiasson jumps around from the present to the past, in a perpetually interlocking relationship, as a mature, occasionally nostalgic persona tries to make sense of his childhood.
In the opening stanzas of “Bicentennial,” Chiasson speaks directly, pleading: “Move with me now, for I need company— / I have this wish to get caught up in something.” With all his poetry, his vernacular makes the subject so strong, as if Chiasson is directly speaking to you. In a subsequent stanza, he creates a strong metaphor as the speaker is desperate for a kick start in his daily experience: “My mind sits on its small white tee and waits / For something like what others experience.” Whether or not this poem is a search for one’s identity, the speaker clearly yearns for “something” real to happen, as the ecstasy the speaker consumed earlier in his life seemed to provide only a temporary enhancement and inauthentic experiences.
Chiasson visits many scenarios within this poem, from the aforementioned raving days in New York City to a nun who carries a coin that holds special meaning from her life before she took her vows. Each of these moments sets up the ending, when Chiasson poses a question to his children about how their childhood is going:
“Jokingly, but not really, how do you feel it is going,
And they light up and they say, Great
Which is just what I would have said as a kid
If someone—though who would it have been?—
Had asked me this very same question”
In this excerpt, the speaker places himself into his children’s position, specifically at the time of the Bicentennial when he would have answered the same way his children did. But Chiasson speaks from a much older perspective and relives this specific moment in time that had such an impact. His precise language paints such a vivid image that the reader can see the colors of the day—the red, white, and blue—and his diction in the final stanza traps the reader inside the mind of a 5-year-old.
Bicentennial does not shy away from the truth. Dan Chiasson not only gives the reader a mature perspective of a child’s memory, but with careful honesty he carves and shapes his words into that at-home feeling that everyone craves, where the past is not all that distant, forever lingering in the present with its unanswered questions. This collection fields just about everything—from play, to pizza, to puberty, and an elegy to his father—and in that way, Bicentennial offers a true representation of life in the United States.