Bicentennial: Poems

In his fourth collection, poet and critic Dan Chiasson returns to the autobiographical content of his earlier work—in particular, a New England boyhood shaped by his father’s abandonment of their family —but trades a more narrative, plainspoken style for an embrace of formal poetry’s possibilities. The death of Chiasson’s long-estranged father (whom he never knew) serves as the catalyst for these poems, in which Chiasson finds himself “fatherless / In this brand-new way,” while raising his own children and reminiscing on his erotically charged adolescence and the “exotica” of puberty. Though his subject is obsessive, Chiasson explores many forms throughout (received and free-verse, rhyming and open, long and short), including, in an innovative middle section, three short plays. Chiasson’s title poem—the fourteen-page, seven-part meditation that concludes the book and in which “all of life is refocused”—is a virtuosic achievement, with sentences stretching across each section break that appear to be complete on either side, and a leaping, nonlinear sense of time that circles back to the Bicentennial celebration of 1976. Also notable, for its command of double negatives, is “Father and Son,” Chiasson’s riff on Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man”: “Only much later did they see, the two of them, / That never knowing one another, there was nothing / Not to know…This was to be the poignant part of it: nothing / Nevertheless would someday end.” 

This book review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2014.