In “Coda: Stonington,” the poetic cap to the long first half of Dan Chiasson’s The Math Campers, a couple of stanzas and change flag us down:
In a book on one of the shelves
I left a copy of this poem
changed slightly since that night
changed crucially yet slightly
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
you can find this poem inside a book
on the shelves in the hidden study
three to the left of the Santorini Guide
though when you find it you will see
the poem changed slightly, crucially—
because, you know why: because time.
That study belonged to James Merrill, whose three-story house, a designated national landmark and museum in the maritime village of Stonington, has hosted visiting writers since 1995. As the title of this poem suggests, what eventually became The Math Campers was begun by Chiasson in southeast Connecticut, just within shouting distance of the harbor.
I searched for that draft one afternoon in September (five years to the month from Chiasson’s stay), after making the drive to Stonington in an overpriced rental car, while the James Merrill House’s director sang at an out-of-tune piano upstairs. After leafing gingerly through the hundreds of volumes, the contents of each (improvised bookmarks; thin, inscrutable penciling; or miscellany like theater stubs) indicated along the spine by a system of colored dots, I left empty-handed. Is it that Chiasson wants this stuffed-in addition to fit with the countless well-wishers’ signatures that fill Merrill’s books and yet manage to be as sweetly luring to the house’s worshipful visitors? There I was, doing as the author did once upon a residency with his collection (“reading about the book I read,” to paraphrase Chiasson). Moody leaps from one bough of age to another structure The Math Campers, Chiasson’s fifth collection. From the high of childhood to the low of our later failings, and back, Chiasson subtly telescopes his own self with a mix of stand-ins, making sure that looks back are always complemented with their opposite.
The Math Campers soon introduces an unnamed boy who works as Chiasson’s go-between, allowing him to enact fictionally what that left-behind copy does, working himself edgewise into an importance while there’s still time, almost as Frank Bidart had served, in a secretarial capacity, as the impossible love child of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Crucial about that difference (viz., “changed crucially yet slightly”) is its embedded, by definition contributory quality. Chiasson’s desire to understudy for Bidart via Merrill, recorded in the memoirish “Euphrasy & Rue,” is both obtrusive and useful (key to a Ouija board’s eerie movements is the hand’s imperceptible shifting and tremor). Appreciated as a critic’s pilgrimage, it is also a superstition about having missed out on an era of giants, whose every slip of paper and birthday card gets cataloged for a dusty archive. If somewhat too cutely, being closer in spirit to an Easter egg than an admirer’s kept letter, an object Merrill actually cherished, that earlier “Coda: Stonington” belongs for an historical fact, like the grasshopper in Van Gogh’s late painting of olive trees. Or, as Chiasson writes, “because time.”
Time also clarifies as it muddies, such that while obfuscating one memory it foregrounds another. Draft-like poems missing words are supplemented by diaristic prose narrations; what is forgotten is annotated in medias res by an editorial nobody who hasn’t the answers. Under the emotional magnification of love, things of long ago, hookups that were supposed illicit or the seasonal death of nature, enlarge and get turned over in the hope of explaining a present that is haggard for clues: “Pick a flower, they said. Then choose an emergency. / He chose a daisy and an earthquake.” Much of this possesses an empathy equal only to Chiasson’s admiration for human error, besides the deleterious effects of aging; his opportunity is the obvious one, to glimpse some original, albeit nearsighted, vibrancy—through a child’s eyes, as the cliché has it. The Math Campers’ fun is mostly limited—not in terms of any shortfall in effort but consciously—to dryly comic experiments in pagination and a weirdness of tone scrounged from the dramatic monologues of Bidart, themselves the monstrous pupil of Merrill’s Ouija-derived Book of Ephraim. Like the dreamy communication at its heart, which is as reliable as a passphrase sent between two Dixie cups, what Chiasson devises is relationships both wished for (the closed loop of Bidart and Merrill) and imagined, while such belief attempts to conjure from this latest of nows whatever was thought and felt in the fishbowl of one’s school days.
Except for a brief stint aboard the International Space Station with a listless astronaut, who likely symbolizes the author in his cockpit of books, The Math Campers centers on a summer retreat for girls and boys with a knack for numbers, apparently located on the summer grounds of Wellesley College, where Chiasson teaches. Fittingly, the cover shows a child leaning against a hinged door panel of pen-and-ink cranes, a gentleman’s top hat and cane in her hands. In the foyer of this ornate house, with the outlines of a bearskin and fireplace visible in the distance, her gaze lands on the upper floor of a staircase. The intelligence of that face, or the relevance of the drawing at all to the poems that follow, lies in the simplicity of not knowing what will greet her where she waits beside a pair of dropped gloves: adulthood, in a word, or at the very least the future. This quality of wondering expectancy, youth trying on the accoutrements of maturity (the dated urbanity of which, appropriately, seems misjudged), is the major colorant in Chiasson’s narrative, accounting for its juvenile attention as much as the older speaker’s indulgence in nostalgia as something gained.
Midway through, The Math Campers begins maneuvering from bits and pieces to fuller stuff. Pseudo-Buddhist gestures invite us to “contemplate enormity” above a three-quarters empty page, while the subsequent two read together like a misfire and redo as “He wrote to me again” becomes, on the facing recto, “He wrote to me again in a dream. A mild winter, a false start for the daffodils and for the fragrant hyacinths, whose green was suicidal in the beds and near the hedges.” This, too, disappears unpunctuated only to resume on the verso. Then there is Chiasson’s triple braid of himself, Bidart, and Merrill, prompted by a brief stay at 107 Water Street (Merrill and David Jackson held their famous séances on the second floor’s milk-white tabletop), where Bidart’s books are to be found on the shelves, affectionately inscribed.
In the swivel chair where JM wrote, he wrote he wrote:
“In the swivel chair where JM wrote
I read an inscription
from our mutual friend: For James,
who is a great poet—Love, Frank.”
In runner-up fashion, Chiasson also includes chopped transcriptions from emails between himself and Bidart. Though exhibited with the knowing candor of an admirer, the degree to which these coincidences plait vestiges of Poet B into the path of a mid-career Poet C is touching enough. Torch passed, chain of literary succession identified in hindsight. Like the burden of Wordsworth’s child fathering the man of himself, Chiasson’s deprecating, on-sleeve sincerity is shy in its admirations when later they bear the whiff of prophecy. Thus, this significant poet who considers himself a minor, regional figure hedges every bet—sitting where Bidart sat, with that draft tucked away in a fictitious book—by way of a literary stereopsis made up of the living writer and a wordy prodigy.
The story, such as it is, comes off overheard in the soliloquy sense and at times is almost syntactically obtuse; the hitch Chiasson occasionally folds into his syntax is merely that which self-amusement implies.
On the deck upstairs, I read about
the deck upstairs. In the daybed
I read about the daybed. In the books
I read I read about the books I read.
Such droll ambiguations of language, embarrassingly tame if Chiasson were ever mischaracterized as an all-out formalist (affinitively he is a kid, one with kids of his own), don’t hold out for long against the writer’s cupboard of stuff. It is as though he were first collecting himself, revving up to the lived and specific.
High up, all night, I thought about
my sons, how when they wake
I will be finishing this line:
my night their day from here on out.
Birds, check. First light. Sunrise.
Pole vaulting all night long.
My outline splayed on the guest bed
where Mary McCarthy stayed.
The sponsors: the bats, the bottles;
The milk-glass tabletop, the china cup.
The Santorini Guide and smiling lads from 1982.
A tin mini-license plate read “Jim.”
Composed of four “phases” and a coda, The Math Campers’ ninety-page first half reproduces the oneiric correspondence of two interlocutors unalike in their emotional outlooks and who may be the same person. Letters are received and nightmares reported, while the second phase takes the form of an indirect dialogue. There is an obvious Nabokovian quality—Pale Fire, to be specific, certainly not Lolita. Chiasson’s linked-up poems tempt us to imagine John Slade and Charles Kinbote recast as a quaintly elusive kid with an adult detective on his trail.
We worried who had imagined whom, which was futile,
because both of us were fundamentally unreal, like contesting
realities in a film: we were held, suspended within the larger
dream; we alternated coming into, then stepping out of, the
Intermittently, a prefatory “He wrote” relates the cipher poet’s thoughts in excerpt followed by their stanzaic translation, from “the neighbor lit his house on fire, then blamed a meteor” to “a burnout blamed for the fire / the neighbor set!” It is all rather note-to-self until it’s not and a dryly surreal masque takes center stage, which includes a censorious peach tree and version of Eve goading Adam to bite—“So strange: so bitter, yet so sweet,” declares man in a faint parody of Stephen Crane’s “In the Desert.”
The Math Campers’ lingering ambiguity is signaled with the introductory section’s title, “Must We Mean What We Say?” The homage is to American philosopher Stanley Cavell, who learned from Ludwig Wittgenstein, among others, an obsession with the myriad circumstances in which ordinary language often badly misconstrues our lexical goals. Chiasson has made a sort of folie à deux, far gentler than its medical definition though touched here and there with side-glances at the real: every northerner’s fear of killing a deer at night on the highway, suicidal Perseids (the joke, in line with Chiasson’s quiet, whimsically grim humor, being that the chunks of incandescent debris “shot” themselves), and on the last page a slit wrist. Told slant, grief and the anxiety of human responsibility manifest wryly, by and large as boyish jests and observational punning. Combined with the Emersonian disposition of its author, this amalgam of poems and investigative chatter manages to be altogether sunny—through a glass pinkly, afloat on yellow inner-tubes out on the camp’s lake. Chiasson’s is an agnostic wonderland of the mind, of adolescence and learning when both seem endless.
A raft dry-docked through winter
gets its feet wet and waits
for July, when the Math Campers
arrive, to stare at the stars and calculate
the absolute value of fifteen
or how the summer might expand
and prove eternal by division
of days into hours, minutes, seconds;
they’re factoring love in suddenly
and measuring how the stars in pairs
create the sky’s geometry,
and measuring their hearts’ spheres,
skew lines of who they are and were;
they know, year over year, you grow
by comparing consecutive summers
and expressing them in a ratio.
That beforelife of curious self-doubt and sexual nascency flashes afresh upon the emergence of talkative, pint-sized copies of ourselves. Hence the quotation from T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker” dropped during an autofictional car ride shared by Chiasson and a lover: “We’re close to Middlebury now, I pause / and ask my girlfriend how she likes / the line, In my beginning is my end.” It is both depressing and consoling that the mysterious letter-writer of “Must We Mean What We Say?” and its recipient might depict the duality of parenthood, where one’s death is symbolized by the unhaltable growth of offspring. Chiasson’s guilt, as a Generation X father, lends itself doubly to political allusions, specifically the next demographic’s willingness to riot and its inheritance of a climate changed for the worse, sky falling and the global sea level rising to meet it. Of all our imminent disasters, this one accounts for a late cameo by the Greenland shark: “In her extreme old age, she’ll stare / eye to eye, into a skyscraper’s foyer / at gilled, amphibious corporate lawyers.”
The peculiar delight of The Math Campers lies in how skillfully the scattered dreams and fragmentary letters of the early pages lead to the textual maturation of thirteen “complete” poems (read: unbowdlerized, delivered-in-full), which conclude the book. Chiasson understands that a poem’s emergence lies in fits and starts, in phrasal snatches trawled from the obscurity of complicated experiences, complicated because they’re nearly impossible to glue together again (“Why do they talk this way? I asked him. // The flowers? he replied. // The poets, I replied”). Then, for a dash of solipsistic repartee he imitates Zbigniew Herbert’s alter ego, Mr. Cogito, crossed with Nabokov’s love of butterflies:
ten past midnight on my single day, well past
the midpoint of my life, my body was finally
what I intended it to be. Mr. Chrysalis!
your formality disgusts me. Empty promises and goo
Chiasson doesn’t seriously lean into such a surface-level schism. His tone is well-meaning, and he seems incapable of despair. Instead, there’s an ebullience to these poems that at times is barely reined in. Beginning as the epistolary record of a teenager figuring themself out through rounds of questions, alter ego or no, we get a little of youth’s hoarse sureness before the embodiment of mature thought steps forward. Appropriately, then, an epigraph from Henry James equates “the idea of an inner self [with] concealment.” But does Chiasson mean what he says?
The unreliability of (hormonal, coming-of-age) memory allows for typographical innovations of a slight, charming kind. Take the surprisingly funny “Math Campers’ Chorus”:
A mayfly waking up at dawn
Dies when the sun goes down;
A tortoise on an English lawn
[inaudible] its owner’s son’s son’s son.
In the elastic interval between
Snack and Nonlinear Equations
[inaudible] we learn
We divvy up [inaudible]
[inaudible] [the sound of katydids]
[barn swallows overhead] friends
Divide by multiply [moon]
[moon] [moon] [moon] [moon].
In its usage here, Earth’s first satellite indeed multiplies on command of the poem. Possibly the repetitious bracketing implies emergence from behind clouds and a camper’s rhetorical, almost babyish ejaculation, “Moon! Moon! Moon! Moon! Moon!”, sunburnt finger jabbing at the night sky. Or those intrusive moons, after the familiar wordplay of the tortoise-owner’s “son’s son’s son” (it’s tortoises all the way down the paternal line), refer to the moon’s pulsing ubiety, its glowing thereness recognized over and over.
A preponderance of moons harkens back to Chiasson’s 2010 collection Where’s the Moon, There’s the Moon, quite as the huge pizza slice gracing his later Bicentennial is alluded to in “Bloom”: “Dad, it’s the cover of your pizza book—” Another display of flora, “Bloom II,” which like its other half is titled after the sprawling David Teng Olsen mural painted inside Chiasson’s New England home, awaits us at the close of this endearingly odd work, as though the whole of its verse, interrupted by daffodils, hyacinths, and daisies, were lodged between flowerings.