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Natural History    by Dan Chiasson order for
Natural History
by Dan Chiasson
Order:  USA  Can
Knopf, 2005 (2005)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This slim volume of poetry opens with an ironical Love Song (Smelt) that identifies the "you" in Dan Chiasson's verses. A thread of irony continues to run through the poems in Natural History. They're written with elegance, and are dense in meaning, not easily grasped in a single reading.

I like the shared uncertainty in Four Horaces, which the author addresses to himself concerning fortune and misfortune. The poet gets inside The Elephant, and empathizes with The Bear giving birth in her cave in ancient Rome - 'it is hard to see through / so much time. It makes you wonder how many / other beautiful sights are hidden away in time'. Here are lines I can relate to, in Pliny - 'I compare the dark / to chocolate: some rich naughty substance covering / my body. That would be invisible - to be dipped in chocolate.' And here's a telling stanza that sums up Inscribed on a Lintel and, sadly, many lives - 'All my life when I worked, I disappeared inside / my work; so when my work ended, I disappeared.'

The collection ends with a long musing on the nature of poetry - 'Perhaps words should be a shield, rather than / a mirror; and maybe poems should be / an ornamented shield, like the shields / gods made for their favorite soldiers, / sons and lovers.' In Natural History, Dan Chiasson speculates in a tone of light irony, and with frequent modern references, on the eternal themes - love, why we're here, and the gap in understanding that separates one from another.

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