The first words of the first poem in Dan Chiasson’s first collection, The Afterlife of Objects (2002), concerned time: “Do our words count so late at night, / this late do even these words count?” Before these lines, Chiasson placed an epigraph from William James’s Principles of Psychology. It also concerned time:
In reflecting on the modus operandi of our consciousness of time, we are at first tempted to suppose it the easiest thing in the world to understand. Our inner states succeed each other. They know themselves as they are; then of course, we say, they must know their own succession. But this philosophy is too crude: for between the mind’s own changes being successive and knowing their own succession, lies as broad a chasm as between the object and subject of any case of cognition in the world. A succession of feelings, in and of itself, is not a feeling of succession. And since, to our succession of feelings, a feeling of their succession is added, that must be treated as an additional fact requiring its own special elucidation.
In Chiasson’s subsequent books, he has considered, again and again, how time is both the most common thing in the world and the strangest. We live within it and we never fully understand it; it moves linearly but also rumples and reverses; it is the medium and the message of our consciousness. As St. Augustine asked in Book XI of his Confessions, “For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who even in thought can comprehend it, even to the pronouncing of a word concerning it?”
Within his books, Chiasson, who also serves as the New Yorker’s poetry critic, often works in the form of the sequence: individual poems that, stitched together, constitute a single, long poem. Across his books, he does the same thing. His five collections, including the recently published The Math Campers, really are one long collection, filled with cross-references, always circling back to what it feels like to live through, and think in and about, time. From Natural History (2005): “When I looked / at the night sky, I made my eye as big as history, for / the night sky is a kaleidoscope of past times, / as noted astronomer Carl Sagan said.” From Where’s the Moon, There’s the Moon (2010): reality “isn’t one moment in time— / look at time, a spool of twine / one minute, idle in a sewing kit, / the next minute a shooting star.” From Bicentennial (2014): “Children having their childhoods right now, / This late in time, as though they had to stand in line / Just to be born, get on, and ride.” From The Math Campers: “The poem changed slightly, crucially— / because, you know why: because time.” That might be the title for all of Chiasson’s work: Because Time.
In the long title poem of his latest collection, The Math Campers, Chiasson begins with a series of quatrains describing the varied temporalities of the animal kingdom: “A mayfly born at the break of dawn / dies when the sun goes down. / A tortoise on an English lawn / outlives his master’s son’s son’s son.” Animal time is not our time: their lifespans differ so much from our own and, to return to William James, we don’t know how or if they experience the “feeling of succession.” The poet then brings the timescales of animals and humans together: “This shark read over Milton’s shoulder. / In her extreme old age, she’ll stare / eye to eye, into a skyscraper’s foyer, / at gilled, amphibious corporate lawyers.”