Dan Chiasson

2 posts

Reading ‘The New Yorker’ Backwards


Sure, The New Yorker is eastern liberal elitist, but does that mean I can’t read it any way I want? Pricey at $8.99 (is that the “liberal elitist” part or the “eastern” part?), the magazine came my way free thanks to my daughter who renewed with the option to gift someone a subscription (she wrote in the name “Dear Old Dad”).

Besides, I live in Massachusetts, so blue it is one of two states (the other being Hawaii) to give Hillary (of all people) a clean sweep of its voting districts over You Know Who (of all…) in the recent “elections.”

Anyway, I read The New Yorker backwards all the time, if it’s all right with you. The beginning is ads, mail, and the tiny print of “Goings On About Town, ” which have little appeal to me because I’m allergic to New York City, for one, and I am neither “going on” nor “about town.” At least not that one.

There’s also “The Talk of the Town,” typically politics, typically about Trump or Trump-like sycophants or Trump-eted cabinet-seat-occupiers. I’ve reached the saturation point on this topic. As far as I’m concerned (and I’m apparently not), there’s nothing left to be said.

To the back, then! Reading New Yorkers from the back is an art form, kind of like the ungentle art of unlocking a cooked lobster (a shell game with many routes to victory, according to the experts). Let me give you an example. Today I received the Aug. 7 & 14 issue, covered with a devil-driven subway coming out of a tunnel marked “42 Street.” Cool (for something so hot, I mean).

I flipped to the back, ignored the last-page ads, and browsed the Cartoon Caption Contest. Ha-ha. Laymen readers are funny.

Flip. Now you’re at the back of an article. If there’s a cartoon, you read it. Sometimes “ha-ha” and sometimes “whatever.” This is the latter.

Flip. Ah! The beginning of the last piece. It’s the beloved BOOKS section! (Who says the best things are at the front of the line?) Called “Paper Trail,” it’s Dan Chiasson’s to-do about Susan Howe’s latest poetry collection.

Who’s Susan Howe? Oops. Lives in Massachusetts like me, yet I haven’t read her. That’s a “Go Directly to Jail” for me as a poet. Never heard of her, either, to be even more honest. Stay in jail an extra turn.

And what? She actually has a sister named Fanny who is ALSO a poet (and who I ALSO don’t know)? I concede this Monopoly game. But I read the piece beginning to end anyway to see if Howe’s new book (Debths) seems like my cuppa tea. I’m a coffee man, turns out. But I do love history, as Susan does. And Emerson and Thoreau and all things Boston (no allergies there), as she does.

Hmn. Put on “Think-About-It Shelf” and move on.

Flip. More BOOKS stuff! BONUS ROUND. “A Family Affair” by way of title, which is ironically accurate. The book review is about Tom Perrotta’s new novel Mrs. Fletcher, and it’s written by old virtual friend (Laura Miller) who used to hang at my old virtual haunt, Salon.com. And, once upon a time, back when I bothered with Monopoly, I read every Tom Perrotta book that came out. I long gave up that game, but it didn’t stop me from reading the wonderful Miller’s wonderful take on Perrotta’s latest to-do on eastern liberal elitist suburbia, start to finish. Good read, this. As for the book, I’ll slide it next to Howe’s on the “TAI” Shelf.

Flip. Middle of an article, but with the rapturous sidebar called “Briefly Noted.” Here I get to read three paragraph-length reviews of new books. They go down easy. Like Cheez-Its. The most interesting of the foursome is The Storied City by Charlie English because it’s about Timbuktu and a book is worth reading for that exotic reason alone. Timbuktu is one of those places you hear about but never read about. Correction possible!

Flip. Cartoon. Meh one. But little drawing of Trump as Gulliver on his back pinned by Lilliputians now unseen (perhaps eastern liberal elitists?). Big wet-mop of Cheetos hair projects from You Know Who’s alleged head.

Flip. Oh, too cool. Adam Gopnik’s “Critic at Large,” and he’s writing up a new book on Buddhism, Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism Is True. Initial reaction: What a horrible title for a book! Second reaction: Ommmmmm.

Reading along (a “long,” actually, as this one is six pages), I discover that Gopnik is himself a “Buddhist.” (I put quotes around “Buddhists” because there are so many branches and so many interpretations within those branches that I’m not sure you can be “a” anymore, but it’s pretty to think so, as Hemingway–a non-Buddhist if ever there was one–once said.)

An interesting meditation (heh) on Buddhism, this article meanders into other Buddhism books by way of comparison, chiefly Stephen Batchelor’s After Buddhism. What does this mean? It means my TBR pile grows exponentially. It means I still don’t own a meditation pillow (or whatever). It means I learn a guy named Goldstein has meditation tapes that can be listened to for free on youtube dot data-digger. Note to self: Must check out Goldstein’s “calming, grumpy voice” on Gopnik’s suggestion.

Flip. “Times of Trouble,” Anthony Lane’s review of two movies (Detroit and Whose Streets?). Like Holden Caulfield sans the whining, I don’t go to movies. Er. “Film,” I think it’s called an eastern elitist enclaves.

Flip. Cartoon with Little Red Riding Hood and Big Bad Wolf making fun of Big Worse Wolf (read: technology), a sure-fire winner! Mid-article of some sort, by the way.

Flip.  More article and a cartoon. Chopin’s Funeral March allusions! Very funny in an eastern (European) liberal elitist way!

Flip. More article and lame cartoon on lame target: Congressmen.

Flip. Ah. No wonder so long. This is a short story. And the author is up-and-comer… oh, wait. It’s Don DeLillo taking up bandwidth. Sigh. I like to see promising newcomers in the big glossies, but the big glossies like to see tried-and-trues that make their blood look blue.  Thus, Don DeLillo. Whose books I can’t seem to read. Maybe a short, though? Eh. I’ll test the waters later, maybe. Or maybe not. Not all the sharks are tagged and tracked on-line.

Flip. Article and Don’t-Get-It cartoon. Small drawing of big red “Make America Great Again” hat spitting out Cheetos-colored hair. Themes, anyone?

Flip. A New Yorker poem! By Anne Carson! Do I know Anne Carson? I do not! Should I know Anne Carson? I should know everyone! Like Walt Whitman, my brain is everyone  and everything (just ask me).

Carson’s poem, “Clive Song,” is a winsome, conversational poem. Free verse. One giant stanza from Mars (or Tokyo Bay, maybe). There’s a new poetry editor on the beat, I understand. Paul Muldoon beat it. Is Anne Carson any relation to Rachel Carson, I wonder? Note to self: Check family tree of Anne. See if the tree grows in Brooklyn. Or some other eastern liberal elitist ‘hood.

Flip. “Sketchbook” by Luci Gutierrez called “Subway Substitutes.” Cute. And subways must be a “hot” topic in New York. I would think about this, but I might sneeze.

Flip. Article. Little cartoon of the Cheeto-in-Chief as Pinocchio, complete with Disneyesque shorts and vest and whopper wooden nose with branch growing out of it. Fake cartoon, the “president” (quotation marks are a marvelous thing) would call it, but still, cute in an eastern liberal elitist way. Geppetto would approve.

Flip. Oh, yeah. A long feature on Rachel Cusk, British novelist slash author of Outline and Transit, two books already between slices of cheese in my TBR sandwich. Did I mention my TBR sandwich? It’s tasty, needs a giant toothpick to hold it together, and leans left (like everything else in Massachusetts) due to its girth and height. I read this article start to finish before backing up anew….

And let me interrupt here because, at this point, I’ve written the longest post on this blog ever. At this point, too, I am the only reader of this post left.  And I’m only on p. 48 of The New Yorker, mind you, with much joy to go before I reach the start!

What does this say? It says back-to-front is the way to go–not with Agatha Christie mysteries, mind you, but certainly with New Yorkers. Probably it’s true of other periodicals as well.

Can books be read backwards as well? Can poetry collections? Open (to the back), says-a-me. Yes! Especially poetry collections (ignore that man named Billy Collins behind the curtain who says your best poems belong at the front of your collection).

Give it a go, then, why don’t you. When you get there, the Table of Contents will be well-earned and not just a little déjà vu.

When Poems Drink Too Much Language

too much

Dial 911. I think my poem’s on something.

I thought the house smelled a little odd this morning. A bit more organic than usual. My first thought was the dog, who always looks guilty, but no.

Turns out, it’s that poem I wrote yesterday.

My fault, in a roundabout way. I left some “language” poetry lying around the house. Ron Silliman, Gertrude Stein. Rae Armantrout (oh, forgive me… rae armantrout).  Typically it’s under lock and key.

What was I thinking, you ask? I wasn’t. I was just writing, having a little fun. And my poem, it started watching The Young and the Reckless on TV. Like any adolescent, its brain hasn’t fully developed. Ask and it will have no raison, no d’être.

Last night, on the counter, I’d also left open an old New Yorker to a Dan Chiasson review of Mai Der Vang’s debut poetry collection, Afterland. Dan quotes a Mai poem (“Mother of People Without Script”) with impunity, with little regard for rhyme, reason, or innocent bystanders (read: impressionable poems-in-progress):


Paj is not pam is not pan.
Blossom is not blanket is not help.

Ntug is not ntuj is not ntub.
Edge is not sky is not wet.

On sheet of bamboo
with indigo branch.

To txiav is not the txias.
To scissor is not the cold.


To scissor is not the cold? What could it mean? To scissor is the hot, maybe? My poem didn’t care. It clearly swooned at the whole idea of inhaling language like this.

As is typical of the young, my first draft rationalized: “What does it matter if my words carry no meaning and every meaning at the same time? That’s for the reader to climb through. The reader comes, interacts, and makes meaning from words, beautiful words. I just provide, in my lettered bounty.”

I even found a few glossy M.F.A. brochures lying around. Lord.

Once I challenged it, my poem started getting uppity. It grew loud with its opinions, heady with its possibilities. “You only need imagination,” it said in its post-, post-, post-modern voice. “Mine is to stir the embers of your imagination. From there, the fire is yours.”

Then it passed out.

Eventually, I had to ask myself: Did I really write this? Can wordplay be taken this seriously? Are there still “language editors” out there, even “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” ones, ready to click ACCEPT so many years after the heyday of avants being off their gardes?

And why me, anyway? Rehab is expensive stuff, and detoxing poems is neither easy nor cheap. You know and I know that health care is fraught these days. Kind of like poetry sales. And poetry marketing. And yes, the raising and writing of poetry into good, rule-abiding citizens.

Pray for me, friends, and do not judge me. Better yet, pray for my poem, and do not judge it, either. It’s on an IV now, getting 50 cc’s of meaning per hour.

You’ll see. A little revision. A few dactyls here, a few trochees there. It will be on its metrical feet in no time.

Meanwhile, I thank all of you for your expressions of sympathy. See you in the hospital gift shop…