A Week in Culture: Dan Chiasson, Poet, Part 2


The Culture Diaries

This is the second installment of Chiasson’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.


7:00 A.M. I have an e-mail from a guy I met last summer in Paris, Thierry Corcelle, of the incomparable Librarie Thierry Corcelle, 29 rue de Conde, right near the Luxembourg Garden. Thierry has a new catalogue; I look through it on my computer, marveling at it. I could look at these things forever. What Thierry sells, essentially, are Joseph Cornell boxes that don’t know they are Joseph Cornell boxes: old magic sets, wooden puzzles, dioramas, circus sets, toy soldiers, tarot cards … I went into serious debt this summer buying the following items:

12:00 P.M. I am actively scouting ideas for poems. I browse around in Robert Pogue Harrison’s great study of burial, The Dominion of the Dead. Harrison talks about a Jules Verne novel (From the Earth to the Moon) in which, one of the astronaut’s dogs dies on a space mission. They try to expel her into space, but she just bobs alongside them. I have to read that story.

8:00 P.M. My wife and I fire up the Dick Cavett. First we watch his interview with Orson Welles. Welles is playful, clearly adores Cavett, funny, totally of this planet in a way that I miss, later, when we watch the interview with Alfred Hitchcock, who is all “Hitchcock” persona. The Welles interview sets the agenda for the rest of the week. Tomorrow night I have to travel, but Thursday, it will be a double bill of The Lady from Shanghai and The Stranger.


6:30 A.M. I have to drive to Burlington, Vermont, my hometown, to give a reading with poet Lea Banks at the Fleming Museum. The reading is hosted by the marvelous poet Major Jackson.

9:30 A.M. I leave for Burlington. I listen to the following music: Joni Mitchell, Court and Spark; The Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs; Laura Viers, Carbon Glacier; Stones, Sticky Fingers; Neko Case, most of Middle Cyclone, all of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. I lived inside the song “Star Witness” for several months two years ago. Makes me think of other single songs I’ve done that with: R.E.M., “Central Rain”; Liz Phair, “Divorce Song”; Modern Lovers, “Road Runner”; The Who, “Sally Simpson”; Minutemen, “History Lesson Part 2”; Dylan, “New Morning”; Magnetic Fields, “No One Will Ever Love You Honestly”; Joni Mitchell, “Just Like This Train”; Talking Heads, “Naive Melody.” This is in no order, and I am leaving lots of things out.

12:00 P.M. Lunch at Lou’s in Hanover, New Hampshire—amazing corned-beef hash. I brought Edmund Wilson’s Axel’s Castle along with me. It’s been a favorite for thirty years; reading it is just like breathing or sleeping, a purely metabolic exercise. When the food arrives, I put it down.

6:00 P.M. I give my reading in Burlington, at the Fleming Museum, where I am welcomed by the wonderful Janie Cohen, museum director, and Major. I see lots of familiar faces. I go looking for this mummy, whom I used to visit all the time as a kid on my way home from school, but she’s out getting CT scanned or something. When I was a kid, there used to be a room full of suits of armor, posed to look like a proper Victorian family, sitting in chaises and warming themselves by the fire. I don’t think it was intended as a joke, but I loved visiting this family of empty suits of armor, which struck me as a pretty good image for most families. I saw my first photocopier at the Fleming. My babysitter took me to see it when I was about seven. It was like beholding a miracle, as it laboriously chugged away to make a copy of some little monster drawing I had done.


10:00 A.M. On the way home, I listen mainly to local stations. I was not aware that there is a Christian News service called USA Radio Network. They mainly add adverbs to the news, so that instead of saying “Obama had appointed a UN representative,” they say something like, “Shockingly, Obama had not appointed a UN representative.” I pick up another Christian station in the mountains, then a classic rock/metal station, then it’s silence all the way home.

8:00 P.M. Time to fire up the Orson Welles double feature. The Lady from Shanghai is rather amazing, except for Welles’s risible Irish accent (he plays an Irish seaman named Michael O’Hara). Apparently Rita Hayworth and Welles split up during the filming. I like collaborations between lovers who break up mid-collaboration: the great, sublime example being Shoot Out the Lights, the album by Richard and Linda Thompson (which reminds me, “The Wall of Death” is another song I lived inside). The Stranger, about a Nazi clock aficionado working at a prep school, isn’t quite as good, but it does remind me a little of Nabokov’s Lolita: the undercover European let loose on preppy postwar New England. Time for bed.

Dan Chiasson is a poet, critic, and professor. His latest collection of poems is Where’s the Moon, There’s the Moon.