X by Dan Chelotti

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If you were a government and you could personally operate as the supreme ruler of your internal state, what form of government would it be? And don’t say democracy. Democracies are so typical for the United States. We have them in every city, every state, and everything they expect is ridiculous. Like, Hey, Prospective Leader of the Free World, tell us to hope, then we can get angry when you won’t tell us to hope anymore. That’s pretty much what a United States Democracy is. I would suggest a consumerism form of government. Where you mainly spend time thinking about the things you should have, or that other people have, but you would totally use better if that thing belonged to you. Most people who live in a convenience store use this kind of government. Convenience stores are valuable life lessons! They teach ambivalence and compromise and concession. You didn’t really want that product you walked into the store looking for. You’ll settle.

This is Dan Chelotti. Dan Chelotti, who I imagine as a very careful shopper. First, he is ambivalent, like the non-plussed kind of ambivalent. “I don’t really want / the things I want” he says in “The Giantess Is Coming.” What doesn’t he not want? Lots. In this poem it includes an Italian villa, a whistle, and a donkey that comes to that whistle. But in other poems it includes things like eating a hot dog while running the bases for a home run. Or walking righteously while wearing headphones. Or being named Per. Why doesn’t he want these things? Partly because this is what life is in the 21st Century. We wish, then we deny that wish. Many of these poems feature Dan Chelotti talking himself out of what he tells you he wants. How about this one: “I’ve read heaven / is half-finished, overcrowded.” from “A Perfectly Good Ottoman.” If you haven’t gathered at this point, there is a pool of miserable that stands as landscaping in these poems. Not misery. These are not poems of dread. Only miserable.

Which doesn’t necessarily sound like a recommendation. Granted, there are poetry books that operate on miserable alone. Chelotti’s is not one of them. Dan Chelotti’s x has something else: wonder. And what a concoction it is to mix ambivalence and wonder. You need to read this book if only to spice up your Contemporary American Poetry world, which is like an overproducing orchard of wonder these days. Have you read Heather Christle’s The Trees The Trees? Have you read Ben Mirov’s Ghost Machine or M. A. Vizsolyi’s The Lamp with Wings? I would maintain there is a special stance Chelotti accomplishes by juxtaposing his wonder to his ambivalence. It’s something similar to Mathias Svalina’s Destruction Myth, where the optimism animating a creation myth is employed for a negative critique of some contemporary phenomenon. But the occasion driving Chelotti’s poems always feel more mundane to me. More incidental. Like I could be the guy living through this poem.

And this is how the poems surprise you. “You could live this life,” the poems say, “but you probably don’t.” You probably do experience a lack of determination in your life (i.e. like every time you visit facebook.com), so does Dan Chelotti. But then he has so many other options. The following is a perfectly mundane opening to the poem “Real Work”:

When the phone rings,
even in the middle of
a sandwich, I feel obliged
to answer. I see
a single vestigial board
of what was
a treehouse.

Here, a picture of Dan Chelotti eating lunch in his garage? Living in 1995 with a cordless telephone? But now, just six lines later, the poem starts looking at the most unlikely possibilities:

The Galaxies that fly
over my house
shake my house.
I pause mid-sentence,
let them pass

Dan ChelottiDo you want to know where this poem ends? With our beloved gravity leaking into another dimension. This is the mind of a Dan Chelotti poem. A place where consequence is sharp and versatile and easily manipulated by any new possibility, and it’s probably one you hadn’t considered before you started reading. Which might make these poems sound like they’re impulsive. They are. Kind of. Try impulsive like you’re trying to decide whether you should buy the new copy of People Magazine or not.

Of course, that statement presumes to understand the motivation behind the Chelotti poem. FYI, I haven’t figured that out yet. And that’s absolutely fine with me. Because I like listening to Chelotti’s voice. It is both momentous and casual, and akin to a reality where all realistic potentials have been infiltrated by just an incrementally better imaginative potential. Isn’t this a lot like the argument Wallace Stevens makes for the poetry of Marianne Moore? “To confront fact in its total bleakness is for any poet a completely baffling experience.” Says Stevens. And so the poet acknowledges reality as one of the fact-alternatives to be combined with other imaginative alternatives. Think Moore’s sublimely intuitive series of factual observations, but replace it with Chelotti’s fantasy alternatives to the mundane, and you get Facts 2.0. An improved reality! Or perhaps a reality more aptly described by the abstract variable, x.

Kent Shaw's first book Calenture was published in 2008. His work has appeared in The Believer, Ploughshares, Boston Review and elsewhere. He begins teaching at Wheaton College in Massachusetts in Fall 2016. More from this author →