Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, January 15, 2006

We call a certain vital inventiveness in art "imagination," but it doesn't always involve actual images. Musical imagination and mathematical imagination, for example, may or may not use visual means. Good actors may have gestural, vocal and emotional imagination. And aside from art, dealing with other people requires imagination, which is to say empathy: the ability to feel as though from a perspective other than our own. That ordinary (or extraordinary) work of social imagination, as in a work of art, achieves understanding without first needing to have everything figured out and all doubts resolved.

In a famous letter, John Keats writes of "Negative Capability": "that is, when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."

Dan Chiasson's new book, Natural History , brims over with genuine imagination. In these poems, imagination is a capability, to use Keats's word, and not a random goofing or mere word-salad. It is a way of perceiving. For example, Chiasson imagines what it might feel like to be used and tormented for some incidental yet essential quality, like the mollusks whose flesh was raw material for the purple dye valued in antiquity:

Making Purple

Nibble what nibbles you, play dead, play bored;

play sad, shell gaping, like the cockle used for bait;

like the melting purple eat the mud, be seen through

like the pebble purple, soft like the reef purple.

Imagine yourself suffusing a woman's gown or sheets

your bloodstream running through her inkwell.

Those rich dyes once were your ideas, your love

of broccoli rabe. Half-killed cockles attract purples,

the reef is littered with open mouths waiting to snap.

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