In this alternate basketball nobody plays,
Both players try to tie the score:
That way, at the buzzer, the game isn’t over.
Look, a show of courtesy: the winning player
Is helping the loser score, the way
Our youths assist the cold, suffering elderly.
Or here, a boy is helped to understand
The exotica of his changing body:
When X turns to Y you do not die;
When Y turns to Z we call it joy;
This process crests until someday
You fall off the edge of the alphabet.
The players play even when they do not play;
See, in just this way, we grow old
Alongside the returned jays and fat magnolias;
The game goes on forever this way, the players
Suspended in infinite overtimes,
The score climbing in never-changing change—
Until the day the backboard shatters
And the blackboard blossoms
With arcane formulae and blackbird wings.
Oh, all the stars, and the Big Dipper,
And their reflections in the ocean:
It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter;
And the creatures, their weird behaviors,
Some made to thrive, and some to die;
Part of their natures, part of their natures;
It doesn’t matter, it happens later:
All of creation, the seven days,
The famous storm, the rainbow after;
One day the cardinal, he wakes up red;
One day the jay realizes why
Of all the creatures, he got his color:
This happens later, tonight, good night.
When someone wins, somebody loses:
Something is ravaged, something is fed;
All of history, even the Romans,
They happen later, tonight sleep tight.
You’ll learn this later. Tonight, good night.
Here we go up again, up again, the mountain
The men who have assembled it for years
Assembled yesterday, so that you and I
Headed who knows where together, but
Headed there together, will see
From the top the bottom, from the bottom the top,
Then feel the inside-outside-all-over-nowhere
My God I Am Going to Die, Not Someday, Now
Sensation that, once we plateau, feels silly,
Since when were we safer than when we sought
The danger that when it subsided returned
Us to the dangers it had blotted out?
There are no fears, here at the start:
This is when, the book just opened,
Knowing you will one day know the story
You don’t know yet changes the story
You are getting to know, the way we know
Before we know what anything means it means
Something: a fireworks display, the birthday
Of the Country; that’s me; my uncle and I
Are racing through the past on the Python,
Which men assembled absentmindedly that day
And, so you could visit it with me,
I assembled here again inside my memory;
Now, when you remember how things were
Today, you will also remember yourself
Looking forward to yourself looking back,
A looking back that, here in your past,
You do already, you already say
About what happened yesterday, remember when . . . ?
—The future doing its usual loop-de-loop,
The sons all turning into fathers
Until the absentminded men take the ride down.
Excerpted from Bicentennial by Dan Chiasson. Copyright © 2014 by Dan Chiasson. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.