(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Fred Chappell’s Bloodfire is the second volume of a four-book sequence of suite of poems which will eventually be published under the title Midquest, a “novel in verse.” The first book was River (1975) and a third, Wind Mountain, has already been announced. One gathers that as Chappell approaches middle age (the work apparently began when the poet was thirty-five), he is searching for meaning and pattern among his memories of growing up and living in the South, specifically Western North Carolina. Interestingly enough, each book has been organized around one of the four elements; the first water, here fire; earth and air are yet to come—though many of the poems to be included in the last volumes have appeared in a variety of literary journals.

One can only guess at the overall plan, of course, but thus far each slender book has contained eleven poems and been organized around an overriding image, as suggested. Moreover, each sequence of narrative and meditative poems employs a wide variety of poetic forms, from free verse, couplets, blank verse, and terza rima, to prose poems almost as relaxed as those written by Peter Taylor a few years back. The variety of forms helps suggest the diversity of the experiences being offered as samples from the poet’s life. Thus far each book begins with an image of dawn and returns to the same image at the end.

No doubt Chappell intends for each volume to stand on its own, as the first two obviously do. However, there are backward glances in Bloodfire to “Cleaning the Well” of River—but there are also references to The Inkling, one of Chappell’s four novels, as well as to his Duke University Master’s thesis on Dr. Samuel Johnson. Further, the last line of the final poem in River points toward the second sequence: “In the dew-fired earliest morning of the world.” Similarly, the last poem in Bloodfire, “Bloodfire Garden” suggests a book organized around images of earth. In fact, it skillfully combines all four elements in an affirmative conclusion that alludes to both the Bible and Eliot’s The Waste Land:

Burnt-off, we are being prepared.The seeds of fresh rain advance,wind bearing from the south,out of the green islesof Eden.

Whether all four volumes will be similarly integrated, of course, remains to be seen—but one suspects they will be.

(Incidentally, Chappell staked out many of his themes in his first collection, The World Between the Eyes (1971): baseball, fantasy, movies, religion, and family relationships. The longer poems, such as “February,” a haunting poem about a hogkilling, and “The Farm,” seem to point toward his later autobiographical narratives.)

As one might suppose, Chappell interprets fire here as loosely as he did the water imagery in River. Sometimes it becomes love or desire, as in “Bloodfire Garden,” where the garden is the marriage bed; once fire is equated with fever as the poet vividly recalls a childhood illness; elsewhere it is the sunlight burning the mists off the river and lighting up the world of “Fire Now Wakening on the River,” which serves as a transitional piece between the two volumes. “Firewood” is a meditative poem, the poet’s thoughts on his relation to matter, among other things, as he chops and wedges a log, the “red and yellow of honey of sun meat.” This poem and others like it establish...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Library Journal. CIII, November 1, 1978, p. 2245.