Earthsleep is the concluding volume of the tetralogy Midquest, a single long poem of approximately five thousand lines which the author calls “something like a verse novel.”
The opening line of Earthsleep completes the last sentence of Wind Mountain, the third volume of the tetralogy. Yet, each volume—River, 1975, Bloodfire, 1978, Wind Mountain, 1979—and each poem stands separately while all participate in a larger structure whose pattern is now clear. Each book covers the same twenty-four-hour period of the speaker’s life, his thirty-fifth birthday, May 28, 1971. As the titles indicate, each volume is organized around one of the four classical elements. Each volume contains eleven poems, making the tetralogy four by four, or forty-four, which is “the world twice, interior and exterior.” With the exception of Wind Mountain, each book is organized in such a way that the first poem mirrors the eleventh, the second the tenth, and so on, with the sixth and center poem in each volume, about a mountain man named Virgil Campbell, being companionless.
Within this unity of structure, there is astonishing variety: each volume is dominated by a different classical element, and by a different element of the family (River by grandparents, Bloodfire by the father, Earthsleep by a kind of family reunion, while Wind Mountain is something of an exception). Most impressive, however, is the variety of verse forms and poetic forms. Chappell employs free verse, blank verse, terza rima, rhymed couplets, syllabics, hexameter, elegiacs and chant royal in dramatic monologues, interior monologues, epistles, playlets, stream of consciousness, and elegies. He has sought a typically American heterogeneity, his model being “that homely American art form, the sampler, with each form standing for a different fancy stitch.”
The eleven poems of Earthsleep not only emphasize the element of earth but also recapitulate and gather up the elements which have dominated the three previous volumes. This recapitulation begins, in a kind of overture, “Earth Emergent Drifts the Fire River,” as the speaker wakes:
I strokeThe water upward, waking, IAm rising, I dream no more of drowning. . .Wind Mountain pours its cold poverty on the land.The resplendent house of spirit bursts around the body.Mind rises from the ravages of senseAnd clothes in dream. Mind, old Crusoe,Are you here lost with me on this island of fire. . . ?
The earth which dominates these poems is no pastoral refuge, no dreamlike Eden, but the real earth of the North Carolina mountains from which the speaker’s parents and grandparents have wrested a living. In “My Mother’s Hard Row to Hoe” the mother speaks of “Corn rows so long you couldn’t see the end . . . that world was so almighty hard.” In “My Father Washes His Hands” the father characterizes his struggle with the earth as “. . . wearing himself away / Like a kid’s pencil eraser on a math lesson.” The son’s fate is linked to the father’s: in a soap bubble on the father’s hand the speaker sees “Our two faces little in his palm.” This hard earth leaves its imprint. After the father has finished washing, the son hands him a towel. “But when he gave it back there was his handprint, / Earth-colored, indelible, on the linen.
The tone is not merely grim but alternately tender, meditative, and raucous. Chappell has been called an audacious poet, and rightly so (in Wind Mountain, in an imitation of Dante, he places poet James Dickey in Hell with Lord Byron and Casanova). He is endlessly inventive, technically brilliant; his moods soar and dip as he combines the narrative gift of the novelist (he has written four novels as well as another volume of poems in addition to the tetralogy Midquest) with the image-making power of the poet.
Chappell is both bookish and bawdy. In the fourth poem of Earthsleep, “The Peaceable Kingdom of Emerald Windows,” he writes:
I’ll say this about the Book of Earth,
The guy who wrote it didn’t cheat a jot,
(The entire section is 1,573 words.)