Earthsleep

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1573

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, ...

(The entire section contains 1573 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Earthsleep study guide. You'll get access to all of the Earthsleep content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Analysis
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

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,

Even the footnotes are brimming with matter.

An interior monologue set in a hayfield, the poem is by turns chatty, lyrical, and earthy. In the lyrical opening, “The horses delicious / With sweat sang the old familiar hymns.” A few lines later, in a parody of a dialogue between body and soul, the speaker proposes to “Uncle Body”: “We’ll look up the dresses of tan-legged women oh boy.” He speculates about the fields of Elysium, where he and Uncle Body will meet Gilbert White (“He’ll have a smiling preoccupied quizzical phiz”) as well as Linnaeus, André Michaux, Colette, and Benjamin Franklin. Breaking off the enumeration, the speaker asks:

Am I boring you, Uncle Body?

What do you want, then? A game of catch? A woman?

A corned beef sandwich obscene with Russian dressing?

All the world is lit for your delight,

Old buddy, hook it to your hulk both hands

It’s a worship of God, though kinda primitive,

I admit. But then we-all is a primitive sort

Of animule.

The levels of diction brought together in this poem, and in others, reminds one of T. S. Eliot’s ideal of “easy commerce” between old and new words, of common words “exact without vulgarity,” and formal diction “precise but not pedantic.”

As he has progressed through the tetralogy, Chappell has become increasingly humorous. In this final volume the speaker goes “half-smashed” to the grave of Virgil Campbell, a hard-drinking, tale-telling mountain man who has figured centrally in the sixth poem of the three previous volumes. He proposes epitaphs for Virgil’s tombstone: “HERE LIES VIRGIL CAMPBELL—ONE MORE TIME.” He speculates on why Virgil has died: “I know there’s Whiskey-After-Death, elsewise, / You wouldn’t waste your time there, would you, Virgil.” He wonders how Virgil passes time in the grave: “What do you do? Count the rich men jamming / The needle’s eye as you used to tote up Packards / On the Interstate?”

The poem is full of the hyperbole characteristic of Virgil Campbell’s life and the tall tales associated with him. In an ice storm, the speaker describes to Virgil trees “clacked like false teeth in an earthquake.” Further on, the speaker provides a scenario of what they will do when he joins Virgil in the earth:

We’ll prop our feet on the porchrail of Afterlife

And tell the Seraphim about the catfish

That towed our rowboat up the waterfall

. . .

. . . we’ll sing

Like bristly tomcats under the sexual moon.

The poem ends with a mock drinking song: “To hell with ragshank preachers / Who made it out sinful to drink.”

Subsequent poems explore in a variety of forms, moods, and attitudes the element of earth: “How to Build the Earthly Paradise: Letter to George Garrett”, “My Grandmother’s Dream of Plowing” (as haunting as the darkest of the Black Forest fairy tales). This grandmother speaks from the grave in “My Grandmother Dishes the Dirt,” and in “Still Point Hill That Other Shore” the speaker imagines himself in the grave: “This ground, Susan, is full of hands, / hands filled with earth. . . .” “Earthsleep,” the final poem, gathers all the elements together. The poem defines earthsleep as “the bottomless swoon of never forgetting,” “the foul well of salvation,” “the skin of eternity like a coverlet.” The speaker asks:

Who’s not scrawled upon

By the wilderness hand of

Earth and fire and water and air?

The poem, the volume, and the tetralogy end where they began, “Here in the earliest morning of the world.”

Reflecting on the tetralogy (Midquest will now be published in a single volume), Chappell recalls when he conceived of what has turned out to be a nine-year project. It looked possible, he says, and so he undertook the work deliberately, “like the man who knew the probable consequences but still went ahead and stuck up the liquor store.”

Chappell is fully aware, too, of the trade-off involved in his turning away from the finely-tuned lyric in the tradition of Arthur Rimbaud and Rainer Maria Rilke. He has gained detachment, social scope, humor, reportage, discursiveness, and a latitude that permits him to bring to bear the novelist’s ability to portray character and background. He loses, by his own admission, in intensity, urgency, and emotional authenticity.

He gains, however, more than he loses. Without sacrificing the right to deal with inner reality, Chappell has taken up the task of mirroring the world again. Reaching back behind the modernist lyric of stylized sensibility to possibilities suggested by Horace, Dante, Chaucer, and Robert Browning, Chappell has written a long poem on subjects that lie within the common experience. In scope and structure, the work bears comparison with Ezra Pound’s Cantos, with William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, with Maximus and “A”.

To gain structure and scope at the expense of subtlety and idiosyncrasy of style and at the expense of subject matter attenuated to the point of invisibility, this is a trade-off with which one can live comfortably; and Chappell knows this. “Conception, structure, and subject matter keep their stature,” Chappell has written,

but Time is a leveler of style. . . . The best solution is for a poet to become style-less; let him express to the best of his power his subject, his conception; let him set down a clear and a large structure; and he shall have attained to style, whether or not it is immediately recognized.

Earthsleep completes just such a clear and large structure, recognizable now as an extraordinary achievement.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Earthsleep Study Guide

Subscribe Now