Fred Chappell

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Dabney Stuart (essay date winter 1991)

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SOURCE: Stuart, Dabney. “Spiritual Matter in Fred Chappell's Poetry: A Prologue.” Southern Review 27, no. 1 (winter 1991): 200-20.

[In the following essay, Stuart explores the role of spirituality in Chappell's verse, focusing on Lucretian and Christian perspectives.]

Tanto giú cadde, che tutti argomenti
a la salute sua eran già corti,
fuor che mostrarli le perdute genté.

—Dante, Purgatorio, XXX, 136-138

Our faith must be earned from terror.

—Fred Chappell, Bloodfire, IX


The first two words of the title of this essay are a subdued version of Fred Chappell's more spritely rhymed phrase “attar of matter” (in “Firewood”). I intend, however, the same complementary attachment of terms. Chappell's phrase suggests, in sound as well as substance, that there is an essence embedded in matter and releasable from it, a sweet intangible spirit inexplicably meshed in the molecular arrangement of the elemental stuff of which all things, including human and other creatures, are composed. One direction in which Chappell aims the atomistic possibilities inherent in this perspective is Lucretian. The other primary direction is not, however, subject to the contained reshuffling of atoms. Chappell is more essentially preoccupied with, and hopeful of, images of release and transformation which are Christian in their orientation. The two modes of understanding are, needless to say, not always cleanly separable.

Perhaps a finer distinction is in order. The Lucretian perspective does not employ the complementary duality of flesh and spirit, but rather transposes it into the fluid, imperceptible molecular composition of apparently solid material bodies. This, of course, was Lucretius' understanding of how the transience of individual instances of forms could be reconciled with the equally obvious recurrence, apparently eternal, of the forms themselves. Individual people die, but the human race does not; we eat this carrot today but another grows for us to eat tomorrow; we may pulverize this stone, but stones are everywhere. Mutation and recurrence are complementary motions, rearranging the atoms out of whose coalescence particular things are made, and because of whose dispersal they disappear. But the atoms are irreducible and everlasting, as is the process of rearrangement—carried out by the forces he called Love and Strife—by which perceptible forms occur, pass away, and recur.

The interpenetration of earth, air, fire, and water is one expression of the Lucretian dispensation in Midquest and seems to me in no need of elaborate elucidation. The titles of the frame poems of volumes 2, 3, and 4 serve as sufficient indicators, as do the abundance of phrases in those same poems in which two or more of the elements cohere: “dew-fired,” for instance, and “Earthsmoke,” “earth / with its mouths of wind,” “water in stone,” and “blind windcurrent of the soil.” It shows more explicitly, however, in passages where Chappell uses Lucretius' terms and images. In “Bloodfire Garden,” it is in the fire of love that “we are / whole again, / our atoms driven and / interlocked as heat in air.” When the “untenable trombone tone” Chappell imagines riding “out upon the blue bleached air” pops, it lets him “slide the effervescent atoms” alone (“The Autumn Bleat of the Weathervane Trombone”). In the same poem, he refers to “the hail of impulse nature keeps tossing over / her shoulder.” The recurrent “coming apart to” constructions (as in “fire coming apart now to wind”) extend this explicit evocation across some of the frame poems. In the world beyond the “four-square crucis of elements” in “Earth Emergent Drifts the Fire River” (a cold world of nothingness which I will comment on in more detail later), “the single atoms stray...

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lost and touchless.” This poem is, in fact, dotted with Lucretian infusions, perceptions more accessible because of the atomistic backdrop. As Fred wakes in the first poem ofBloodfire, “The seeds, ignis semina, of fire / Put forth in me their rootlets.” Ignis semina is, in fact, a phrase from Lucretius which Chappell identifies later in “Firewood.”

Because both the author and the narrator of Midquest share the same name but are not identical with one another, I have used “Fred Chappell” or “Chappell” to refer to the former, and “Fred” for the latter. The “Preface” to the volume comments on this distinction.

“Susan Bathing” and “Firewood” comprise the two most probing, subtle, and thorough embodiments of the Lucretian vision in Midquest. They are rather miraculous poems in many ways, not least in their personal and local dimensions, and the careful psychological progression their disguised narrative lines reveal. But my space and context limit me to some brief comments on the process of atomistic transmutations that occur in “Firewood.”

It is “flame, flame” that Fred's ax strikes first; he imagines the fire in the hearth which the log he is splitting will eventually afford. The dimensions the language implies become more complex immediately, as he speaks of the “heart / red in the oak where sun / climbed vein by vein.” It's not until he tangles with the walnut log some seventy-five lines later that these implications begin to receive their fullest development. This time he sees “the life” of the blazing log, “yellow / red and orange and blue & hasting your dark gasses / starward, on the silverblue night splaying a new tree / shape, tree of spirit spread on the night wind.” This new tree lifted from the burning of the old one sifts “upward to the needle pricks of fire” of the constellations. The roots of the tree of fire

                                                  … sizzle in our fireplace, the
ghostly arms of it embrace the moon, the lancet
glance of the star pierces its leafage, this tree
in our fireplace is the sun risen at midnight,
capillaries of heat light lift out the chimney,
the rose trellis of stars is afire, sun reaches
homeward again to the vacant interlunar spaces,
chimney is its shrunk trunk & pins our dwelling
to the earth and to the stars equally, this spirit
trunk in the chimney is the spine of the world. …

Chappell suggests at least a double cycle here: 1) the sun's energy enters the tree, causes it to grow, and then, in the burning of the logs, is released again into the vastness of space where it originated; 2) the physical form of the tree rooted in the earth is released as a tree of spirit rooted in the hearth fire and foliated among the stars. That the stars themselves are fire spreads further the impress of transformation focused in this passage. The fire, however, remains mysterious, no matter the language invented to image it, because it gives us light in which to “read” everything but itself. It is also mortal: as the fire in the hearth dwindles so does the tree of spirit rising from it. “Lucretius' / seed of fire ignis semina is seed semina mortuis / / of death in the same split second.”

Three other sorts of transformations parallel this central one. In the brief parenthetical phrase that echoes the burden of “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet,”—“dirt we rose from, dirt we'll never forget”—human beings rise from the ground and are rooted there, no matter the changes which transpire in any individual life. Human will, similarly, may “cast forward / into the flesh of light itself / … angry against the stream of time.” Perhaps the poet, too, “can transform all / germens with an incantatory perception of what's / what or what's supposed.” These palimpsest possibilities layered against the basic image of the tree of spirit follow one another in the poem pell-mell, each growing from the other, the form enacting transformation while articulating its stages. The energy of language and prophetic will twined together leads Fred to a credo: it can make

every tree that stands a Christmas tree, Christmas
on Earth, though even as I recall the beautiful
manifesto my faith flickers & dwindles, we are not
born for the rarer destinies only for the rarest,
we are born to enter the tree of smoke, backbone of
the world of substance, born to smear our life stuff
against the zodiac, & as I take down in matter
the spine of the world & will send it up again in
spirit a feeling that these things are so indelibly
correct overtakes me. …

Part of the primary drama of this extraordinary poem consists of its entertainment. It is interesting, first of all, various and full of surprising turns, holding together voice and attention (poet's and reader's) as well as holding out alternative ways of speaking about the relationship of matter to spirit. The Lucretian focus, a naturalistic philosophy both ancient and contemporary, balances, as it were, in the middle of a spectrum.

At one end is nothingness, the terrifying possibility that a “roaming / puddle of gravitons, a winter's night the black / hole, comes this way striding and yanks the tree / of light elongate like a sunny licorice down / the drain.”

Fred explicitly rejects the terror of nothingness, along with the will-less condition of Nirvana (which he has earlier called “a sterile and joyless blasphemy”), in the opening poem of Earthsleep, indicating by their juxtaposition that the latter is a version of the former. “What there is in emptiness,” he says,

                                                                      … let it consume itself,
Let it mass and flounder yonder from the skin
Of things, let it not come nigh this hearth, this hold,
This house, let the cloud of unbeing never touch
Our garish boxes of fervor.

In the same series of refusals he seems also to include Lucretius' eternal atomistic dispersal and configuration; he mentions “Another” world, “where no water sings with / Its breath of fire, where sunlight the cloud never / Ripens to peach, where the single atoms stray / lost and touchless.” Lucretius' vision, I think, slides to the negative end of the spectrum here. (A complementary comic rejection occurs in Earthsleep, IV, where “The Ideal World,” Platonic in its evocative details, “sounds like a Grand Hotel / Emptied out because of chicken pox.”) The double nadir of “Susan Bathing,” which produces abject fear in Fred, is, first, that he will not be able to praise her adequately (in “Birthday 35” in River to have his mouth stopped is “despair”) and, second, that Susan will vaporize and disappear. After confronting such motions toward vacuum, Fred pushes “more fiercely” his face to Susan's breast and begins a series of allusive reprises of earlier poems which have centered on experiences of healing contact with people he loves.

It is not surprising, given Fred's heritage, that atomistic philosophy is insufficient, since Lucretius includes the soul among material things. A central thrust of his arguments in De Rerum Natura is to remove from his auditors their fear of punishment after life by arguing that the soul, like everything else, disperses into autonomous, anonymous atoms. There was, therefore, no hereafter to fear. This is not only too neat and reductive for a mind as probing, doubtful, and inventive as Fred Chappell's, it also dismisses too cerebrally what he has absorbed into the veins of his imagination from birth. If Lucretius had grown up with Fred's grandparents and parents he would have rejected atomism, too. Fred's profound disinclination also proceeds from his sensuality, and, perhaps above all, from his unstaunchable love of life. In his splendid essay on Lucretius in Three Philosophical Poets, George Santayana observed that at the bottom of Lucretius' insistent opposition to immortality was a fear of life. Santayana called this an “untenable ideal.” “What is dreaded,” he wrote,

is the defeat of a present will directed upon life and its various undertakings. … To introduce ascetic discipline, to bring out the irony of experience, to expose the self-contradictions of the will, would be the true means of mitigating the love of life; and if the love of life were extinguished, the fear of death, like smoke rising from that fire, would have vanished also.

Fred clearly is no ascetic. He seeks everywhere to embrace life, to fire the world with his will, in the local and temporal frame of Midquest to celebrate his birthday, and to continue his fundamentally hopeful, Dantesque journey toward light.

At the other extreme is the Christmas tree and its extension at the end of “Firewood” into images of marriage, procreation, and, finally, salvation. The sexual and marital similes which are salted into the opening page of the poem (e.g., “marriage/vow joints,” “nice girls back in high school”) receive their more serious resolution in phrases such as “the wedge goes in like semen,” and “the river-clean smell of opened / flesh comes at me as the annunciation to Mary,” the latter reference also echoing the more extended annunciation passage in “Susan Bathing.” Immediately following these focuses is Fred's assertion, “I'm washed in the blood of the sun,” a variation of “blood of the Lamb,” in context suggesting, with “Christmas on Earth,” a Christian salvation, an implicit answer to the parenthetical question, “But where shall I sit when once this flesh is spirit?” The “flesh! more flesh” at the heart of the riven log is analogous to the Christian incarnation and helps one understand the source of Fred's love of the earth and life on it that pervades Midquest. (“The flesh the earth is suits me fine” is a representative instance.) The poem following “Firewood” deals with a real fire, the conflagration that destroyed Fred's grandfather's church. Its concluding passage reinforces the sacramental, transforming vision of “Firewood.” In form and language imitating Old English alliterative verse, the poem presents Fred and Susan coming to the site of the fire years later to find it altogether revivified, a “victory of spirit.”

                                                                                                    Time took it anew
and changed that church-plot                    to an enchanted chrisom
of leaf and flower                    of lithe light and shade.
Pilgrim, the past                    becomes prayer
becomes remembrance rock-real                    of Resurrection
when the Willer so willeth                    works his wild wonders.

This is stated as unequivocally as “the spine of the world” passage quoted above.

Other, less extended instances of the Christian mode of transformation abound. The world was formed as “The purer spirits surged ever upward / Shucking the gross-pig matter their bodies” (“Fire Now Wakening on the River”). Sexual union in “Bloodfire Garden” burns the lovers “down again to the ghost of us … Burnt off, we are being prepared.” The stirring of a slight breeze becomes for the grandmother in “Second Wind” “the breath of life … / Renewal of spirit such as I could never / deny.” “The resplendent house of spirit bursts around the body” in a richly evocative scene on Wind Mountain (“Earth Emergent Drifts the Fire River”). The four elements carried by the winds are “Suffering of Spirit, suffering of elements, / In one mass,” in “Dawn Wind Unlocks the River Sky.” Both the poems celebrating jazz in Wind Mountain embody the idea from Schopenhauer that acts as epigraph in Chappell's homage to Louis Armstrong: “Music is the world over again,” but in impalpable sound, another form altogether. At the close of that poem man becomes “half funky animal, half pure music, / meat & spirit drunk together.”

The spiritual choice which I am suggesting Midquest reticulately and dramatically enacts is more sharply underlined by three poems at the close of Source, published in 1985, four years after Midquest's serially printed volumes (1975, 1978, 1979, 1980) were collected into one. In “Urlied” Chappell puts words (some anachronistic) into Lucretius' mouth, having him reject immortality via Rilke and the familiar anthropomorphism of Olympus. Conversely, Lucretius reiterates his “trust” in the forces of dissolution and coalescence (love/strife, Venus/Mars) and draws this comfort from his system: “There's nothing personal in it.” The evaluation is heavily ironic, however, being true as a description of the movement of matter but devastatingly false when applied to the emotional effect of losing one's identity. Chappell articulates this dreadful rift in the last section of the poem, evaluating Lucretius' endeavor as fundamentally courageous and integral, but, finally, without solace. He leaves Lucretius in the “white fountain of delirium / Burning but not purified,” recalling both the close of T. S. Eliot's “The Fire Sermon” and the final stanza of his own “Feverscape: The Silver Planet” in Midquest. Once again, the Lucretian vision, for all its radically compelling perception into the material nature of things, is bleak and isolate, not transforming in a way Chappell finds desirable.

The other two poems set against “Urlied” involve ascent. “Message” employs Lucretian terminology, but Chappell's context involves dimensions basically apostate to the Roman poet's system: 1) the controlling metaphor of ascension, 2) an increased understanding by the grief-stricken sufferer, and 3) a concern with expressing that understanding in language. In choosing among his sorrows, the “he” of the poem becomes the measure of his own grief. There is also in the use of an angel as messenger “purely clothed in terror” in the opening lines an implicit acceptance of this aspect of Rilke, contrasted to his dismissal by Lucretius in the preceding poem.

More telling still is “Forever Mountain,” the final poem in Source. Chappell presents his father ascending, after death, Mt. Pisgah, a mountain about fifteen miles southeast of Canton, North Carolina, Chappell's hometown, but also the mountain from which God showed Moses the promised land. Words from the hymn “Sweet Hour of Prayer” are relevant to the vision the poem renders: “'Til from Mt. Pisgah's lofty height / I view my home and take my flight.” J. T. Chappell doesn't fly, but he does leisurely ascend the mountain, “taking the time / He's got a world of.” He observes “The quality of light come over him,” spends a dreamful night, “rises glad and early and goes his way, / Taking by plateaus the mountain that possesses him.” He has come a far piece from the Pilate-like figure he cut when we last saw him in Midquest. At the poem's close Chappell's “vision blurs with distance,” Pisgah becomes Forever Mountain, “a cloud / That light turns gold, that wind dislimns.” The shift from the figure of his father to Chappell's blurred vision has much the same effect as would an unmitigated focus on the father's assumption into a new form. We witness an ascension of body to light and transformation, the context and perspective explicitly Biblical, implicitly Christian. Between “Message” and “Forever Mountain,” in fact, Chappell places a terse and rending avatar of another hymn, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” dealing with the mocking of Jesus' suffering during his trial and crucifixion.


I called “Forever Mountain” a vision, but Chappell calls it, in an italicized line appended to the poem, a prayer. It is noteworthy that it's not a vision, or a wish, or a hope, but specifically a prayer.Source, in fact, contains three other poems so labeled, each of them depicting a merging of the one who prays with the particular conditions he prays about (“about” in the sense of concerning, and circling). In the first, “A Prayer for the Mountains,” it is a peaceable kingdom he both accepts as existing and desires to exist, wanting to “share the sleep / Of the cool ground's mildest children.” In “A Prayer for Slowness” he seeks to be not content but filled with giving, as the cow in the poem has “her rich welcome / … taken from her.” “A Prayer for Truthfulness” concerns the poet's release of his poem from his control into its own illumination, able to say finally “its last abandonment.” The three prayers are, in short, not self-focused or escapist or acquisitive; in fact, insofar as they ask for anything, it is a place among the portions of other creatures into which Chappell may meld his being and talent.

Prayer is, of course, as complex an area as the other spiritual matters in Fred Chappell's work. I'm no expert on it by any stretch of the imagination, but a few thoughts may at least serve to disperse its associations beyond mere petition.

The extraordinary act of paying conscious attention may be considered a form of prayer. Prayer may be a tonality, an indication in declarative statements or questions that the speaker is tuned somewhere to spiritual dimensions he may not be addressing directly. “Where've you been?” asked in a certain way, for instance, can be a prayer, as Kathy Mattea's recent song by that name shows. A lived life can be a prayer, though that is difficult to specify except perhaps in the cases of some saints. Prayer is not necessarily even supplication, but may be homage, or gratitude, or acceptance, or lament, or bewilderment, spoken or enacted or felt toward the immanent presence of a power greater than one's self. It may be a habit or an attitude. In Hamlet, Claudius' prayer, though his thoughts “remain below,” is still a prayer. That which impels our attention away from the self, or turns the will toward imagination may, speaking as broadly as possible, be considered prayer. Chappell refers to Midquest in his “Preface” as “in its largest design a love poem”; from a number of these perspectives the book could also be thought of as a prayer.

Individual poems, too, embody this possibility. “Susan Bathing” is a prayer of worship, praise, and adoration, “My Grandmother's Dream of Plowing” a prayer for release and forgiveness, “My Father Allergic to Fire” for acknowledgement and continuance. And so on.

The prayers per se dispersed throughout Midquest, though not explicitly indicated as the ones in Source, are not so much disguised as diverse. Chappell composes and aims them variously.

“Birthday 35: Diary Entry” concludes with a prayer in the more traditional mode of petition: “Please, Lord. I want to go to some forever / Where water is, and live there.” Until the final three lines it is a plea for an anthropomorphic afterlife (part of the pattern “How to Build the Earthly Paradise” and “At the Grave of Virgil Campbell” later extend) where current pleasures pertain, an “Elysium … plentifully planted”

With trout streams and waterfalls and suburban
Swimming pools, and sufficient chaser for bourbon.

Its tone is wise-ass jaunty, its diction hip, its beat and varying line lengths accumulating a pseudo-music-hall effect that seeks to minimize the prayerful imploration, as a sophisticated dude cultivates a cool exterior to cover his sensitivity. But in the last three lines the more serious underlying concern breaks through: he wants the water of heaven to “wash … away sin.”

The going up in flames of Fred's grandfather's church (Bloodfire, VI), and the site's transformation seventeen years later “to the stark beginning where the first stars burned” becomes the ground for the definition of prayer that ends the poem. What has been a catastrophe is subsequently seen as part of a reenactment of the resurrection of Jesus.

Pilgrim, the past                    becomes prayer
becomes remembrance rock-real                    of Resurrection
when the Willer so willeth                    works his wild wonders.

“The Willer,” presumably not a human being, is involved in the process of prayer defined here. The experience itself is prayer, in which the divine will is inextricably woven, suggesting that God's involvement in history is not limited to the incarnation of Jesus.

I'm not sure if the more dire self-immolation of the Buddhist monks in “Bloodfire” should be included in this context, but it seems possible. What miraculous renewal may be hidden in the most awful destruction is part of the dread mystery of God's will.

Chappell uses fire as an agent of transformation again in connection with prayer in “Bloodfire Garden.” In a remarkable merging of garden and bed, brushfire and loinfire (“the disease / necessary to know God”), Fred remembers praying as he watched the blackberry vines, scythed and “raked up in barbarous heaps,” put to the torch. It was, he says, a moment in which

I went stark sane, feeling under my feet
the hands of blackberry fire
unfurrowed earth.

What, if anything, he prays for is unspecified, but his act is embedded in images that suggest not only fire as incipient plow (“rummaging”: the area is being cleared for planting) but also the burning of human bodies (“frying lattice / of dry bones”) and the incarnation of spirits (“ghosts began again to take flesh”). In the other half of the poem's context of burning—the bedroom—after the lovers' climax “a cool invisible smoke goes up / from our bodies, it is grateful / prayer, sigil / of warm silence between us.

In this garden our bed, we have burned
down again to the ghost of us.

In both contexts the burning down has resulted in renewal, or the readying for it. “Burnt-off,” the lovers “are being prepared”; the burning off of the wild blackberry vines is a preparation as well for new growth. The image of dry bones has suggested the vulnerability of the apparently solid human body and driven young Fred to sanity and prayer; the aftermath of the fire of sexual union is prayer as well, associated with gratitude. In this context the fresh rain blowing up “out of the green isles / of Eden,” with its implication of renewed creative harmony with the Creator, seems entirely appropriate.

Fred's first prayer, the one in “Birthday 35” to which I've referred above, follows a vision of Time in which he sees “nothing human,”

No man, no woman,
No animals or plants; only moon
Upon moon, sterile stone
Climbing the steep hill of void.

This waste land (part of a longer passage which I think consciously echoes T. S. Eliot's poem) leads to Fred's admission, “I was afraid.” This process of a fearful vision of bleakness leading to prayer occurs again in at least two noteworthy places. In Earthsleep, I, Fred talks to himself, or, more accurately, to his “Mind,” whom he calls “Old Crusoe.” In the context of wondering if they are both lost on “this bright and lonely spark” he asks three questions about their eventual fate. The questions are directed at “Earth” but involve the other three elements central to Midquest. All of the alternatives are terrifying: “black waters streaming / Deathward,” “in wind to suffer shorn of flesh,” and “fire, the raging ecstasy / … of burning foreknowledge.” After such imagined vistas, the next utterance is a prayer.

                                                                                                                        Do not us Earth
                                        Leave us, mud jumble of mirk
And humus, tucked in the rock heart
Of the mountain, in these stones are seeds of fire,
Dream-seeds which taking root shall renew the world,
Tree of Spirit lifting from the mountain of earth. …

I take this prayer to be a refusal to identify the human creature as simply a concatenation of elemental substances. We are no more fully accounted for as such a composite than we are as Lucretian molecular aggregates, or energy diminishing toward the cold will-lessness of Nirvana. Human creatures are elemental, yes, but also infused with spirit. Fred's prayer here is childlike in its desire that Earth simply forget him and Susan and tend to some other business. They'll take a spiritual form (the tree of spirit from “Firewood”) analogous to the earthly tree—an appeasing gesture?—and grow on transmuted, as spirit mysteriously grows. This eases into two afterprayers, asking “Earth” for gentleness, and “Destiny” for sweet treatment. The tone and focus here is relief after the exhausting effort of imagination that precedes it.

The same process occurs finally in starker, more condensed form in the closing poem of the volume (and the book).

                                                                                Here where I find
I am I founder.
                                                                                Lord Lord
Let this lost dark not.

Not what? is the inevitable question. Swallow us up, as the sea overwhelms a foundering ship? That seems the most immediate likelihood. The prayer itself is so close to the terror that impels it that it cannot be completely uttered. The pattern of zeroes that occupy the volume (the “darkest vowel” of the well opening, for instance, the drains in the grandmother's and Susan's tub, the black hole in space in “Firewood”) has been perhaps the best preparation for what is most feared here from the dark.

These various spiritual radiations are rarely orthodox in any sense. But institutional Christian orthodoxies, too, occupy a substantial place in the spiritual experience of Midquest. The most accessibly presented are made part of the lives of Fred's forebears. Concerned for his salvation, his grandfather changes denominations (River, VII) and is baptized in the West Fork of the Pigeon River. Later, speaking from the grave (Earthsleep, IX), “Here where it's / Still not Absolute,” he awaits “Judgment Day / when we can see once more in the Judgment Book / All that we've seen already, each nook / And cranny of us forever on display.” The tone of the latter poem is nettled and testy, a strong modulation of the comic surface of the former one; in both poems the man is of two minds about the perspectives the church has saddled him with, but there's no doubt he accepts its terms and forms, and takes them seriously.

These two poems deal with sacraments: baptism and burial. Fred's grandmother confronts another, marriage (River, VIII), seeing this commitment as analogous to Caesar's Rubicon: “If I cross this river I won't turn back.” When her husband dies (Wind Mountain, III) and she is faced with the public anonymity of everything, as well as the distracting hodgepodge of the funeral gathering, she wants to join him but aborts the idea immediately on orthodox grounds: “It's a sin to want yourself to die.” She utters this fundamental belief before the poem is well begun, then suffers the family and their best intentions until, unable to take any more, she walks outdoors, away from the house, to a place where “the rose / Vine climbed the cowlot fence and looked away / Toward Chambers Cove.” It is also a place in her spiritual life “where everything is hard as flint: / breathing, walking, crying even. It's a heathen / Sorrow over us.” In such a condition she is unable to help herself, but in the immobilizing heat of the day she feels a breeze stir, coming cornstalk leaf by cornstalk leaf across the field toward her. She understands this to be “the breath of life … / Renewal of spirit such as I could never / Deny and still name myself a believer.” This utterly convincing account ends with the freshening wind touching her face “so strong it poured on me the weight of grace.”

At the other extreme from this visitation of saving grace, Chappell places Fred's father's guilt over the manner in which he's buried Honey, an old mule dead after generations of labor on the farm (Earthsleep, III). Because the clayey ground makes the digging of a grave nearly impossible, J. T. breaks the animal's legs so he won't need so deep a hole. What he does and is witnessed doing is ineradicable, however, from his memory, in his “head for good and all and ever.” It's no wonder, given his account of it:

                                                                                                                        I busted her legs.
I busted her legs with the mattock, her eyes all open
And watching me crack her bones and bulging out
Farther slightly with every blow. These fields
Were in her eyes, and a picture of me against
The sky blood-raw savage with my mattock.

“Heavy is how I felt,” he says, “empty-heavy and blue as poison.” The context of the poem is J. T.'s washing at the pump two weeks later. He scrubs his hands for “maybe seven minutes,” dries them, and when he gives Fred the towel back, “there was his handprint, / Earth-colored, indelible, on the linen.” The figures of Pontius Pilate and Lady MacBeth lurk in the shadowy background here, and, for the moment anyhow, no grace pours down on anything.

The mule is already dead when J. T. breaks her legs, and his sense of guilt is mostly a projection of his sensitivity and compassion. The experience the grandmother's dream of plowing (Earthsleep, VIII) reveals, however, is a fundamental sin, the bearing of a child either prior to her marriage to Frank or through adultery during it. The skillfully dovetailed phases of her dream show her progressively unsuccessful attempts to disguise her act, its issue, and their consequences. Frank's plowing, itself an unprecedented vision for her, provides an apt contextual metaphor: something hidden is uncovered. Frank both unearths the object and asks the question that pitches the dream toward its identification: “Is that your baby that was never mine?” Anne—the grandmother, too, is named for the first time in the book, becoming a person not wholly identified through a role—“expects” at the start of her dream a church bell to be turned up by the plow, an object associated with Frank's past misfortune (the burning of his church) rather than her own sin. This is the first of the dream's series of displacements. The object turns out to be in its first incarnation a lump of gold which she cradles “to [her] breast.” Following Frank's question, Anne denies (to herself) it is a baby, but then suddenly “I knew it was a baby in my arm, / The strangest baby.” The displacements continue: the infant is compared to Jesus as he is depicted in The Upper Room—a daily devotional publication—and then becomes a “golden child” who will “bring us luck.” The creature she holds, however, continues to metamorphose towards the truth the dream is unlayering, finally becoming “an ugly little man,” “an evil little goblin / With an evil smile.” This truth is, of course, how Anne feels about the child, a slow revelation of her shame and awful self-condemnation projected outward into the form the dream work has presented as separate from her. She wishes it dead, and, “the awfullest part,” it dies. It is only after this that she is able to say, “It was my fault,” but her admission of responsibility is focused only on her desire for the figure's death, and her guilt, insofar as she articulates it to Fred, to whom she is recounting the dream, seems focused on this, too; she also considers the child as separate from herself in its innocence at this point: “Whatever harm had the little goblin done?” There seems no conscious owning up to her responsibility for its birth. Whether we are to take the death in the dream as indicating what happened to the actual baby is inconclusive, but the guilt is real enough: she has never waked from this dream. Incidentally, the revelation of this buried secret from her past casts a sharp light on her preoccupation in the previous poems about her with the “Shadow Cousins,” the profound hesitation she experienced before committing herself to marrying Frank, and our seeing her in two situations where she is washing something (her feet, her milk cans).

These poems compose behavior and attitudes derived from sectarian Christian assumptions undergirding central aspects of what one might call primary theology. Suicide, adultery, and the wish to murder are sins; guilt is inevitably consequent upon sin; grace is God-given and mysterious, coming in unpredictable forms and at unpredictable times; the sacraments are, no matter how one might seek to hedge one's bets through them, inviolable, their seriousness ingrained in the soul.

One of the assumptions inherent in Midquest appears to be that human beings, as Fred's grandmother fears, do grow away from their sources (this occurs both to individuals and to generations), but they appear to do so as a tree grows away from its roots, remaining one organism. Human beings are mobile, of course; I mean this analogy more to suggest temporal than spatial wholeness: as a tree grows in space so a person grows in time. Human beings can make disorienting and potentially destructive choices, but there is as well a genetic and behavioral determinism woven into their development. Midquest embodies Fred Chappell's fulfillment of the grandmother's vision by becoming a professor and author, leaving the farm behind, deserting, as he says, “manual labor for intellectual labor.” But the restless, doubt-ridden entertainments of his imaginative mind are largely informed by and directed at the physical, religious, and moral dimensions of the farm environment in which he was raised. I think this is the source, finally, of the spiritual and psychic healing and regeneration which Midquest seeks in its widest intention. In my context here, the central orthodox beliefs which define the family members seep into Fred's ways of probing his own diverse options.

This is clearest in the preoccupation with the relationship between matter and spirit—how to view incarnation—that pervades Midquest and informs much of Chappell's poetry subsequent to it. His terror in the face of nothingness and the anonymous dispersal of atoms is bearable because the Christian mode of understanding affords him a richer, more hopeful alternative. He is, of course, predisposed towards it, but too given to the mind's uncertainties to accept it without first testing the abysmal ontological possibilities that contradict it. His use of Dante's Divine Comedy as model and guide further underscores the influence orthodox configurations have on his work. (I will comment on Dante more specifically in Section III.)

Other, more local, instances arise frequently throughout the book. I have mentioned both the transformation Fred witnesses in Bloodfire, VI, and the serious note (“washes away sin”) toward which his prayer at the close of “Birthday 35” tends, and will refer later to his use of Jonah, Lazarus, and Joseph. Not surprisingly, in the pattern of praise for Susan in “Susan Bathing,” phrases from the Christian vocabulary of belief appear: “plenia gratia” (from the Catholic “Hail Mary” and Luke 1:28) in the Madonna passage, “let there be” from the creation story in Genesis. As a whole the poem, and the narrator's role in it, are informed by the conception of God as Word (John 1:1ff). In “Firewood” he alludes to man “in his fallen state.” In Earthsleep, VI, he tells the dead Virgil Campbell, “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.”

These last two examples are drops in the larger welter of Fred's ruminations about the afterlife. They range from the pleasant, relaxed, anthropomorphic excursions in poems such as “The Peaceable Kingdom of Emerald Windows,” “At the Grave of Virgil Campbell,” and Wind Mountain, V, to the bleak visions of nothingness in “Firewood” and Earthsleep, I. What can be envisioned in familiar terms we can project ourselves into, evaluate and decide about, but a Christian vision of the soul's form after death is more troublesome. A genuine transformation—the Pauline idea of the “body imperishable” of I Corinthians: 35-57, for instance—is, like grace, a mystery and therefore by definition cannot be imaged (though the conditions of its mystery may be). Consequently, the alternative, desirable vision is only vaguely implied in Midquest, a spindrift of thought and faith. This quandary is sharply presented in “Birthday 35”:

But, Lord, You stand on one side
Of the infinite black ditch
And I on the other. And that's a bitch.

Fred is as fascinated, however, with how life may have begun as with what may follow it. From the touching desire to uncover, with his grandfather, “the final source of West Fork Pigeon River,” through the brief hints in the opening poem of each volume about “how the world was formed,” to the more complexly developed myths of creation in Wind Mountain, V (“a slightly different Big Bang theory”) and River, IX (“THE NOVEL”) he reveals an inventive, fervent desire to be present at beginnings (which, in the myths at least, he is). The title section (TWO) of Source elaborates this impulse, being composed of scattered, disparate myths, many dealing with first causes, each apparently seeking to embody an “explanation,” but, finally, explaining nothing.

In this preoccupation with the unknowns that border human life at either verge, he keeps in uneasy balance his inventive, informed intellectual curiosity and his spiritual tendency to accept the unknowable, or at least his place outside it. Here, as at so many other junctures of Midquest, a passage from “Birthday 35,” the true prelude to the volume, is pertinent.

I'd sleep in the eiderdown of the True Believer
And never nightmare about Either/Or
If I had a different person in my head.
But this gnawing worm shows that I'm not dead.
Therefore: either I live with doubt
Or get out.


One may enter Chappell's Midquest at any point and find, as with all coherent visions emanating from a center, the basic terms and images that shadow the whole. The poems radiate from and revolve around a hub—though within most of them there is a nicely composed narrative linearity, sometimes (e.g., “Susan Bathing,” “Second Wind”) reinforced by a psychological progression—so that one poem, or a sequence of poems, may enact the volume.

“Cleaning the Well” offers an instance of this, embodying in a single piece the general construction of Midquest as a Dantesque descent into hell and a rising toward light and redemption. Fred assists his grandfather in cleaning the well, the literal experience graphically presented from the double perspective of a young (eight to ten-year-old) boy doing the work and an adult creating a shape for his memory. Chappell gives various indications of the figurative perspective from which he sees the experience, and by which he wishes it evaluated. Dante's descent is, of course, the fundamental metaphoric enclosure, the “soundless dreaming / O” of the well's mouth functioning effectively as a fearsome gate to the netherworld, figuring Inferno's circles and the further possibility that nothingness may be at the bottom of things. The grandfather lowers Fred on pulley rope and harness, thus supporting him and becoming a “guide” (like Virgil) in a way appropriate to the context. The well itself is a version of the well at the center of the declining valleys of Malebolge, through which Dante enters Cocytus, the frozen wasteland of the final Circle of Inferno. Two of the boy's phrases particularize the broad connection. As he hits the water, he cries, “Whoo! It's God/damn cold!” and later, in response to his grandfather's asking how it's going, thinks, “It goes like hell.” Two italicized phrases express more formally the implications of these colloquial ones: at the terrifying point where the boy has been reduced to the condition of a noncreature (nerveless, sexless, breathless, mindless, and bodiless) occur the words, “I shall arise never”; similarly, at the other extreme of readjustment to the ground above, we read, “I had not found death good.

Within the Dantesque frame Chappell has Fred compare himself to Jonah, Joseph, and Lazarus, adding a biblical lens through which the homey, local experience is considered. A particularly telling merging of psychological insight and literary allusion takes place in this stanza (14). Fred's return to upper earth has disoriented him as much as had the earlier descent into the gelid water. He recalls the foreboding dark as “holy” and tries, in his new disorientation, “to fetch [it] / Back.” He then wonders if the three biblical figures had also been “Ript untimely / from black wellspring of death.” There is the understanding of the human psyche's conservative nature, to want to remain in the condition to which it has become accustomed, so that the usual view of the miracles of the restoring to the world of Jonah, Joseph, and Lazarus is given an unexpected twist. In terms of the other allusive dimension here, Fred's resistance to his return recalls the resistance to waking with which each of the four volumes of Midquest begins, itself derived partly from Dante's tendency to sleep or swoon when faced with the pressure of attention and discovery (e.g., Inferno, I:11, III:136, and V:142; Purgatorio XVIII: 145). Finally, “wellspring of death” encapsulates the paradoxical understanding The Divine Comedy assumes, eventually tracing back to the felix culpa of Christianity.

Poems VI, VII, and VIII of Wind Mountain accomplish as a series what “Cleaning the Well” does as a single poem. A comic inversion of the poem it precedes, “My Father's Hurricane” is a tall tale J. T. regales eleven-year-old Fred with over “the ruins of an April supper.” The hurricane is immortalized as “Bad Egg,” which suggests it is the destructive opposite of “Egg,” the source of all life that Fred refers to hyperbolically in “Birthday 35: Diary Entry.” It is a five-layer conglomeration of all the stuff its power has uprooted and carries who knows where. J. T. travels upwards through each layer, fending off young Fred's common-sense questions, until he reaches layer five, composed of “lovebirds, honeypies, sweethearts,—whatever / You want to call them.” The mother stops the story at the point where it tends toward raunchiness, the lovers “Rolling & sporting in the wind like face cards / From a stag poker deck.” The simile indicates the more serious substance the poem makes light of—lust and the gamble one takes with one's soul when one gives in to it. Paulo and Francesca are among those J. T. sees in layer five, and the potential cost of lust becomes even more sharply focused by Fred's question, “But how did you get down without / Getting killed?” The answer to the question never comes, for the poem ends with J. T.'s voice cut off. Getting out is another story.

These last three details—the reference to Paulo and Francesca, the figurative implication that lust is a high-stakes gamble, and the allusion to death—would be sufficient to key the spiritual implications of this inverted hell. It is humorously presented, of course, and a dazzlingly inventive entertainment, but it is also from the outset suspiciously unsettling, beginning as it does with the comparison of J. T.'s cigarette smoke to a “dust cloud over a bombed-out city.”

The corrective to this odd ascent into a layer of “honeypies” begins with the title of the next poem. “In Parte Ove Non Eche Luca” is most of the final line of Canto IV of Dante's Inferno, and the poem it labels is a pretty fair country translation of Canto V. The chaotic uprooting of the previous poem becomes the “storm infernal” (Dante's “bufera” could be translated “hurricane”) of the second circle of Hell. Here the winds also conflict, unceasingly driving the damned Spirits “onward with brute force.”

Up they go to the very edge of the Course
          Of Ruin, complaining, lamenting, aghast.
          For them the Word Divine is sheer remorse.
Into this pain the lovers of flesh are thrust,
          All those who gave their human reason over
          To the delicious fever of carnal lust.

In short, J. T.'s “lovebirds” are here, hovering “in the torn air,” and this time no humor relieves their predicament. Chappell, however, updates the population by adding Casanova, a couple of poets and, from his own book, Virgil Campbell.

Campbell, in response to Fred's request that his Master and guide, the other Virgil, stop and bring him over to them, becomes the subject and speaker (à la Francesca) of the third poem in this group, “Three Sheets in the Wind: Virgil Campbell Confesses.” He tells his own tale, balancing formally J. T.'s hurricane story. It concerns his getting caught by his wife and the preacher in flagrante delicto with a willing country “gal you always hear about / And generally never meet.” It is another funny experience, well stitched together, but for all Campbell's ingratiating humor, cajolery, and wit, it is finally quite serious because of the context in which Chappell sets it. Ironies proceed from that context, too. The poem, a confession, begins with Campbell calling himself “a solid by God citizen,” but his country is the second circle of the Inferno. He understands his youthful penchant for moonshine and women as “a kind of crazy” in his blood that “nothing but / The worst that can happen will ever get … out.” He then says, “The worst that can happen never happened to me,” which is a lie, given his condition of damnation; it is also a sign of the rationalization and evasion of the truth which is traditionally characteristic of the damned. Virgil Campbell could have sold cider to Eve. His story leads him to make the familiar promise of those caught in a terrifying trap—he believes, sewed up in one of his wife's sheets, that he's died and gone to hell, and so he thinks

                                                                                how I'd do it different if
I could only live my earthly life again:
I'd be a sweet and silent religious man.

He gets out of the story's contretemps, of course, and the final line of the poem, in which he decides to have a drink, indicates how ineptly he has kept that rash promise. “Where's the harm?” he asks rhetorically, ready to bend his elbow, repeating the same question he asks earlier in the poem in justifying with wonderful sophistic logic his adultery. The harm is perdition, no matter the charm of the lothario; Campbell is a convincing embodiment of the giving over of human reason “to the delicious fever of carnal lust.” In the larger series of poems centering on Virgil Campbell in Midquest, it is clear that Fred is affectionately and generously disposed toward him; he feels great kinship with him in the last of these, “At the Grave of Virgil Campbell.” But a loveable reprobate is still a reprobate, and in a book which takes seriously the fallen nature of humankind and traditional modes of dealing with that condition, I think the implications of this trio of poems are inescapable.

This group, then, repeats in extended form, and with more widely varying tonalities, the descent motif of “Cleaning the Well,” using Dante's model more pervasively, making explicit the dimension of Hell's eternal enclosure. These four poems focus also Midquest's recurrent entertainment from different perspectives of the possibility of an afterlife and what spiritual alternatives face its central figure, the pilgrim Fred Chappell on his 35th birthday, pressing toward “the love that moves itself in light to loving.”


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Fred Chappell 1936-

(Full name Fred Davis Chappell) American poet, novelist, and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Chappell's career through 2000. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 40 and 78.

Known for his gentle humor and lauded for his polished storytelling abilities, Chappell uses the Appalachian region of his childhood as the setting for both his poetry and fiction. He is praised for his erudition and mastery of poetic forms, as well as for the vital sense of community and Southern values found in his work. His works frequently describe lush natural environments and depict characters who are involved in intense emotional situations. Several critics have noted that Chappell's novels belong in the “Southern Gothic” tradition, citing their dark, brooding atmosphere and their violent and grotesque elements. Chappell is best known for his poetic works, including his highly regarded Midquest (1981), a collection of poetry that reflects on his thirty-fifth birthday.

Biographical Information

Chappell was born and raised in Canton, a small town in western North Carolina. His relationship to this region figures prominently in his poetry and fiction. In 1959 he married Susan Nicholls, with whom he had a son. He graduated from Duke University in 1961, earning a bachelor's degree in fiction writing. While an undergraduate, he became acquainted with other noted authors such as novelist Anne Tyler, novelist and poet Reynolds Price, poet James Applewhite, and novelist Tom Atkins. After completing his master's degree in 1964, Chappell became an instructor of writing at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, where he has taught for more than twenty-five years. He has been awarded several prizes and grants for his writing, including a Rockefeller Foundation grant, a Bollingen Prize in Poetry in 1985, and the T. S. Eliot Prize. He has also been a frequent contributor to a number of periodicals and a contributing editor to Skyhook,Red Clay Reader,Shenandoah, and Georgia Review.

Major Works

Chappell's early works are dark, psychological novels often characterized by violence and madness. James Christopher, the protagonist of It Is Time, Lord (1963), is a disillusioned man whose life lacks meaning and purpose. Alternating between past and present, the novel juxtaposes images from Christopher's childhood with present-day scenes of his idleness, drunkenness, and infidelity. Dagon (1968) centers on a minister who, after moving to a small town with his wife, becomes obsessed with and transformed by a strange, sadistic daughter of a tenant farmer. The novel is infused with elements of fantasy, mythology, and psychic horror. Chappell's novel tetralogy—I Am One of You Forever (1985), Brighten the Corner Where You Are (1989), Farewell, I'm Bound to Leave You (1996) and Look Back All the Green Valley (1999)—follows the exploits of Joe Robert Kirkman and the coming-of-age of his son Jess amongst a cast of eccentric characters in a small town in North Carolina. The events of the first novel surround Jess's family, his remembrances of growing up, and the impact of World War II on the community. The second novel of the tetralogy follows Joe Robert and his new career as a schoolteacher; the third novel focuses on Jess and Joe Robert's interactions as they await the death of Jess's grandmother; and the fourth novel follows Jess's struggle to honor his mother's plea to be buried next to his father and his quest to sort out the events in his father's past. In his short story collection Moments of Light (1980), Chappell explores such themes as justice, the loss of innocence, and moral conflicts, suggesting that art can serve as a means for attaining order and harmony in life.

While Chappell first attracted critical attention as a novelist and prose writer, he has since become primarily known as a poet. His first volume of poetry, The World between the Eyes (1971), anticipates his later work in its inclusion of long, descriptive verse built around his impressions of life in a North Carolina mountain town. Midquest, his most acclaimed poetic work, is comprised of four previously published volumes—River (1975), Bloodfire (1978), Wind Mountain (1979), and Earthsleep (1979). The four sections are metaphorically structured around the four essential elements—water, fire, air, and earth—and each is “spoken” on Chappell's thirty-fifth birthday, which he identifies as the midpoint of his life. Many of the poems feature Old Fred, a character who has been noted by critics such as Michael McFee as Chappell's “split literary personality.” Several scholars have analyzed Old Fred's voice, which portrays him as a simultaneously highly literate and yet extremely rural, romantic, and roguish individual. Incorporating a variety of verse forms such as terza rima, rhymed couplets, and syllabics, Midquest features a conglomeration of perspectives and poetic voices, blending past and present, narration, meditation, and dialogue. Castle Tzingal (1984) represents a departure from Chappell's characteristic poetic technique. A narrative written in the form of a revenge tragedy, this volume combines an eerie medieval setting and an elaborately suspenseful plot with modern language and humor. In First and Last Words (1989) Chappell examines distinguished authors and literary texts throughout history and discusses his personal reaction to the works. Similarly, in C (1993), Chappell presents one hundred poems containing riddles, satire, and puns, which borrow heavily from the classics and earlier poets. The collection satirizes both Chappell and the poets who came before him. Spring Garden (1995) recounts a day in a garden in which the narrator watches his wife tend to the plants. He chooses particular flowers, herbs, spices, and vegetables from the garden and groups them according to the virtues they inspire. For example, thyme and other aphrodisiacs are used in the poem “The Garden of Love,” and mythic fern seed represents the ability to write objectively of others in “Poems of Character.” In 2000, Chappell published Family Gathering, a collection of poetry that centers around relatives becoming reacquainted with each other at a family reunion.

Critical Reception

Chappell has received mixed critical reaction to his work, though several critics have asserted that he has only recently received the attention he deserves. Early in his career, a number of reviewers had regarded Chappell's prose as worn-out Southern Gothicism and had unfavorably compared it to the works of William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Carson McCullers. While some commentators have categorized Chappell as a regional writer, many have argued that his works enjoy a wide degree of universal appeal, noting his international popularity in England and France. Critics have praised the range of Chappell's writing, complimenting his variety of poetic forms, his impressive storytelling capabilities, and the humor contained in his verse. In addition, scholars have extolled his use of dialogue and his incorporation of imagery and characters from his native Appalachia. The Kirkman tetralogy of novels, in particular, has been lauded as an exploration of “the power of memory as a refuge against loss” by critics such as Robert Gingher. Many scholars have agreed that one of the most striking features of Chappell's writing is its attempt to bridge the divide between the two disparate cultures of the city and the country. George Hovis has remarked that Chappell's split literary persona is one “who understands himself and his world by means of two divided cultures, one belonging to his present life in the academy, and the other to his childhood on the Appalachian farm of his ancestors.” Hovis has further asserted that Chappell's writings, such as Midquest, attempt to “heal” this schism between the two worlds and create a whole that encompasses both Chappell's scholarly world and the agrarian environment of his youth. Reviewers have also noted the significance of symbolism, spirituality, and autobiographical elements in Chappell's verse. His works such as First and Last Words and C have been generally praised by critics for their playfulness and use of satire. Spring Garden has also been commended by reviewers for its agrarian themes and their relevance to spiritual fulfillment.

Amy Tipton Gray (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Gray, Amy Tipton. “Fred Chappell's I Am One of You Forever: The Oneiros of Childhood Transformed.” In The Poetics of Appalachian Space, edited by Parks Lanier, Jr., pp. 28-39. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Gray examines “the universality of Chappell's work” by applying Gaston Bachelard's principles of phenomenology to I Am One of You Forever.]

One of the most damaging charges brought against Appalachian writing is that it is merely the grandchild of the local-color movement dressed up and sent to college. Those who study Appalachian authors and their place in American letters devote much valuable time in repudiation of this charge, scattering the good seed of their conviction in the hope that some will fall on receptive ground instead of into the ubiquitous intellectual tares. It is especially ironic that the works of Fred Chappell, the most universal to arise out of the mountain particular, have received a heaping amount of this scorn. His first novels were labeled Gothic retreads; his poetry has attracted less attention than any to receive the Bollingen Prize. And his last, and finest novel, has been praised for its resemblance to the tall tale—and little more.

Thus an explication of Chappell's most recent novel, I Am One of You Forever (employing it as the representative of his corpus), according to the principles of phenomenology established in Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space, would seem a far—and improbable—leap of pseudo-scholasticism to the perpetrators of such judgments. Yet it is precisely through such an explication that both the universality of Chappell's work (and by extension, that of his fellow Appalachian authors) and the validity of Bachelard's exploration of a new ontology, the images of matter, can be irrefutably demonstrated.

The place to begin such a venture is with one of the most evocative sections in I Am One of You Forever, Chapter Seven, “The Maker of One Coffin.” The story of Uncle Runkin, an “odd visitor” who “brought his coffin and slept in it,” immediately brings to mind the third chapter of Bachelard's work, “Drawers, Chests and Wardrobes.” Uncle Runkin is a man “who must have spent the majority of his years preparing to lie in his cold grave” (Chappell 119). While his coffin comes to fascinate Jess, it proves a source of unease for the boy's prankster father, Joe Robert—an unease that would not have been shared by Bachelard, who would have seen in Uncle Runkin's actions a method of asserting control over the unknown that would become his eternity. “Chests,” Bachelard writes, “especially small caskets, over which we have more complete mastery, are objects that may be opened” or shut at will. It is we who have control over “drawers, chests and wardrobes”; opening them, closing them, filling them, emptying them, mastering through these actions “the dialectics of inside and outside.” It is in such objects that “the past, the present and a future are condensed. Thus the casket is the memory of what is immemorial” (85-86).

It could be argued that, as Bachelard employs the word casket exactly as it is used in the old standard, “The Little Rosewood Casket,” the connection between his casket and Uncle Runkin's coffin is tenuous, merely a pairing of synonyms at best, a pun at worst.1 However, the two terms share more than a denotative meaning. They are synonymous on a metaphorical level as well. It is Jess who first suspects that there might be more to the coffin than meets the proverbial eye, that it might be both coffin and casket. “Coffin or no,” Jess observes, “it was an impressive piece of handiwork … eight feet long and four feet wide, it was much too large for Uncle Runkin, and he must have lain lonesome in it like a single pearl in a jewel case” (121). The jewel in the case is an image that could have come straight from Bachelard, who writes that “jewels and precious stones” cause the poet to daydream of “the past, a long past that goes back through generations”—a past that works like yeast in the present to create the future (84).

Tellingly, despite twenty-five years of labor, the lid to the casket is not yet finished—any more than Uncle Runkin's life is finished. As Bachelard makes clear, the phenomenology of the casket demands three components: the chest, or container; the secret (or treasure, or mystery) to be contained; and the well-fitting lid that makes possible both the hiding and the revelation. Uncle Runkin's handiwork, like all “open chests … condense[s] cosmic wealth”; the “casket,” like the poet's daydream, “remains in the world, facing worldly things. It gathers the universe together in and around an object” (Bachelard 84). The contents of any open casket (particularly jewels, as noted before) “speak of love, of course. But of power too, and fate” (Bachelard 84). Thus the concerns of Bachelard and Chappell unite in one telling and profound image: the old, but still living, man asleep in a lidless coffin, asserting his will over death.

But the open coffin has one more spell to cast. Bachelard writes that “from a dream” the poet “always makes a daydream” (84). It is precisely the question of dream, dream induced by coffin-sleep, which sets Jess's imagination alight. Jess struggles to envision what sleeping in his great-uncle's coffin would be like:

It would be scary but exciting, and … it [wouldn't] be stuffy in there, but cool and dark as eternity … after you got accustomed to it, you would have peaceful winter dreams and hear voices from beyond the grave.

(Chappell 123)

The imagistic power of the coffin (and its maker) is so great that Jess is, for once, reluctant to help his father play the prank that visiting uncles must sooner or later endure in that household.2 To disturb the coffin, Jess feels, would be indistinguishable from “tampering with dark forces … distressing some of the bones of the universe” (124). Nonetheless, the boy helps his father hide a skeleton stolen from the high school biology department in Uncle Runkin's singular treasure chest.

To their bafflement, Uncle Runkin never mentions finding the skeleton, which has completely disappeared. Finally, during another futile search for “Mr. Bones” (conducted while Uncle Runkin was listening to his favorite Sunday afternoon program, a lugubrious piece called “Meditations”), Jess gives into the temptation to try coffin sleeping for himself. In a passage that would have delighted Bachelard, Jess describes how the coffin seems to sink “like the bathysphere of William Beebe … not through water but through solid substance … down through the foundations of the house … and into the earth” where “creatures never seen or imagined before, animals made of glowing mineral that swam in the veins of the world … traced their mysterious lives to mysterious destinies.” (Bachelard, quoting Jean-Pierre Richard, writes, “‘We shall never reach the bottom of the casket’” [p. 86].) Soon Jess moves from revery to sleep, and when he does, he is “assaulted by a barrage of fleeting dream images.” He explains, “But none of these visions was frightening; they were comforting, and I began to know that death was the Meadow of Vision, where dream was wrested from the marrow of stars” (Chappell 131-32).

This episode could equally have been read in light of Bachelard's eighth chapter, “Intimate Immensity.” Daydream (leading in Jess's case to actual dream) “contemplates grandeur … this contemplation produces an attitude that is so special, an inner state that is so unlike any other, that the daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity” (Bachelard 183). Indeed, the story of Uncle Runkin and his casket/coffin is so infused with image that Bachelard's “The Dialectics of Outside and Inside” could also serve as a means of explicating its phenomenological dimensions.

The parameters of both “intimate immensity” and “outside and inside” can be probed in the story of another uncle as well. Uncle Gurton, the protagonist of Chapter Three, “The Beard,” to all appearances has overcome the limitations of material space. He lives simultaneously inside and outside of traditional time, a fact evidenced by his ability to “disappear.” It is not, as Jess recalls, “that he dissolved into nothingness before our watching eyes like a trick ghost in a horror movie.” Instead, he was “snuffed out of the present world like a match flame. Translated into another and inevitable dimension of space … he … was an enigma of many variations, and his one answer, silence, satisfied them all as far as he was concerned” (Chappell 51-52). Bachelard would say that for Uncle Gurton, “inside and outside [were] not abandoned to their geometrical opposition” (Bachelard 230), that this particular uncle lived untroubled by the false geometry of inside/outside, here/there, then/now. Uncle Gurton, then, personifies the construct that all time exists in one moment.

It is his beard, however, not his silence, not his impervious disregard of the dictates of time and space, that serves as the pivotal image of the chapter. As intriguing as his silences are (he only speaks after meals, and then only to say: “No thank you. I've had an elegant sufficiency; any more would be a superfluity”), as perplexing as his comings and goings, it is not in the act of speech—or even mysterious translation—that Joe Robert and Jess yearn to catch him. What they long to be privy to was the “fabled beard,” the “legendary fleece” that Uncle Gurton has been growing “for forty years or more” without ever trimming (48).

In the end, of course, the pair have to resort to trickery to discover the length of this mythic beard, for Uncle Gurton keeps it hidden away under the bib of his overalls as surely as he keeps the secret of his movement and the riddle of his thought concealed in his silence. After doping the old man with horse medicine, father and son sneak up to the now hapless old man's room and liberate the beard from its denim cage (one is tempted to say “casket”).

Immediately, the intimate becomes the immense, for Uncle Gurton's beard is no more bound by time and space than its caretaker. Once freed, “billow on billow of gleaming dry wavy silver beard … flowed over the foot of the bed and then down the sides … there was no end to it” (58).

The beard fills the room as surely as it had filled their imaginations, then spills out the door, down the stairs, and out into the night. In a figure perhaps more metaphorical than Bachelard would have formed, the beard becomes at once both the river of time and the river of myth, conscious and subconscious, for in its depths swim mermaids, strange beasts, Indians—and even a great white whale (59). As the two escape from the house, struggling through the breaking waves of hair, they surface in the back yard (not the front yard, note) only to discover that the oceanic beard has its votive priestess as well. She appears before them, “a startling black apparition … standing straight and narrow and angry.” It is only when they realize that her “wine-colored” vestments are actually a bathrobe, that the two recognize her as Gurton's sister, Jess's grandmother, Joe Robert's mother-in-law (three mythic roles by any definition) (61). Here Bachelard's “intimate relationship between small and large” (190), between ancient, titanic past and sterilized present, is brought to life as the “strange” robed priestess is miniaturized into “only” Jess's grandmother.

Chapter Four, “The Change of Heart,” continues the exploration of these themes. In this chapter there are no visiting uncles; instead, the narrative is set in motion through the description of an ongoing struggle between Virgil Campbell, “a whiskey-drinking, swearing, gilt-edge bona fide sinner” nicknamed “Mr. Bound-for-Hell,” and a particularly virulent “Ugly Holy” named Canary (Chappell 63-64).3 Canary makes a point of stopping by Virgil's store every day to tell him “flat out” that he is “a wicked sight on the face of the earth and a stink unto the nostrils of heaven.” While Campbell endures this performance in “silent resistance,” the sight of it finally proves too much for Jess's father. So one day, “aiming to take the heat off Virgil,” Joe Robert intervenes, informing Canary that he has “beheld” him “in a vision,” a vision sent by the “Lord God Almighty” to warn Canary to lay off Campbell and start minding his own business before “some godly and modest man … grabbed a meat cleaver and chopped off his runty little old pecker” (63-67).

Jess's grandmother, put out by Joe Robert's latest antics, informs him that he is “too flibberty and not contrite” to be granted a message from the Lord. Yet eleven days later (a number redolent of image in itself) father, son, and hired hand Johnson Gibbs (yes, a trinity of sorts) are all spoken to by God. In a scene reminiscent of Flannery O'Connor's “Revelation,” the men are “mucking out the milking stalls in the lower barn” when the storm, and with it, the vision, literally strike. In Jess's words:

We couldn't stop looking … [we were] some part of the storm now, or a further element the storm was trying to become, an extension of itself both human and inhuman. [We] looked away … out the mucking hole to where a tower of lightning stood. … It was a broad round shaft like a great radiant auger, boring into cloud and mud at once. Burning. Transparent. And inside this cylinder of white-purple light swam shoals of creatures we never could have imagined. … We were bewildered and frightened, not by the nearness of death, but by the nearness of life. … For a space of time we [became] men transfigured.


It is the “tower of energies” that would compel Bachelard in this passage, for while on the surface it appears that Chappell has resorted to a derivative metaphor dredged out of Judeo-Christian iconography, the shaft is in truth a fusion of the intimate and the immense, the universe miniaturized into an accessible phenomenon—the bolt from the blue. In the presence of the tower, interior and exterior vanish; “buffeted by recognition … things seemed more completely themselves … singed with vividness.” The voice that all three hear was, as Jess puts it, “kind of in my head and kind of not,” and its message, a priori, is different for each man (72-73).4 The tower of energies is a figure that, in Bachelard's words, demonstrates “the essential difference between an absolute image that is self-accomplishing, and a post-ideated image that is content to summarize existing thoughts” (153). It is far more than a contemporary rereading of the burning bush, for Chappell makes clear that the column, the storm itself, the creatures swimming in the fire, the men watching, are all “in the process of becoming”—not being. The bush is a static, if profound image, flaring for a moment of revelation, then, in a type of self-immolation, stiffening like lava into parable. Although the vision, like the storm, must end, the voice become silent, its effect on the trio is ever changing, mutable, an open door to the metaphysical. Bachelard is correct when he states that “entrapped in being, we shall always have to come out of it. And when we are hardly outside of being, we always have to go back into it” (214). But by an ontological sleight of hand, Chappell does away with the dilemma of être-là through a very American figure: the stasis of being (the Old World) is metamorphosed into the fluidity of becoming through the tower and the men's perception of its meaning.

The phenomenon of immensity, of the reversal of inside/out, is central to one more section of the book, the second—for lack of a better term—apostrophe (printed in italics like the first and third), “The Telegram.” When Johnson Gibbs is killed in a training accident, the telegram tolling his death is propped against the sugar bowl on the dining room table. The prosaic setting underscores the essential monstrosity of the telegram. No one “could remember its being delivered”; “everyone took it away, but it always returned to its place on the table, propped there to stare at us.” Against all attempts to destroy it, the telegram remains immovable. It has both the capacity to become huge—“it crept over our sleep like a great sheet of yellow ice”—and the power to become minuscule, “shrinking to the size of a postage stamp or to a mere speck, a mote.” Only one recourse proves effective. Jess explains:

One evening I pulled a chair to the table and sat down to stare at the telegram. LET IT DO TO ME WHAT IT CAN, I thought. It was just dusk and the telegram was the brightest object in the room. I don't know how long I sat looking. … At last the telegram began to change shape. Slowly wrinkling and furling inward, it took the form of a yellow rose, hand-sized, with layer on layer of glowing petals. It seemed to hover an inch or so above the tablecloth. It uttered a mournful little whimper. … And with that sound it disappeared from my sight forever, tumbled spiraling down a hole in the darkness.


Thus does the telegram, the tangible material evidence of death, merge with the intangible reaction to that death, the thing and the version of the thing ineluctably becoming one.

The last figure to be considered in detail is the house, both for the importance it carries in Chappell's symbology and for the attention it receives in Bachelard's Poetics, commanding the first two chapters of that work. Houses—specifically, old, two-story brick farmhouses—have always served as integral figures in Chappell's corpus (poetry as well as prose), taking on beings of their own as distinct as those of his characters. For example, dissimilar in many ways as they are, the protagonists of each of his first three novels, It Is Time, Lord,The Inkling, and Dagon, all labor under strangely close ties to their grandparents' houses. These houses, above their individuated role in each novel, unilaterally symbolize the link between past, present, and future—the link of the generations.5

A quick examination of Dagon demonstrates the level of meaning these houses achieve. Briefly, the ground floor corresponds to the waking self of Dagon's central character, Peter Leland; it is a stuffy, morbid place that takes itself too seriously. The attic, where Peter falls prey to his perfervid imagination and locks himself in rusty chains, corresponds to the controlling self—to mind, to will; it is the place where, as Bachelard phrases it, “fears are more easily ‘rationalized’” (19). It is no surprise then that Peter, unable to assert his will in the place most vividly associated with command, with the power of the mind, rapidly loses his ability to assert his will at all and almost immediately falls prey at last to the rapacious Mina (a votive priestess of an entirely different order).

The function of Jess's grandmother's house in I Am One of You Forever is similar to that of its bleak cousin in Dagon. This incarnation of the brick house sees most of the action taking place either in the kitchen/dining room or one of the upstairs bedrooms; two episodes are set in the taboo-ridden “sun parlor” (always a feature of the Chappellian house). The symbology of these rooms is self-evident: linked by stairs (complete with a banister down which Jess and his father slide to escape the torrent of Uncle Gurton's beard), they stand, respectively, for the ego—the public self—and the super-ego, the conscious and the superconscious. But what of the cellar, of which Bachelard writes, “When it comes to excavated ground, dreams have no limit … the cellar dream irrefutably increases reality” (18-20)? Surprisingly, if there is a cellar in this multistoried house, it is never mentioned, any more than the cellars of any of the other houses are mentioned. The fact that Chappell has sealed off the cellars of his houses breaks an interesting field of inquiry that cannot be tilled here; one cannot help but wonder why the counterpart of the id, the lower self, the unconscious, has been expurgated from what is arguably the prime figure of his narrative.

It is Bachelard who provides conclusive definition of the house as image in Chappell's work:

The house will permit me … to recall flashes of daydreams that illuminate the synthesis of immemorial and recollected. In this remote region, memory and imagination remain associated, each one working for their mutual deepening. … Through dreams, the various dwelling-places in our lives co-penetrate and retain the treasures of former days. And after we are in [a] new house … we travel to the land of Motionless Childhood, motionless the way all Immemorial things are. … Something closed must retain our memories, while leaving them their original value as images. Memories of the outside world will never have the same tonality as those of home and, by recalling these memories, we add to our store of dreams; we are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.

(Bachelard 5-6)

In Chappell's case, the poetry of the house-as-image is far from lost; it reverberates through the novel, framing the structure on which the stories are crafted. In the forbidden sun-parlor, Joe Robert, Jess, and Johnson eat Grandma's deluxe candy and refill the gilt wrappers with pullets' eggs (leading to a different sort of phenomenology of broken shells than the one Bachelard explores in his chapter of that title). In the kitchen they receive their punishment, which could have been taken straight out of Leviticus. It is also in the sun parlor that Aunt Samantha Barefoot sings with her cousin, Annie Barbara (Jess's grandmother, no less), for the first time in fifty years. It is in “the bedroom at the top of the stairs of the old brick house … staring into our separate darknesses” that Jess and Johnson tell tales into the night (15). Uncle Gurton's beard is liberated, Uncle Runkin's coffin defiled, upstairs, in the bedroom. (And bedrooms—upstairs, downstairs, anywhere at all—are what lead to Uncle Luden's downfall.)

The importance of several passages is ascertained by their outsideness, their otherness to the house. The novel begins (with the first italicized apostrophe, titled “The Overspill”) with this description: “Then there was one brief time when we didn't live in the big brick house with my grandmother but in a neat two-storey green-shingled white house in the holler below” (1).6 The prank Jess and Johnson play on Doc Greavy (actually, the prank within a prank) takes place at the old man's house. Chapter Nine, “The Wish,” is the story of a fishing trip. Finally, the third apostrophe (and the last section of the book), takes place in a hunting cabin on a snowy night.

The final chapter, “Helen,” is the most evocative of all, the most likely to produce the state Bachelard calls “poetic revery.” It most clearly renders the symbiosis of dream and daydream. “It seemed,” Jess says, “that there are four of us in a hunting cabin high on a mountain on the Tennessee border, Uncle Luden, Johnson Gibbs, my father, and me. And it seemed that it began to snow the second day we were there; in the late afternoon little bitter papery flakes came down in nervous spirals.” Mark the diction, the fact that the action takes place on a border, that they are on a hunting trip, that the trees surrounding the cabin are oak and laurel. Then mark the fact that they are snowbound (snow, a substance neither liquid nor solid) for three days. “Winter,” writes Bachelard, “is by far the oldest of the seasons” (41). The third night, Jess “began to feel a little as a stranger among them. They knew different things from me.” Tellingly, the men talk of everything but women (180-81).

When the men fall asleep, Jess stays awake, thinking “a little why we had come here, what it would be like to kill a deer.” Then “Johnson Gibbs in the lower bunk spoke in his sleep.” Jess “couldn't make out the word the first time. He spoke again, thickly but comprehensibly in the reddened dark: ‘Helen,’” Within moments all three men have spoken the name of “a woman I had never heard of before … [who] was powerful in their three lives.” Jess cannot make sense of it; these men were not the kind “to share secrets.” Suddenly, “still not awake,” they “sat bolt upright in their bunks.” Jess stares where they stare, and sees nothing. “But the tension caught me up,” he says, “and I tried to sculpt from the darkness a shape I might recognize.” (181-82).

Bachelard writes that “all strongly terrestrial beings … are nevertheless subject to … an aerial, celestial world” (52). It is this world that Jess brushes, there in the cabin firelight:

Little by little—yet all in a single instant—I saw something. I thought that I saw. Framed by glossy black hair, a face appeared there, the features blurred by a veil and yet familiar to me, I fancied, if I could remember something long ago and in a distant place … if I had seen something, then it was her, Helen, I had glimpsed.

(Chappell 182)

The others lie down; “each” to “follow his own strange travels in the forests of dream”—a figure that could have been taken straight from Bachelard. Chappell, as if acting on the thought of the philosopher “of concrete metaphysics,” carries the image of Helen no further. “It is better,” Bachelard advises, “to leave the ambivalence of the archetypes wrapped in their dominant quality. This is why a poet will always be more suggestive than a philosopher” (53).

And it is on this note of ambivalence, of suggestiveness, that Chappell ends his finely wrought novel. The men decide to abandon their hunting trip. When they are ready to leave, Johnson Gibbs comes to the door; “[His] blue eyes were very bright. There was full sunlight now and it made a burning glare on the snow. Against this harsh light Johnson's figure loomed black … blackly burning, and his voice sounded deep and hollow” (184). The question he asks Jess is the question asked of us all, the question answered by the novel's ambiguous title: “Well, Jess, are you one of us or not?”

It is fitting that Jess, like Bachelard's dreaming, daydreaming poet, leaves that question for the reader to answer.


  1. It is interesting to note that Bachelard's ideas can also be applied to the material contents of “The little rosewood casket, Lying on a marble stand.” The “packets of love letters” belonging to the singer form a physical treasure, even as the memories these letters hold form an intangible treasure. While this casket does not contain human remains, it does shelter, to paraphrase another song, the ashes of love long lost. Thus it serves a double function, as treasure chest and as shrine for something both dear and departed.

  2. Jess's father, like all Tricksters, can allow his notion of order to be disrupted only for a short while before resorting to the elaborate practical jokes that are the classical means of restoring balance. Joe Robert's joke playing forms one of the primary vehicles of the novel.

  3. Both these names carry “an invitation to continue the daydream that created” them (152)—in other words, to reflect on the many figurative levels of their meanings.

  4. In Joe Robert's case, the voice vindicated his “false” vision.

  5. Only Chappell's fourth novel, The Gaudy Place, features a narrative in which the house is not a significant figure.

  6. This section of the novel could also be explicated in terms of both intimate immensity and inside/outside. Consider, for example, the tear Jess's mother weeps which “detached from her face and became a shiny globe, widening outward like an inflating balloon.” Then the tear enlarges, coming to encompass Jess and his parents. Hence the duality of the title; the “overspill” is both the water illegally released by the paper mill and the all-embracing tear (6).

Works Cited

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon, 1969.

Chappell, Fred. I Am One of You Forever. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1985.

Principal Works

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It Is Time, Lord (novel) 1963

The Inkling (novel) 1965

Dagon (novel) 1968

The World between the Eyes (poetry) 1971

The Gaudy Place (novel) 1973

River (poetry) 1975

Bloodfire (poetry) 1978

Earthsleep (poetry) 1979

Wind Mountain (poetry) 1979

Moments of Light (short stories) 1980

*Midquest (poetry) 1981

Castle Tzingal (poetry) 1984

I Am One of You Forever (novel) 1985

Source (poetry) 1985

The Fred Chappell Reader [edited by Dabney Stuart] (poetry, novels, and short stories) 1987

Brighten the Corner Where You Are (novel) 1989

First and Last Words: Poems (poetry) 1989

More Shapes Than One (short stories) 1991

C: Poems (poetry) 1993

Plow Naked: Selected Writings on Poetry (essays) 1993

Spring Garden: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1995

Farewell, I'm Bound to Leave You (short stories) 1996

Way of Happening: Observations of Contemporary Poetry (essays) 1998

Look Back All the Green Valley (novel) 1999

Family Gathering (poetry) 2000

*This volume is comprised of four previously published collections, River,Bloodfire,Wind Mountain, and Earthsleep.

†These novels comprise Chappell's “Kirkman Family” tetralogy.

Peter Makuck (essay date spring 1992)

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SOURCE: Makuck, Peter. “Chappell's Continuities: First and Last Words.” Virginia Quarterly Review 68, no. 2 (spring 1992): 315-36.

[In the following essay, Makuck discusses the unifying elements within Chappell's verse from Midquest to First and Last Words.]

I had learned, maybe without really knowing, that not even the steadfast mountains themselves were safe and unmoving, that the foundations of the earth were shaken and the connections between the stars become frail as a cobweb.

—Fred Chappell, I Am One of You Forever

Since his tetralogy on the elements appeared under one cover as Midquest in 1981, Fred Chappell has published Castle Tzingal (1984), Source (1985), and First and Last Words (1989), all of which are linked, if not by voice, by an abiding concern with Ultimates, with faith and art, love and war. Midquest is an impressive compendium of forms and voices—poems that sing and laugh, paint and ponder, rhetorically expansive poems that tell stories and have a keen interest in the character and language of vivid mountain folk. Chappell's diction in the tetralogy ranges from pure lyricism to scatology, sometimes even within the same verse sentence, whereas the range in subsequent books is narrower, the difference, say, between symphonic and chamber music. Nonetheless, from Midquest to First and Last Words continuities exist.

Midquest, bookish but funny too, like the novels of Saul Bellow, is seriously concerned with the question of meaning. In one poem, Old Fred says, “Everything means something / Even if it's Nothing …” (171). In another, he wonders about death: “Not death, no, there is no / Death, only a deeper dreaming” (147). Elsewhere he describes passion or “blood-fire” as “the disease / necessary to know God” (91). In yet another poem, he asks, “but where / shall I sit when once this flesh is spirit?” (73). In one of the love poems to Susan, the prospect of loss threatens the speaker's faith in reunion beyond death, but at first his faith seems strong: “We shall meet again on that other shore,” he thinks, then plays with the phrase, “We shall meet again, we shall meet / When now touchless my hand on your breast is swimming …” (51). The operative word is “now,” the eternal now, which is an important dimension in Chappell's work, but one which need not preclude the possibility of postmortem survival (“I'd like to believe anything is possible” [6]), or the necessity of further quest.

Though Chappell has written prayer poems, and the vocabulary of Christian belief proliferates in both his early and later work (“resurrection,” “grace,” “chrisom,” “baptism,” “Christ,” “Lord,” “Eden,” “Genesis,” “temptation,” “Paradise,” “annunciation,” “absolution,” “faith,” “mortal sin,” “angels,” “redeem,” and so on), the poet's belief is not narrow or orthodox. In “Birthday 35: Diary Entry,” he writes:

I'd sleep in the eiderdown of the True Believer
And never nightmare about Either/Or
If I had a different person in my head
But this gnawing worm shows that I'm not dead.
Therefore: either I live with doubt
Or get out.


Other poems in Midquest also make us realize that Old Fred will not rest complacently in the fundamental comfort of a Personal Savior, for a realistic look at the human predicament (at “photos of Hitler and the cordwood dead” [65] at “snail-white corpses / bloating the Mekong and Hudson” [48]) shortcircuits belief in a personal loving God. Further, Chappell's imagination is haunted by emptiness and nothingness, the latter word recurring frequently in his work. In “Hallowind,” a rich and wonderful dialogue poem about writing which features Old Fred, Reynolds Price, and Susan, the personified and annihilating elements have the last words:

                              The Rain (to The Wind)
What say we work us up some brio
And drown this silly wayward trio?
My favorite line is “Ex Nihilo.”
                                                            The Wind
Leave them in peace, if peace there is
For their clamorous little species;
Let them relish their flimsy wishes.
Tomorrow and tomorrow we
Advance against them frightfully.
This night at least they have their say
Together; the force of Time
Upon their arts, upon slant rhyme
And paragraph delays for them.
It's soon enough we dissolve
Their names to dust, unmoving move
Against their animal powers to love
And weep and fear.


Love is a central value in Chappell's poetry, but whether love is eternal remains to be seen. In Midquest, perhaps the poet often ponders the question of immortality because he so intently watches the heavens with a chilly knowledge of late 20th-century astronomy, with a knowledge of “vacant interlunar spaces” (69). Chappell's skymaps do not necessarily indicate the direction of transcendence; they point to purity, wonder, mystery, as well as nothingness; they sometimes act as psychological mirrors of human projections, register positive and negative valences in the observer. At the end of Faulkner's Sanctuary, Horace Benhow, emotionally battered from having witnessed so much human savagery, looks on the beautiful April delta coming back to blossom and says: “You'd almost think there was some purpose to it.” In the work of Fred Chappell, the night sky is a constant, a given, as is the alternately mocking and consoling delta landscape in Faulkner, the moody sea in Conrad, the eye-like sun in Flannery O'Connor, the enigmatic heath in Hardy. In Midquest, we have numerous references to stars, comets, constellations, planets, pulsars: “the stars / Splash down in the filth of morning newspapers” (4), “Pleiades / Streaked in my head like silver fleas” (16), “wrinkling stars in rings” (46), “mole-runs of starlight” (46), “our savage reverent assault upon the stars” (102), “the stark beginning where the first stars burned” (77), “the lancet / glance of the star” (69), “firepoint / constellations” (183), “the black stars whirling / collapsed to a nervous cinder” (185), “stillness like a star of ice” (137), “love that moves the sun and other stars” (187). A typical way Chappell uses stars can be seen in the following:

The pure spirits stand among monsters and heroes,
Orion, Hercules, Cassiopeia,
And Draco and the Big and Little Bear.
And we this hour, 28 May 1971,
Are Gemini:
                    the Twins, each and the other
Like the two-colored candleflame.
Torn sheet of light sizzles in the mirror.
The seeds, ignis semina, of fire
Put forth in me their rootlets, the tree of fire
Begins to shape itself.


The method involves correspondences and analogies—ways of exploring and mapping relationships, both galactic and personal.

Chappell also pursues this method in Source where again we have a profusion of starlit poems, a “powder of stars,” “a granary of stars,” “savage stars,” “star-tangled trees,” “discolored stars,” “a nebula of accident,” and other celestial imagery. The negative element of dread that results from contemplating the black emptiness of outer space appears in “Windows” where Chappell identifies “the gray light” that “steals across the unforgiving vacancy, / the tired source of death is that impervious space / between galaxies” (50). In the face of death and those terrible spaces between the stars, “We huddle into ourselves. Beaten by / obscure longings. … And the prayed-for transformation / remains stone” (50).

The most positive and the loveliest stellar metaphor in Source, however, comes in the first lines of “Latencies”:

First point of light and then another and another: the
come out, bright fishnet lifting from darkness those
many heroes we read the mind with.


In this poem the starry configurations of myth point to latent possibilities of Time, both positive and negative. A trout troubling the river's surface “reinstates the dawn” and is “a latent prayer.” A woman standing by a window reminds the speaker of a “decade of obliterate dreams,” of regretted waste which causes him to say: “The window is a latent religion.” But there is also a negative latency:

Or consider the young man fishing the river. Now he
has gone to be a soldier, he has become
a latent garden of terrible American beauty roses
which only the enemy bullets can make manifest.


Chappell's meditations on the heavens, his “vacant interlunar spaces” and “impervious spaces between the galaxies” also suggest vacant and impervious spaces in the soul and recall both Pascal's God-bringing meditations on “les espaces infinis” and the God-less universe of Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time) or Joseph Wood Krutch (The Modern Temper). What is important to Chappell, however, is that we create our own god, with either capital or lower case. “I been sentenced doncha know to create reality / by the sweat of my brow, Bible sez so” (Midquest 73). Here and elsewhere in Chappell we have a sense of the poet as Job and are reminded of Santayana's famous statement that poetry is “religion which is no longer believed.”

Castle Tzingal is in one sense an anomaly among Chappell's books in that it lacks a celestial backdrop. Indeed, Tzingal is an indoor, low-ceilinged narrative, the castle and most of its inhabitants locked in a godless winter of discontent, with no bucolic memory except perhaps a brief one that lives in the voice of the murdered poet:

I'd make my song like the wind-tossed willow tree,
Promiseful-green and all a-lilt …
With sun-spangle from a pleachy sky. …
.....But Arcady is fled and gone
Until I rend the guilty sleep
Of Castle Tzingal and, like the sun,
Wither this black scheming up.
I am no more alive,
And all my murderers thrive.


In this volume, appearing between Source and First and Last Words (both books in which he shows himself highly successful as well at short poems, poems of less than a page), Chappell once again interests himself in character and voice to tell, in dramatic monologue and soliloquy, the grim story of Castle Tzingal, a tale of paranoia, jealousy, murder, and the persistence of poetry. Though very different, Castle Tzingal puts one in mind of W. D. Snodgrass's The Fuhrer Bunker (as well an indoor if not underground narrative) where Hitler's minions “explain themselves,” have their final say—cynical, pathetic, political, recriminating—before the last act and their final exits. It is ironic that Chappell's only book without starlight features an astronomer who is a diabolical opportunist, denizen of a cold and starless world haunted by a murdered poet's voice, the voice of lost light and redeeming love.

Of considerable importance in Chappell's work is the notion that love, religion, and art are ways to deny our nothingness. In fact, even in Midquest's “Hallowind,” where oblivion seems triumphant, the assertion of emptiness is paradoxically a denial of it. No matter how often it is brought home to us that our lives are founded on and speeding toward nothingness, we must live them, Chappell seems to suggest, as if such were not the case. We must, with our imaginations, press back, or believe as Tertullian believed—because belief is absurd. With great difficulty, our fictions praise creation and become a form of prayer, an act of faith. In Midquest's “My Grandfather's Church Goes Up,” a disembodied voice says:

Pilgrim, the past                    becomes prayer
becomes remembrance rock-real                    of Resurrection
when the Willer so willeth                    works his wild wonders.


The poet, Old Fred often implies, is someone responsible for always being on duty, is someone haunted into song by the black yawn of Time. In “Susan Bathing” (Midquest), the link between poetry, religion, love, and time is deeply felt:

that beauty too is Jesus … that
unattending beauty is danger and mortal sin …
must cleave to speech, speech being my single
                                                                                                              speech praise,
though this speech clings only a soiled atomic
instant about your bare feet before pouring fast to the
mouth of the pipe to smother. …


Through Art, Chappell implies, we are able to know solace or experience The Scared. Art notices, art reminds. We have a responsibility to complete the world by noticing—an act of perception that re-creates. “We've got to tune and turn the music ever. … / You wouldn't let the music of this world die. / Would you?” (115).

In Chappell's world, small natural sounds potentially aspire to the condition of music and are themselves the sources of music and poetry. In Source, “Music as a Woman Imperfectly Perceived” and “Awakening to Music” celebrate those soft daily sounds

in air existing and just now coming to exist,
as in a fog-quiet autumn dawn the three low
                    dew-cool notes of the mourning dove
                    across mist-washed grass and fence wire
suffuse themselves to hearing.


Sounds awaken other senses, and we smell “wilted perfume and stiff linen” as well as the lovely woman of the title. The world, of course, comes to us through the sound of words as well and becomes more intensely itself for the sounding. At the end of “Awakening to Music,” which recalls the speaker's waking in the predawn dark and stumbling to chores in the milking barn, we are presented a number of important questions:

How would I get it back? Go to blood
again, sleep the light green sleep?
How can I wake, not waking to music?


The answer is he can't, and we can't. As Wallace Stevens tells us in Noble Rider, it helps us live our lives, it's connected with our survival. Stevens here is talking about the music of poetry and, quite often, so is Chappell, but, from Midquest on, he often celebrates classical music, and jazz, too. In “The Highest Wind That Ever Blew,” a poem of homage to Louis Armstrong, Old Fred says, “I couldn't count how many times / You saved my life” (99). Interesting, too, how the notion of art saving and renewing the world is underscored in the epigraph by Schopenhauer which Chappell chose for the poem: “Music is the world over again.

If music is a source of beauty and solace, if war is a source of ugliness and suffering, Source ponders the painful and intimate coexistence of these elements. Here and elsewhere in Chappell's poetry, the relationship between pain and beauty, peace and war is a major problem, but a problem not to be solved. And therein lies the meaning. There is no bottom line. The two elements constitute a mystery to be lived and not a problem to be solved. Further, the element of evil can be tracked to the individual self, the finger of accusation not smugly or easily pointed at others or the external world. In “The Virtues,” Chappell says, “The vices are always hungry for my hands / But the virtues stay inside their houses like shy brown thrushes” (35). Then, interestingly, he personifies the virtues and makes them feminine, indicting the war-making side of man's nature:

The virtues are widowed sisters.
No man has been with them for many years.
I believe they are waiting for cataclysm.
They will open their doors
When perfect ruin has taken down this city,
Will wander forth and sift thoughtfully in the hot


In Source, which often balances war and images of horror with those of bucolic peace, we come upon another poem about virtue, “Humility,” which offers the possibility of innocence recaptured. We have a country setting bathed in “vesper light” where “the martins slide / Above the cows at the warped pasture gate” (9). Humility is a virtue one cultivates, a virtue that one can freely choose to perfect. Chappell emphasizes the element of choice in the two final stanzas of the poem:

This is the country we return to when
For a moment we forget ourselves,
When we watch the sleeping kitten quiver
After long play, or rain comes down warm.
Here we might choose to live always, here where
Ugly rumors of ourselves do not reach,
Where in the whisper-light of the kerosene lamp
The deep Bible lies open like a turned-down bed.


All of the images tell us this is not the Bible that readily supplies appropriate quotation for various crimes needing justification. The Bible here supplies the daily bread of poetry, the possibility of grace, virtue, and peace. Like a book of poems, this is the Bible that few read or care to believe in.

If the dread of nothingness (the dark side of peace and quiet) weren't enough to endure, our hunger for the power that leads to war is also a theme that makes itself felt in Midquest and Chappell's subsequent volumes. The imagery of warfare is frequent and homo homini lupus a constant theme. There is a sense in which aggression is a form of deliverance or distraction from the painful perception of “unforgiving vacancy” between the stars, an unbearable vacancy, too, within the self. In this context one thinks of thematic parallels in Théophile Gauthier (“plutôt la barbarie que l'ennui”) or Walker Percy's The Second Coming: “Are we afraid that ordinary afternoons will be interrupted by gunfire, or do we hope they will?” Chappell, in “Urlied” (Source), has a fictional Lucretius say:

The comfort is, there's nothing personal in it.
The seeds of things put forth foreordained fruit,
Nothing's wasted, nothing crazy, nothing
Out of nowhere to attack a man for nothing.


Nothing five times repeated. It is this perception of nothingness, Chappell intimates, that either prompts song—is the primitive source of all song—or violence, for in the title poem “Source,” Chappell says that “An ancient wound troubles the river” where a “perfumed barge drifts by, bearing / The final viceroy to oblivion” (36). Faced with “oblivion,” one will turn either to creation or to the destructive pursuit of power as a form of relief, deliverance from awareness.


In the beginning was the Word, and at the end, too, there will be words or, as Faulkner put it, man's “puny inexhaustible voice, still talking,” still refusing to accept the end. Chappell's First and Last Words is about silence and talking, about words sacred and profane, about music and silence. More perhaps than his other volumes, this is a book about language and makers, about Chappell's pantheon of favorite musicians, artists, and literary forebears to whom he responds; it celebrates the continuity of genius throughout history while simultaneously transcending linear time by enacting dialogue with the work of great artists in an eternal now. The volume is full of homages and references (mostly classical): Homer, Aeschylus, Virgil, Livy, Catullus, The Bible, Schiller, Goethe, Livy, Tolstoy, Valéry, Hardy, Einstein, Auden, Vermeer, Fragonard, Watteau, Baudelaire and others. Though First and Last Words gives evidence of wide and deep reading, one would be hard put to describe it as exhibitionistic in motive. In fact, the reader's reaction to a wealth of presented ideas is like Chappell's own to the way, in “Subject Matter,” Auden deals with “irrefrangible Newton at the close / of his bookish poem / that seemed somehow not bookish at all. / Seemed instead a colloquy.” Early in Midquest, Old Fred's grandmother accuses him of being “bookish,” but in that work the references (direct or indirect) to Rimbaud, Kierkegaard, Dante, and many other writers, painters, or musicians are often passed over quickly, well digested by the characters, the action, or the large canvas of the narrative. But in First and Last Words what was backstage most often comes to the fore, stands alone, and delivers clear statements of mixed feeling. The imagistic, glittering particulars reappear now and again, but less frequently than in previous volumes.

For Chappell, the notion of the quest has always been important, and here that quest for the highest things is associated again with the heavens, with the charting and mapping which we find, for example, in “Voyagers,” a poem based on Vermeer's painting “The Astronomer.” Though Chappell does not mention the painting (“The Finding of Moses”) within the painting, it is nonetheless clear that studying the heavens is metaphorically our proper spiritual destiny, is intimately connected with our need for guidance. Chappell's astronomer stands in a “room that silence studies like a science” with “his globe celestial, / His book that names the fixed and ambling stars, / Their ascensions, declinations, appointed seasons” (22). The illusion of order and control that naming brings to the learned astronomer is ironically treated in the poem's closure:

… The oceans after all agree
With what the astronomer tells the stars to do
From his room at Delft with his little silver book.


We find the same sense of ourselves as vulnerable, searching creatures in “Word” where we have, in effect, a picture of the Writer as Sisyphus. Though we long for the order and seeming fixity that naming promises, we are never allowed rest or certainty, for:

With the word I set down after
the next word I set down,
all is obliterate.
                                                                                                                        It becomes
a blind white plain as far as anyone can see,
a clean snowfield into which we march like children,
printing our fine new names.


Frustration, vulnerability, uncertainty, and a sense of loneliness notwithstanding, it is more important in Chappell's scheme of things to keep the faith, to be a questor, a watcher of skies than not to be. That the unexamined life is not worth living appears as more of a religious than a philosophical idea in Tolstoy's “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” a story which prompts Chappell to write, in “Meanwhile,” these beautifully balanced lines:

At midnight in the panelled library he pours
a brandy and tries to think about his life.
He ponders instead his career which gleams
like a samovar. …


The “meanwhile” of one's life, Chappell and Tolstoy imply, ought to be filled with more than “career” and society's guiding idea that “A man must get ahead in the world.” If one goes for the con and buys into such intellectual junk bonds, one then lives in a “world that breaks its first and only promise.”

Chappell's First and Last Words is so finely structured that his poems play against each other like wind chimes, and a contrasting sense of “meanwhile” is found in the poem “Dipperful” where the speaker is out wandering in the mountains on a hot day. An old country man offers him a drink which he gladly accepts. No career is at stake. Simply one man attuned to another and to the surrounding hills. Old Fred “drank the hill. Scatter of sand-motes sparkled / When I launched the gourd's blind belly back in the bucket, / And on my tongue the green hill sprouted ferns” (35). Unlike Ivan Ilych who lived to get ahead in the world, the old country man tells an attentive Fred:

“I never got married, you see, never had
To grub for other people. I worked enough
To keep myself sufficient peace and quiet. …”
He spat again and a swoon of flies unsettled,
Then settled back. The early afternoon
Began to climb the fields. “I've talked too much,”
He said. “I wish I didn't talk so much.”
When he said that, the silence had its say.


Silence always takes the last word, and the quality of silence varies from poem to poem. In some cases, silence emphasizes vacancy, nothingness, loneliness, and is an aggressive, annihilating force; in others, silence isn't so much an absence of sound as a positive sensation, the barely audible music of small sounds that accompanies the night sky and, say, bats “tacking from star / to early star as if putting in to ports of call” (30). Related to silence, of course, is peace and the fleeting consolation provided by music itself.

First and Last Words has fewer poems about music than previous volumes, in fact only two (“The Gift To Be Simple” and “Webern's Mountain”), which is perhaps an ominous sign of the poet's darkening vision. The book is structured in such a way that harmony brought by music is threatened by our time. First we come to “The Gift To Be Simple” in which Chappell, with aphoristic force, speaks about the curative dimension of music: “For Order is a Music of such health and delight / That in hearing it newly we come round right” (15). If music measures the health of a human soul, then we live in plaguey times, for in “Webern's Mountain” German Fascism prepares “the clinical bonfire” for “Jews and poets.” The poem closes with this potent image:

Then it came apart, the stave-line filaments
Of gleam snapped by a mortar shell, viola
And cello strings dying under the tank treads.


In “Observers,” troubled and still pondering the unthinkable consequences of life without music, Chappell characterizes the late 20th century as

a time of arbitrary starlight
Which is drifting toward the place where Mozart
goes unheard forever, which is punctuated by
the blackened matchstem that was Nagasaki.


With fewer references to music, and poems about music, music itself seems under siege, the implications for civilization grave. But the closest to topicality that Chappell comes is a powerful short poem about the national scourge of drugs which ends, “A whole Manhattan of indifference, / A whole Miami of despair” (33). Despair indeed. What does one do when the music of civilization becomes moribund? Chappell does not provide an answer, but in key poems he has sentinel figures who remain faithful to heroic ideals in the most grinding of conditions, who embody virtues like humility, fidelity, patience, and courage.

“The Watchman” is a poem about the Trojan war and the faithful watch of a sentinel who sees, as he waits for the signal, “stars flitter stupidly overhead / Like an irritated squad of flies above a corpse” (7). Chappell nicely describes how war and endless waiting for the end enervate and make the watcher numb, and he skillfully accomplishes this indirectly by reference once again to the stars:

So many nights of silent skies
Have darkened his capacities
To comprehend. The arrow showers
Of meteors no longer startle; he no longer numbers
The familiar constellation stars.
The Great Bear lumbers
Over his spirit, leaving a shadow like a mortal bruise.


In another war poem, “Patience,” which Chappell calls a “prologue to The Georgics,” we find a traditional tension between country and city, peace and war. The irresistible rural setting is beautifully painted with a “hive of stars” that “immerses the dark porches where / The farmers muse” (9). The farm animals have a “patience almost mineral” and settle in sleep “to the ground like velvet boulders.” But men, alas, do not have this kind of patience and abhor the vacuum of peace because it has nothing to do with the power they seem to crave. Chappell tells us that poets—wrongly perceived as unrealistic woolgatherers—have known this all along and provides a bloody and balancing imagery of war with “cottager mothers flung on the corpses of their children” (10). The poem concludes directly and with the implication that peace-war cycles (closely related to the book's country-city dialectic) are a mystery to be endured with something close to animal-like patience:

But nothing changes. The war grinds over the world
          and all
Its politics, the soldiers marry the farmers' daughters
And tell their plowman sons about the fight at the
          Scaean Gate,
And the other sanguine braveries the dust has eaten.
Sundown still draws the chickens to their purring roost,
The cow to the milking stall, the farmer to his porch to watch
Whether the soaring constellations promise rain.


Faced with various kinds of madness, ignorance, and absurdity, one must adopt an attitude, perhaps an attitude like the one in “Stoic Poet” (a prologue to Hardy's The Dynasts). The attitude is presented in this way: “He gains a knowledge would cause an easy man / to embitter and grow lean. / Terrors assail him, he holds steady, / absorbing the wounds of the world's every crime” (14). But perhaps the best, most intricate poem about learning such stoic balance is Chappell's fond recollection of his teacher/mentor Allen Tate in the extraordinary “Afternoons with Allen” where we are presented with a number of sharp contrasts: the active and the meditative, the quiet and the loud. Time has made its inevitable inroads on the speaker's old friend, Allen Tate, a veteran of literary wars, a man who has taken his stand more than once, and held ground. Frail now, he and the speaker reminisce while watching Vince Lombardi's Washington Redskins on TV. Chappell humorously creates a Paleface/Redskin contrast by emphasizing Allen's “pale pale eyes” and by associating him with Valéry's intellectual Monsieur Teste. The Redskins lose, but Tate doesn't seem to care and smiles at the “unimportant score.” He says, “It's their precision I like, like a machine … / like well made poetry.” Perhaps Tate is indifferent to the final outcome because he realizes that victory is at best a fleeting illusion. In any event, historical hindsight gives added poignance and drama to this scene, for the famous coach perhaps already knew he was losing to cancer, his winning single season with the Redskins a triumph of absurd courage. And in the transitional light of a late October afternoon, we see Tate losing gracefully, sipping bourbon, smoking, and appraising the writers of his generation, Hemingway, Stein, and Pound, whose “talent crumbled into rant.”

In a wonderful closure, Chappell associates Allen, Lombardi, and heroic Priam in one bold stroke:

                                                                      For Lombardi
He fetched out of that high magniloquent head
A telling line of the Second Aeneid.
Forsitan et, Priami fuerint quae fata, requiras?


By having Allen conclude the poem with this untranslated, uninterpreted line from Virgil's second book of The Aeneid, Chappell links the fate of all three men (himself as well) and suggests something of the heroic. Chappell's stroke is bold, for the context of the line, compressing so much, means everything. It is especially important, and moving, to know that the line comes from the scene in which Pyrrhus, hot with freshly spilled blood, pursues Polites and kills him before Priam's and Hecuba's eyes. It is the genius of the quoted line that it is one of Virgil's great transitionals: “Perhaps now you will ask the doom of Priam?” What Priam does—an old man at this juncture—is strap on his armor to avenge the murder of his son. Hecuba, weeping and pleading with him, recognizes the gesture for what it is—futile, for Pyrrhus is much younger and virtually invincible. But Allen Tate (Chappell, too) seems to find a beautiful grace and nobility in the act, an exquisite example of dramatic refusal, an act of great courage and dignity in a situation of certain loss. And Lombardi and Tate in their different ways had also heard those heavy quick steps behind them, felt the advent of final defeat in their bones. Intransigence in the face of the inevitable. But to return to the poem's last line for a moment, it is worth noting that the music of this Latin line creates another kind of transition, the transition between sound and silence—the after-silence that announces annihilation, a theme that Chappell has been sounding through the book.

The first poem in First and Last Words is “An Old Mountain Woman Reading the Book of Job” and in a volume that largely interests itself in reading and writing and the sister arts of painting and music, Chappell could not have begun with a better poem in terms of structure. Beyond being a signature poem with mica-like glories that harks back to the great bucolic strengths of Midquest, “An Old Mountain Woman Reading the Book of Job” first sounds the themes of light against dark, sound against silence which, among other strategies, help First and Last Words to achieve its impressive unity. Surrounding this lonely widow on a stormy, “starless night,” is a devouring silence, an aggressive menacing darkness. Chappell sets the scene in a painterly but realistic way, in a way that reminds one of those canvases of Georges de la Tour which often feature a solitary vigil-keeper in dramatic lamplight. It is a world

… delivered to ungodly shadow.
The darkness of her hand darkens the page.
She straightens her bifocals in which the words,
Reflected, jitter, then come to rest like moths.
It is November. The woodstove shifts its log
And grumbles. The night is longer than the fire.


Young poets could learn much from Chappell's example of how to establish a setting dramatically related to character with such speed and economy. This is a poem about strength of character—an old woman's refusal to cry out or be intimidated by the hostile emptiness about her; nor will she succumb to the Biblical consolation of Jesus or St. Paul. Not tonight. She tends her fire which, like her faith in God's goodness, is on the wane. We see a pitiful hunger for immortality, her own and that of her dead husband, but the poet's metaphor says it all: “The night is longer than the fire.”

Alone after the death of her husband, she goes (almost perversely) to the Book of Job for sustenance, but instead of help or hope she experiences the painful absence, remembers her husband's Job-like silence through long suffering and herself feels “Job's bewilderment.” There is no help. “St. Paul does not escape, / Not even Jesus shines clear tonight.” Tonight is the operative word, for we know she will face another day, however bleak Chappell's closure seems, however final.

Pursuing again a similar kind of “balancing act” structure he described in the “Preface” to Midquest, Chappell in First and Last Words gives us a tight book, a well proportioned, intricate structure. Beyond the sectional symmetry of nine prologues, nine epilogues, and entr'acte, there are certain kinds of thematic and imagistic mirrorings throughout. In some way, almost all the nine poems of the epilogue echo the nine earlier soundings of the prologue. Most obviously, the echoing companion of “An Old Woman Reading the Book of Job” is “Scarecrow Colloquy.” The book thus opens and closes with sentinels of the night, watchers who wait with an acute sense of absence for some loving transcendent sign, memory both consolation and torment, heaven and hell. But language, too, is consolation, and the last words of the book are those of that puny, inexhaustible voice still talking to its self-made Other, whistling in the dark, making the nothingness point to a somethingness, something to keep away the dark crows of death.

Chappell in this last word, “Scarecrow Colloquy,” or “epilogue to the Gospels,” again dramatizes silence and suffering without God. Though he is concerned with eschatology, nowhere does he attempt to justify the ways of God to man. The last poem, in fact, endorses a Hardyesque world, stark and beautifully frightening, presided over by a deus absconditus. Typically, the two voices of the poem are confronted with darkness and interstellar space. The speaker humorously greets the scarecrow in the first line as “Ragwisp” and “my Sentinel of the Stars,” and tells him that he looks “entranced as St. Jerome.” Chappell's use of the possessive adjective my seems to establish the scarecrow as an alter ego, a kind of externalized Watcher Within, and the poem can easily be seen as dialogue between Faith and Skepticism. The Scarecrow asks of the speaker some news of the “man who nailed me up, left me to challenge / the courage of the crow …” (56). But the unitalicized, world-weary voice of the speaker tells old “Hayhead” that he is forgotten by his maker, there is no point in trying to “unfold the motive of your construction.” The Scarecrow feels sure that the farmer, an absent and forgetful creator, must occasionally think about that cobbled up figure he placed in the field. Light in the farmhouse window on winter nights gives some hope to the lonely scarecrow who imagines his maker by a warm fireplace, smoking a meerschaum and dreaming of “his friend in God, the Scarecrow.” No such luck. Throughout the poem, the skeptical speaker answers “Chaffstaff” in various ways that he is forgotten and better face up to it. Godot won't arrive, and, if he does, it doesn't matter anyway. But, after the speaker sarcastically tells him to keep the faith, Chappell significantly gives the poignant closure to the Scarecrow:

I have spoken in the field until my voice became an
I have surveyed the horizon until I lost my buttons.
The fieldmouse heard my silence and gnawed my flesh
          of grass.
And still I stand here guarding the bones of Adam.


I don't mean to treat the poem too seriously because Chappell obviously intends humor and wouldn't want us losing our buttons like the old Scarecrow. But this slapstick figure of suffering harks back and mirrors to some extent the old woman we met in the first poem. Though they refuse to submit to different fates, they are presented nonetheless as refusing to submit, keeping an absurd faith, and we are somehow ennobled by their suffering, by their dramatic no. Indirectly, Chappell suggests an image of the writer as watcher and Job-like recorder who must keep the faith—something not terribly far from a definition found in one of D. H. Lawrence's letters: “A work of art is an act of faith and one goes on writing, to the unseen witnesses.”

In the best sense of the word, Fred Chappell is an old fashioned poet, one for whom writing is a spiritual project, not merely a game with words. Chappell's poems implicitly argue against the current literary/philosophical notion that words are problematically referential, or don't mean, or mean much. Chappell knows they mean plenty and, skillfully used, are capable of providing sustenance and solace. They are the fragile vessels that bear our lives and hopes, to which Chappell bears glowing witness. What Virgil—one of Old Fred's favorite poets—wrote in another context is equally true of Chappell's own creation: Fervet opus. The work is all aglow.

Further Reading

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Chappell, Fred, and Teresa K. Weaver. “Master of Language: Relative Obscurity Suits Chappell, a Writer's Writer.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution (30 August 1998): L1.

Weaver offers an overview of Chappell's life and work.

Drennan, Eileen M. “Chappell's Kirkman Finale Heartfelt but Hesitant.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution (5 September 1999): K12.

Drennan offers a negative assessment of Look Back All the Green Valley.

“Tributes to Fred Chappell.” Pembroke Magazine 23 (1991): 77-89.

Members of the North Carolina Writers Conference present tributes and testimonials about Chappell.

Thomas, George. “Brightening His Corner.” Quadrant (January-February 2002): 109-11.

Thomas praises Look Back All the Green Valley, though he contends that it is the weakest volume in Chappell's Jess Kirkman series.

Additional coverage of Chappell's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R; Contemporary Authors Autobiographical Essay, Vol. 198; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 4; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 8, 33, 67; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 40, 78; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; Contemporary Southern Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 6, 105; Literature Resource Center; and St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost, and Gothic Writers.

Claire Bateman (review date fall 1992)

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SOURCE: Bateman, Claire. “Recent Poetry in the Carolinas.” South Carolina Review 25 (fall 1992): 154-57.

[In the following excerpt, Bateman explores Chappell's poetic development from The World between the Eyes to Midquest, offering a positive assessment of both collections.]

The World between the Eyes, Fred Chappell's first book (1971), dwells on “agonies of weather and enclosure” in a world that is “surcharged” (a word that appears frequently) with light, with the future, with sensation. And yet the child, a central consciousness, watches with “eyes that starve.” Surfeit and deprivation work in counterpoint through Chappell's song of “brutalities / of presence, brutality of abundance.” “Too bad, when things don't stay the same, / And worse still when they do,” comments the speaker in “Heath, Two Years Old.” There is a strong element of fatedness in this book, as characters act out their ritual roles in family and community, and the knowledge of what is to come is not a saving knowledge: “O it all stinks of childhood!” The child, even when “dismayed with delight,” is always in a “forlorn revolt” that cannot succeed:

… rooms of his fathers
Hold him without mercy; he feels
This house about him, a fantastic skin …
Feels too that outermost skin, the sky
upon his skin …

There is no escaping skin, house, sky, family, or adulthood, yet revolt and discomfort engender all the pleasures of a developing imaginative life, as in the companion poems, “The Father” and “The Mother.” The bleak and yet overwhelming natural world also gives pleasure, and Chappell offers us the Southern farmland and its seasons with all their changes. Nothing stays still for long in this book; sky and light are always shifting even as we watch, especially in the longer poems in which the narrative provides latitude for densely piled-up images.

Chappell demonstrates his developing range of tone and voice, not only in the long pieces but also in the short, often humorous ones, such as “Gold and Mean,” “Guess Who,” and particularly the group of baseball poems near the end of the book, where we meet the third base coach (“The fouls go by him like tracer bullets”) and the fast ball that “hisses at you as it passes.” And it is, as Chappell admirers would expect, an allusive book, with references to Transcendentalism, Eliot, Marianne Moore, Laforgue, Villon, Blake, Pope, Roethke, Lovecraft, Auden, Matisse, Beethoven, Jimi Hendrix, the Redskins, “Trigger and Gene,” and many others.

Going on to read Chappell's Midquest, published ten years later, is not unlike watching those old Wonderbread commercials that portray a child's growth, accelerated. All the singularities of the early Chappell are apparent, but there is a remarkable expansion in register and scope. The book is made up of four volumes, each of which explores one of the four elements: River,Bloodfire,Wind Mountain, and Earthsleep, and each of which covers the same day in the speaker's life, his thirty-fifth birthday, the Dantean mid-life referential experience in which time is no longer linear, and memories and conversations from years past, and forebears and neighbors, living and dead, find their way into each hour. The structure is complex, and the internal balance intricate; in the brief but important “Preface,” Chappell discloses his methodology and his various games with number and form. He lists terza rima, Yeatsian tetrameter, rhymed couplets, syllabics, classical hexameter variation, elegiacs, chant royal, dramatic monologue, interior monologue, epistle, a playlet, and elegy—a non-exhaustive inventory; his model is, he says, “that elder American art form, the sampler, each form standing for a different fancy stitch.” His choices concerning what to exclude are equally significant:

Ours is the time of the brilliant autobiographical lyric. Many of the fine qualities of this sort of poem—intensity, urgency, metaphysical trial, emotional revelation—are absent from Midquest—I wished to capture, to restore to my work other qualities sometimes lacking in the larger body of contemporary poetry! detachment, social scope, humor, portrayal of character and background, discursiveness, wide range of subject matter. So that Midquest is to some degree a reactionary work.

In a New York Times review of recent volumes by Robert Creeley and Diane Ackerman, David Kirby makes a distinction between “a taciturn poetry and a poetry of loquacity.” Overflowing with desire to give full voice to every creature, Chappell belongs in the camp of loquacity. This is a work so large that the speaker has ample room to play. He veers toward sentimentality in his rich (almost over-rich) evocations of land and loved ones:

The way the light rubs upon this planet
So do I press to you,
          Susan          Susan
The love that moves the sun and other stars
The love that moves itself in light to loving
Flames up like dew
Here in the earliest morning of the world.

and then away, in his unsparing depiction of farm life and the miseries of poverty:

“… Money.
Money. Money. It's the death
Of the world. If it wasn't for goddam money
A man might think a thought, might draw a breath
Of freedom. But all I can think is, Money.
Money by God is death.”

His diction is “down home” (at times, almost to the extent of being a caricature of itself): “have to on my knees rassle it like a hawg,” and just a few lines later, elevated: “the lancet / glance of the star pierces its leafage.” Though he frequently brings in literary references and debates, such as in “How to Build the Earthly Paradise: Letter to George Garrett,” the essentially comic tone makes Midquest a “bookish poem / that seemed somehow not bookish at all,” if I may steal Chappell's own comment on Auden from First and Last Words. And geographically speaking, he is all over the map, and beyond it as well, with side trips to Hell (a parallel version of the first stage of Dante's journey—whom should he find there but James Dickey!). the past and future, and multiple possible worlds coexisting with ours.

I would argue that this loquacity is a response to the surfeit that the speaker struggles with in The World between the Eyes. In Midquest, the word appears again, only this time, the eyes do not starve:

What a dazzle of driftage, what dribble of daft
Storms the skin of the eye, I'm surfeit to bursting,
Have mercy, October, my eyes have eaten all,
I'm rich to the ears …

The speaker has learned, if not to accommodate the surfeit, to direct outward the terrifying energy engendered by it, in celebratory speech:

                                        … no matter how my
heart is abashed & my senses quaked in the viscera, I
must cleave to speech, speech being my single knowledge,
speech-praise …
for if not praiseful speech the spirit is stopped off
in the throat where the clavicles come near to join
before the body
begins to fever and tremble frustrate like a grenade
which was aching
to devour itself in a fountain of light & surprise …

The crucial word here is, I think, “grenade,” implying in this context violence redeemed through praise of all that is, seemly and unseemly, in a world “brimming over with matter.”

The experience of reading Midquest can also be an experience of surfeit. Though the central movement of the book is narrative, there are so many lyric surges throughout that it is impossible to take it all in no matter how many times one re-reads. This seems entirely appropriate. As the speaker makes his mythic journey (creating, in the process, many of his own myths) he is so overwhelmingly present that the reader cannot but move into, and through, his consciousness, until it becomes the elemental landscape that is the subject of the book. Though [Sigodlin author Robert] Morgan and Chappell derive their material from many of the same sources, Morgan's passion is expressed in a relatively detached tone, whereas Chappell virtually ingests the reader. That he can do this while maintaining the public voice attests to his particular combination of magic and skill.

Edward C. Lynskey (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Lynskey, Edward C. “Fred Chappell's Castle Tzingal: Modern Revival of Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy.” Pembroke Magazine 25 (1993): 73-87.

[In the following essay, Lynskey argues for a critical reassessment of Castle Tzingal, calling it “yet one more vivid example of the extraordinary depth and variance of Chappell's poetic vision.”]

Fred Chappell's poetry collection Castle Tzingal (1984)—coyly derived from the Hungarian-derived word Tzigane for gypsy and Tintagel, court of the legendary Arthur and Camelot—represents a significant deviation from his poetic stock-in-trade. Critics in the past, though, have been too willing to dismiss and even overlook Castle Tzingal as only a distinctively minor work, describing it as a “toy” and “offbeat,” a versified curio resembling a Renaissance allegory, a poetic murder mystery, and a Tudor revenge play.1 However, as the seminal work of a major American poet, Castle Tzingal merits our further attention and critical reassessment. In fact, the groundbreaking title does revive a period and genre of literature, the 16th-century Tudor or Elizabethan revenge drama, too long neglected by today's writers, and it stands as yet one more vivid example of the extraordinary depth and variance of Chappell's poetic vision.

Ever willing to risk experimentation in diverse literary forms and genres, including science fiction penned under a pseudonym, Chappell in Castle Tzingal veered away from his native Carolina red-clay provinces and its admirable workfolk, orienting his verse in search of new and unusual directions. The marvelous literary wealth and legacy of Castle Tzingal emerge in Chappell's superb exploration of the previously outmoded Elizabethan revenge play, lending it modern relevance and interest. A serious poetic revival of such an anachronistic model has not, to my knowledge, been attempted in recent years, but Chappell executes the feat with typical eloquence and exactness. This discussion probes Chappell's poetic strategy to adapt the Tudor revenge drama to his own artistic designs, and the important parallels and influences he draws between the two genres and their different time periods.

Arranged as a sequence of twenty-three, individually titled speeches and conversations, Castle Tzingal can be thought of as short, single-act dramas, the genre from which Chappell liberally borrows. The poems are administered by several major voices and an avid chorus of ancillary grotesques who spin a fascinating but dark-hued tale. The victim/hero who avenges his decapitation murder is the bard Marco, the talking head and “disembodied voice” of frightening lyrics.2 He is a phenomenon of Chappell's outlandish imagination coupled with the Elizabethan proclivity for vocal specters.

Tzingal in its artistic concept embodies several conventions generally associated with the Tudor revenge tragedy. The first part of this essay concerns the high spiritual authority and ghost of revenge employed in Elizabethan revenge drama and in Chappell's work. The middle section applies six characteristics of Fredson T. Bowers' classical “Kydian formula” to discuss Chappell's book:

1) revenge for an individual or relative's murder;

2) human madness;

3) gory and violent action;

4) hesitation for the revenger to act;

5) a Machiavellian villain;

6) a horrific but apt resolution of the revenge.3

Finally, Michael Bugeja's brief, insightful remark that “love is at the heart of the typical revenge, and Chappell makes the most of it in his book,” can be added to the Kydian formula and will be explored in greater depth.4

Chappell's slim volume of poetry, as Bugeja suggests, can be thought of, at least in spirit, as theater, loosely devised on such an extant, classical model as Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy.5 The sustained public interest in Kyd's drama, according to Bowers, established the Elizabethan revenge tragedy which Shakespeare later perfected in Hamlet.6 To a lesser degree, Chappell makes good use of Shakespearean sources so that Castle Tzingal suggests the themes and structures of more than one important Elizabethan playwright. Examples from Shakespearean drama are offered to demonstrate its inspiration for Chappell's project.

On the first subject, a ghost of revenge is subservient to a higher spiritual authority (the gods), and they are the cosmic forces necessary to initiate the revenge-plot in both Kyd and Chappell's creations.7 The main action in the two works commences after the brutal murder of an individual who then returns to earth charged by the gods with exacting an appropriate revenge for the crime and its perpetrator. In Kyd's play, the spirit of Don Andrea, an Iberian nobleman slain by Prince Balthazar of Portugal, is sent to the crime scene by underworld leader Pluto (i.i. 77-80). In Chappell's tale, the spirit of Marco, a royal bard and goodwill ambassador slain by King Tzingal, is dispatched to the tower of execution by the gods. Marco and Don Andrea in twin fashion have been struck down, tragic victims of insanely jealous, enemy rulers who are also despicable and loathsome individuals.

Chappell's modern configuration, however, deviates from Kyd's prototype in at least two noteworthy respects. The spiritual junta in Kyd's Tragedy order their representative (called “Revenge”) to follow the spirit of Don Andrea to earth and manage the retribution. Moreover, Kyd introduces the second revenge sought by the Iberian general Hieronimo who discovers his dead son Horatio (Don Andrea's friend) also killed by Balthazar.8 Chappell, on the other hand, employs a single revenge; his deistic gods are not as connected with Marco; and they supervise his quest for revenge from afar. Chappell never permits the reader to encounter the unseen higher powers to whom Marco makes only indirect, vague reference (pp. 16, 30); nonetheless, they prevail throughout the poems. More concerned with directing our gaze on the characters than the gods, Chappell has his characters wage war on the mundane stage. In this narrower implication of the ruling gods in the plot, Chappell secures a more believable and immediate court intrigue between kings.9

According to Philip Edwards, the gods in Kyd's play are attracted to the idea of revenge and apparently are prepared by Don Andrea's “destroying his destroyers, to bring him peace.”10 Chappell implements his cosmic system of justice on much the same basis. The ruling gods seemingly have decided that spiritual stability is unattainable until the revenge has been completed to their satisfaction. Marco must prosecute his assassins and hold them accountable for their barbaric excesses before the heavenly scales of justice are balanced. He is called from the dead like Don Andrea to avenge his violent death; they both hold the same distinction to serve as the gods' instruments of revenge.

Edwards notes in Kyd's drama that the heavens despise murder and validate Andrea's clandestine murder as an acrimonious and dastardly offense; they applaud his revenge as appropriate for the serious crime (i, iv. 19-26, 72-5; i.ii. 73).11 Bowers notes that Elizabethans regarded murder “as the worst of crimes.” Furthermore, “characteristic English hatred of secrecy and treachery could, and did, excuse an open killing in hot blood.”12 Chappell's gods, it may be argued, adopt Kyd's moral precepts and also judge murder to be a heinous crime. The gods deem Marco's slaying, too, as dishonest and devious and furthermore fortify his vow of revenge:

Until I rend the guilty sleep
Of Castle Tzingal and, like the sun,
Wither this black scheming up.
I am no more alive,
And all my murderers thrive.

(p. 16)

The modern reader is left satisfied, and even relieved, when Marco destroys Tzingal, and presumably his aesthetic vitality as a troubadour is restored.

The spiritual system for governing the mortal world, as demonstrated by Bowers and Edwards, is often contradictory and enigmatic in Tudor revenge drama.13 The two harbingers of revenge conflict in Elizabethan literature: one is the Christian law which reserves all retribution to God the Father, and the other is the pagan code in which the gods avenge through a human agent.14 Furthermore, at curious intervals in Elizabethan theater, the Christian character may assume the ugly, self-appointed role as a saintly avenger. Northrop Frye explains that confusing human impulses by even the most godfearing are made easier to comprehend given the avenger's agitated state of mind:

There is a Biblical injunction ‘Vengeance is mine’ but the vengeance of God being apparently of the same kind as the vengeance of the cruel and malicious human beings, it is not difficult for any revenger to think of himself as the appointed instrument of divine wrath.15

It is interesting to consider the moral status of the avengers in Kyd and Chappell's narratives considering these various roles.

“Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord” (Romans 12:17, 19) is the well-known biblical scripture that censures Marco as well as Don Andrea's militant ghosts fighting against their flesh enemies.16 In his soliloquy, Hieronimo upon hearing the tragic news of his son's murder utters the same pivotal phrase used by many Elizabethan writers, “Vindicta mihi” (iii.ii. 1). Like Don Andrea and Hieronimo, Marco's warlike pagan muses may clamor to crush Tzingal all at once, but his Christian bearing questions the urgency:

Marco's become a monster.
he has a human head, a body of black alchemy.
I am such a centaur
The ancient legends never dreamed nor ever could.
But am I still me?

(p. 30)

If a Christian tribunal is to measure the wages of mankind's sin, Marco (like Don Andrea and Hieronimo) must patiently await its slow resolution. Yet without Marco's forced and furious showdown for justice (his pagan compulsions), there is no conflict to resolve, and no reader interest in generated in the poems.

This contradictory and confusing set of moral principles (Christian versus pagan) dramatizes the underlying question of right and wrong in Tragedy as well as in Tzingal. Edwards believes such Christian and pagan “inconsistency” and “confusion” embedded in Elizabethan morality “clashes,” and what the character may believe and do are two separate issues.17 For instance, the Christian God in Tudor England denounced private revenge and avowed eternal damnation for the disobedient, but at the same time the incidence of dueling and brawls to settle personal imbroglios increased sharply.18 The pagan and Christian natures of the ruling gods and their temporal subjects in Chappell's book have important parallels to those comparable themes lodged in the Tudor revenge.

Tzingal divulges pagan themes which are endemic to the Tudor revenge play such as Kyd's Tragedy. Don Andrea commits the savage act of never exonerating his rivals, and he gleefully witnesses them twisting in everlasting hellfire (iv.v. 30-44). With similar barbarism, the pernicious King Tzingal attempts to strangle Marco's lyrical outpourings and skewers his chopped head on a pike (p. 26). Chappell's ambitious deployment of pagan witches, sorcerers, astrologers, and ogres adds a pagan dimension to his poetry.19 Fretting about Marco's disappearance, Queen Frynna may pray to a Christian God for his safety, but then conjures a delightful litany of pagan misfortunes that may have befallen him:

The witches of Karok may hold him thrall,
Deluded by phantoms of gorgeous hot
Desire; or the sorcerer tribe of Moma in their haunted
Woodlands bind him in unbreakable spell.
Or he is prisoner
Of the giant Ghuras and his companion bear.

(p. 19)

On the other hand, episodes occur in Chappell's poetry which project undisputable Christian allusions. Marco playing his harp and hymn, angelic symbols of redemption, is beheaded at the whim of a jealous tyrant. John the Baptist also traveled to pagan provinces with a decree for salvation, and his head garnished Salome's platter. Christ rose from the mangled flesh of a mortal man to fulfill divine intentions which Caesar's centurions were helpless to deter. King Tzingal tries with scant success to physically extract the poet Marco from the man Marco, but destroying the half-corpse does not stifle his songs:

He planned to kill the poet but not the man.
And now it seems the poet may persist
Though all his sweet humanity is gone.

(p. 26)

Just as Jesus Christ, the mortal man before his resurrection, endured his suffering in five celebrated mysteries of sorrow, Marco too has “five songs of penitent devotion” (p. 15). Marco, like Jesus Christ, is crucified by his enemies (he is now a martyr and saint), but his ethereal words outlive Tzingal (p. 31). Castle Tzingal celebrates, through the indomitable Marco (much like the Christian psalmist David does), the celestial and eternal beauty of the harp and lyric.

Chappell predicates Marco's discharge from his pagan blood-contract upon its completion at Tzingal which, in effect, symbolizes a Christian purgatory. Shakespeare's vivid allusion to purgatory when Hamlet's spirit describes his punishment in fires parallels Marco's fiery struggles at Tzingal: “Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purged away.”20 In Tzingal's Christian code, Marco must secure his freedom from Tzingal (his purgatory) to fuse the double death of his mortal body and immortal soul to assure his eternal peace. While Marco's soul laments the awesome task he confronts, Marco's humanity is entombed in King Tzingal's wicked arsenal:

So I live on, if live I do,
To wrinkle and pull tense the minds of those
Who have created me what I am now
Until a thorough justice arise.

(p. 31)

Shakespeare formalized the idea of pagan and Christian participation in revenge and who was responsible for it, man or god.21 One example that has been cited is the apparition who appears before the Earl of Richmond in The Tragedy of Richard the Third. Interestingly, this specter is not the customary denizen of the underworld, but the benign Ghost of Buckingham praying before the decisive battle: “God and good angels fight on Richmond's side.”22 On the other hand, Revenge in Tragedy makes significant mention of a pagan hell destined for Don Andrea (and likewise Marco) for plotting his own justice: “This hand shall hale them down to deepest hell, / Where none for furies, bugs, and tortures dwell” (iv.v. 26-27).

Chappell, also like the Elizabethan playwrights, has the dramatic issue of revenge pivot on its Christian and non-Christian axis to enhance our interest. For instance, the highly ambiguous Marco has no alternative but to accept finishing the revenge imposed by his pagan benefactors, even at the risk of perpetual damnation by the Christian God:

Even past my death
The story I am compelled
To tell, and must sing on till it is told
In one unstopping suprahuman breath?

(pp. 15-16)

Marco castigates King Tzingal for his illicit pandering in the private designs of the Christian God and for fomenting Marco's pagan blood-revenge:

Why have they killed the poet but preserved
His unanswerable duty to sing?
Why have they sheared the soul from the man?
No crime against humanity or God has yet deserved
Such unimagined punishment, no black sin
Received such frozen penalty,
Until a mad king dabbled in chemistry.

(pp. 30-31)

Other striking parallels and influences in the ethical confusion established in Chappell's book and in Elizabethan revenge drama may be cited. The pagan gods' revenge exacted through Marco's wrathful doings is congruent to an Old Testament version of plague or pestilence summoned by an enraged Christian God. The “half-mad” Queen Frynna is capable of castigating King Tzingal as “an iron and fruitless man” and as “Mahomet,” the infidel and foe of Christianity that Kyd also evokes by name (p. 5) (iv.iv. 12). In her waning days, however, a time when “All this world hates the good,” she refuses the Christian consolation of the priest (p. 6). She also eloquently defends her non-Christian act of suicide to escape Tzingal and to enter heaven to be with the departed Marco (pp. 32-33). Likewise, Queen Frynna's counterpart in Kyd's play, Bel-Imperia, is cast as the captured Christian girl Perseda in Hieronimo's death play (which is nested in Kyd's main drama). She is finally goaded to kill her pagan captor Soliman, Sultan of Turkey, ironically played by the evil Balthazar (iv.iv. 65-66).

Marco, the “severed head [which] still sings,” is a curious and enigmatic, yet beguiling and memorable, hobgoblin that Chappell conjures in the Tzingal cycle, particularly alluring when discussed in moral terms (p. 26). For the lack of a better analogy, Marco begets an Elizabethan-inspired oracle who forecasts apocalypse to the mortal world. Using Eleanor Prosser's analysis of Elizabethan ghosts, it can be debated whether Marco represents an evil, pagan ghost or a heavenly messenger. His grief is pathological and obsessive, which counts for “Satan's most potent weapon”; he materializes in a lonely and ruined castle to enact the pagan revenge rites; and his lyrics are heard at the dead midnight hour.23

On the other hand, if held to Eleanor Prosser's Christian standards, Marco exhibits heavenly patience and restraint; his presence at Tzingal inspires “a certain awe and reverential fear”; and his beautiful lyrics are comparably “soft, agreeable, musical, sweetly-sounding, consolatory, and soothing.”24 Furthermore, Marco follows popular Elizabethan belief, according to Prosser, that the Christian ghosts might return to earth “to make restitutions” and “to discharge obligations.”25 Marco also “speaks humbly,” as “a penitent spirit” who is “to warn of impending calamity” to those noble and good at Tzingal.26 On the whole, then, Marco is depicted as a Christian ghost who with some pagan incongruities prosecutes the spiritual revenge.

Finally, in posting the noble, grand moral to his book, Chappell, like a true Elizabethan courtier, embraces the tenacious spirit of poetry and the fine arts through Marco which, unlike the burning salamander daunted by King Tzingal, survives even in the darkest of ages. What lends better dramatic credence to Chappell's thesis that art endures than the horrid image of Marco's severed head swaying over a vat of acid, singing as an Elizabethan nightingale?

The ballad that so distressed all sleep the other night
Proceeded from a grotesque undercellar where,
Suspended in fluids beside a gurgling retort,
The harpist's comely head sang all the hour.

(p. 26)

In relating Fredson T. Bowers' Kydian formula which defines Elizabethan revenge drama to Chappell's book, the first characteristic concerns the act of revenge itself for an individual or a struck-down relative. Bowers formed what he called the “aristocratic ethic,” which simply stated that those persons with base injuries may pursue their own settlement, especially in cases of cold-blooded murder, where the existing law fails to bring the guilty to trial. He writes, “There would be few Elizabethans who would condemn the son's blood-revenge on a treacherous murderer whom the law could not apprehend for the lack of proper legal evidence.”27 The form of revenge sought by the offended royal families (those of Marco and his uncle King Reynal) in Tzingal, therefore, delineates a fair propriety upheld by Elizabethan tradition and historical precedent. Marco gradually reveals the chapters of his murder which naturally pique our outrage, moxie, and sympathy. King Tzingal, of course, ensconced in his stony citadel, will live unchastised for his transgressions; that notable fact alone grossly violates Elizabethan moral sensibilities as well as modern jurisprudence.

From the moment of his revenge vow (rendered by the gods and therefore made sacred), Marco stands, according to Bowers' study of 16th-century English law, in the highest of Elizabethan moral ethics.28 Certainly, as Bowers states of the Elizabethan allied with Don Andrea, Marco captures our hearts and support since his undertaking validates our creed of what is genuinely fair and honest. Furthermore, appealing to Bowers' aristocratic ethics where temporal law enforcement becomes impotent, contrary, and even absent as that at Tzingal, Marco's revenge resembles the customary duels and brawls which squared personal disputes in Elizabethan England.29 The punitive damages of Tzingal's death for Marco's homicide also seem fair, keeping in mind that today's law pronounces the death penalty for first-degree, premeditated murder.

The brutal and senseless deaths of Kyd's Andrea and Chappell's Marco are perpetrated in similar fashion as cowardly and unfair acts that are morally reprehensible to the reader. Andrea, according to Horatio, is vastly outnumbered in battle and thusly slaughtered which violates any accepted code of fairness and honor in civilized warfare (i.iv. 21-6). Likewise, Marco the gentle bard is slain by King Tzingal and his paid assassins which enrages heavenly justice (pp. 18-19). Neither victims receive a Christian funeral; their vexed spirits seek to redress the wrongs of their executioners; and the reader is in sympathy with their missions.

Marco's distressed lyrics (his death monologues within the poems are set off in italics) are haunting reverberations in the castle, echoing a celestial message of doom (acoustics which R. T. Smith has described as “liquid weaving”) and interspersed into the other characters' psyches.30 Chappell channels Marco's grief, aggravated by his savage death and subsequent revenge, through his dirges as a subliminal indictment against his executioners within the impregnable Tzingal. Suspense mounts as the martially untried, but spiritually anointed, apparition of Marco knocks at the larger-than-life castle to initiate his vengeful coup. Lacking a knight's full armor and sterling lance, Marco unleashes the power and persuasion of his silver tongue which in his former life enthralled his admirers and now appalls Castle Tzingal:

Not even the frore and darkened walls of Tzingal can keep in
Music that silvers the wind with shadow.
I am a hidden singer without a throat!

(p. 15)

Not every Tzingal citizen shall perish in the revenge chronicle; a handful of good ones (for mankind cannot be all evil) are thankfully spared. The unforgiving brimstone Chappell rains upon the marked castle is morally selective in its targets, authorizing the reader to participate in the triumphant march of the poet Marco and his faithful few (namely, Queen Frynna and Petrus, King Reynal's second emissary). When Queen Frynna first awakens startled upon detecting Marco's pleas, she dreams of her bed canopy as an incubus (p. 18). Then she is comforted by Marco's velvet voice (as is the reader) about the future. Petrus detects Marco's lyrics and continues to write dispatches to King Reynal, documenting Tzingal's last days (pp. 13-14, 24, 38). In contrast, King Tzingal and his henchmen, infatuated with their war pageants, remain arrogantly aloof to Marco. The Astrologer is a warmonger and cynically rejects any art form, while the rabid King Tzingal does not taste the extent of Marco's wrath until burning to death at the stake in his own dungeon (pp. 11-12, 44-45).

The second attribute Bowers proposes in his Kydian analysis is the madness or evolving madness of key personalities in the revenge drama. Chappell conforms to this component of the Elizabethan revenge motif by painting a despicable, larger-than-life antagonist (comparable in dramatic stature to Hamlet or Macbeth) in King Tzingal, who dominates and terrorizes, both physically and psychologically. Chappell attributes the sovereign's lunacy to his being “embittered” (p. 4) and “mad” (pp. 19, 31, 34, 44). Just as Bowers justifies Bel-Imperia and Hieronimo's insanity as an essential literary technique to advance Kyd's drama, Chappell initiates tension by profiling King Tzingal as a psychotic fiend.31 Tzingal's deepening depravity is experienced from the pain of his trampled subjects and his cruelty toward all who oppose his ignominious will. No one escapes or enters his iron-fisted grip over the castle and, like Marco, everyone is doomed to a horrible death. As King Tzingal crows in his single and flat-sided speech, he takes perverse and sadistic glee in torturing and breaking his unfortunate victims (who at least eight times he demeans as his “toads”):

And never ever fearful to be said No;
That is the nayer's certain warrant to be ruined
To thumbscrew or the smashing of his eyes.
Thus shall I teach them fair
Obedience, these quashy toads.

(p. 34)

Any hopes for free-thinking, enlightened expression or any genuine vision of art, those intangible qualities (imported by Marco) imperative to better and enrich the human condition, are nonexistent in Tzingal's miasma of madness and hate.

Tweak (the “Homunculus”), the mad king's proudest creation via alchemy, represents the imperfect alloy of cast metals, the same as the mortal failure to create the perfect metal of gold. Chappell is attracted to alchemy which is the product of man's blind greed and mad obsession to attain perfection. The much sought-after miracles of alchemy—healing bodies, winning wars, and vanquishing enemies—are confirmed in Tzingal as the false and hollow. Chappell (like Elizabethans) satirizes Tzingal's misplaced and unswerving faith in the black arts to expand his royal dominion. Literary interest through the ages in alchemy and the mad pursuit of power by kings is derived from Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, which Robert Reed has called “the most masterful satire on blind credulity ever written by an English playwright.”32

At first, Marco too is awed by alchemy's professed powers and approaches Maestro Astrologer for black magic as armor against Tzingal (p. 11). With honest intelligence, Marco exposes its false claims, then rejects its role to serve any one demigod. King Tzingal vainly experiments to refine his alchemical metals so as to supplement his war coffers with gold ingots. Chappell lampoons Tzingal's perverse pleasure for accumulating wealth by revealing to the reader that the mother lode unknown to Tzingal runs beneath his castle (p. 2).

Tweak is the Elizabethan courtier who ferrets out state secrets and instigates court intrigue (as signified by the repeated reference to “spy”) (p. 2). Corruption taints Tweak, manufactured in mad Tzingal's own wicked image. By baring his Judas Iscariot treachery, Tweak sells his loyalty to the highest bidder.

I was conceived with purpose, drawn up to plan,
And have a surer measure than a man.
It's s (sic) rarified temptation
Could smudge my honesty,
And as for what you offer …

(p. 3)

Tweak, in Tzingal's prologue and near the book's end, announces that he has been bribed by King Reynal's camp, the lightning rod that charges Tzingal's swift undoing (pp. 1-2, 44-45). Tweak attributes his quick, slippery betrayal to the volatile, vain tempers cast by Tzingal in his impure alloy.

Astrologer laid perhaps too much quicksilver
In my genesis.
I'm mercurial, a rider of swift whimsies,
Changeable as cloud, but always,
Of course, a constant Tweak-lover.

(p. 25)

The third feature of the Kydian model Bowers discusses concerns the plot which is required to bristle with murder and mayhem. In Tragedy alone, Bowers inventories ten violent deaths, eight of which are performed on the stage while Chappell concocts the murders of Marco and King Tzingal and the suicides of Queen Frynna and the Admiral.33 As in Kyd's made-up world of murderers, thieves, and rogues, a motley lot also infests Tzingal: the perverted page Pollio, the gay Admiral, the forlorn Queen Frynna, and the daunting King Tzingal. The medieval castle itself rests on the remote frontier of a perishingly cold wasteland in what has to be the most desolate outpost on earth (p. 4, 7). The physical descriptions of Castle Tzingal (pp. 7, 13, 15, 30), an imposing stone citadel, resemble the 12th-century Danish castle, Kornborg, the setting for Hamlet, and whose largely intact ruins can still be viewed. Chappell's selection of character and setting depicts the full and fascinating portrait of a demigod's violent and bloody psyche. Both features also guarantee the feudal misery, human isolation, and, of course, the warlike revenge which are integral components to what transpire in Tzingal.

Bowers' fourth axiom regarding the revenge tragedy's dramatic impetus contends that the revenger must hesitate before acting. Don Andrea cannot immediately invoke the revenge he craves for his murder but must wait as events unwind on the mundane stage. Hieronimo does not rush to slay his son's murderers but, hindered by his madness, devises an elaborate play within a play to precipitate Balthazar's death (iv.iv. 11-67). Indeed, for any conflict to arise in Tzingal, Marco must wait to proceed. His procrastination lends the story a biting impatience as he reconstructs what happened to him and formulates his plan to vanquish a powerful foe.

Some of Marco's hesitation stems from his initially being a reluctant avenger. One who once sang of an idyllic world lush with beauty, love, and that which remains forever green, Marco now must contemplate his new assignment and radical character shift as a grotesque gladiator.

Without flesh or bone or sense or nerve,
I am the disturber of the guilty castle.
The melancholy notes I sing I know not how,
And yet the song goes out.

(p. 30)

Marco as a “monster” now suing for his revenge has been transformed into an agent of terror and death, personifying the reincarnation of Francis Bacon's much studied Elizabethan treatise on vengeance, which begins, “Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man's nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out …”34 Marco is not alone in his dismay of donning his wild streak to seek revenge.

It is uncertain whether Elizabethan moralists were ever in total agreement in their overlooking any form of revenge by any available device. According to Eleanor Prosser, Elizabethans denounced revenge as “illegal, blasphemous, immoral, irrational, unnatural, unhealthy—not to mention unsafe. Moreover, not only did revenge violate religion, law, morality, and common sense, it was also thoroughly un-English.”35 Therefore, Elizabethans would have identified Marco, formerly the “Arcady” poet (p. 16) from perhaps England, as a foreigner, an Italian “monster” in the cast of Machiavelli, Caesar Borgia, or de Medici. What is clear is that Chappell wants to impress upon us that the ambivalent Marco is a cautious and reluctant avenger. He also is counseled in patience like Kyd's Don Andrea character who must allow the revenge to unfold over four separates acts in the play.

Bowers' fifth point speaks of the antagonist who is Machiavellian by nature, a ruthless despot possessing no moral constraints in accumulating political power. King Tzingal, assigned absolute power through intense light, heat, and fire images, dominates the lives of the other characters in the castle. Pyrotechnic imagery and its proctor then abound in the poems, most graphically touting the king as “the bellows-aggravated flame that yet / Shall wither us all” (p. 27). He has appointed himself “the burning salamander,” believed in alchemical lore to originate in the furnace and capable of defying its flames (p. 34). Fire and heat function as the king's instruments of terror and control over his minions and, barred in the main tower, he conceals a fiery philosopher's stone which he can unleash at will:

I count the keys of donjon, keep, and hold
And will unlock the secret of fire
The stiletto moment is verge-nigh now.

(p. 35)

Here in the inner sanctum, the king's quarters, is also garrisoned the final, diabolic secret of the castle. Perhaps in league with Lucifer (the favorite demonic figure of Elizabethan writers), King Tzingal has discovered the horrible instrument of war, fire, to fulfill the royal (and Satanic) lust for more violence (pp. 34-35, 44-45). Queen Frynna speaks of the dire consequences facing those like King Tzingal who dare to meddle in the designs of the Christian God with almost Shakespearean lyricism:

We know little of the heaven's decrees
Except their mercy. Our certainties
Must end there, lest we presume
To make our mortal fear that God who makes our doom.

(p. 37)

In considering Bowers' sixth and final characteristic, the culmination of revenge in Chappell's book must be “accomplished terribly, fittingly, with irony and deceit.”36 This requirement is fulfilled through the apocalypse of Tzingal. Petrus writes King Reynal that King Tzingal's “dying must be hard and dread” (p. 38). As Marco's songs prophesy, events do careen at Tzingal to the climactic scene where the king is consumed by the fiery holocaust set by the court mole Tweak, both of which the king formerly boasted to own and order:

And flame the curtain, and now the tapestry
That celebrates your coronation we see flare
Like the glory of holy martyrs.

(p. 45)

Befitting a Satanic effigy, King Tzingal is imprisoned in an inferno which represents the modest Marco's crowning achievement. Hieronimo in Kyd's tragedy foretells the characters' violent demise in the staged play when he comments, “Now shall I see the fall of Babylon” (iv.i. 195).37 Furthermore, the tragic fate of Tzingal ends much as Kyd's final curtain in The Spanish Tragedy where triumphant Don Andrea curses his assassins twisting forever in Dantesque fire:

Let him be dragg'd through boiling Acheron,
And there live, dying still in endless flames,
Blaspheming gods and all their holy names.

(iv.v. 42-44)

To complete our discussion on the themes of revenge and death, it is useful to compare other ways in which Chappell relates his poetry to the Elizabethan revenge tragedy. Roger Stilling, writing of the Elizabethan stage, defines a love-death motif which he believes lies at the very heart of its passion and conflict. His thesis is demonstrated through man and woman and the love or sexuality which bind the two together.38 The love of Bel-Imperia for her paramours Don Andrea (i.i. 10; ii.i. 47; iii.x. 54-55; iii.xiv. 111-12) and Horatio (ii. 1. 85; ii.ii. 32-52) results in the jealous Prince Balthazar's murdering them. Bel-Imperia then allies herself with Hieronimo, Horatio's grief-stricken father, to complete the bloody vengeance by slaying Balthazar.

Chappell's plot borrows somewhat from Kyd's sequence of events by first Marco and Queen Frynna becoming lovers, which enrages King Tzingal to execute Marco. The spiritual Marco, like Andrea and Horatio, then seeks revenge through engineering Tzingal's final downfall with the unwitting aid of Queen Frynna before her suicide. Indeed, Philip Edwards' insight that Kyd's play “drives forward on its twin pistons of love and revenge” indicates the similar emotional forces which motivate the main action in Chappell's poems.39

Stilling also maintains that the love theme plays an integral role in Elizabethan drama such as The Spanish Tragedy which is also ostensibly about hate. “It is only love which makes hatred meaningful, whether it is set in opposition to hatred or shown in the process of becoming hatred” he writes of Bel-Imperia and Hieronimo plotting against Balthazar.40 Chappell makes compelling use of King Tzingal's venomous hatred, especially when it is juxtaposed against Marco and Queen Frynna's profound affection. Their intimacy, whether it is lust or love, battles the ravages of hate and sometimes death within the stone walls of Tzingal, and this pitting of basic human passions breeds the strife which renders Chappell's book, like Kyd's play, of contemporary interest.

Ironically, it is through violent death that Marco and Queen Frynna at last escape the castle's loveless rancor and inevitably meet in the hereafter. The process of death provides the only way that human love can survive. Kyd's Bel-Imperia also commits suicide (like Queen Frynna) to evade palatial ire and to join her dead lovers. Ironically, the mortal's world, as devised by Kyd and, in turn, adapted over four centuries later by Chappell, never nurtures any meaningful human compassion or love.

Furthermore, as Stilling contends of The Spanish Tragedy (and extending the same analogy to Castle Tzingal), observing the morbid rapture of revenge while forgoing its complement, the love fugue, “is to lose an influential source of richness in the play.”41 Chappell's revenge motif uses the royal blood feud, and the consequential turmoil, so often prevalent in Shakespearean tragedy, and the potent romance between Marco and Queen Frynna (like Bel-Imperia and Horatio's love) earns the reader's complete sympathy. Marco is King Reynal's loved nephew killed by his mad and bastard uncle King Tzingal (the illegitimacy suggests evil) who afterwards maps his military march on Reynal's kingdom (pp. 13, 38).

Queen Frynna, like Marco, is a foreigner at Tzingal and emotionally crumbles in her captivity (pp. 4-5) which echoes Bel-Imperia's mental deterioration while imprisoned in Portugal (iii.ix. 1-14). Queen Frynna's genteel suicide (pp. 42-43) permits her to escape the horrible hate and death at Tzingal and reunite with her lover Marco in the same manner Bel-Imperia's self-death (iv.iv. 67) releases her from imprisonment to join Horatio and Andrea in the spiritual realm. Finally, any hope for mortal love at Tzingal dies with Queen Frynna; the destruction of Tzingal is ready to commence at the climatic, fiery conclusion to Chappell's saga.

In conclusion, Fred Chappell in Castle Tzingal revives the previously-thought archaic Elizabethan revenge tragedy to support to his own original poetic designs. At the same time, his poetic themes and strategy also conform to the general outline of Fredson T. Bowers' “Kydian formula.” The human conflicts of death, revenge, and finally love, seething at the emotional core of the Elizabethan revenge tragedy also identify the fundamental conflicts experienced in Tzingal.

Castle Tzingal constitutes an important juncture in Chappell's literary corpus where he is ever willing to risk experimentation in verse forms. More recent volumes of poetry such as the elliptical, standout verse in Source (1985) and the distinctive classical personas in First and Last Words (1989) illustrate his growing and widening artistic berth. Finally, Castle Tzingal intrigues the Elizabethan and modern mind; it's an elaborately chilling, sobering saga which delves deep into dynamics of human passion and revenge, then prophesies its naked resolution.


  1. See the following reviews: Mark Jarman in Hudson Review refers to Castle Tzingal as “a toy for Chappell” as well as “a murder mystery in poems.” Publishers Weekly refers to it as a “Renaissance Allegory.” Michael Bugeja in Georgia Review refers to it as “offbeat” and “the revenge play—so popular in Shakespeare's day that theater owners had to trot out The Spanish Tragedy when a production flopped—has been revived, at least in spirit.” R. T. Smith in Southern Humanities Review refers to it as “one more glimpse of the angel [Chappell] of the odd.”

  2. Fred Chappell. Castle Tzingal (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1984) 15. All subsequent references (given by page number) will be indicated parenthetically in the text.

  3. Fredson T. Bowers. Elizabethan Stage Tragedy, 1587-1642 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1940): 71-73.

  4. Bugeja, 896-97.

  5. Bugeja, 896-97.

  6. Bowers, 65.

  7. Philip Edwards establishes the necessity of the role of spiritual authorities seeking revenge in Kyd's play for the development of drama. He writes “men lust for retribution, and the gods, assenting to this idea of satisfaction as only justice, can and will grant it.” The Spanish Tragedy. Ed. Philip Edwards. Revel Plays (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1959) lii. All subsequent references will be indicated parenthetically in the text.

  8. Bowers makes significant mention that the Ghost of Andrea's revenge (immortal) “has no real connection with the play” and Hieronimo's revenge (mortal) is “entirely unconnected” with that of Don Andrea (71, 74). However, Edwards insists that “Hieronimo's efforts to avenge his dead son are the means by which the gods avenge Andrea.” (lv)

  9. Bowers, in segregating the revenge of Don Andrea (immortal) and Hieronimo (mortal) as the drama's chief interests, suggests much the same idea. He maintains that “the play actually disregards the revenge for Andrea and settles down to dramatize a revenge among men for a crime already seen and appreciated by the audience, no longer a revenge for an unreasonable ghost” (68).

  10. Edwards, li-lii, lv, lvi.

  11. Edwards, li.

  12. Bowers, 16-17.

  13. Bowers describes Hieronimo's great indecision whether to await Heaven's slow revenge to occur (78). Edwards writes, “The mythology chosen to represent the governance of the world is rather muddled in The Spanish Tragedy” (lvi).

  14. Robert Reed, The Occult on the Tudor and Stuart Stage. (Boston: Christopher Publishing House, 1965) 28.

  15. Northrop Frye. Fools of Tudor Studies in Shakespeare Tragedy. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967) 81.

  16. Eleanor Prosser also cites Deuteronomy 32:35 and Hebrews 10:30 as further biblical sources reserving the right of revenge for the Christian God (6).

  17. Edwards, lix.

  18. Eleanor Prosser. Hamlet and Revenge Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1967) 23, 32.

  19. Robert Reed in his fine study of the pagan identities in Elizabethan literature provides a similar catalog as Chappell lists in his poems (15).

  20. Hamlet, i.v. 12-13 as rpt. in Reed.

  21. Reed, 28.

  22. The Tragedy of Richard the Third, v.ii. 176 as rpt. in Reed.

  23. Prosser, 108-11.

  24. Prosser, 113-16.

  25. Prosser, 115.

  26. Prosser, 115-16.

  27. Bowers, 40.

  28. Bowers, 77. Also, see Prosser for discussion of forms of Elizabethan revenge made “sacred” by gods, particularly in the case of Kyd's character Hieronimo (45-52).

  29. Bowers, 33-40.

  30. Smith, 390.

  31. Bowers, 72.

  32. Reed, 138.

  33. Bowers, 72.

  34. The Works of Francis Bacon. Ed. James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath, new ed. (London, 1890) vi, 384-85 quoted in Eleanor Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1967) 20.

  35. Prosser, 10.

  36. Bowers, 72.

  37. The razing of the wicked city of Babylon by the Christian God parallels the annihilation of Tzingal by Marco and the revenging heavens. See Isaiah 13, Jeremiah 51, and Revelation 18 for biblical references to the destruction of Babylon.

  38. Roger Stilling. Love and Death in Renaissance Tragedy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1976) 3.

  39. Edwards, liv.

  40. Stilling, 40.

  41. Stilling, 27.

Works Cited

The Alchemist. Ed. C. H. Herford and Percy Simpson. London: Oxford, 1938.

Benfey, Christopher. “A Poet's Sampler: Fred Chappell.” Boston Review. 11 (February 1986) 11.

Bowers, Fredson T. Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, 1587-1642. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1940.

Bugeja, Michael J. Rev. of Castle Tzingal.Georgia Review. 34 (Winter 1985) 896-899.

Chappell, Fred. Castle Tzingal. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1984.

———. Source. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1985.

———. First and Last Words. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989.

———. The Fred Chappell Reader. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.

Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. David G. Marowski. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986.

Frye, Northrop. Fools of Tudor Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967.

Jarman, Mark. Rev. of Castle Tzingal.Hudson Review. 38 (Summer 1985) 331-332.

Hamlet. Ed. John Dover Wilson. Boston: Cambridge UP, 1954.

Kliatt Young Adult Paperback Book Guide. 19 (Spring 1985) 31.

Mason, Julian. Southern Writers: A Biographical Dictionary. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1979.

A Modern Southern Reader. Ed. Ben Forkner and Patrick Samway. Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers, 1986.

Kyd, Thomas. The Spanish Tragedy. Ed. Philip Edwards. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1959.

———. The Spanish Tragedy. Ed. J. R. Mulryne. London: W. W. Norton, 1983.

Prosser, Elizabeth. Hamlet and Revenge. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1967.

Publisher's Weekly. Rev. of Castle Tzingal. November 9, 1984, 63.

Reed, Robert. The Occult on the Tudor and Stuart Stage. Boston: Christopher Publishing House, 1965.

Smith, R. T. Rev. of Castle Tzingal.Southern Humanities Review. 19 (Fall 1985) 390-391.

Stilling, Roger. Love and Death in Renaissance Tragedy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1976.

The Tragedy of Richard the Third. Ed. Jack R. Crawford. New Haven: Yale UP, 1965.

The Works of Francis Bacon. Ed. James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Health, new ed. (London, 1890).

Hilbert Campbell (essay date spring 1993)

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SOURCE: Campbell, Hilbert. “Fred Chappell's Urn of Memory: I Am One of You Forever.Southern Literary Journal 25, no. 2 (spring 1993): 103-11.

[In the following essay, Campbell assesses the various structural attributes in I Am One of You Forever, noting the role that memory and childhood play in the novel.]

Ah happy happy boughs! That cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
Forever piping songs forever new.

—Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

Fred Chappell's 1985 novel I Am One of You Forever should certainly come in the future to be acknowledged as a classic of American literature. For this is a book by a master storyteller and humorist, absolutely in control of his language and of the nuances of charged moments and telling gestures. But it is likewise a magical book, suggestive of the miraculous, the mysterious, and the transcendent in our lives and in our world. Shining through this entertaining story of family farm life in the early 1940s, of zany visiting relatives, of tall tales and practical jokes, is a persistent aura of rich suggestiveness of the transformations and transfigurations that characterize our waking and sleeping hours, our lives and deaths. Something like a kaleidoscope or a many-faceted gem, the book seems to undergo its own transformations in meaning or tone as it is approached from slightly different angles. Ultimately, Chappell is exploring here the very nature of that most puzzling of transformations, the alchemy by which the human imagination turns life into art.

The title I Am One of You Forever is not only an affirmation but also the answer to an implied question, the urgency of which is underlined by the last sentence of the novel, in which the spectral figure of the dead foster brother, Johnson Gibbs, demands of the narrator Jess to know, “Well, Jess, are you one of us or not?” Chappell here summons up all the powers of his creative imagination to grapple once more with one of the preoccupations of his work, the problem of recapturing—or even knowing—one's past in some way that is meaningful to the present, of asserting that we are not eternally strangers to that which may have gone before.

Chappell's tribute to his Appalachian boyhood is developed not only by telling some marvelous stories about it but also by simultaneously exploring the possibility and nature of storytelling itself, the magical process by which the imagination can transform life and memory to the timeless realm of art. Reminiscent of Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn,I Am One of You Forever is Chappell's urn of cherished memories, of recollections of the “bright happy days” that in art will never fade or pass away, the only realm in which it is possible to be “One of You Forever.”

The thirteen stories in I Am One of You Forever, loosely arranged as a novel, are told by Jess, a boy of nine to twelve years old in the early 1940s, as filtered through the memories of an adult narrator. Jess relates these stories of his boyhood family vividly, affectionately, and humorously. There is Joe Robert, the fun-loving and practical-joking father; Johnson Gibbs, the beloved “adopted” older brother; the sterner and more practical yet respected and admired grandmother; and the mother, a paler presence in Jess's narrations but nevertheless in some subtle way the center who lovingly and tolerantly holds the family structure together. About half the book is devoted to accounts of the various “wandering aunts and uncles” who “showed up to break the monotony of a mountain farm life” (119). A collection of eccentrics and black sheep, they both demonstrate the essential tolerance of the mountain family for its crazies and become a source of endless fascination to Jess, for whom they assume legendary proportions and serve as the main stimuli for his developing curiosity about various adult subjects, including death, sex, and the imagined excitement of the outside world. It is largely in the context of family rather than community that Jess develops his own identity, but it is both an extended family (with grandmother, uncles and aunts) and a family that can accommodate those who are not blood kin, such as Johnson Gibbs.

Uncle Luden, the wastrel and n'er-do-well, a drinker and womanizer of heroic proportions just back from California, seems to Jess to embody not just the Prodigal Son but likewise Santa Claus, Gene Autry, the Fourth of July, and indeed all of the splendor, wickedness, and forbidden knowledge that exist outside his isolated and protected childhood existence. The “famous,” “fabled,” and “legendary” beard of Uncle Gurton absorbs Jess's curiosity and imagination so completely that he eventually sees in its billowing vastness “a birchbark canoe with two painted Cherokee Indians,” a mermaid, and even “a damn big white whale” (59). Uncle Runkin, physically nondescript but truly of monumental proportions in the extent to which he spends his life brooding upon and preparing for its end, becomes the stimulus for Jess's own first serious—and highly imaginative and visionary—speculations about death. Through the visit of his grandmother's cousin, Aunt Samantha Barefoot, Jess learns more about his grandmother than he has ever known before and also is struck for the first time with a realization of time and history when he has a “sudden vision of my family lined up in a single file that stretched backward in time to Noah” (170).

The book consists of ten stories numbered in sequence, with three other italicized sections placed at the beginning, exact middle, and end. My purpose in what follows is to analyze briefly some of the methods and structures by which Chappell accomplishes his ends in I Am One of You Forever: first, by calling attention to some different levels of “magic” with which he infuses his narrative; secondly, by identifying some subtle structuring devices that he had used also, in more obvious ways, in his earlier book of poems, Midquest (1981); then, by speculating briefly on the nature and function of the three “framing” italicized sections of the book, necessary to understanding the scope of his vision; and, finally, by returning, as one must, to the question “Are you one of us or not?

The magic of I Am One of You Forever is at least three-fold. First, the world of the child's receptive imagination is one of an easy and comfortable coexistence of the real and the fantastic, the natural and the supernatural, the ordinary and the legendary—a world perceived as constantly undergoing fascinating transformations and transfigurations. Uncle Gurton's beard transforms itself into a threatening upheaval of all the elements. Nature can suddenly be transformed into something utterly foreign and overwhelming, as in the summer storm of “The Change of Heart,” which breeds “storm angels,” lifts Jess, his father, and Johnson Gibbs “thrashing in midair,” and makes of them momentarily “men transfigured” (72). The World War is a threatening, transforming element, creating in Jess's formerly carefree mind a fear “that not even the steadfast mountains themselves were safe and unmoving, that the foundations of the earth were shaken and the connections between the stars become frail as cobweb” (92). Time itself is a mysterious force that transforms everything.

A second kind of magic is that by which the past is transformed in memory. The past does not exist except in memory, where it not only fades with time but likewise undergoes a constant transformation because of later experience, emotion, and the persistent reshaping of the past in which we engage in order to make sense of the present. But if the past does not exist, cannot be recaptured, and is only faultily or selectively remembered, it does nevertheless intrude itself insistently upon our conscious and unconscious beings and provides whatever material we have for the shaping, imagining, conjuring, dreaming, and creating that we do in the attempt to impose some order or meaning on our present existence. Chappell's adherence to the notion that the past, if recaptured at all, must be imagined, created, or even dreamed is even more plainly evident in his most recent novel, Brighten the Corner Where You Are (1989), in which Jess, again the narrator, is apparently at home in bed asleep and dreaming all day while his father, Joe Robert, goes through the adventures that he is narrating.

It is a similarly imagined world that Chappell is exploring in I Am One of You Forever, a world of “The Good Time,” a dream of midsummer in which the “bright happy days darted past us like minnows,” a time when “it seems we were laughing and joking from one hour to the next” (21). As remembered, the father Joe Robert and the young man Johnson Gibbs become playmates and co-conspirators of the ten-year-old Jess in subverting the discipline, authority, and practicality of the family matriarch, the grandmother. The several eccentric uncles and one aunt who visit to break the monotony of farm life take on in memory an even more exaggerated dimension of the legendary stature by which they impressed themselves on the imagination of the boy.

The ultimate magic, however, is the transformation of life to art, the ability of the human imagination to shape the raw materials of a shifting, always-disappearing, and time-bound existence to the realm of the permanent and the unchanging. Chappell explores this phenomenon primarily in “The Storytellers.” Uncle Zeno, the consummate storyteller, hardly seems present at all except as a voice. Stories seem to pass through him “like the orange glow through an oil-lamp chimney” (103); he “lived in a different but contiguous sphere that touched our world only by means of a sort of metaphysical courtesy” (102-103). Like Homer before him, he is leaving “no trace in the world” (107). Unlike the ineffective storytellers of the novel, like the father and Johnson Gibbs, he calls absolutely no attention to himself, answers no questions, nor indeed leaves any room for any. In a humorous, fanciful way, Chappell has Jess conclude that

Uncle Zeno's stories so thoroughly absorbed the characters he spoke of that they took leave of the everyday world and just went off to inhabit his narratives. … Homer and Uncle Zeno did not merely describe the world, they used it up.


Jess even naively assumes that his father may fade away before his very eyes because Uncle Zeno has begun a story with Joe Robert as the main character. But of course Jess is right; stories do “use up” reality, absorb it, replace it. They are what remain.

Chappell provides another example of “art in the making” in the story of the old man who inhabits the fishing shack in “The Wish.” He has lost everything and is now barely existing in a sort of limbo at the outer edges of the living world. As he relates to Jess and Joe Robert the story of incredible sorrow, loss, and betrayal that have been his life,

He spoke all this in a dreamy nostalgic voice warm with fondness, as if he had been recounting the biography of a close friend. It seemed that the old man liked the shape his life had made in his mind; it was like an antique statue of a goddess, beautiful in its ruined lineaments.


The “shape his life had made in his mind” is the transformation wrought by the creative imagination; it has already replaced whatever “reality” it is based on.

I Am One of You Forever shares some thematic, tonal, and structural similarities with Chappell's earlier volume of poems, Midquest. Both include reminiscences of a rural Appalachian boyhood by a middle-aged man, and parts of each work share a humorous, “tall tale” quality, with the same free-wheeling mix of reality and fantasy. There are likewise some interesting parallels in form between the two works, and to note the subtle presence in the novel of some structuring devices that had been employed in much more obvious ways in Midquest can aid in understanding the shape and purpose of I Am One of You Forever.

Midquest is made up of the forty-four poems from four previously published smaller volumes: River,Bloodfire,Wind Mountain, and Earthsleep. As their names suggest, each cycle of eleven poems focuses on one of the four classical elements: water, fire, air, and earth. In the middle of each cycle (with some minor variation) stands a sixth poem dealing with a favorite character of Chappell's, Virgil Campbell, a poem that represents a kind of three-dimensional center of the cycle, because Chappell arranges the poems so that “The first poem is mirrored by the last, the second by the next to last, and so on inward” (ix). The “center,” then, is not just the middle part of a linear structure, but the heart of a structure resembling a set of nested boxes.

An emphasis on the four elements and an arrangement based on them is present also, if much less obviously than in Midquest, in I Am One of You Forever. Many of its stories focus primarily on one of the elements, including “The Wish” (water), “The Change of Heart” (air), and “The Maker of One Coffin” (earth). Some of the characters are repeatedly associated with one of the four elements. Johnson Gibbs, for example, is associated throughout with fire. The nocturnal and phenomenal spread of Uncle Gurton's beard through the house, in one of the central fantasies of the book, is described using images not only of both the flood and fire that might suddenly overwhelm an Appalachian farmhouse at night but of air and earth as well, as if to emphasize the marvelous event as something that represents an upheaval of all the elements.

The avowed “nested box” arrangement of each cycle of poems in Midquest is also present, if less strictly or formally, in I Am One of You Forever, with similarities or contrasts of various kinds linking loosely the first story with the tenth, the second with the ninth, and so on. For example, stories One and Ten focus on the grandmother, stories Four and Seven pair Jess's visions of the creatures of the storm-charged air and of the creatures of the bowels of the earth, and stories Three and Eight share the scary fantasies that children “seize upon … to be frightened of” (135). Each story about the visit of a strange uncle or aunt is paired in the same fashion with a story about the immediate family, and so on.

To note this “nested box” feature of the structure of the novel adds significance to the italicized section, “The Telegram,” which is positioned at the exact middle of the book and which is nightmarishly vivid in its accounts of the myriad and amazing transformations in substance, shape, and size that the telegram undergoes in the eyes and emotions of the family members. Similar to the Midquest structures, this “agonizing rite” of the family's being forced to come to terms with Johnson Gibbs's death is not just the middle part of the book but becomes the central core or “heart” of the structure. Such a prominent positioning of this shattering experience is the best indication that Chappell is not writing just about “The Good Time” but also of sorrow and loss, although, characteristically, he will approach serious subjects obliquely and provide some “distancing” through the use of humor, dreams, or other devices. As Dabney Stuart notes in his “Introduction” to The Fred Chappell Reader, Chappell understands

the psyche's way of turning its attention aside from events of disaster and grief to scenes and activities obliquely attached to them. Too direct a memory numbs; the indirect route makes us able to continue the trip. It's a compromise struck between facing reality head on and trying to evade it altogether.


Dreams are one of the common ways we revisit the past, and fantasy, vision, and dream are part of the fabric of the entire book. In fact, the dream provides perhaps the closest analogy for Jess's entire account, with its vividness, its constant suggestion of transformation and transfiguration, and its seamless merging of the magical and the supernatural with the “real” world. But the three italicized sections, “The Overspill,” “The Telegram,” and “Helen,” go even further in their surreal qualities that suggest an actual dream state. Although not devoid of humor, they are also the sections in which serious matters are the most likely to be raised or suggested. Furthermore, in “The Overspill” at the beginning and in “Helen” at the end, Chappell suggestively places his story in the broader context of several of the universals, legends, and archetypes of our common human experience: birth, rebirth, the heroic, our longing for the ideal, and death.

“The Overspill,” standing first in the novel, tells an apparently simple story of Jess's father's ambition to drain, clear, and plant a new garden spot and to bridge a small stream to provide easier access to the newly claimed land. All this is to provide a pleasing surprise for Jess's mother upon her return from a visit to California. Just as the mother returns, however, the paper mill above opens its floodgates, and all is utterly ruined and destroyed. The section ends with the family clinging together in the face of their disappointment.

The springtime setting of “The Overspill” is heavy with the elements of earth and water and rife with suggestions of fertility, rebirth, and growth. The father's “heroic” struggles to tame and reclaim the land are suggestive both of the difficulty of the agricultural life and of the young boy's perception of his father as “hero,” which is echoed in various “epic” touches later in the book, including the battle of near-Homeric proportions that takes place between the father and Johnson Gibbs. The dominant theme of family love and cohesiveness, especially in times of difficulty or disaster, is here foreshadowed. Finally, the tear on the mother's cheek that magically expands to take in all three of them is suggestive also of procreation, of the founding of a family: the father and mother come together, and the small creature that is their offspring “began to swim clumsily toward my parents” inside a watery sac suggestive of the womb.

If “The Overspill” is suggestive of fertility, rebirth, and heroic effort, the concluding italicized “Helen” section, in stark contrast, takes place in a barren winter setting suggestive of stasis, inactivity, and death. Although difficult to interpret, it certainly must represent the disjointed nightmare of an older Jess, dreaming of family members now most likely dead, still worriedly preoccupied with the question of whether he is the “stranger,” whether he is “one of them” or not. The landscape where Jess “seemed” to be in a hunting cabin with Uncle Luden, Johnson Gibbs, and his father is blanketed with heavy snow. Earth and water, the elements so prodigally present in “The Overspill,” are here absent and have been replaced, if less obviously, by air and fire. The three men are ghostlike presences who do almost nothing; we hear them say nothing except for the mumbling they do in their sleep. The mostly nighttime setting remains essentially colorless, soundless, and motionless.

After hearing each of the three utter what sounds like the word “Helen,” in their sleep, Jess becomes even more worried that they share some secret, see some vision, that he cannot share. Then he too glimpses a face, “familiar to me, I fancied, if I could remember something long ago and in a distant place” (182). He is “disturbed most of all by the unplaceable familiarity of the vision” (183). Perhaps Helen is Helen of Troy—who figures earlier in the story as part of Jess's father's inept retelling of the Iliad—an archetype of our shared longing for the ideal that consistently eludes us in this transitory life but that might be possible in art. The nightmare ends, and the dreamer undoubtedly awakes, when the figure of the dead soldier and foster brother Johnson Gibbs looms in “harsh light,” “blackly burning,” to demand of Jess in a “deep and hollow” voice, “Well, Jess, are you one of us or not?

This “burning” question with which the novel ends suggests more than one interpretation, although all are ways of asking “Who Am I?” The most likely meaning might be, “Are you still one of the family?” or maybe “One of the plain country folks?” Given that the others present at the hunting cabin are his father Joe Robert, Johnson Gibbs, and Uncle Luden, who have been Jess's principal male role models in the story, the question could mean, “Have you become a man?” Or, given the novel's inclination to expand suggestively to universals, it might mean “Are you one of the human race, sharing the common experiences of sorrow and loss?” Also, since this section is probably Jess's dream of the dead, the question might even mean “Are you one of the dead?” in the sense of “Have you faced your own mortality?” Finally, standing as the last words in the book, the question could mean “Have you succeeded in your effort to show that ‘I Am One of You Forever’?”

Thus, I Am One of You Forever is not simply about “The Good Time” but also about its inevitable loss and the question of whether any meaningful connection with the past can be made. It remains doubtful that the assertion of the title convinces us that we can go home again, or at least that we can go all the way home again.1 After all, the question with which the novel ends apparently retains considerable urgency. The surer sense of I Am One of You Forever is that, in these stories, the transitory existence of the boy and his family has taken on a permanent existence in the realm of art. The novelist Clyde Edgerton, in a recent remark about Chappell's art, puts the matter directly and succinctly: “I Am One of You Forever is … about storytelling up against death—both always forever and forever neck and neck down the home stretch, in constant war like brightness and darkness, good and evil” (84-85). Chappell's creative imagination, through the magic of storytelling, has molded here his everlasting and unchanging urn of memory in a shape that is indeed pleasing to him and to us.


  1. Fred Hobson remarks, in his perceptive discussion of I Am One of You Forever, that “one cannot altogether will himself back into the world where he came from. … That is precisely what Chappell attempts in his book … to will himself back—but … neither can he go back all the way” (91). Hobson's understanding of the novel is quite compatible with my own; and I am indebted to his essay in ways not specifically documentable for helping me clarify my own assumptions about the novel (82-91).

Works Cited

Chappell, Fred. I Am One of You Forever. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1985.

———. “Preface.” Midquest: A Poem. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1981. ix-xi.

Edgerton, Clyde, et al. “Tributes to Fred Chappell.” Pembroke Magazine 23 (1991): 77-92.

Hobson, Fred. The Southern Writer in the Postmodern World. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1991.

Stuart, Dabney. “‘What's Artichokes?’: An Introduction to the Work of Fred Chappell.” The Fred Chappell Reader. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987. xi-xx.

Jeanne Murray Walker (review date summer 1994)

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SOURCE: Walker, Jeanne Murray. “Ways to Move Beyond the Self.” Shenandoah 44 (summer 1994): 111-26.

[In the following excerpt, Walker offers a positive assessment of C, praising Chappell's verse as “vulnerable and affectionate.”]

The title of Fred Chappell's latest book, C, advertises what kind of book it is. It calls out flamboyantly See! spelling it with the Roman numeral C, both to signal its debt to the past and to advertise that it contains a hundred poems. The book is a bricolage of riddles and puns, translations and references to the classics. It is unashamedly satirical and irreverent. It pilfers from its elders, happily giving credit where credit is due. It is as full of good fun as anything to come down the pike for a long time.

Confessional poets come in for ribbing:

You've shown us all in stark undress
The sins you needed to confess.
If my peccadilloes were so small
I never would undress at all.

But a critic, to be fair, has to admit that Chappell is funnier about critics and finds more to say about them. For example:

Peter Puffer piped a pack of poets into
Undeservedly prominent public view:
Then, just to prove the power of his pen,
Provokingly piped them pouting out again.


Strychnine writes impartially
Of novels, plays and poetry;
His judgements upon authors are
By his own lights impeccably fair
Because when all is said and done
By God he hates them every one.

There are poems about the follies of man:

The only animal that dares to play the bagpipes.
Or wants to.

And there are poems about death.

She enjoyed making love
In any exotic location.
Now Lydia lies here.
It's not the first occasion.

There are translations in C of epigrams and short poems by Martial, Max Albern, Petrarch, Lucilius, Ausonius and others. They are wonderfully colloquial. For example, it's hard to imagine a poem more slangy than “Threads,” which is from Buchanan.

Listen, buddy, I knew you when
You were a man like other men.
Not on your high horse, puffed with pride,
But genial, friendly, bona fide.
Now you think you're a different breed
Because you wear expensive tweed
And flash the label that declares it.
But a sheep first wore it. A sheep still wears it.

Like this poem, the others in Chappell's volume defy many comfortable expectations. Not only do the poems employ the artifice of meter and rhyme, they are all very short. Although the long poem has been stirring for a comeback in recent decades, the very short poem hasn't. (I think of wonderful exceptions, such as John Frederick Nims' “Zany in Denim.”) Perhaps that is because brevity takes consummate skill, as well as nerve. And, of course, it helps to know what used to be referred to as The Tradition, where these forms can be found.

Chappell sounds more like a teacher or newspaper columnist in these poems than like a close friend murmuring about his private troubles. That may be because he's taken as his models poems from the classical past and the Renaissance, in which the poet speaks, not for or about himself, but for and about society. Like the old satirists, Chappell's tone ranges from a smart rap on the knuckles to savage insult. Everyone comes in for comment. And he doesn't leave himself out.

“‘Even Homer nods,’ you said:
You've said it many times before.
It won't apply in your case, Fred.
He doesn't pass out cold and snore.”

Perhaps the fact that Chappell isn't exempt from his own scrutinizing vision helps to explain why he manages not to seem crabby or condescending. In this book of surprises, he can also be vulnerable and affectionate. As he writes in one lovely bedtime prayer:

Now the day is at an end.
In the night be Thou my Friend.

David Middleton (review date winter 1996)

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SOURCE: Middleton, David. “With Modesty and Measured Love.” Sewanee Review 104, no. 1 (winter 1996): 10-13.

[In the following review, Middleton outlines the major thematic concerns of the poems in Spring Garden.]

This impressive and delightful volume gathers together much—but by no means all—of the best verse written during the last quarter century by one of the South's finest poets. There are also new poems, including a general prologue and epilogue and separate prologues to each of the book's seven carefully ordered sections.

Spring Garden takes us through a late spring day with the poet's wife working in the actual garden while the poet himself selects his “metaphorical” flowers and arranges them in clusters governed by particular plants whose traditional virtues are invoked. Such plants include lettuce for “The Good Life,” thyme—and other aphrodisiacs—for “The Garden of Love,” mythic fern seed for the invisibility required to write objectively of others (while still speaking “modestly … with measured love”) in “Poems of Character,” and watercress for the bite in “Epigrams.” In the final section, “Poems of Memory,” the “memorable” salad is served with “chewy Italian bread” and several fine wines and cheeses.

Chappell's metaphorical linking of poetry with specimens from the natural order is more than a convenient fancy: it represents a deep understanding of the relationship between the pastoral dream, the agrarian insistence on the binding of culture to agriculture, and the poet's double-rootedness in the eternal ground of being and in a postedenic earth salted by sweat of Adam the Namer turned by his own acts and words into Adam the Tiller. In such richly layered soils, the poet's turning of his verse and the plowman's turning (Latin versus) of the soil are at one.

“The Garden” probes to its limit the human understanding of these mysteries when the poet declares that “the garden is a book about the gardener” and that “the gardener is a book about his garden”; moreover, he says, when these two books lie open to one another, “what now we do not know we shall never know.” Most strikingly, in “Patience: A Prologue to The Georgics,” the poet becomes the chronicler of a pastoral world so beautiful and so well ordered that approaching extraterrestrials report home from space: “Leave Earth alone, it is at peace.” And yet, on that very earth, Mars destroys the plowman, herdsman, shepherd, while senators side with townsmen against the farmers even though the Capitol itself lies on ancient tillage and veterans retire to the country to marry rustic brides and relive their old campaigns. And there the farmers patiently trace archaic constellations, looking for signs of rain, a timeless rite rooted in given emblems of the Ptolemaic world. Thus the pastoral realm, though betrayed and violated, still survives. The poet's indispensable role in such a restoration is made clear in “How the Job Gets Done,” where, after the destruction of Troy, the poet is found “turning” verses “in his garden, laboring to line-end, / then turning back like a sweating plowman to fold / another loamy furrow over the crumbled palaces.”

Many of Chappell's best poems are about country people of the South or their descendants. “Remodeling the Hermit's Cabin” praises the craft of pioneer builders who some two hundred years ago laid down huge foundation beams that no modern crowbar or sledgehammer can dislodge. Equally well seasoned and set, the widow in “An Old Mountain Woman Reading the Book of Job” remains unreconciled to a deity who permits evil; Job's shadow, for her, is cast even upon Jesus and St. Paul. Another struggler with the human condition is the poet's son, Heath, who at the age of two fights to shape his babbling into words while at the same time losing patience with stuffed toys that won't reply until the boy's speech and imagination can one day catch fire and give such things voice: “He cannot find the awkward key / That opens their hush to let it speak, / Speak, speak—and set his loving free” (“Heath at Two: Learning to Talk”). At the other end of life, the poet's father is seen spending a day and night on “Forever Mountain” and in the end passing through dawn into eternity “taking by plateaus the mountain that possesses him.”

Spring Garden contains several other kinds of poetry besides the ones so far noted. Chappell, for instance, is a fine epigrammatist and writer of fantasy verse. The following epigram should console many tired surveyors of modern poetry: “You've shown us all in stark undress / The sins you needed to confess. / If my peccadilloes were so small / I never would undress at all” (“Upon a Confessional Poet”). Of the fantasy poems, “Narcissus and Echo” is remarkable in the way Echo's words (italicized) end each line of a poem otherwise spoken by Narcissus: “My only belonging longing / is my beauty.” At the same time, read vertically, Echo's words make up her own answering poem: “Ember / of / airy / longing / ache / of / unbeing. / Is your / heart / not / stone? / Hour, / light, / fare / well.” Another haunting fantasy poem is “Scarecrow Colloquy,” in which a scarecrow, apparently forgotten by the farmer who long ago placed him in the field, still remains at his post—an eerie border-consciousness poised between Eden and history—“guarding the bones of Adam.”

Chappell is often at his best when describing rural life in a style marked by a quietly elegiac tone and by vivid telling details presented with such assurance and restraint that, like the old man in “Dipperful,” the poet lets even “the silence [have] its say.” In the poem “Abandoned School-house on Long Branch,” for instance, the poet finds a snake that “dozes like the farmer boys / Who never learned the capital / Of Idaho, found out the joys / Of long division, or learned what all / / Those books were all about.” And this: “K. B. + R. J., cut deep / In a childish heart on the cloakroom wall” though “now Roger and Katherine Johnson sleep / Long past the summons of the morning bell” and only “sunset washes the blackboard.” Just as tenderly, in “Humility,” the poet evokes a quiet village scene where gleaners in the nearby fields at evening still work and gaze as “straw / By straw burns red aslant the vesper light.” This, the poet says, “is the country we return to when / For a moment we forget ourselves” and adds, in closing, that “here we might choose to live always, here where / Ugly rumors of ourselves do not reach, / Where in the whisper-light of the kerosene lamp / The deep Bible lies open like a turned-down bed.”

Few poets have written verse as wise, humane, and poignant as this.

Fred Chappell and Jennifer Howard (interview date 30 September 1996)

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SOURCE: Chappell, Fred, and Jennifer Howard. “Fred Chappell: From the Mountains to the Mainstream.” Publishers Weekly 243, no. 40 (30 September 1996): 55-6.

[In the following interview, Chappell discusses his body of work and the critical response to his writing.]

Fred Chappell may be the most modest man of letters the South has ever produced. With nearly 25 books under his belt, and the praise of critics and fellow writers ringing in his ears (William Styron has called him “an immensely gifted, exuberant, versatile writer who should be ranked among our important contemporary voices”), Chappell maintains a resolute humility about his career. To hear him talk, he owes it all to luck, persistence and the kindness of strangers.

Editors do have a habit of walking up to Chappell out of the blue and asking him if he has a manuscript they could see. His first novel, It Is Time, Lord (Atheneum, 1963), was solicited by revered Atheneum editor Hiram Haydn, who had admired a story of Chappell's published in a Duke University literary magazine. His first book of poetry, The World between the Eyes (Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1971), was sought out by LSU's Leslie Phillabaum, who introduced herself to Chappell at a writer's conference and asked him if he had a poetry collection. (“I didn't,” he remembers, “but I went home and wrote one.”)

Chappell's current editor, Picador editorial director George Witte, organized a Chappell reading in 1981 when he was an undergraduate at Duke, which also happens to be Chappell's alma mater. Years later, working at St. Martin's, he had the idea of introducing Chappell to a wider audience with The Fred Chappell Reader (1987). Farewell, I'm Bound to Leave You, just out from Picador (Forecasts, July 15), is the fourth book of Chappell's that Witte has worked on. Set in the mountains of Chappell's native North Carolina, it's the third volume, after I Am One of You Forever (LSU, 1985) and Brighten the Corner Where You Are (St. Martin's, 1989), in a planned quartet of novels depicting three generations of an Appalachian family.

Meeting PW in a restaurant in Waynesboro, Va.—a stop en route from his home in Greensboro, N.C. to visit his friend George Garrett—Chappell has the pleasant manners of the South of a generation ago, pulling out a lady's chair, making the waitress feel like she's just the sweetest thing for asking if he'd like more coffee. There's not much hurry about Chappell. He's not a large man, but he moves slowly, as if he has all the time in the world; and he has a slow, crinkle-eyed smile that's almost sly, as if he's secretly amused by what's going on around him.

Chappell's manners, his country accent and his natural affinity for storytelling all point to his origins in the rural mountains of western North Carolina, where he was born in 1936. He grew up on his grandparents' farm, about 15 miles west of Asheville, N.C., while his parents went to other towns to pursue jobs, like teaching school and opening a retail furniture business. He was especially close to his grandmother, a “self-supporting, strong-willed mountain lady” who had a college degree, taught in a one-room schoolhouse and conducted the first census in her county.

Chappell did his share of farm chores—“all that goat-roper stuff,” he calls it—but he also found time to read. By the time he was in high school, he was reading broadly and eclectically: Ray Bradbury, H. P. Lovecraft, John Steinbeck, Thomas Mann. Asked what he found in Mann, Chappell replies quizzically: “Don't have no idea.” It can be hard to tell, when Chappell slips into his awshucks manner, as he often does, whether or not he's pulling your leg. Behind the folksiness, however, is a man who has taught literature and writing for 30-odd years at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. (He was offered that job after Joseph Bryant, then chairman of the English department there, heard him give a paper on Shakespeare's Coriolanus at a graduate school conference.)

Early on, Chappell had his heart set on the literary life. By the time he was a teenager he was writing poetry. “Everything starts with poetry,” he says. “It was very intoxicating, I thought. And my ambitions were to attract girls [that way].” He also wrote fiction in high school. “When I was 14 or 15, I decided that I would teach in college and write books,” he recalls.

Soon after arriving at Duke, Chappell was suspended “for Joe College stuff. Got drunk and sassed a cop, got throwed in jail,” he explains. Duke sent him off to “settle down a little bit”—he did, marrying his high-school sweetheart, Susan—and then readmitted him to finish his undergraduate work and begin graduate studies in English.

At Duke, he fell into company with other writers, forming an impromptu workshop that he still calls “one of the highlights of my life.” Unofficially led by Reynolds Price, who remains a close friend of Chappell's, the group included the novelist Anne Tyler, the poet James Applewhite and the novelist and playwright Tom Atkins.

Chappell was in the throes of writing his Ph.D. dissertation—an 1111-page concordance to the poems of Dr. Johnson—when Hiram Haydn, Price's editor at Atheneum, visited the campus. “[Haydn] asked me if I'd be interested in writing a novel,” Chappell recalls. “I told him I was a poet and I wasn't really sure that fiction was a worthy endeavor. Then I ran out of money, so I wrote the first quarter of this novel [It Is Time, Lord] and sent it to him and asked if I could get an advance.” Haydn obliged with a $250 check, which got Chappell, his wife and their son, Heath (now a jazz musician in Chicago), through a summer of graduate-student poverty.

Chappell wrote three more novels for Haydn over the next decade: The Inkling (Harcourt, 1965), the story of a North Carolina family's disintegration; a horror tale, Dagon (Harcourt, 1968); and The Gaudy Place (Harcourt, 1973), in which a respectable family collides with the sordid world of prostitutes and pimps in a North Carolina town.

Though Chappell followed Haydn from Atheneum to Harcourt, their association didn't last. According to an essay Chappell wrote for Contemporary Authors, there was friction between the two men over Dagon, which Haydn thought too dark. After The Gaudy Place appeared, Haydn wrote to tell Chappell he'd been dropped from the Harcourt list—a decision due, Chappell speculates, to lackluster sales.

Taking a 12-year hiatus from fiction, Chappell concentrated on poetry, which he calls “the noblest secular endeavor that the human mind undertakes. If you get up in the morning and write poetry, your IQ rises 15 points for the whole day. Get up in the morning and write fiction, your mind slows down a little bit and you take things a little more philosophically and a little more steadily. Poetry has the intensity of walking through the woods, and fiction has the doggedness of riding a bicycle uphill.”

Chappell reputation as a poet rests largely on Midquest (LSU, 1981), a poem cycle divided into four sections, each representing one of the classical elements: water, fire, air and earth. Set on a single day, the poet's 35th birthday, Midquest examines the midpoint of life, reflecting back on the narrator's parents and grandparents and his own movement away from the rural setting of his youth. The fiction quartet picks up these themes and, according to Chappell, is meant to comment on them. He envisions them working together as “a kind of counterpoint between the ideas of poetry and fiction and those two philosophies of observation.”

He still writes poetry whenever he can and places it with LSU. “They published my poetry when I was just starting out, and I was always grateful to them.” LSU issued the first novel in the quartet—“that was my way of paying them back,” he says—but economics, along with George Witte's influence, propelled him to St. Martin's and Picador. “I couldn't afford to stay with [LSU] in fiction. That would have been foolish, according to my agent anyway.” (He's been with Brooklyn-based agent Rhoda Weyr for some 15 years, after a long stint with Harold Matson and then his nephew Peter Matson.)

Given his commitment to poetry and rural themes, it is curious that Chappell's most widely read work is Dagon, which has achieved a cult status among fans of horror fiction. The book follows Peter Leland, a minister who goes back to his North Carolina home to research pagan worship in America. Peter falls under the spell of Mina, the youthful, sadistic leader of a cult dedicated to the god Dagon, who brutalizes and eventually sacrifices him. At book's end, Peter comes through death to enter a mystical higher state of consciousness.

While Dagon shares its Southern setting with Chappell's other work, it draws its inspiration from the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. “He was the first horror writer—the first I know of besides Poe—who was able to engender a sense of horror about the universe without resorting to religious themes,” says Chappell. “I've always thought that achievement was an admirable one, and very difficult.”

The most fantastic of Chappell's books, Dagon is not the only one with a surreal edge. Something akin to magic realism breathes through Chappell's work, though he claims to have “no interest in magic realism per se. I'm interested in blurring the demarcations between what's generally thought of as realism and what's thought of as fantasy.” His stories are “really just folk tales,” he says, and, like many folk tales, they have a supernatural edge to them. Ghosts, premonitions, tall tales all figure in Chappell's work.

While he insists that his stories aren't autobiographical, they draw heavily on his own experience of rural North Carolina. The principal narrator of the fictional quartet, Jess Kirkman, “is remembering growing up with his family in the mountains of North Carolina,” Chappell says. “The first book introduced the notion of the extended family and the confusion that attended the culture of that place when it was overtaken by the Second World War and the first inroads of the 20th century.” The second novel follows Jess's father, Joe Robert Kirkman, who takes up a new career as a schoolteacher “and what kind of glorious mess he makes of that.”

As Farewell, I'm Bound to Leave You opens, Jess and Joe Robert sit in Jess's grandmother's house, waiting to see whether the old woman will die. An unearthly wind howls around the house, threatening to unravel time itself: “The wind had got into the clocks and blown the hours awry,” says Jess. To ease their fears, Jess and his father remember the stories Jess heard when he was “reaching the hormonal boil of puberty,” stories about women, told by women, and “designed by the women in the family to teach him something about women.”

The projected fourth novel, which Chappell is making notes for now, will take place years later, “and it will be Jess trying to fit his family into the larger context of history.”

Chappell writes longhand. “One of these days,” he says, “because I'm beginning to develop arthritis, I'll have to go to a computer, but I don't look forward to it.” He gets up at 5 or 5:30 every morning and settles in to write until about 10. Manuscript drafts are archived at Duke. Awaiting a biographer? “Awaiting moss and corruption,” he says, with characteristic self-deprecation.

For all his publications and honors—including a Rockefeller Grant and the Best Foreign Novel Prize from the French Academy (for Dagon), and notwithstanding his versatility and the universal themes of his books, Chappell is still unfairly considered by many to be a regional writer. “I think I've always worked in relative obscurity,” he admits, “and I've come to enjoy that. There's a lot of freedom in that. I always feel, when I sit down to write, the only person I really have to worry about failing is myself.”

Does he hope people will be reading Fred Chappell a hundred years from now? “I have no ambition to be a literary immortal, whatever that is. I'm not sure I would like that. I'm pleased if anybody reads my book, and I hope that anybody who reads it likes it. That's naïve, but that's the way I feel about it.”

He needn't be so modest. Judging from the praise heaped on him by the literary world, almost everybody who reads Fred Chappell admires him. If a fellow Southern writer (Lee Smith) can call him “our resident genius, our shining light, the one truly great writer we have among us,” it's likely that his work will steadily acquire an appreciative audience.

Robert McDowell (review date spring 1997)

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SOURCE: McDowell, Robert. “Poetry Chronicle.” Hudson Review 50, no. 1 (spring 1997): 137-46.

[In the following excerpt, McDowell offers a positive assessment of Spring Garden, calling the collection “well edited and full of pleasant surprises.”]

Spring Garden: New and Selected Poems by Fred Chappell includes selections from six previous volumes plus thirty new poems. Chappell is an inventive formalist who can be funny and serious. “The Fated Lovers: A Story” is a superior sequence demonstrating this poet's range. Section seven, “A Glorious Twilight,” especially stands out. In it a wife paints her nails, and the brilliant color she applies transforms the house. Special attention to a common activity turns life into art. The segment, and the poem as a whole, honors the subtlety and quiet drama of the stuff that makes up everyday life and binds us together.

Many of the characters Chappell writes about are not so much recognizable, living peers as individuals culled from old photograph albums, their lives evoked purely from an imaginative, refined sense of history rather than firsthand experience and observation. Yet they are quite alive, vital, and compelling. An exquisite case in point is “The Presences at Sunset.” The poem, inspired by a Mary Anne Sloan etching, consists of eight rhymed couplets. Each couplet features a different speaker describing the figure in the etching. In this way the poet straddles two ladders of difficulty. He evokes the mysterious woman in the etching, giving her dimension and depth, and he demonstrates how different the observations of several people can be when they're describing and emotionally responding to a single object, or recorded moment in time.

“Now she arrives, a weary penurious widow,
Where shadow reigns, where all light is shadow.”
“A stand of alders guards the deep still pool.
No stars, no moon. The lengthened hour grows cool.”
“Why does she come here? This water like dull slate
Can hold no image of a human fate.”
“She comes because a half-lost memory
Whispers to her like a distant sea.”

Well edited and full of pleasant surprises, Spring Garden gives new readers and old the perfect opportunity to assess anew and admire Fred Chappell's verses.

Randolph Paul Runyon (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Runyon, Randolph Paul. “Fred Chappell: Midquestions.” In Southern Writers at Century's End, edited by Jeffrey J. Folks and James A. Perkins, pp. 185-200. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Runyon examines the structural aspects of Midquest, particularly the placement of poems focusing on Virgil Campbell, a recurring character in the collection.]

Born in western North Carolina, in 1936, Fred Chappell has drawn increasingly on his Appalachian heritage in recent years. His best works—the epic poem Midquest (1981) and the novel I Am One of You Forever (1985)—are rooted in a quasi-autobiographical network of recurring hill-country characters, including his parents and grandparents, various eccentric uncles, and general-store proprietor Virgil Campbell, whose prankish independence harks back to Sut Lovingood but whose first name has a deserved Old World resonance.

This is particularly true in Midquest, which takes place in the Dantean middle of the protagonist's life, his thirty-fifth birthday (as well as Fred Chappell's), and where Virgil is, if not guide, at least a constant presence. The poem is actually four books of eleven poems each in which “the first poem is mirrored by the last,” according to Chappell in the “Preface,” “the second by the next to last, and so on inward. But the sixth poem in each volume is companionless in that volume, and concerned with a garrulous old gentleman named Virgil Campbell, who is supposed to give to the whole its specifically regional, its Appalachian, context” (ix-x). As David Paul Ragan has pointed out, however, this is somewhat “misleading” in its implication “that the regional context is conveyed primarily through [the Campbell poems] alone” (22). For plenty of the other poems in Midquest provide that regional context, too.

More troubling is Chappell's misleading the reader in the matter of the placement of the Virgil poems. Of the four volumes in the poem—River,Bloodfire,Wind Mountain, and Earthsleep—of only the first and last is it true that “the sixth poem is … concerned with … Virgil Campbell.” The Virgil poem in Bloodfire, “Firewater,” is the seventh poem; in Wind Mountain it is the eighth, “Three Sheets in the Wind”—a circumstance that is not immediately apparent in the table of contents, which does not display subtitles. If it had, such a misstatement could hardly have escaped notice, for the poem's full title is “Three Sheets in the Wind: Virgil Campbell Confesses.”1 If the “Preface” is wrong in this particular, can we believe what else it says?

It is unusual for a poet to go to such trouble to detail the hidden architecture of his text. In the case of Fred Chappell it may even be a little suspicious. For in an essay first published in 1989, eight years after Midquest, he wrote in not entirely approving tones of the “modern epic poet” who “shall tell us” that his poem “‘has a secret structure that is hidden by its bewildering surface.’ Then he proceeds to point out to us”—as did Chappell himself—

arcane principles of structure, unnoticed axioms of organization, subterranean networks of relationships, correspondences, and associations. And so it turns out that this object which has appeared to be so haphazard and patchwork can actually be clarified with a diagram. Aren't we all now reassured of the poet's sanity?

Perhaps we are. Perhaps not. For it is a wild connect-the-dots scheme, this construction of the contemporary epic.

[Plow Naked 89]

What kind of modern epic poem is he talking about? He goes on to allude to Pound's Cantos, Williams's Paterson, Olson's Maximus Poems, Zukovsky's A, and Crane's The Bridge. But is he also talking about Midquest? Perhaps not. Instead of “patchwork,” the model his “Preface” claims is the “sampler,” a display of fancy stitches: terza rima, tetrameter, rhymed couplets, chant royal, among others. Yet that refers not to the possible symmetrical relation of the poems to each other on the grounds of theme and language but to their various forms.

A more fitting description may be the “crazy-quilt” of the flesh of Dr. Frankenstein's creation in Bloodfire's ninth poem, “Burning the Frankenstein Monster” (85). Particularly because this “innocent wistful crazy-quilt of dead flesh” in the Frankenstein poem seems to participate in the “balancing act” Chappell claims is going on in Midquest, an element in the mirroring that poem does of its symmetrical companion, “My Father Allergic to Fire,” the third poem in Bloodfire. The Frankenstein monster was unnaturally afraid of fire: “Why must poor Karloff … die, fire-fearing, / In the fire?” (85). Fred's father, despite the title, is allergic to only “One kind of fire.” The Klan's burning crosses make him vomit. When he was nine, he spied on a Klan meeting, was caught, and forced to join. They took matches and heated a pocket knife to burn a cross onto his shoulder. In recounting this episode, he “Peeled back” his clothes to show the cross to his son, who found he couldn't see it. “I stared into my father's skin. / A little pimple in a square of gray-pink flesh. / … no cross at all. / ‘Can't you see it?’ He pleaded like a child. // My father's innocent shoulder I almost kissed” (64). Fred subsequently yields to his father's desire and lies, saying that he can see the cross, though it's “awfully small.” His father is relieved, for it loomed so large in his memory that it had to be there. If the reader of Midquest, mindful of the “Preface”'s promise, stares at these two poems long enough, something will indeed appear: the father's “innocent” “flesh” will reappear, as if in a mirror, in the “innocent … flesh” of the “crazy-quilt” of which the monster was made.

In “Burning the Frankenstein Monster,” Chappell increases the mirroring effect by drawing out the father-son relationship between creator and monster, thus recalling the father-son situation grounding “My Father Allergic to Fire”: Dr. Frankenstein “has fathered / A son” (86). Creator and created are “Father and son, with one instant of recognition between them.” Fred's not being able to see the cross but saying he could might be termed a sort of false recognition. In another echo, in “My Father Allergic to Fire,” the father “Peeled back two layers / Of undershirt” (64) to bare his shoulder, while Fred's “vividest memory” of the Frankenstein film is the scene where the monster first sees sunlight, “pouring / Through the roof peeled back little by little, at last” (85).

This echoing effect is self-referential, and in an unsettling way. Fred fibbed when he told his father he could see the cross. Chappell, similarly, is not quite truthful when he tells us that the sixth poem will always be about Virgil Campbell. Is he telling the truth when he speaks of the mirroring effect of the poems? They certainly mirror in this instance, but we find ourselves in the very act of looking for evidence of it curiously foreshadowed by the poet's persona in “My Father Allergic to Fire.” Is Chappell drawing us into such a situation only to then suggest that we would be as untruthful as the son if we said we could see it?

To answer that question it might help to determine if the mirror effect is at work elsewhere, even though to do that might still be to play Chappell's game, even to fall victim to what may be a “rusty” on his part. But let's see where it takes us anyway. Consider “Firewood” and “Firewater,” the fifth and seventh poems in Bloodfire. In “Firewood,” Fred is chopping at a particularly difficult piece of oak, “blow on blow not yielding at all until / 28 strokes tear a jag / of shadow-lightning across the grooved / round top.” Coincidence or not, this is the sixteenth of the forty-four poems in Midquest (which is divided into four books of eleven poems each), which means there are as many left as the number of strokes it will take to make a tear in the log. “Numbers,” Chappell writes in the “Preface,” “are obviously important in the poem” (ix).2 Are they important enough for there to be an allegorical parallel between the reader's hacking at Midquest to open up its secret (by rereading it over and over to find the promised mirror echoes, for instance) and the poet's chopping away at the oak?

Fred wields his ax to find what secret the wood will disclose, but discovers that its secret was already laid bare. The wood “at last torn open shows that all the secret / was merely the hardness itself” (68). A log is text, or at least texture: “there is I tell you in the texture of this log that / which taunts the mind.” But in the end “nothing happens except that matter retains its smirking / hardness & just sits there” (72).

This smirking and sitting is mirrored in the tale Virgil Campbell tells in “Firewater.” Big Mama, a notorious but never apprehended moonshiner, is invited to parade a model still down Main Street for the Hayesville centennial. “Sitting on a rocking chair on a wagon” and “Grinning grinning grinning,” she waves to the deputy sheriff. For this is no pretend still, but a real one, “smoke just boiling out / Pretty as you please” and disabling the mule in the wagon behind, who passes out dead drunk from the fumes (79). Like the log displaying its secret that is no secret at all and that “smirking … just sits there,” Big Mama sits in her chair “Rocking and grinning and rocking.” For ten years the authorities had been trying to catch her at her trade, but they had not expected that she would respond to their invitation so literally. Yet she was breaking the law. The deputy stepped forward to announce that she was under arrest. Her sons then “stood up … / And threw down on the deputy three shotguns” (79). “Firewood” appropriately supplies the right term for such an impasse: “Mexican stand off is the closest you'll get,” matter in the form of a near-impenetrable walnut log tells Fred (72).

Verbal echoes reveal that numerous elements of one poem have their counterparts in the other. “A cat would've by God laughed” in “Firewater” to see Big Mama still in action under the deputy's nose (79). Feline reaction to the main event is foreshadowed in the first line of “Firewood,” where “the cat is scared” by the fury with which Fred attacks the log (67). Near the end, Fred rests from his near-futile labor: “it could go / on like this forever since it forever has, better take / a moment's cigarette” (73). Similarly, at the end of “Firewater” Big Mama forsakes the moonshine business (“Ain't no profit in it” any more) for cigarettes: “Growing these Merry Widow cigarettes, / That's where they make their money” (80). “I will sit on this log & breathe bluegray smoke,” Fred says in “Firewood,” anticipating this time the mule that followed Big Mama's wagon: “Drunk as an owl, / Just from breathing the smoke that was pouring out / From Big Mama's model still” (79; italics in original).

Fred muses about finding “our unguessable double” in the heart of the log, not realizing that Chappell leads his readers, along the trail running from the “Preface”'s remarks about mirror effects to such examples of it as these, to guess that his double may be an inebriated mule.

In the mirror effect “Susan Bathing” and “My Grandfather Gets Doused” (poems V and VII in River, to adopt Chappell's roman numeral numbering system) enact, one finds Fred's wife's double in the water that baptized his grandfather, and the doubling effect finds another self-referential description in the form of recycled Lucretian atoms. Fred imagines Susan's body “remaining yet sailed / away on streams on streams of atoms into the winds … sweetening now zephyrs / by Bermuda & Mykonos” (22), while the grandfather, repenting of having undergone a Baptist immersion in the waters of West Fork Pigeon River, is consoled by the thought that “The water that saved him was some place / Else now, washing away the sins / Of trout down past McKinnon Trace. // … ‘What damn difference / Will it make?’” (33). Like the streams of atoms that make up Susan and the stream itself, atoms from one poem are “some place / Else now” (in fact, now itself is just such an atom, having first appeared in “sweetening now zephyrs” but now turning up here), drawn into another poem.

Likewise “a single tear reflecting my chest & face” (21) on the bathing Susan becomes a “double tear” in his grandfather's eye that is also a sign of Fred's presence. “He frowned // When he saw me gaping. A double tear / Bloomed at the rim of his eye” (31). Animals in “Susan Bathing” “go robed churchly in / white” (24) while the baptismal candidate had likewise been “togged … out in white” (31). In more general (and thus perhaps less interesting) terms, Susan's immersion in her bath anticipates the grandfather's in the river.

Similarly, the well-scrubbing in “Cleaning the Well” is reflected by the milk can-cleansing in “My Grandmother Washes Her Vessels” in River poems IV and VIII, though it is hardly surprising that two paired poems should be about such similar subjects in an eleven-poem sequence devoted to water. More intriguing is the fact that both the well into which the boy is let down by his grandfather and the channel into which his grandmother plunges her vessels reek of mortality. The “spring-run” is “a concrete grave” (34), while the deep and chilly hole into which the fearful boy descends is the “wellspring of death” (16). Coming out at last, his task completed, he feels like “Jonah, Joseph, Lazarus,” risen from the dead. With a taste for symmetry, Chappell has the formerly “white sun” of noon (14) turn “Yellow” (17) when the boy emerges an hour after he went in (yellow, and “Thin,” it is too cold to warm him up that December day after his brush with chilly death), while just the opposite will happen in the other poem: The “Yellow light” of the August six-o'clock sun “entering / The bone-white milkhouse recharged itself white” (34).

If we went by titles alone, we might have been tempted to say “My Grandmother Washes Her Vessels” would have made a better match with “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet,” the third poem in River. But, going by the numbers, as Chappell implies we should, that poem is paired with the ninth, “Science Fiction Water Letter to Guy Lillian.” The connection arises from what Fred's grandmother tells him about how “We sprouted from dirt” and that he should never forget it. “No Mam,” he says, assuring her he won't. “Don't you say me No Mam yet. / Wait till you get your chance to deny it” (12-13). In the letter to Lillian, Fred outlines a projected science fiction novel in which “once upon this earth / Words had not the shape that now they shine in” (41). They lay upon the ground like objects; men had no ears to hear them with, no understanding of their possibility of signification. “The notion / Of word had not yet squiggled into being. / But there they were, twitchy to be discovered, / All words that in the world ever were or will.” An extraterrestrial woman from Nirvan, “who'd been awarded / Mother of the Year” on that planet, lands on earth, and instructs the first man who comes along in the art of words (42). She takes him to a mountain, tells him this is what “Water” is, and the mountain, “Finally collapsing, like jello in an oven, to liquid” (43), becomes it. The man sprouts ears, and words now take on meaning at last, words like “Pomegranate. Baseball. Mouse. / Cadillac. Poem. Paradise. Cinnamon Doughnut.” That first man called himself Adam, and Chappell calls his teacher “Our Lovely Mother” (43), as if, despite her origins, she were Eve, mother of us all.

This ultimate grandmother, mother of the human species, recalls Fred's grandmother in the other poem. Not just because she instructs her grandson concerning dirt, but because she does so concerning words. And in particular concerning words whose meaning and appropriate use will only become clear at some later time: she won't let him say “No Mam” to her yet. Later, she lets fall a word Fred doesn't know, and for that word too—like the words in the science fiction novel—its existence as an incomprehensible and unusable entity must long precede its use and comprehension: “‘Fatback just won't change to artichokes.’ // ‘What's artichokes?’ // ‘Pray Jesus you'll never know. / For if you do it'll be a sign you've grown / Away from what you are’” (12).

The jello that the mountain turns into as it liquefies recalls the “ancestral jelly” (13) into which Fred imagined himself “forcing warm rude fingers,” which then sends us back to the other poem to meditate on the role of fingers there: “S-f [science fiction] is / … less pleasurable to / the fingers; a deliberate squeamishness obtains” (38). Though he has respect for some practitioners of the genre, and outlines a science fiction novel himself, Fred finds it too sterile. At this point we can start to see the real connection to the other poem. Fred here and his grandmother there are saying, at bottom, the same thing. We are born from dirt and we shouldn't pretend otherwise. “It's not the skeleton” in science fiction and ghost stories “that rattles me, but the flesh— / or want of it.” It has the color of blood “but not its taste.” Science fiction “has no feel for pastness” (39). The grandmother does, though, and knows that “Just about the time you'll think your blood / Is clean, here will come dirt in a natural shape / You never dreamed” (12). Science fiction is guilty of the willful forgetting of the necessary connection between dirt and life the grandmother warned Fred against.

Elsewhere in River, the narrator's ascent to “this hill at midnight” (45) in “On Stillpoint Hill at Midnight” (X) was anticipated by the moon's “Climbing the steep hill of void” (7) “on a midnight full / of stars” (6) in “Birthday 35: Diary Entry” (II). Looking up from the riverbank to the hill the moon illumined, Fred in the latter poem “saw nothing human, / … No animals … only moon / Upon moon, sterile stone” (7), while in the other poem the opposite takes place as he considers “how stones will burgeon / into animals” (45), given enough geological time. The animals evolving from stone will eventually be “gnawing the ruled streets and lot corners / of suburbs” (45), thus demonstrating that life will emerge despite the present appearance of death, a situation in which the poet includes himself: “(I glow amidst the dead).” In “Birthday 35” gnawing is likewise the sign of life: “this gnawing worm shows that I'm not dead” (5).

Verbal echoes between the first and last (eleventh) in each book are for some reason sparser, though these poems always recount the same situation, the poet in bed with his wife at dawn (though this is less clear in “Wind Subsides on the Earth River,” the last poem in Wind Mountain, where it is night but not necessarily the end of night). As Chappell points out in the “Preface,” each of the four books together cover “the same twenty-four hours of the speaker's life” (ix). Only the first and last poems tend to evoke the same hour. As Karen Cherry points out, trees figure in the opening lines of each of the four first poems (117):

Deep morning. Before the trees take silhouettes

[“The River Awakening in the Sea” (1)]

Morning. / First light shapes the trees

[“Fire Now Wakening on the River” (55)]

Early half-light, dawnwind driving / The trees

[“Dawn Wind Unlocks the River Sky” (97)]

The cool deep morning / Begins to fashion the trees

[“Earth Emergent Drifts the Fire River” (145)]

The first line of the last poem in River:

Again. Deep morning.

[“The River Seeks Again the Sea” (50)]

recalls the first line of the first:

Deep morning.

[“The River Awakening in the Sea” (1)]

And what Fred's forehead does in one his mind does in the other:

My forehead suckles your shoulder [1]
my mind suckles your shoreless lonesomeness. [50]

The first poem of Bloodfire continues this theme, recalling the first poem of River: “My forehead enters your shoulder” (“Fire Now Wakening on the River” [55]).

Bloodfire's first anticipates its last through poison and sizzle:

Boiled juices of poison oak [56]
the poison / wild cherry [93]
Torn sheet of light sizzles in the mirror [56]
sizzle on the hard / vine ribs [93]

And Orion makes an appearance in both (56, 92).

More worthy of note, or at least more easily interpretable, is the way Baudelaire and Rimbaud, featured players in “Rimbaud Fire Letter to Jim Applewhite” (II), return in “Bloodfire” (X): “Here I turned / Back to the books that nurtured me / When I met evil first, learned / An implacable philosophy” (89). It is a literal turning back that is evoked here, inviting the reader to turn back to what the “Preface” said would be the companion poem to “Bloodfire,” “Rimbaud Fire Letter,” where Fred makes it pretty clear that the books that had nurtured him were Rimbaud and Baudelaire. “That decade with Rimbaud I don't regret. / … Rimbaud was genius pure; / … Kind of a handbook on how to be weird and silly” (58). Baudelaire, in whose Flowers of Evil Fred apparently “met evil first,” played an important role, too, in those formative years: His high school teachers “stood up for health and truth and light, / I stood up for Baudelaire and me” (59)—Baudelaire, in that formulation, representing a glorification of le mal that ran counter to all that health and truth and light.

“Let's don't wind up brilliant, young, and dead” (61), Fred says to Applewhite in the “Rimbaud Fire Letter.” Which is exactly what happens to the young man whose fate is recounted in “Bloodfire,” who immolates himself in protest against the war in Vietnam. He “never could belong / To another army” (88) than that of the war protesters, while Fred in the other poem tried to enlist in the military, in pre-Vietnam days, but “They turned me down for the army” (60).

In the remaining pair in Bloodfire not yet mentioned, the “sickness” and “silver fire” of “Feverscape: The Silver Planet” (IV) find echoes in the episode Fred recounts in “My Father Burns Washington” (VIII) of how his father, “sick” of having to think “of nothing but money” (82) in the depths of the Depression, took out a dollar bill and set it on fire. “Money,” the father complains. “It's the death / Of the world” (82; emphasis added), recalling the feverish boy's statement in the other poem: “I know well what sickness comes trembling over / the edge of the world” (66; emphasis added). Listening at night to his parents, downstairs lamenting their penury, the boy in “My Father Burns Washington” feared that “Money would climb / The stair … and, growling, try / The doorknob, enter upon us furiously” (81). Likewise, in the fever of various childhood illnesses, in “Feverscape” he finds his bedroom invaded by the silver planet whose “vast leaping / coronas fingered the medicine space I suffered in” and whose “White tentacles of camphor-smelling flame … lashed me” (65, 66).

His father breaks into open revolt against money's oppression. Likewise, Fred in the other poem declares that “Too long we have bared our backs, we / have bent our heads beneath the cruel silver fire” (66). In the context of “Feverscape” alone, it is not clear (at least to this reader) what Fred is talking about here, for the silver planet seems now (at the conclusion of the poem) to mean something significantly broader than the fever-induced hallucination it had been in his childhood. In the context it shares with “My Father Burns Washington,” however, a context Chappell's “Preface” makes licit, it seems that it may have something to do with money. Silver, after all, is money—though not the paper variety that lends itself so well to combustion. “It might have helped if I had known some French,” as Fred says in “Rimbaud Fire Letter” (58), a language that makes that equation self-evident.

In elegant self-referential symmetry, a mirror that becomes a window (“The mirror like a burning window” [97]) in the first poem of Wind Mountain (“Dawn Wind Unlocks the River Sky”) finds its mirror reflection in windows that become mirrors (“reflections of Buicks in supermarket windows” [141]) in the last (“Wind Subsides on the Earth River”). In the next pair, “The weepy eaves peep down into the rooms” as “Wind and water drive against the windows” (emphasis added) in “The Highest Wind That Ever Blew: Homage to Louis” (II), while the wind and rain in “Hallowind” (X) “tear the ragged eaves as if / The world outside weren't room enough” (135; emphasis added). In “Second Wind” (III), Fred's grandmother is renewed by a welcome “cooling wind” after the death of her husband, though before it showed itself the day was so “hot and still” that there had been “Not the least little breath of air” (103; emphasis added), while in “Remembering Wind Mountain at Sunset” (IX), there is no wind but an ill one, whether it be the one that blows down from Freeze Land in winter or the coal stove wind of summer that hasn't “a breath of soothe in it” (132; emphasis added). The wind in “Second Wind” “was the breath of life to me,” exclaimed the grandmother (106), while in “Remembering Wind Mountain at Sunset” we find “the wind robbing / them [the poor] of breath” (129). The opposition between the life-restoring wind in one poem and the death-dealing one in the other is internalized in “Remembering Wind Mountain at Sunset” by the realization that “the funny part is, come summer / same wind out of the same place” has the opposite effect from what it had in winter. Then, it went “over you / ice water,” but now it “feels like it's pouring out of a coalstove” (131, 132). It is, in other words, another moment of self-reference, the same-yet-opposite quality of the wind in poem IX duplicating, and thus alluding to, the opposite-yet-same quality of the wind that blows through both poems.

Why then should Chappell declare in the “Preface” that Wind Mountain does not include such mirror effects as these: “each of the volumes (except Wind Mountain) is organized as a balancing act”? “In order to suggest the fluid and disordered nature of air,” he says later in the same paragraph, “Wind Mountain was exempt from some of these requirements,” the requirements just then mentioned being (1) that the poems be symmetrically paired, (2) that the sixth poem be “companionless” and devoted to Virgil Campbell, (3) that the fifth be “given to stream of consciousness,” and (4) that each volume be “dominated by a different element of the family”—River by the grandparents, Bloodfire by the father, and Earthsleep, “the part most shadowed by death,” constituting a “family reunion.” It is just after this sentence that he grants the third volume its exemption “from some of these requirements.” But from which ones exactly? From the second to be sure, for Virgil appears there in the eighth poem, not the sixth. But this prompts the question why his is the seventh poem in Bloodfire, when no such exemption was granted that volume. Wind Mountain fulfills the third requirement, its fifth poem, “The Autumn Bleat of the Weathervane Trombone,” being as much in the stream-of-consciousness genre as “Susan's Morning Dream of Her Garden,” the fifth in Earthsleep,3 though not perhaps as Joycean as “Susan Bathing” (in River) and “Firewood” (in Bloodfire). Evidently he was thinking of the fourth requirement (the one he had most recently mentioned) in alluding to the freedom granted his third volume, for grandparents, mother and father appear with about equal frequency there.

But this does not exempt Chappell from the contradiction between the “Preface”'s description and the reality of his poem with regard to the “balancing act.” The “Preface”'s account of the poem gives rise to more questions than answers, for Wind Mountain is in no way exempt from that requirement, as the two remaining pairs (and the three preceding) show. It obliges the reader who follows Chappell's implied advice to seek out the mirror echoes to risk discovering that Chappell not only fibbed about what would be found in the middle of each volume (not more than half the time is it Virgil Campbell) but did so as well about the structure of Wind Mountain.4

“My Mother Shoots the Breeze,” the fourth poem in that volume, finds some remarkable reflections in the eighth, “Three Sheets in the Wind: Virgil Campbell Confesses.” Fred's mother tells her son how she first met his father, who taught science in the high school where she taught languages. He asked for the loan of her slip so that he could make a kite to demonstrate Ben Franklin's lightning experiment. For her it was sexually arousing: “my slip, / Scented the way that I alone could know, / Flying past the windows made me warm” (108). J. T. went too far, however, flying the kite every day for two weeks. “It's time to show that man that I mean business.” So she borrowed her father's shotgun and “blew the fool out of it, both barrels. / It floated up and down in a silk snow / Till there was nothing left. I can still remember / Your Pa's mouth open.” They were married within a month. Sexuality is rampant, too, in “Three Sheets in the Wind,” in which Virgil Campbell confesses how his youthful indiscretions came to an end when his wife caught him in bed with another woman. “I leapt out / The window … praying that the shooting wouldn't hit me.” But “The wind lifted a sheet” on the backyard clothesline and Virgil fell, knocked out cold with the sheet wound about him (126). When he came to, all he could see was whiteness. “It came to me that I was dead— / She'd shot my vitals out—and here's the shroud / They buried me in.” He tried to claw his way out, but she had sewn him in and was flailing away with a curtain rod. “pow! Pow pow pow.” He thought it was the beginning of the tortures of hell, prelude to burning oil and pitchforks. The parallels between these poems are as striking as any in Midquest: the slip and the sheet, both lifted up by the wind; the windows; the shooting; the sexual, and conjugal, context.

In the remaining pair, “The Autumn Bleat of the Weathervane Trombone” (V) anticipates the Dantean vision of “In Parte Ove Non Eche Luca” (VII), which begins as a translation of Inferno's fifth canto, by imagining the afterlife of poets. The “fancy” that comes to Fred as he plays his trombone is that “poets after the loud labor of their lives / Are gathered to the sun,” where they “speak in flame” and “lie a lot” (112). George Garrett will be there, and Applewhite and Tate and at least eight others. Fred, too, though the thought gives him pause. “Trapped in a burning eternity with a herd / Of poets, what kind of fate is that for a handsome / Lad” like him? There are poets too—Byron and James Dickey—in the “inferno” (121) the other poem describes. While the solar afterlife in “The Autumn Bleat” is a kind of heaven and this one hell, the poet's paradise is nevertheless “a burning eternity.” In the mirror reversal these poems enact, what's positive in one is negative in the other. Fred's trombone-induced fancy leads him to see himself in a falling leaf of tulip poplar as a poet “cast from heaven,” the heaven of all those poets in the sun. “It's too much love of earth that draws him thither, / … The flesh the earth it suits me fine” (113; emphasis added). This is precisely reversed (as in a mirror) in the other poem when “Into this pain the lovers of flesh are thrust” (122; emphasis added), lovers like Casanova, Byron, and Dickey. The parallel—and the reversal—could hardly be more clearly drawn.

A brief look at the final volume will round out this tour of Midquest's mirrors. While Earthsleep's first and last poems, like those in the preceding three volumes, appear less tightly linked than other pairs in the same volume, a “Tree of Fire” appears in each (150, 186). Both “My Mother's Hard Row to Hoe” (II) and “Stillpoint Hill That Other Shore” (X) speak of fatigue. When the mother was a child her day was filled with such unending farm chores that “It was a numbing torture to carry on.” She always obeyed her mother's commands, “no never-mind how tired / I was” (151). In the tenth poem, “our limbs quiver, / exhaustion of stale guilt” (184), and the narrator “is avid for … sleep” (185).

In “My Father Washes His Hands” (III), Fred's father would like to wash his hands of farming and of the guilt of having had to break the dead mule's legs to get her to fit in the grave that blue clay made undiggable. “Two feet down we hit pipe clay as blue / And sticky as Buick paint.” Nothing but “Blue glue” (153). Blueness becomes an echo internal to the poem when, sad at having broken Honey's legs as her dead eyes stared up at him, “The harder down I dug the bluer I got” (154). In “My Grandfather Dishes the Dirt” (IX), another grave poem, the grandfather speaks from his tomb and gives blueness a connotation the precise opposite of what it had in the other poem when the father got bluer the deeper he dug: “blue May days / Leap out in my grave sleep / Like sun-drunk butterflies” (181). Both Honey's grave and the grandfather's are full of blueness.

The ninth poem's title is somewhat misleading, as the grandfather has no dirt to dish, nothing much to say, except that he's content to remain (“I like it here” [italics in original]), awaiting Judgment Day. “Death disinherits / Us of wanting,” though it is “kind of lonely” (181, 182) down there. “The dead I'm here to say have nothing to say. / … Let's let each other alone, for Jesus' sake” (182). The father in the other poem would have welcomed that sentiment, for, to his dismay, the dead mule has plenty to say and will not leave him alone. “Honey's not gone, / She's in my head for good and all and ever” (155). In her sleep he can “see her pawing up on her broken legs / Out of the blue mud … in her eyes the picture / Of me coming toward her with my mattock; / And talking in a woman's pitiful voice: / Don't do it, J. T., you're breaking promises” (italics in original).

The talking mule in “My Father Washes His Hands” is succeeded in the following poem, “The Peaceable Kingdom of Emerald Windows” (IV), by talking horses. “Bay Maude says to Jackson: ‘Don't let's stop / At windrow-end, good fellow, I feel the edge / Of the world just barely beyond my hooftip’” (161). Indeed, Midquest is probably as rich in sequential echoes as it is in symmetrical ones. Donald Secreast points out, for example, that “Cleaning the Well” is preceded by Bubba Martin managing to fall into the well after shooting himself in “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet,” and that “the reflection of the lightbulb on the grandmother's glasses mirrors the two suns which the boy sees as he enters the well” (41).

The horses' conversation is part of a symmetrical echo as well, however, for in “My Grandmother's Dream of Plowing” (VIII) we again encounter “Jackson and Maude whose heads went up and down / Like they agreed on what they were talking over” (178). In the grandmother's dream the horses' plow uncovers what appears to be “a big and shining lump of gold.” They'd never have to worry about money again. Then she hears her husband's voice behind her: “Is that your baby that was never mine?” (italics in original). She looks again and it is a baby, “And this gold child was / Speaking to me. … / Except I couldn't hear” (179). And then it turns into a goblin. She found herself wishing it would die, and it does. It “sighed a sigh, and lay in my arms stone dead. // … It turned into a stone, / And it was all my fault, wishing that way” (180). She wept. “And then you woke up,” her grandson tells her. “‘And now I know,’ she said, ‘I never woke.’” It's quite a nightmare, suggesting a whole other side to Fred's grandmother. As Dabney Stuart writes, “the revelation of this buried secret from her past casts a sharp light on her preoccupation in the previous poems about her with the ‘Shadow Cousins’”—in “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet” (12)—“the profound hesitation she experienced before committing herself to marrying Frank, and our seeing her in two situations where she is washing something (her feet, her milk cans)” (214). And as Chappell says in the “Preface,” Midquest is “something like a verse novel” (ix).

Midquest should be read as a novel, and in connection with I Am One of You Forever and Brighten the Corner Where You Are, novels in which these characters recur, but it should also be read within the context it creates for itself, and in that respect it is intriguing that “The Peaceable Kingdom of Emerald Windows” should begin with talk of dreams and hidden babies: “Tree-dream, weed-dream, the man within the tree, / woman within the weed, babies inhabit / Tea roses” (156). This is a stream-of-consciousness poem, more so really than “Susan's Morning Dream of Her Garden,” which, as the fifth poem in Earthsleep, should, according to the “Preface,” have been the volume's example of that genre—yet another of the “Preface”'s strange misstatements. In its stream may be found the essential elements of the grandmother's dream: babies to be found, as noted already; but also a “dream of stone” (156) to match the grandmother's dream of a stone dead baby turned to stone; hidden there too (like the babies in tea roses) may be found “the grandmother's tear of parting” (157), anticipating the grandmother's bitter tears at the baby's demise (“I … cried so hard I felt my eyes dissolve” [180]). Even the sex behind the grandmother's guilt is present here, with an echo involving sacks: the baby when it was just a lump of gold was “About as big as a twenty-five-pound sack / Of flour” (178), while in “The Peaceable Kingdom” “we can get it on / On the sacks of cottonseed meal … / No one not even the rain has such big tits, / Lend me your lip a minute, willya, lovechile?” (157). Not to mention the “Rains of semen.”5

Finally, the last remaining pair: “Susan's Morning Dream of Her Garden” (V) and “How to Build the Earthly Paradise: Letter to George Garrett” (VII). Susan dreams of a garden where “the sweet rose invites her oriental suitors all // iridescent in green and oil” (164; emphasis added), while Fred dreams up an earthly paradise where with “Green / plants for / the heart's delectation, the rough-red / singing vine glows with fire-oils” (175; emphasis added). In her garden “into ground lean the lonely / and elaborate dead … / burbling one to another always”; in his, “the dead / are troublous in their cool sleep, they stir / and grumble.” She reflects on “the way my hand goes into the dirt”; he imagines “a dirt so rich our warm rude fingers / tingle inside it.” But their dreams diverge as well: Susan would improve upon the garden the natural world provides, importing elements from another world and time: “I am not replete or reconciled. // Garden, garden, will you not grow for me / a salon full of billets-doux and turtledoves? / … I long to belong to / the chipper elegance, those centuries where / the hand of man has never said an ugly word” (165). Fred, on the other hand, is happy with the way things are: “That's / how I'd / build it, the Earthly Paradise: no / different, how could it be?, from what / it was ever dreamed. … Is / it true / already, what if it's true already? and / we have but to touch out to see it” (176-77).

Thus it is that Susan wishes to retreat from the real world into her garden, and does not want to wake: “I'd be a fool, a woman's a fool, to be drawn back / into the waking world. … I'm snugging / deeper in the larder of dream” (165-66); while Fred “never no more will turn my back / upon” (177) the real world which is “no / different … from what … was ever dreamed.” Fred wakes willingly from his dream, emerging from the door of his lair: “I'm coming belchlike out of / the cave, make way my friends make way, / here gleaming with unspotted dream”; Susan, however, has found another door, not the way out but a way deeper inside: “I'm diving to a door I sense below, / … that opens truly into the garden // … and can draw / my waking body in and there no one / can draw me out again.”

And thus Midquest ends—that is, its trail of mirrors ends—the same way I Am One of You Forever concludes, with the uncanny phenomenon of shared dreams. In the last chapter of the novel, Jess discovers that Johnson Gibbs, Uncle Luden, and his father all appear to be dreaming the same dream, each saying the name “Helen” in their sleep. Then the three sleepers sit bolt upright in their beds and stare at the same vision, which the boy thinks he can maybe see, too, but he's not sure: “If something had actually appeared … if I had seen something …” (182). Fred is less uncertain concerning what his father thinks he should be able to see, the cross on his shoulder in “My Father Allergic to Fire.” Yet these are surely parallel moments in Chappell, the moment of instant recognition (“Father and son, with one instant of recognition between them” [“Burning the Frankenstein Monster” (87)], “all in a single instant—I saw something. I thought that I saw” [I Am One of You Forever (182)]) in which one seems to catch a glimpse of something one has seen before: “the features blurred … and yet familiar. … I was disturbed most of all by the unplaceable familiarity of the vision” (182-83). The poems in pairs, not just the last pair but all of them, seem to dream the same dream. The reader, given the conundrums the “Preface” poses, may never be quite sure that what he or she sees is what the poet sees. But Chappell seems to have written that quandary into his text.


  1. It did not escape the notice of Henry Taylor, though he denies it any significance. “It turns out that in Bloodfire … Virgil Campbell holds forth in the seventh poem. … In the more loosely arranged Wind Mountain, he gets the eighth poem, as it happens; he does not settle back to the middle of a part until Earthsleep. My point is not to show that there is a mistake in the order of the poems, or even in Chappell's description of it; it is rather to notice that it is just as effective to give Virgil poems VI, VII, VIII, and VI, as it is to give him VI every time. It is only the prefatory remark that brings attention to this matter” (75). The “Preface,” in Taylor's view, doesn't count as part of the text.

  2. Four, he goes on to say, “is the Pythagorean number representing World, and 4 x 11 = 44, the world twice, interior and exterior. Etc., etc.” (ix).

  3. Though, as I will later suggest, “Susan's Morning Dream of Her Garden” is not in fact Earthsleep's stream-of-consciousness poem. That honor belongs to the fourth poem, “The Peaceable Kingdom of Emerald Windows.”

  4. David Paul Ragan, who pointed out that the declaration about Virgil Campbell giving Midquest its Application context is a gross oversimplification, suggests what I have made explicit here, that the “Preface” is full of other misstatements as well: “like many of the statements in that ‘Preface,’” the one about Virgil “is perhaps misleading” (22).

  5. Or these lines: “We'll look up the dresses of tan-legged women oh boy / See the mouth in the moss. See Spot run. / World-wound, come and get me, I'm dying for blood” (158).

George Hovis (essay date summer 2000)

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SOURCE: Hovis, George. “‘When You Got True Dirt You Got Everything You Need’: Forging an Appalachian Arcadia in Fred Chappell's Midquest.Mississippi Quarterly 53, no. 3 (summer 2000): 389-414.

[In the following essay, Hovis examines the themes of farming and Chappell's Appalachian past in Midquest.]

In his essay “The Poet and the Plowman,” Fred Chappell ponders what he considers to be one of the fundamental issues facing poets ever since the classical age: the fact that it is impractical, if not impossible, to pursue both a life of poetry and a life of farming. As the essay begins, Chappell recalls long Sunday afternoons in the mid 1960s when he and his guest Allen Tate (who was then guest lecturing at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro) would watch TV football and bemoan the disappearance of their Latin skills, along with the diminishing allure of the “traditional attractions of farm life.”1 Chappell recalls Tate's conclusion that poets should be only “spectator farmers”: “Then he would smile and say in his breathy ironic genteel Kentucky accent: ‘But we would make dreadful farmers, Fred, you and I’” (p. 73). In Chappell's portrait of the aging Agrarian, Tate comes off unmistakably more comfortable in his resignation than does Chappell himself, who goes on restlessly to ponder the age-old kinship between the poet—or, more generally, the writer—and the plowman.

In much of Chappell's diverse oeuvre—which includes more than twenty books of poetry, fiction, and criticism—one finds a preoccupation with the farming life Chappell chose to leave. The themes of exile from his Appalachian past and the struggle to reforge, through poetry, a unity with that past are perhaps most clearly presented in what many consider the pinnacle of Chappell's career, the Bollingen Prize-winning long poem Midquest (1981). Though originally published separately as River (1975), Bloodfire (1978), Wind Mountain (1979), and Earthsleep (1980), the four volumes of Midquest were conceived as integral parts of a whole. Their achievement is made even more momentous by the fact that they compose half of an octave, completed by the four acclaimed novels in the Kirkman Quartet.2 Both quartets involve the reminiscences of a middle-aged poet about his childhood on an Appalachian farm, a past he idealizes—in typical pastoral fashion—as a long-lost golden age, accessible now only through the imagination.

In the “Preface” to Midquest, Chappell describes the poem's semi-autobiographical “protagonist,” Ole Fred, as a “demographic sample” of the twentieth century:

He was reared on a farm but has moved to the city; he has deserted manual for intellectual labor, is ‘upwardly mobile’; he is cut off from his disappearing cultural traditions but finds them, in remembering, his real values.3

This contrast between an ideal agrarian childhood and a corrupted urban age is one of the principal hallmarks of pastoral, which, as Frank Kermode notes, is always “an urban product.”4 Kermode observes that the

first condition of pastoral … is that there should be a sharp difference between two ways of life, the rustic and the urban. The city is an artificial product, and the pastoral poet invariably lives in it, or is the product of its schools and universities.

(p. 14)

Kermode's description fits Chappell, as well as “Ole Fred,” whose idiom alternates between that of a learned poet and Appalachian vernacular.

Born in 1936 and reared on a farm near the mill town of Canton, North Carolina, Chappell grew up observing the remnants of a traditional culture. The “loud, smoky, noisome” Champion Paper and Fiber Company5 is a ubiquitous presence in Chappell's pastorals, as is the figure of the farmer father tenaciously scratching out a living from the soil, and the dreamy adolescent boy destined to leave the farm for the Piedmont cities of Durham and Greensboro. The world Chappell describes is one very much in flux, which makes his recollections of childhood appear all the more valued. Kermode has noted that pastoral “flourishes at a particular moment in the urban development, the phase in which the relationship of metropolis and country is still evident, and there are no children (as there are now) who have never seen a cow” (p. 15). This precondition for pastoral sounds very like the necessity of the “backward glance” to the Southern literary renascence, or, more generally, to the experience of modernism. In each case, the artist has witnessed the disappearance of the old verities, an experience that leaves him dislocated, alienated, full of epistemological uncertainty, and longing for some touchstone of truth by which to reorient himself.

Chappell's geographical exile from Appalachia to the Piedmont cities of Durham and Greensboro has been further exacerbated by the fact that he is an extremely cultivated scholar who has pursued more than a casual interest in a variety of national literatures, translating writings from a variety of languages, writing a substantial body of criticism on poetry from outside his native region, and inevitably coming to see his native land through such an ecumenical vision. He has named Faulkner, Eliot, Pound, and Joyce among the important models especially of his earlier writing, and, like these and other great writers of the high modernist period, Chappell has responded to his loss of a traditional culture by reconstructing the raw materials in forms borrowed from both within and without the culture. Midquest is full of folk tales, jokes, and convincing accounts of farm life, and at the same time it abounds in literary allusions. It is a poem that consistently seeks subtly to situate local dramas in relation to the artistic, philosophical, and scientific touchstones of western discourse, relying on sources as diverse as Plato, subatomic theory, and Louis Armstrong. The verse forms are as varied as terza rima, blank verse, Old English ode, syllabics, classical hexameter, Yeatsian tetrameter, rhymed couplets, and chant royal. Chappell humbly compares Midquest to “that elder American art form, the sampler [or quilt], each form standing for a different fancy stitch” (p. ix). Chappell's style conflates examples of high and low cultures and derives a high lyricism from a rural Appalachian vernacular, a strategy that both ennobles the rural subject matter and concretely locates the lyrical expression.

Many readers have noted what Michael McFee calls Chappell's “split literary personality.” On the one side,” McFee explains,

we have “Old Fred.” the kind of persona readers tend to remember, a character of extreme Romantic temperament and habits. Ole Fred is feisty; he cusses, he jokes, he drinks, he misbehaves; he is cheerfully politically incorrect; he overstates and exaggerates. … On the other side … is Professor Chappell, a neo-classical polymath of the first order, deeply and widely read, profoundly learned: a genuine scholar.6

This split literary persona arguably reflects an actual “split” within the writer, who understands himself and his world by means of two divided cultures, one belonging to his present life in the academy, and the other to his childhood on the Appalachian farm of his ancestors. In its largest design, Midquest attempts to heal this schism and restore a sense of wholeness by employing the breadth of the poet's learning to recreate the world of his childhood.

Following the model of Dante's Divine Comedy, each of the four volumes begins with Ole Fred awakening on his thirty-fifth birthday in a state of spiritual longing. Of the eleven poems that compose each volume, most take the form of dialogues with family members remembered from the poet's childhood. These recollections serve as a source of inspiration and direction for Ole Fred, who at mid-life finds himself disenchanted with his suburban existence. In “Birthday 35: Diary Entry,” the second poem in the first volume, Ole Fred pessimistically considers—from the comfort of his living room—the results of his life's work:

On paper I scribble mottoes and epigrams,
Blessings and epithets, O-Holy's and Damn's—
Not matter sufficient to guard a week by,
The wisdom I hoard you could stuff in your eye.

(p. 4)

The heroic couplets enhance the comic deflation of his vocational crisis. Throughout the poem Ole Fred employs humor to shield himself from raw feelings of despair and loss, as well as from the fear that the spiritual restoration for which he yearns is no longer available.

Like the Wordsworth of the “Intimations” ode, Ole Fred is a poet who romantically longs for the transcendental inspiration of his boyhood but, doubting its availability, is willing to confront the reality of his present alienation:

I'd like to believe anything is possible.
That I could walk out on a midnight full
Of stars and hear an omniscient Voice say,
“Well, Fred, for a change you had a good day.
You didn't do anything so terribly awful.
Even your thoughts were mostly lawful.
I'm pleased.”—Or that by accident I'd find
A tablet headed, Carry this message to mankind.
But nothing like that is in the cards,
Bit by scroungy bit knowledge affords
Itself: …

(p. 6)

Ole Fred pokes fun at his juvenile hopes that he would be chosen like Moses as a prophet. Inspiration comes to the now more mature poet not through flashes of “genius” or from the voice of a divine muse, but through hard work and careful observation, “bit by scroungy bit,” by subjugating the self to an empirical world stingy with its revelations. For Chappell, however, the empirical world is, indeed, available to the patient, attentive observer. Furthermore, it can be described or captured in language. In a recent interview, he stated his unequivocal objection to the skepticism of poststructuralists, who insist that there is an immitigable rift between language and the empirical world:

That's too easy, and … it refutes itself. If language cannot make a statement about the nature of reality that has any genuineness, then that defeats itself, because that's a statement and it's made of language, and it's just another statement. So, a blind dead end. Also it's just clearly demonstrable that this is not the case. We communicate with language. Mathematics is language. There is no communication we have without language. We don't know if we can even think without language. And it's obvious that we have changed the world in a thousand trillion different ways because we had ideas about it, because we formulated our ideas in language, set these down on paper at the time when we had paper or otherwise remembered and used this memory embedded in language to build pyramids, to fashion spears, to make rocket ships, vaccines. … So I just think that it's a crock. If one tried to imagine a universe in which this poststructuralist notion really applied, it's a very strange, what Leibnitz might call a “monadic,” existence, where one is self-enclosed entirely and impinged upon by objects, by reality, rather than engaging with it. There's something predictably defeatist in that kind of thinking. But we have a superstition that the gloomiest philosophy, the most violent actions, are the more genuine. And that's sophomoric.7

In this same interview, Chappell distances himself from his own early fiction, in which the mind is depicted as what might, in fact, be called “monadic.” For example, in his first novel, It Is Time, Lord (1963), the protagonist James Christopher describes the mind as “an isolated citadel standing in a desert … peopled only with thin ghosts.”8 This Eliotic novel presents a montage of fragmented childhood memories interspersed with scenes from James Christopher's current troubled life. Chappell's first novel is easily his most postmodern: it is impossible to recover from these fragments an underlying narrative of the past that would help to explain the present. Memory is corrupted by the present moment, just as the present is corrupted by memory. James Christopher describes the past as “an eternally current danger, in effect, a suicide. We desire the past, we call to it just as men who have fallen overboard an ocean liner call. … [I]t sours and rots like old meat in the mind” (pp. 34-35). An Appalachian Quentin Compson, James Christopher feels trapped by his familial and cultural past. In order to avoid Quentin's fate, he finds that he must repress childhood memories and live in the present.

Though James Christopher's family (especially his father) resembles that of Ole Fred and of Jess Kirkman of the Kirkman quartet, the attitudes of the later protagonists toward a familial past vary considerably from James Christopher's. The past is no longer a “suicide,” but, rather, an antidote for the aridity of modern existence, a touchstone by which the poet finds meaning to live in the present. Furthermore, this changed relation to the past creates a more hopeful attitude about the relation of the individual mind to the empirical world. In contrast to James Christopher's description of the mind as “an isolated citadel standing in a desert” (p. 35), wasteland imagery appears in “Birthday 35,” not as an immitigable fate but, rather, as a spiritual condition to be avoided through a consistent effort to escape the prison of the isolated self:

A wilderness of wind and ash.
When I went to the river …
I saw, darkened, my own face.
On the bank of Time I saw nothing human.
… only moon
Upon moon, sterile stone
Climbing the steep hill of void.
And I was afraid.

(p. 7)

This sterile landscape is characterized by dryness and uniformity; except for the reflection of Ole Fred's own face, the scene is drearily monotonous. He obviously fears his own tendency toward solipsism and the possibility that, as in the case of James Christopher, the world he observes or remembers is merely a projection of his own subconscious.

These lines clearly echo the language from the final section of The Waste Land: “Here is no water but only rock / Rock and no water and the sandy road.”9 Chappell's reaction to the dilemma is a parody of Eliot's climactic prayer, with Ole Fred praying for transcendence in the form of “Elysium … plentifully planted / With trout streams and waterfalls and suburban / Swimming pools, and sufficient chaser for bourbon” (p. 8). In characteristic fashion, he switches back and forth between adolescent cheekiness and heartfelt sincerity; these lines are immediately followed by a shift in tone from cynicism to reverential pleading. Note also that the suburban references are absent from the concluding lines:

Lead me then, Lord, to the thundering valleys where
Cool silver droplets feather the air;
Where rain like thimbles smacks roofs of tin,
Washing away sin;
Where daily a vast and wholesome cloud
Announces itself aloud.

(p. 8)

The wasteland imagery in “Birthday 35” evokes Ole Fred's spiritual estrangement and draws a distinction, in typical pastoral fashion, between the emptiness of his present urban/suburban condition and the spiritual sustenance to be found in a long-past rural Golden Age.

The prayer for cleansing and quenching that ends “Birthday 35” is provisionally answered in the following poem, “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet,” a dramatic dialogue in which, while washing her feet, the grandmother lectures the boy Fred about the dangers of pretension and the unrecognized history of his family's less respectable side, which she accepts as family despite what mainstream society might see as undesirable idiosyncrasies. Again, intellectual pursuits occupy an antagonistic position to the farming life, as indicated in the grandmother's warning to the boy:

You're bookish. I can see you easy a lawyer
Or a county clerk in a big white suit and tie.
Feeding the preacher and bribing the sheriff and the judge.
Don't come to any better destiny.
But it's dirt you rose from, dirt you'll bury in.
Just about the time you'll think your blood
Is clean, here will come dirt in a natural shape
You never dreamed. …
… When you got true dirt, you got
Everything you need …

(p. 12)

The shift in consciousness that occurs from “Birthday 35” to the following “My Grandmother Washes her Feet”—from a jaded scholar, listening to himself pontificate in the prison of his suburban living room, to the mostly passive and humble boy auditor, receptive to the wisdom of another—reveals the strategy Chappell will employ in many of the following poems. He will consistently seek to escape self-absorption and alienation, which he identifies as the problem of his age, and make contact with a concrete and authentic world, evoked by the refrain of “dirt” throughout this poem.

Dirt here has multiple connotations: the basis of agriculture and the source of all life; a symbol for the cycle of life and death; and a representation of the eternal and substantial versus the ephemeral and superficial. Dirt also contains the Biblical allusions to the creation of Adam, as well as Original Sin. The latter ironically is changed by the pious grandmother into a positive attribute of the human condition, reminding us of our common proclivities to error, and thereby requiring one to assume a humility that acknowledges one's common humanity, a basic component of the ancient pastoral myths, which, as Kermode notes, portray the people of a Golden Age in their natural states as “hedonistic and sinless, though wanton” (p. 43). The grandmother's list of cousins in their “natural” states includes drunks, womanizers, a “Jackleg” preacher, and a great aunt named Paregoric Annie who would beg for drug-money by removing her glass eye and asking for assistance in replacing it. Fred idealizes these cousins as still vitally connected to the earth through farming, and thereby exempt from the fallen state and subsequent need for salvation attributed to civilized humanity. Fred longs to forge a lost connection to this extended family that the grandmother and her generation took for granted. In an effort to better visualize these shadow cousins he has never met, the boy Fred shapes their earthen effigies from the mud that soaks up his grandmother's footbath water. The adult Fred concludes the poem dejectedly, contemplating the economic necessity that forced his father to give up farming, then comparing himself unfavorably to his imagined cousins: “I never had the grit to stir those guts. / I never had the guts to stir that earth” (p. 13). The reciprocal substitution of the terms “grit,” or its synonym “earth,” with “guts” in these lines equates the terms syntactically and thereby conflates their meanings, an effect enhanced by the consonance in “grit” and “guts.”

This same tendency to ennoble mountain folk by equating them physically with the land itself is found in Brighten the Corner Where You Are when Joe Robert is visited by Pruitt and Ginny Dorson, an extremely rural couple whom he characterizes as

silent farm folk from the genuine old-time mountain stock. … Salt of the earth: That was the common phrase for families like the Dorsons, but my father considered that it was all too common. Soul of the earth, he thought, earth's own earth.

(p. 56)

The purest expression of Chappell's longing for a complete reunification with his Appalachian heritage is found in his desire to be one with the earth itself, which Jess Kirkman symbolically achieves at the end of Look Back All the Green Valley (also the culmination of the entire octave), when he finds himself on a rainy night covered in the mud of his father's grave.

The Dorsons, Fred's “shadow cousins,” the “dirt poor” as Fred's grandmother calls them (p. 12), and all the other “genuine old-time mountain” folk in Chappell's narratives figure the same way that shepherds figure in traditional pastoral poetry, as a liaison between the pure and simple world of Nature and the complicated and impure urban world of the pastoral poet. As J. E. Congleton explains,

The shepherd, actually, is half man and half Nature; he has enough in common with man to be his universal representative and has enough in common with Nature to be at one with it. Because the shepherd is so close to Nature, man, through him, can become united with Nature and consequently feel that he is a harmonious part of the whole and that his ideas are reconciled with the fundamental truths.10

Through a study of his Appalachian “shepherds,” Chappell similarly hopes to overcome his geographic and spiritual estrangement and get in touch with the simple, the concrete, what he feels to be his own essential nature.

The error of leaving the farm and forgetting one's birthright of “dirt” involves perhaps the dominant theme of Midquest: the loss of the concrete world through a process of abstraction. Dirt represents here the empirical world, unornamented by the imagination; this is Stevens's “things as they are,” that most elusive of quantities, because the imagination, as Stevens and other modernists discovered, is hardly capable of registering sensory experience without resorting to metaphor and comparisons or even prefabricated formulae. The epistemological anxiety associated with language's inevitable process of abstracting concrete existence is, of course, not a problem new to the twentieth-century modernists. Kermode argues that the “great seventeenth-century war of Ancients and Moderns was really fought on divergent interpretations of Imitation, in the widest sense of the term” (p. 24), considering “Imitation” as the relation of art to its tradition and the extent to which working within such a tradition facilitates or hinders the writer's ability to describe faithfully the natural world. Kermode notes that in pastoral the ubiquitous opposition between town and country always serves to suggest the more general opposition between Art and Nature, and that though this opposition is integral to all literary genres, nowhere is it “so evident and acute as in Pastoral” (p. 12). Pastoral promises a reunification with Nature by means of considering human culture at its most basic level, and yet, as Kermode observes, the challenge to the pastoral poet is to avoid merely an inauthentic imitation of established conventions. This challenge is one familiar to any reader of Southern literature. Just as the earlier pastorals often tended toward derivative accounts of shepherds and nymphs, Southern writers have felt the temptation toward predictable representations of pastoral types: the pure and virtuous belle, the noble colonel-father, the faithful Negro retainer, the hillbilly farmer.

In Midquest Chappell frequently calls attention to this problem, as in the poem “Firewater,” in which the boy Fred listens to his father and his father's drinking buddy Virgil Campbell as they lament the passing of the old ways and of the genuine Appalachian farmers. What their dialogue makes obvious to the reader is the difficulty of representing a “genuine” Appalachian farmer—as well as how the label itself implies a level of self-consciousness in which the organic and traditional have been extracted from their living medium to be displayed for their picturesque value. Virgil begins the poem by describing his recent visit to rural Clay County—where some of his backwater cousins live—for the purpose of watching their centennial celebration. The festival's main attraction was the “Grand Parade, / Celebrating their most famous products” (p. 78), with moonshine topping the list. In an effort to celebrate their culture, the local officials have traveled up Standing Indian Mountain to invite Big Mama and her family (whom they have been trying to prosecute for ten years) to “build a model still” and “waltz it down Main Street in broad daylight” (p. 79). The plan backfires during the middle of the parade when a mule following behind Big Mama's float staggers and then collapses, “Drunk as an owl, / Just from breathing the smoke that was pouring out / From Big Mama's model still” (p. 79). A deputy attempts to make an arrest, but “smiling so the crowd would think / It was part of the act” (p. 80), at which point

Big Mama's boys stood up—
Wearing phony beards, barefoot with beat-up hats,
Just like the hillbillies in the funny papers—
And threw down on the deputy three shotguns.
Whether they were loaded I don't know.
He didn't know. Except Big Mama's bunch
Nobody knew.

(p. 80)

The use of disguises here serves as a metafictional device, calling our attention to the stereotype and thus forcing us to guess at the authentic identity we are incapable of witnessing. These are the pastoral's real shepherds wearing shepherd masks. As Houston Baker notes of the minstrel mask and its adoption by black speakers during the Jim Crow era,11 Big Mama's boys assume their hillbilly disguises as a means of protecting their genuine identities. That they alone know whether their guns are loaded further suggests their control over their own identity and culture and thereby invalidates Virgil and J. T.'s nostalgic lament of cultural erosion.

Throughout Midquest, Chappell faces the challenge of accurately describing Appalachian culture without self-consciously doing so. Of I Am One of You Forever Fred Hobson has noted a longing toward what Donald Davidson called “the autochthonous ideal,” or the artist's total immersion in his culture, which results in a vision that is not aesthetically or critically separate from its subject matter. Hobson notes that despite the common appearance of this aspiration in Southern literature, it is nearly always doomed to failure, since the writer requires a certain critical distance from his culture to make sense of it.12Midquest thoroughly exploits this tension between critical distance and a longing for immersion, a tension Chappell has inherited from the two primary models of classical pastoral, Theocritus and Vergil; Chappell possesses the former's close familiarity with the language and folkways of his rural subjects, along with the latter's gifts of philosophy and penetrating analysis of the ways in which simple, rural characters represent fundamental aspects of the human experience. Midquest triumphs in its combination of these two pastoral modes, in its ability to locate the universal in the concrete and thus avoid the two pitfalls dreaded by Southern writers: local color and abstraction.

The difficulty of creating narrative that reveals the essential truths of his experience is a problem Chappell remembers tentatively facing as a teenage farm boy, when churning out dozens of formulaic science-fiction stories seemed infinitely simpler than writing realistically about the natural world around him:

It was not that I had no realistic experience to write about; there was God's grand plenty of realism on a farm. But I found it impossible to organize experience into any kind of shape; reality may have had the advantage of authenticity but it had the disadvantage of stubbornness, of sheer perversity. It didn't want to be whittled, rearranged, or even comprehended: it just wanted to sit laconic in an ungainly lump and refuse to differentiate into parts.

([Plow Naked,] pp. 13-14)

By choosing in Midquest to differentiate experience into four rubrics associated with the four pre-Socratic elements, Chappell examines experience at its most fundamental level. The effect of the repeated images of water, fire, air, and earth relentlessly locates human experience in a natural, primitive context. The speakers in these poems are constantly in contact with the natural elements and interpret their lives by means of metaphors derived from the natural world. In “Second Wind,” for example, the grandmother tells the boy Fred the story of his grandfather's funeral and embodies the despair she felt in the hot, still August weather; similarly, the freshening of a breeze her emotional stasis and leads to hope.

Time in Midquest is cyclical, a concept reinforced by the poem's four-part structure. In each volume the poet's birthday begins with first light and progresses toward evening. The farming community depicted in Midquest measures time in a pre-modern way, planting crops by the phases of the moon, paying attention to the progress of the seasons, locating memory by references not to calendar dates so much as to significant events, often natural disasters, such as the storm described in “My Father's Hurricane.” Images of destruction and rebirth, almost always associated with one of the four elements, recur throughout Midquest. In River, for example, “Dead Soldiers” describes the flood of 1946, a natural disaster that affects all the farmers in the region and invites comparisons to the flood from Genesis. The following poem, “My Grandfather Gets Doused,” describes a church baptism that takes place in the same Pigeon River, and the subsequent poem, “My Grandmother Washes Her Vessels,” also develops the purification/baptism theme.

In the poems from Bloodfire, the themes of destruction and purification often occur together, as in “My Grandfather's Church Goes Up.” Remembering the fire that destroyed his grandfather's church, Ole Fred represents the inferno as a transfiguration in which the material of the church is purified into its fundamental elements, which leads him to a recognition of how these same essences remain a continuing presence in his own life, even though their material manifestations may have changed. Chappell borrows the structure and alliterative pattern of an Old English Ode and employs an abundance of archaic and Anglo-Saxon-derived vocabulary to suggest the ancient quality of the culture; like the language of Old English (still retained in some Appalachian idioms), his grandfather's world is available to him in changed forms that are ubiquitous if not readily apparent. Fred's longing for that lost culture combines with the congregation's past hymns of longing for God, as well as with his sexual longings for Susan when the poet and his wife return to the abandoned church site for a picnic. Their amorous picnic gives way to a transcendental moment in which Fred experiences the return of his grandfather's spirit: “In happy half-sleep I heard or half heard / in the bliss of breeze breath of my grandfather” (p. 76). The poem's catalogue of images of transfiguration, mirrored by its fascination with lexical transformation, puts forth a faith in eternal presence and unity of life, a reality he believes to be overlooked because of the tendency to accept momentary states of being as separate from their pre-existing and subsequent states. As in Faulkner, for Chappell here the past is not dead—it is not even past:

Pilgrim, the past                                        becomes prayer
becomes remembrance rock-real                    of Resurrection
when the Willer so willeth          works his wild wonders.

(p. 77)

Like Wordsworth's “spots in time,” for Ole Fred significant moments from his personal and cultural past have a continued existence that must be accessed in order to achieve an awareness of life as an organic whole. Though these recollections are infrequent and ephemeral, and though the poet can do little more than wait patiently and passively for them, they are accompanied by such a profound dissolution of the normal distinctions between subject and object, past and present, that he affirms them as “rock-real.”

The momentary perfect unity that Ole Fred experiences in “My Grandfather's Church Goes Up” is not often matched in Midquest, though it is consistently invoked and often approximated. Inherent even in the language we use to describe existence, Chappell points out, is the theme of estrangement from unity, how we rely upon familiar dialectics to make the world comprehensible, artificially dividing existence into body and spirit, subject and object, the spiritual and the secular, and other categories ad infinitum, Chappell views this tendency to dissect as a limitation of the human mind, a metaphysical state for which his cultural dislocation from his Appalachian past serves as an apt metaphor. Within this broader context, his longing for unity with the community of his childhood takes on a much greater significance. John Lang points out how throughout Midquest the central metaphor of marriage “testifies to the union—often a difficult one—of distinct personalities or qualities” and serves as an expression of the universal desire for “love,” “order,” and “harmony.”13 Both Lang and Dabney Stuart have addressed the poem's recurrent tension between body and spirit.14 Lang notes Chappell's constant “impatience with the loss of the Creation, whether in Platonic idealism, Cartesian idealism, Emersonian Transcendentalism, or Protestant fundamentalism, with their tendency to denigrate the physical world” (p. 108). One finds the occasional overt rejection of such idealistic abstraction in poems such as “The Autumn Bleat of the Weathervane Trombone” and “Birthday 35: Diary Entry,” but more frequently Chappell chooses to dramatize the ineffectualness and comic absurdity of such positions, as in “My Grandfather Gets Doused,” the account of his grandfather's abortive conversion to the Baptists' belief in instantaneous salvation, which Chappell writes in a bawdy terza rima as a mock version of Dante's Divine Comedy. Also, in the several poems focusing on the sensualist Virgil Campbell, Chappell creates a character who consistently opposes the shams of local religionists who oppose his fun.

Despite this delight in the sensual world for its own sake, Chappell's strong metaphysical bent finds ample expression throughout Midquest, as in “Firewood,” “The Peaceable Kingdom of Emerald Windows,” and “Susan Bathing,” poems in which he takes pains to deify the material world, to oppose cold scientific rationality with a tentative transcendentalism. In the “Preface,” Chappell calls Midquest “in its largest design a love poem” (p. xi), which is obvious in the numerous poems Ole Fred addresses to his wife, Susan, especially the morning bedroom scenes. However, Midquest is concerned with multiple forms of love: erotic, platonic, divine, filial, and love of nature. Love, of course, has always been a main theme of pastoral poetry from classical times onward, and, with the influence of Neo-Platonism, the relation of physical and spiritual love became further developed and systematized (Kermode, p. 35). Though Lang is correct in stressing that Chappell is uncomfortable with Neo-Platonism's subjugation of the body to spirit, the essential desire for unity found in Neo-Platonism (as well as Emersonian Transcendentalism and backwoods Christianity) is an essential component of Midquest—and of Chappell's pastoral Kirkman novels. Throughout, love serves to draw the individual out of isolation and to make connection with another person, with God, with the earth itself.

The awakening address to Susan that begins each of the four volumes establishes the basic structure of address that most of the other poems follow, including the four poems in the form of letters, the many dramatic dialogues, and the prayers. In each, Chappell places an intended audience within the poem, emphasizing the use of language to make a connection, rather than—as in the first two parts of “Birthday 35: Diary Entry”—as cloistered, confessional expression. In “Bloodfire Garden,” he easily conflates “the disease / necessary to know God” with “the heat / in the animal calling to animals” and longs to return to a primal unity, to forget distinctions between the physical and the spiritual:

                    Take me into your world of blade and rock
help me return                                        to when the sun
first struck off in fury
the boiling planets.

(p. 91)

“Bloodfire Garden” is a meditation on creation and procreation, relating scenes of sexual intercourse with his wife to boyhood episodes in early spring when he watched his father burning down the weeds and vines to prepare the garden for the growing season. He recalls witnessing in the garden the miracle of incarnation as “the ghosts began again to take flesh” (p. 93). The poem ends with a tight four-line stanza in which the four classical elements are envisioned in harmony, an image that periodically recurs throughout Midquest, each time evoking awe at the miraculous unity of creation, how the “jarring elements” (“Earthsleep,” p. 186) of fire, water, earth, and air, are held together in an apparently seamless whole, just as spirit and body in their natural states are unified and whole.

In such an optimistic poem abounding in transcendental images of unity, one of the most memorable stanzas depicts Fred as a boy of twelve in the woods at night, longing for the “gleam” of a “hunters” campfire / blinking” at him through the darkness, only to find himself separated from their warmth by the barrier of a dark river, in which he sees reflected “Orion / sliding the water calmly” (p. 92). As a mere reflection or counterfeit of the actual stars, the boy is doubly alienated from the celestial fires of Orion the Hunter, just as he is separated by the river from the terrestrial warmth of the hunters' fire, suggesting the pubescent boy's alienation from both man and God. The image is followed by an address to the adult poet's wife, “Now you warm me,” indicating that the adolescent's recognition of desire has led to adult consummation. An alternate reading of the image of the reflected constellation would involve its antithetical relation to the image of the hunters' fire. Rather than duplicating the feeling of alienation, the vision of the stars in the water serves as a compensation. The tone of the stanza begins with a feverish desire to reach the hunters' fire and then shifts to a feeling of resignation and sublimity upon the boy's witnessing the divine order of the stars, their already cold fires made yet colder by their reflection in water. Inner, spiritual warmth comes in compensation for, or as a sublimation of, physical warmth, just as the poet's desire for the imagined childhood unity with family leads instead to a beatific image of an ordered cosmos, one in which the human longing for love and connection plays an integral part. Midquest and the subsequent Jess Kirkman novels abound with images of the alienated adolescent, but, unlike the alienation depicted in Chappell's early novels, in the later work alienation promises the possibility of reconciliation.

Lang observes that “For Chappell, genuine selfhood exists only in and through relationships to something outside the self” (p. 99). If this assessment is accurate, it can help us to understand the reasons for the deterioration of selfhood we find in the protagonists of his earlier gothic novels It Is Time, Lord and Dagon. These characters' schizophrenia and dementia are products of their alienation from any social context that would organize their psyches in a recognizable or meaningful pattern. In Midquest, Chappell reminds us of the need to avoid this trap when he frequently employs a dialectic between the alienated, self-absorbed imagination, and an imagination that is constituted by its contact with other family members, with farm labor, and with exposure to the elements themselves. “Cleaning the Well” begins “Two worlds there are. One you think / You know; the Other is the Well” (p. 14). He goes on to describe being lowered into the well by his grandfather with instructions to “Clean it out good” (p. 15), and imagines on the way down what he will find at the bottom: a “monster trove / Of blinding treasure … Ribcage of drowned warlock” (p. 14). Instead, he finds “Twelve plastic pearls, monopoly / Money, a greenish rotten cat, / Rubber knife, toy gun” (p. 15), detritus from his childhood. He also discovers physical and psychological anguish, “Precise accord / Of pain, disgust, and fear” (p. 15), and comes back up believing that he has died and returned from the dead, “Recalling something beyond recall” (p. 16). Like Poe's alienated narrators, the boy has discovered in this altered perspective a painful reality, from which he is normally protected by his daily life that is contextualized and defined by his relationships with other family members. At the end of the poem, when the cold and frightened child returns from the well exclaiming, “Down there I kept thinking I was dead,” the grandfather retorts, “Aw, you're all right” (p. 17), reestablishing the boys sense of security and connectedness, but also dismissing the validity of his vision, attributing it simply to childish fancy and frailty. The reader is left in the same quandary as the boy, disoriented, plunged into the well, unsure which vision is the more valid.

“Feverscape: The Silver Planet” is another study of adolescent alienation. A tendency toward sickliness and an insatiable interest in science fiction coalesce in this depiction of the feverish nightmares that come to the bedridden boy. In “Feverscape” the isolated ego is purged through suffering, as it is throughout the Bloodfire poems. In “Rimbaud Fire Letter to Jim Applewhite,” Fred looks back on his late teens and twenties with a mixture of nostalgia, condescension, and gratitude for having survived. He remembers the Durham beer joints where he and his poet friend nursed “the artificial fevers, wet [behind the ears] / With Falstaff beer” (p. 58), deeply under the influence of Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Chappell depicts this friendship in the same terms he uses to describe his friendship with his high school buddy Fuzz in “A Pact with Faustus”: two outsiders joined by their artistic interests and especially by a mutual interest in a Romantic literary hero whom they both emulate. The adolescent Fred is aware of the differences that separate him from others in his community but chooses to see his lack of social success as the artist's inevitable sacrifice:

So passed my high school years. The senior prom
I missed, and the girls, and all the thrilling sports.
My teachers asked me, “Boy, where you from?”
“From deep in a savage forest of unknown words.”
The dialogue went downhill after that,
But our positions were clear respectively:
They stood up for health and truth and light.
I stood up for Baudelaire and me.

(pp. 58-59)

The boy's grandiose vision of himself becomes a source of comedy for the more mature poet, who is capable of valuing the adolescent's vision of artistic success while vicariously suffering for his naiveté: “Those were the days! …—But they went on and on and on. / The failure I saw myself grew darker and darker” (p. 60). This failure derives from an intuition of his own inauthenticity; the process of discovering his identity and his voice bears all the awkwardness of adolescence, a time in which he struggles to distinguish himself from his parents and community but also to determine the commonalties that bind them together.

Painfully, he recalls leaving the university: “They kicked me out and back to the hills I went / But not before they'd taught me how to see / Myself as halfway halved and halfway blent” (p. 60). In suffering this fragmentation of identity and values, Fred becomes what he calls in the “Preface” a “demographic sample” of the twentieth century. His experience as an artist likewise resembles that of the early- to mid-twentieth-century artist. Like the high modernists, his oeuvre shows an interest in social fragmentation resulting from commercialization, urbanization, and technology (especially the world-shattering technologies unleashed during the World Wars), an obsession with the alienation that results from such fragmentation, a neo-Romantic privileging of the imagination rather than a strict adherence to verisimilitude, a self-reflexiveness that often tends toward metafiction, and a reliance upon multiple subjectivities to reveal an underlying unified reality.

Perhaps most significantly, Chappell shares with the modernists a growing distrust of Romanticism's emphasis on the individual and the solipsism such an aesthetic implies. With maturity, Chappell came to distance himself from the French Symbolists who had inspired his youth, and, like T. S. Eliot, he embraced the classical and neo-classical poets. Just as the later Eliot turned away from the incipient nihilism of The Waste Land to write the optimistic Four Quartets, Chappell “turned [his] back on the ashes of Paree-town” and began studying “folks like Pope and Bertrand Bronson,” and the complete works of Samuel Johnson, for which he wrote a massive, 1,110-page Concordance as his Master's thesis (McFee, p. 97). This shift from a romantic to a classical sensibility is readily apparent when one compares the studies in alienation we find in Chappell's early four novels (1963-1973) with Midquest (1981) and the four Kirkman novels (1985-1999), in which Chappell depicts an ordered, harmonious society and, by extension, a harmonious universe. A structural comparison of these works yields similar findings. Unlike the montage of It Is Time, Lord (1963), a brilliant novel, which, nevertheless, resists not only closure but the production of any sort of stable meaning. Midquest presents an ordered repetition of image and event, which reflects a psychic balance and harmony rather than discord. The multiple subjectivities represented in Midquest's dramatic monologues and dialogues create the sense of a community of interdependent speakers. Consider, for example, how the speakers in poems VI, VII, and VIII in Wind Mountain are linked by their relation to the Second Circle of Dante's Inferno, with VI introducing the allusion, VII developing it more fully and then explicitly introducing the windy confession of Virgil Campbell in VIII. The connections among poems are usually more subtle, though no less important. Often, adjacent poems in one of the four volumes are paired, as in VI, VII and VIII of River, poems dealing with themes of fallenness and redemption. Also, there are multiple connections among volumes, poems in the same position of each volume that present the same character, theme, and/or verse structure.

Lucinda Hardwick MacKethan argues that Southern pastorals have always been motivated by the “need of people in a rapidly changing world to have a vision of an understandable order.”15 According to MacKethan, a

particular social structure becomes a dramatic mechanism … for examining systems of values for any one of a great variety of purposes, emotional and political as well as artistic. Southern literature in its own clear tradition is associated with strong judgments and a positive system of values—not always the same judgments or even the same system, to be sure, yet a literature that seems to insist on shared standards highly visible and widely articulated.

(pp. 5-6)

Throughout Midquest and the Kirkman Quartet, Chappell demonstrates just such in eager interest in the network of relationships that define the farming family, the basic political unit of yeoman society. Like Thomas Jefferson's yeoman utopia and Vergil's Golden Age, Chappell promotes yeomanry as the ideal society, one that makes possible the difficult balance between individual freedom and social integrity. This tension between the claim of the individual and the claims of society is at the heart of Midquest and is a tension Chappell seeks to resolve in part by demonstrating how the values of personal autonomy and responsibility are central to the frontier community's vision of itself (drawing attention to the often fine line between autonomy and alienation). In fact, it is the loss of autonomy on the part of the individual and the family that most demonstrates the decline of the community. Fred's father, J. T., is constantly lamenting that farming no longer remains economically viable, as in the poems “My Father Burns Washington” and “My Father Washes His Hands.” Both poems present the Appalachian farmer's transition from subsistence farming to the production of cash crops as a fall from grace, after which the farmer is dependent upon market prices and bank loans. Throughout Midquest Chappell simultaneously participates in and undercuts this sort of nostalgia. For example, in “Firewater” (discussed earlier) we are invited to take only half seriously J. T. and Virgil Campbell's lament of cultural erosion represented by the case of Big Mama and her rural family. Virgil explains that out of economic necessity Big Mama has “stopped running corn [whiskey]” and begun “Growing these Merry Widow cigarettes,” a fact that leaves both Virgil and J. T. dejected and longing for the old times, mourning the disappearance of what they see as Appalachia's “eternal verities” of “poverty and whiskey and scratch-ankle farming” (p. 80). This comic elegy parodies the more serious longing for a stable order that appears throughout Midquest. Fred's father models the appropriate response to a universe in perpetual flux by proposing a toast “here at the end of the world” (p. 80). The tale of Big Mama itself reveals how, in the midst of change. Appalachian values of defiant independence hold their own—though, perhaps, in an ever more degraded form—exemplified by the moonshiners who merely change crops but remain outlaws, and by the name of the mountain where they live, “Standing Indian,” which has lost any etymological connection to the indigenous Cherokee driven out on the Trail of Tears, but whose English name conjures the image of durability and defiance. Furthermore, the mountain now nourishes a race who, like the legendary Cherokee, value self-sufficiency and challenge centralized authority.

Midquest elegizes not simply personal and cultural loss but cosmic entropy. Like most of the poems that serve as frames for the four volumes, “On Stillpoint Hill at Midnight” is a meditation on the relation of the individual to the cosmic order. This poem, addressed to Susan, finds solace in the stability of their relationship while “creation dribbles / out the bottleneck of diminishment” (p. 46). He finds abundant evidence of universal social collapse: “murdered soldiers” in 1971 Vietnam, animals indifferently and wastefully slaughtered by humans, “rivers rotting to lye where the mill-drains vomit inky venom,” and “babies thrust into sewer pipes” (p. 48). Nevertheless, like Whitman and Thoreau, whom he elsewhere looks to as optimistic visionaries (see “Earth Emergent Drifts the Fire River” p. 147), Chappell finds in nature and human sexuality hope for the endless renewal of life and order, a theme explored from the very first poem of Midquest, “The River Awakening in the Sea.” Here, in long lines and slightly hyperbolic images, both characteristic of Whitman, Chappell ennobles the human form by having Ole Fred describe his wife's body in terms of the natural landscape: “My forehead suckles your shoulder, straining to hear / In you the headlong ocean, your blood, island-saying sea now. / Wild stretches, bound to every water, of seas in you” (p. 1). This passage expresses a transcendental faith in the connectedness of the individual to the vast physical universe, and even in the title one finds Emerson's primary metaphor for the Over-Soul, in which the material contiguity of sea and river represents the “influx of the Divine mind into our mind.”16 It should be acknowledged here that, as with most modernists, Chappell's repudiation of the Romantics is only a partial one, which he concedes in “Fire Letter” when Fred recalls his father's words: “Fire's in the bloodstream” (p. 61). Wordsworth and the American Romantics, in particular, resonate throughout Midquest. In contrast to the decadence of the late Romantics, their democratic optimism provides an image of the individual immersed in nature and connected with a cosmic order, which provides a source of inspiration for Chappell, even if his own optimism is often qualified by doubt.

“On Stillpoint Hill” mirrors the meditative quality of “The River Awakening.” In both, the speaker attempts to merge with the mind of God and consider the present decline of civilization from the perspective of eternity, which allows him to witness the cyclic and eternally renewing processes of nature:

consider how the giants went
into earth
patiently to wait themselves
into stone;
considering again how stones will burgeon
into animals, erupting to four feet
on glossy lawns,
and gnawing the ruled streets and lot corners
of suburbs

(p. 45)

If, as several critics have pointed out, Susan serves as Fred's Beatrice in the poem's overarching journey toward redemption, in “On Stillpoint Hill” Fred takes the lead in imagining wholeness. In the tradition of the pastoral love lyric (and of Whitman's Song of Myself) Fred invites Susan to join him in immersing themselves in nature:

We will rest simple,
we will taste with our pores
the powerful probabilities massing about
indivisible infinite motes of water
as the earth sweats itself
in this springhead.
Or come with me at 6 a.m.
in the woods by the lake
We must he careless as
these forces foment,
we also must reflect every
fire of the heavens
and the cool effortless moon
trawling our faces.
Must read too the waters clouding us. …

(pp. 47-48)

Like Emerson's transparent eyeball, the poet must purge himself of ego and, passive and permeable to the forces of nature, record their impression upon his soul. At the same time, one finds the transcendentalists' egotistical optimism in the Whitmanian imperative that they “must reflect every fire of the heavens,” ultimately placing the burden of perfect conservation of universal energy and order upon the poet. Elsewhere in the poem, Ole Fred boasts that “each upheaval that order is, / my stillness takes in” (p. 45). If we read the poem's protagonist as an Everyman, or “widely representative” (“Preface” p. x), then, as with Whitman's persona in Song of Myself, we the readers are invited to identify closely with this persona and to follow his example of transcendental faith, so that what appears boasting is actually a democratic celebration of every person's promise of fulfillment through a connection to nature and the Divine.

One of the most readily apparent tensions throughout Midquest appears between the dramatic monologues and dialogues in Appalachian vernacular and the meditative, often free-verse poems such as “On Stillpoint Hill” and “The River Awakening.” Other than the obvious differences in idiom and verse structure, there occurs a fundamental difference in scope, with the dramatic poems typically limited to the concrete world of Appalachia and the meditations often tending toward universal abstractions, as noted above. Considering that Chappell's aim throughout—even in the meditations—is to avoid abstraction, while, nevertheless, attaining the universal, the balance of the two poetic forms helps to accomplish this goal. In effect, his dramatic poems locate the meditations upon universal order in a concrete world, just as Whitman's abundant use of catalogues serves to embody Emerson's Transcendentalism. By associating the specific instance of Appalachian yeomanry with a cosmic order in which that culture's values are sustained, Chappell expresses faith in a Golden Age, accessible, if not in actuality, then at least through poetry.

The faith in sustainability—in a Divine order that manifests itself in the social order of an farming community—is essentially Jefferson's yeoman utopia or, earlier still, Vergil's Golden Age. In “The Poet and the Plowman,” his essay on the Georgics, Chappell examines Vergil's dictum, “Nudas ara, sere nudus, Plow naked, naked sow,” and declares, “The words are there to remind us of the ceremonial, and ultimately religious nature of farming; they remind us of the selfless rituals we must undergo in order to keep faith” (Plow, p. 76). Further on, he continues this theme:

The largest purpose of the Georgics is not to dignify, but to sanctify, honest farm labor. A reader who has not looked at it in a long time finds he has forgotten that the poem is full of stars. Even the smallest task must be undertaken in due season under the proper constellations. These prescriptions are not mere meteorology; they connect the order of the earth to the order of the stars. The farmer moves by the motion of the stars, and his labors determine the concerns of the government. The Roman State is not founded upon the soil, it is founded in the universe. And so were all the other civilizations which managed to endure for any length of time. If poets do not wish to study these matters and treat of them, they shirk their responsibilities and fail their society.

(p. 77)

Just as the hunter-farmers and Orion the Hunter are conflated in “Bloodfire Garden,” in this passage Chappell makes explicit his belief in the spiritual harmony that exists between yeomen and the cosmos. The language here is as confrontational as anything found in the Agrarians' manifesto, I'll Take My Stand. Chappell's conviction that the artist bears a responsibility to his public—that he should show that public a vision of its better self—is a distinctly pre-modern notion, and one of Chappell's most notable frustrations with contemporary poetry derives from his observation that the vast majority of it, good and bad, takes the shape of the “autobiographical lyric” with little in the way of “social scope” (Midquest, p. x). Private alienation is a topic Chappell himself thoroughly explored in his first four novels, one that he felt fortunate to escape in his poetry.

In Midquest, he turns away from a fascination with private reality to a consideration of cultural values, which, true to the agrarian culture he describes, are presented in a reverential tone that might be described as oftentimes prescriptive. Indeed, Midquest comes as close to the epic as anything we are likely to find in contemporary poetry. As with Vergil, for Chappell poetry's greatest value lies in its ability to capture not only a life but a world. Poetry has the ability to compensate for a life estranged from farming because poetry shares with farming so many spiritual values: “fatalism, renunciation, awe of nature, reverence for the earth” (Plow, p. 74), and “a life of ordered observation and inspired patience” (p. 79). Even in an age when social fragmentation is accepted as normative, when the world of the Appalachian farmer must seem to most readers as remote as Vergil's Golden Age, with Midquest Chappell convincingly portrays a life that “touches an essential harmony of things” (Plow, p. 79).


  1. Fred Chappell. Plow Naked: Selected Writings on Poetry (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), p. 73.

  2. The Kirkman Quartet includes: I Am One of You Forever (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985): Brighten the Corner Where You Are (New York: St. Martin's, 1989); Farewell, I'm Bound to Leave You (New York: Picador, 1996); and Look Back All the Green Valley (New York: Picador, 1999).

  3. Fred Chappell, “Preface.” Midquest: A Poem (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981), p. x.

  4. Frank Kermode, English Pastoral Poetry: From the Beginnings to Marvell (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1952), p. 15.

  5. Fred Chappell, “A Pact with Faustus,” Mississippi Quarterly, 37 (1984); rpt. in The Fred Chappell Reader, ed. Dabney Stuart (New York: St. Martin's, 1987), p. 489.

  6. Michael McFee. “The Epigrammatical Fred Chappell,” Southern Literary Journal, 31 (Spring 1999), 96.

  7. George Hovis. “An Interview with Fred Chappell,” Carolina Quarterly, 52 (Fall/Winter 1999), 72-73.

  8. Fred Chappell. It Is Time, Lord (1963: rpt., Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996), p. 85.

  9. T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland and Other Poems (New York: Harvest, 1934), p. 42.

  10. J. E. Congleton. Theories of Pastoral Poetry in England, 1684-1798 (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1952), p. 4.

  11. Houston A. Baker. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

  12. Fred Hobson, “Contemporary Southern Fiction and the Autochthonous Ideal,” in The Southern Writer in the Postmodern World (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991), pp. 73-101.

  13. John Lang, “Points of Kinship: Community and Allusion in Fred Chappell's Midquest,” in Dream Garden, ed. Patrick Bizzaro (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997), p. 98.

  14. See Dabney Stuart. “Spiritual Matter in Fred Chappell's Poetry: A Prologue” (Dream Garden, pp. 48-70).

  15. Lucinda Hardwick MacKethan. The Dream of Arcady: Place and Time in Southern Literature (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980), p. 6.

  16. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Over-Soul,” in Selected Writings of Emerson, ed. Donald McQuade (New York: Modern Library College Edition, 1981), p. 253.


Fred Chappell Poetry: American Poets Analysis