- 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 “bloodfire” 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” ), 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. (5)
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”  at “snail-white corpses / bloating the Mekong and Hudson” ) 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.”
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 (138—139).
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 method involves correspondences and analogies—ways of exploring and mapping relationships, both galactic and personal.
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,
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 (56).
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”:
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:
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 (25).
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 (25).
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:
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 Hilter’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.
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 (16).
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 Wilier 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:
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).
that beauty too is Jesus . . . that
unattending beauty is danger and mortal sin . . .
must cleave to speech, speech being my single
though this speech clings only a soiled atomic
instant about your bare feet before pouring fast to the
black mouth of the pipe to smother. . . .
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
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:
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 (20).
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.”
How would I get it back? Go to blood
again, sleep the light green sleep?
How can I wake, not waking to music? (11).
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:
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.
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 (9).
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 barbaric que I’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:
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.
“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” (53).
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 (22).
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:
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:
With the word I set down after
the next word I set down,
all is obliterate.
a blind white plain as far as anyone can see,
a clean snowfield into which we march like children,
printing our fine new names (27).
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.”
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 . . .(13).
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 (36).
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:
In “Observers,” troubled and still pondering the unthinkable consequences of life without music, Chappell characterizes the late 20th century as
Then it came apart, the stave-line filaments
Of gleam snapped by a mortar shell, viola
And cello strings dying under the tank treads (37—38).
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 (44).
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 (7).
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
Its politics, the soldiers marry the farmers’ daughters
And tell their plowman sons about the fight at the
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
Whether the soaring constellations promise rain (10).
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 Alien, Lombardi, and heroic Priam in one bold stroke:
By having Alien 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.
He fetched out of that high magniloquent head
A telling line of the Second Aeneid.
Forsitan et, Priami fuerint quae fata, requiras? (16).
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 (5).
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 I 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
And still I stand here guarding the bones of Adam (57).
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.