A CulturalnCincinnatusnby David R. SlavittnFirst and Last Wordsnby Fred ChappellnBaton Rouge and London: LouisiananState University Press; 57 pp.,n$13.95 cloth; $6.95 papernThere are passages, even wholenpoems in Fred Chappell’s newncollection for which there are clearlynprecedents in, or one might say kinshipsnto, the work of other poets. The urbanenchattiness of “Subject Matter,” for instance,nmakes no bones about it.nIt is nice to imagine hownAuden would openna poem about the Farbenlehrenwith a genial phrase:n”The mistaken Faust putndown his prism . . . ” —nsomething like that, but defter;nwould find an ismnrhyme pleasant and refreshing,nand with polished easenwould set the situation,ndrop innan intriguing factnor two,nkeeping in mind his aimnto civilizenour anxious century.nThere are other notes and timbres,nthough. “Bee” recalls the elegiac JohnnCrowe Ransom. “The Garden” is redolentnof Wallace Stevens in its elegantlynmeditative whimsicality. There arentraces — there always have been — ofnAllen Tate, and there are other voices,ntoo, some of which I may have missed.nOne can take notice of such gestures,nadmire their parlor-trick dexterity, andnleave it at that. But I think that would bento miss part of the point of Chappell’snextraordinary new volume.nBemused imitation, more or lessnhelpless, is predictable behavior in anpromising novice. Indeed, that’s mostlynhow a novice learns the tricks of hisntrade as, by trial and error, he discoversnhis own character and voice. Chappell,nhowever, is an accomplished master.nThere can’t be a dozen poets nownwriting in English to compare with himnfor technical facility, breadth of culture,nand emotional range. If Fred Chappellnis playing around this way, it must benserious play. Surely, whatever he does,nhe does now not merely on impulse butnwith deliberation.nThese performances in various keys,nthese nods, friendly, pious, or polite, innthe direction of various literary forebearsnserve to extend the range of Chappell’snestablished voice, to insist on the richnessnof the choices he faces amongncompeting cultural and stylistic possibilitiesnof life in America, of his life innNorth Carolina at the close of thenmillennium. He signs himself, as henalways has, ever since The World Betweennthe Eyes, as a man of the country,na man whose diction can sometimesnverge on back-roads quaintnessn(“to olden,” meaning “to age,” is not anverb many contemporary poets havenused). He is proud to show that hencomes from farming people. The assertion,nthen, in these poems — as naturalnto them as breathing or laughtern— of cosmopolitan high culture is nonmere embellishment but a part of theirnpurpose, an aesthetic and even politicalncomment that seems to me to conformnto Tate’s model and that of the othernFugitives. Their ideal was a kind ofncultural Cincinnatus, the amateur, thenman of the country whose connectionnwith learning, in no way trendy, wasnthe very opposite of what the citynslickers banter about at their cocktailnparties. If a man’s house is his castle, itncan also be his university and his club.nThe bookishness of this book arises,nI should imagine, from Chappell’s realizationnthat city dwellers tend to benoverstimulated and therefore deprivednof the tranquility that is an importantnpart of intellectual life. One must haventime to read and to reread, which usednto be all there was to do before thosendish antennas started sprouting upnamong the outbuildings of farms.nChappell’s title. First and Last Words,nrefers to his nine prologue and ninenepilogue poems, all of which are meditationsneither on texts (Job, thenOresteia, Beowulf, The Wind in thenWillows, or the Constitution of thenUnited States) or writers (Goethe, Tolstoy,nTacitus, Livy, Einstein, Kant). Henis claiming these books and writers, asnwell as explaining and commentingnupon them — as one might explain andncomment on the lives of interestingnneighbors.nThe middle section, “Entr’acte,” isnnna garland of short poems that aren’tnbookish except insofar as they arisenfrom the cultivated ground of Chappell’snmind and sensibility. If he hadnnot already established himself as annuncannily accurate reporter of countrynscenes, “Bee” would make his reputation:nThe house is changed wherendeath has come,nas the rose is changednby the visit of the bee and hisnfreight of pollen.nThe house is opened tonthe merciesnof strangers to whom thendead fathernis presented like andelectable veal,nfor whom the linens arenunearthednand spread to air, the whiskiesndecanted.nSurvivors gossip theirnlast respects:na bumble of voices in thenliving roomnlike the drowse of musicnaround the white hive busy innthe sunny field.nIn the breathlessnupstairs bedroomnone lost beencrawls the pane behind thenglass curtain,nsearching to enter that field andnall its clovers.nWhat sets such pieces — fine as theynare — is their placement between thenprologues and epilogues, the bookishnpoems that range in tone and time toninvoke and re-enliven the culture’snresources. “Patience,” a prologue tonThe Georgics, opens with a vision ofnrural life:nThe farmers and their animalsnhave sculpted the worldnTo a shape like some smoothnmonumental family group.nThe father mountains and thenmother clouds, their progenynmeadowsnStationed about them, as ifnposing for a photographnTo be taken from a silver orbiternspaceship by beingsnLike angelic horses, who returnn)ULY 1989/29n