Casting the body’s vest aside,

My soul into the boughs does glide.

—Andrew Marvell (1621-78),

“The Garden”

Browsing through the poetry section at Borders, I came upon a sole copy of a new book of poems by Fred Chappell, Shadow Box.  I have been an admirer of Chappell’s fiction for years, especially his novel I Am One of You Forever (1987), with its delightful, poignant, and sometimes hilarious reminiscences of a boyhood in the western mountains of North Carolina.  I was aware of his poetry, too, although I had never delved seriously into it.  The first thing I read, opening the volume at random, was this:

Buried in logic, what can you find,

Shackled to flesh, what can you see

About the madcap world beyond.

Of time’s wild timeless mystery?

The poem is a “Duologue” between “Spirit” and “Mind,” with the former’s argument indicated in italics, and the latter’s in regular print.  Thus, this was a single poem consisting of two poems, one encased or embedded in the other.

Here, beyond question, is a milestone in American poetry.  Although the Neo-Formalist movement has existed now for two or more decades—a desperately needed corrective to the formless, nihilistic blather passing for poetry in America—even this school has produced a great many works that, while formally polished, remain empty at their core.  But in Shadow Box, Chappell has at once done something utterly new—giving us perfectly formed poems that often have a second perfectly formed poem ensconced within, thus matching or surpassing the intellectual brilliance and virtuosic craftsmanship of some of the Neo-Formalists—while simultaneously reviving certain characteristics of traditional poetry long absent from American letters.  These include, primarily, a grounding in sanity—right reason and moral wisdom, as well as a use of poetry to delve where modes of writing merely derived from logic cannot go, into the human soul, level upon level; and on top of all of this, the use of imagery to convey a perfect mutual reflection of man and nature, of self and other, of body and soul.

Notwithstanding the unquestionable originality of Chappell’s work in this book, one is reminded of certain beacons of poetic history.  It would be unfair to suggest that Chappell is in any sense imitating these; it is rather the case that certain key currents in literature, long buried, are resurfacing with fresh creativity in his writing.  He might be seen as a modern Metaphysical.  The theologically informed poems included in the fourth and fifth sections—the “Duologue” mentioned above, and the “Two Latin Hymns,” among them—conjure George Herbert (1593-1633).  Never since Herbert has poetry so successfully channeled the lifeblood of Christianity, dogma, liturgy, and the vibrant life of prayer and confession.

Herbert’s “Confession” opens with an image that anticipates the “shadow box” of Chappell’s book title:

 O what a cunning guest

Is this same grief!  Within my heart I made

Closets; and in them many a chest;

And, like a master in my trade,

In those chests, boxes; in each box, a till:

Yet grief knows all, and enters when he will.

And Chappell, in his “Process,” one of the real masterpieces in the book, moves from “Secret” through “Confession” to “Absolution”:

Confess: The secret that tears your sleep, shackles

your spirit, and seals within itself, as in

a vault, its self-destroying proof, denied

so often, is one you cannot keep or silence.

Here, the text in regular type forms a rhyming poem within the nonrhyming poem: “The secret that tears your sleep, / and seals within itself, / its self-destroying proof, / is one you cannot keep.”  This itself is a perfect quatrain forming a kind of envoy—or counterenvoy—to the complete stanza.  It is actually unfair to take this stanza out of the context of the full poem, but the latter is too long to quote here in its entirety.  It suffices to note that both Herbert and Chappell, in their different modes, have captured the tormenting way in which self-delusion fails to block inner decay.  Only confession will ultimately lead to absolution, and though we may not be surprised to find Herbert’s devotion to truth in the 17th century, Chappell’s in the year 2009—his hard-won poetic expression of true hope after despair—is beyond refreshing, almost miraculous:

Forget: It has not buried your life, devoted

to defend that which you most lived for; it struck

and yet it could not break the core credo;

the tenets of your heartfelt belief still stand.

In Chappell’s more imagistic poems, another of the Metaphysicals, Marvell, is somehow evoked.  Marvell, journeying along the razor’s edge separating within from without, idea from entity, mind from sensual nature, in “The Garden” writes,

. . . [T]he mind, from pleasure less,

Withdraws into its happiness:

The mind, that ocean where each kind

Does straight its own resemblance find;

Yet it creates, transcending these,

Far other worlds, and other seas;

Annihilating all that’s made

To a green thought in a green shade.

Chappell, in “Once, Something, Never,” characterizes

a moment something like a knothole in a wall

of pine, within the striate grain an opening,

rupture of the swift flow of days which sped

unhalted, that gave a placket glimpse of happening

complete . . .

and speaks of “the ever-yearning soul” that

 . . . has fed

upon what was only a presentiment

of something that was that never was at all.

But just as “something” may at times seem to point to nothing, what is apparently nothing can point to something.  The apparently trivial often surprises us into an awareness of the transcendent.  This is the territory where the masters of Chinese poetry reign supreme.  For example, T’ang Dynasty poet Chang Chi (or Zhang Ji) has a poem called “River,” in which this supreme image of transience, together with such ephemeral adjuncts as autumn light, flying birds, snowflakes, clouds, and mists, somehow mirrors the eternal.  The following is my own translation, from my book, Cloud Gate Song: The Verse of Tang Poet Zhang Ji:

Shimmering, trembling at edge of sandy wasteland;

Void and brilliant, entering distant sky.

The autumn light illuminates forever,

And flocks of birds are boundless as they fly.

The river’s force pulls clouds across the vastness,

Its waves touch lightly snowflakes as they die.

Islets in the stream—hard to discover:

Dark mists for ages of ages on them lie.

American poets like Gary Snyder and his followers have, of course, striven to emulate Chinese nature poetry.  Chappell does not; and yet in such poems as “Fireflies” or “Passage,” he gives us what almost seems the product of an alchemist’s beaker in which have been mixed elements of the English Metaphysicals and the Chinese poets.  The fireflies “spiral when they aspire, with carefree ardor / busy, to embrace a star that draws them thence.”  And in “Passage,” the reflected night sky is momentarily disturbed by the passage of a swimming muskrat:

Serenely a muskrat noses through the lines

Of stars; the cool reflective moon sways in

The water that trembling languidly but once

Now settles . . .

The American poet does what the Chinese poet would not do, perhaps because he did not need to: He takes us gently by the lapels, and insists that we pay attention.

Something has happened in the world this night

Of rare consequence for some time to come,

Whether or not it alters the final sum.

Something of rare consequence for American poetry has happened in this book.  We are indebted to Fred Chappell, one of our few master writers, for the gift.


[Shadow Box: Poems, by Fred Chappell (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press) 96 pp., $17.95]