Fred Chappell has long been considered one of the South’s finest writers of both fiction and poetry. C not only provides abundant justification for that assessment but also makes clear the inadequacy of geographical stricture; Chappell is indeed a writer of world-class stature.
C is of course the roman numeral for one-hundred—the precise number of poems that appear in this dazzling collection. Delicate, highly wrought miracles of compression and insight, these pieces gleam with pasion, humor, and intelligence. At times Chappell’s tone is acerbic, as in this sly comment on the self-indulgence of some confessional poets: “If my peccadilloes were so small/ I never would undress at all,” a couplet that would surely draw a delighted chuckle from Alexander Pope himself. With the apparent effortlessness of a master, Chappell also can suffuse a poem with sensual wonder, in “A Glorious Twilight,” for example, an ecstatic speaker rhapsodizes about a woman painting her nails “such a brilliant shade of bright/ she seems to have sprouted 22 fingers.” And sometimes his jeweler’s eye and the sheer artfulness of his language align the shutters of our perception so precisely that we can see for a hushed instant the incandescence of the everyday moment, “As common as air,/ Startling as fire.”
Satirical or elegiac, bitter or rejoicing, giddy or profound, each of these one hundred poems is unnervingly alive. All readers who delight in observing an artist at the height of his powers are sure to find C both an inspiration and an eloquent reminder that poetry—language squeezed against the unsayable until it burns—remains our last fragile link with the infinite.
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