Fred Chappell continues to astonish. In his new collection of verse, he matches the vitality and grace, the deep intelligence and keenly observant sensibility, that characterize such earlier works as Midquest andSource. First and Last Words revives the traditional practice of supplying new prologue and epilogue poems to classic works of literature. The poems invite renewed acquaintance with familiar works and authors—The Georgics and The Dynasts, Livy and Lucretius, Goethe and Tolstoy, The Wind in the Willows—and are offered as a celebration of their enduring significance. In “The Watchman,” a prologue to the Orteseia, Chappell writes:
The watchman keeps his vigil on the roof
Of the ruining house. This long year,
Stretched out on his belly like a hound,
He has awaited the semaphore
Blaze, awaited proof
Of the victory that shall pull down
A proud and bitter family. In rai
nOr cold starshine, gripping the eave,
He has searched the hard horizon for a sign.
Still other poems are appreciations of music or the visual arts, as in “My Hand Placed on a Rubens Drawing”:
The ages work toward mastery
Of a single gesture. A torso’s twist,
The revelation of a thigh,
White stone corded in a fist:
Fragments that might still add up
To compose a figure of the perfected soul
As it releases from the grip
Of vision that burned to draw it whole.
All of the poems in First and Last Words are marked by a thoughtful use of the voice and a careful attention to language. They confirm Fred Chappell’s status as one of our very finest living poets.
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