“Chappell’s art derives from two major sources: his childhood and youth in the Appalachian mountains and his wide reading in the books, philosophical as well as literary, that have shaped Western culture. Among the most notable qualities of his poetry are its carefully crafted variety of forms, its fine story-telling and creation of character, its humor, and its serious moral intent. Chappell’s poems reveal both enormous erudition and a profound commitment to what he has called ‘folk art.’”—John Lang, in The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry
Spring Garden selects poems from all of Fred Chappell’s previous collections and adds to them some forty new ones. Inspired by a long poem by the Renaissance master Pierre Ronsard, Chappell has made his selection as if gathering greens and herbs for a garden salad. According to ancient doctrine, plants possess special virtues and particular powers, conducing to love, exercise of wit, fantastic visions, and so forth. Spring Garden pursues this notion, identifying certain herbs with certain types of poetry. Watercress, because of its quick bite, is identified with epigrams, for example; and lettuce, considered a scarce luxury in former centuries, is emblematic of the Good Life.
Seven sections of different kinds of poetry compose the main body of the book, and each section is provided a prologue. A General Prologue and an Epilogue are supplied too, and all these taken together make up a loose and gentle narrative, a story of the poet classifying and selecting among his work while his wife, Susan, botanizes in their private garden. Their parallel labors completed, they look toward the approaching long twilight.
Chappell is known for designing his poetry books as wholes, and Spring Garden, though it represents the compositions of twenty-five years, is no exception. Its contents are varied but unified, its purposes serious but congenial. And though the volume is suffused with an elegiac tone, these pages contain surprises in plenty and friendly good humor.
In the necessary field among the round
Warm stones we bend to our gleaning.
The brown earth gives in to our hands, and straw
By straw burns red aslant the vesper light.
The village behind the graveyard tolls softly, begins
To glow with new-laid fires. The children
Quiet their shouting, and the martins slide
Above the cows at the warped pasture gate.
They set the tinware out on checkered oilcloth
And the thick-mouthed tumblers on the right-hand side.
The youngest boy whistles the collie to his dish
And lifts down the dented milk pail.
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.
“Humility” published in Spring Garden: New and Selected Poems by Fred Chappell.
Copyright © 1995 by Fred Chappell. All rights reserved.
Fred Chappell is the author of twenty-six books of poetry, fiction, and critical commentary. His most recent collection was Shadow Box. A native of Canton in the mountains of western North Carolina, he taught at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro from 1964 to 2004 and was the Poet Laureate of North Carolina from 1997 to 2002. He and his wife, Susan, live in Greensboro.
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