Around the Press in 80 Books: Shadow Box

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Digital Initiatives and Database Manager Bobby Keane writes about Shadow Box.
Untitled“Poetry is meant to be read aloud.” That is what I was taught in the 8th grade. I still remember my teacher, Mrs. Chadwick, standing in front of the classroom, punctuating each word for emphasis. A few days later, she had us bring a poem of our choice and read it to the class. I selected lyrics to a song by Megadeth. It was poetry to my thirteen-year-old ears. The memory sticks out because I caused a minor scandal—the lyrics contained an objectionable word (another name for a female dog). I read it aloud with relish and enjoyed my classmates’ reactions.

By the time I was in college, I understood that poetry was more than just setting lyrics to music. I had come to think of poetry as a form of drama—something to be performed, not just read aloud. I was particularly attracted to unconventional poetry—like that of E. E. Cummings—and the challenges and surprises that came with figuring out how to read it aloud.

The poems in Fred Chappell’s Shadow Box are definitely meant to be heard. Because of their unique style, however, they also must be seen—each poem in the collection contains a poem within a poem.

The description on the book jacket explains it best:

“Like the shadow box in the volume’s title, each piece consists of an inner world contained, framed, supported by an outer—the two interdependent, sometimes supplementary, often contrary.”

“In the Retirement Home: Revenant”

Cleaning her comb, she finds a remnant trace—
and sighs. She lays this single hair, this one
revenant that gives lie to truth, a lone
survivor, across the palm of her hand; her gaze
transfixed conjures in near despair to erase
from mind the glory that was Youth, this sun-
shine thread, the grandeur that was Blonde, now done:
one golden strand among the thousand grays.

Read it aloud once all the way through. Then read it again, focusing on just the italicized parts. Then again, reading only the unitalicized text. With each reading you find yourself being drawn into the image of this elderly woman, so much so that you feel you are standing with her as she makes this discovery.

A lesser poet might attempt to shoehorn words together to make this poem-within-a-poem technique work. However, Chappell’s poems-within-poems feel natural, never forced. As brilliant as this technique is, it wouldn’t be nearly as impressive if it weren’t for the profundity of his words.

“Shadow Box” (stanza 2)

Poor Ghost, you are no more than a guess
Of priest and sage, no more than nothingness dressed out
In cobweb rhetoric, wherein the mind in doubt
To calm itself must try to find its nakedness
A mortal sheltering for a time so brief
On earth its grave distress is its whole life.

I am not a poet and I fear that I cannot sufficiently state how amazing this book is. So, instead, I will conclude with poet Sarah Lindsay’s thoughts on Shadow Box:

“Fred Chappell’s poems-within-poems are serious play, verbal origami in dimensions of heart, mind, and spirit. They engage our brains whole, that we may delight in their skill as we dwell on their weight.”

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