Jan 13 02 by Published in: Reviews No comments yet

In gathering together a collection representing a quarter-century of work, poet Fred Chappell looked to his garden.

More specifically, he sees his book Spring Garden as a harvest of greens and herbs for a seasonal salad to share with his wife. In this collection, there is the quick bite of watercress that is identified with his tart epigrams; or the leafy fullness of lettuce, once considered a luxury, that is emblematic of the richness and fullness of a cherished life he celebrates; or the fiddleheads of emerging ferns, said to render one invisible, that he calls on to write about characters he observes.

His descriptions are fresh and wondrous, yet centered in a maturity that tells the reader these are lessons to be heeded. In describing his role poetically, he writes: “Someone has to dream the dreams and write/Them in the best language they can find/To inspire and decorate the restless mind;/Otherwise the damn thing takes a blight.”

He is a masterful observer of nature: “The planet throbs in its orbit like a hive of sleepy bees,/the seasons settle into an undying summer/where poplar leaves slide in the wind/like shoals of rainbow trout nibbling the river.” And he is equally adept at weaving startling metaphors from those observations, as when he describes a bank teller who hands him money that “appears as jittery fireflies/Her black screen has netted. They suspend/A moment within their small abyss;/They tell their little story and go away.”

Much of his work is centered on the themes of family, community and nature, and most carry a moral component, as in Aesop’s Fables. Indeed, he draws upon legends and myth and fairytales in a number of his works.

But Chappell also has a sly side, as evidenced in his biting epigram “Upon a Confessional Poet,” in which he writes “You’ve shown us all in stark undress/The sins you needed to confess./If my peccadilloes were so small/I never would undress at all.” Or the wink when happening “Upon an Amorous Old Couple” — “This coltish April weather/Has caused them to aspire/To rub dry sticks together/In hopes that they’ll catch fire.”

Raised in the Appalachian mountains, Chappell knew he wanted to become a college professor and writer at age 13. Although his family, friends and teachers all tried to discourage him, he followed his dream, teaching advanced composition, poetry and fiction in the writing program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for more than 35 years.

A native of Canton, N.C., and a graduate of Duke University, Chappell was named the state’s poet laureate in 1997. He is the author of more than 20 books, including novels, short story collections, poetry and essays. His literary honors include the Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry , the T.S. Eliot Award for Creative Writing and the Bollingen Prize in Poetry of the Yale University Library.

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