"When You Got True Dirt You Got Everything You Need": Forging an Appalachian Arcadia in Fred Chappell's Midquest.
In much of Chappell's diverse oeuvre--which includes more than twenty books of poetry, fiction, and criticism--one finds a preoccupation with the farming life Chappell chose to leave. The themes of exile from his Appalachian past and the struggle to reforge, through poetry, a unity with that past are perhaps most clearly presented in what many consider the pinnacle of Chappell's career, the Bollingen Prize-winning long poem Midquest (1981). Though originally published separately as River (1975), Bloodfire (1978), Wind Mountain (1979), and Earthsleep (1980), the four volumes of Midquest were conceived as integral parts of a whole. Their achievement is made even more momentous by the fact that they compose half of an octave, completed by the four acclaimed novels in the Kirkman Quartet.(2) Both quartets involve the reminiscences of a middle-aged poet about his childhood on an Appalachian farm, a past he idealizes--in typical pastoral fashion--as a long-lost golden age, accessible now only through the imagination.
In the Preface to Midquest, Chappell describes the poem's semi-autobiographical "protagonist," Ole Fred, as a "demographic sample" of the twentieth century: "He was reared on a farm but has moved to the city; he has
deserted manual for intellectual labor, is `upwardly mobile'; he is cut off from his disappearing cultural traditions but finds them, in remembering, his real values."(3) This contrast between an ideal agrarian childhood and a corrupted urban age is one of the principal hallmarks of pastoral, which, as Frank Kermode notes, is always "an urban product."(4) Kermode observes that the "first condition of pastoral ... is that there should be a sharp difference between two ways of life, the rustic and the urban. The city is an artificial product, and the pastoral poet invariably lives in it, or is the product of its schools and universities" (p. 14). Kermode's description fits Chappell, as well as "Ole Fred," whose idiom alternates between that of a learned poet and Appalachian vernacular.
Born in 1936 and reared on a farm near the mill town of Canton, North Carolina, Chappell grew up observing the remnants of a traditional culture. The "loud, smoky, noisome" Champion Paper and Fiber Company(5) is a ubiquitous presence in Chappell's pastorals, as is the figure of the farmer father tenaciously scratching out a living from the soil, and the dreamy adolescent boy destined to leave the farm for the Piedmont cities of Durham and Greensboro. The world Chappell describes is one very much in flux, which makes his recollections of childhood appear all the more valued. Kermode has noted that pastoral "flourishes at a particular moment in the urban development, the phase in which the relationship of metropolis and country is still evident, and there are no children (as there are now) who have never seen a cow" (p. 15). This precondition for pastoral sounds very like the necessity of the "backward glance" to the Southern literary renascence, or, more generally, to the experience of modernism. In each case, the artist has witnessed the disappearance of the old verities, an experience that leaves him dislocated, alienated, full of epistemological uncertainty, and longing for some touchstone of truth by which to reorient himself.
Chappell's geographical exile from Appalachia to the Piedmont cities of Durham and Greensboro has been further exacerbated by the fact that he is an extremely cultivated scholar who has pursued more than a casual interest in a variety of national literatures, translating writings from a variety of languages, writing a substantial body of criticism on poetry from outside his native region, and inevitably coming to see his native land through such an ecumenical vision. He has named Faulkner, Eliot, Pound, and Joyce among the important models especially of his earlier writing, and, like these and other great writers of the high modernist period, Chappell has responded to his loss of a traditional culture by reconstructing the raw materials in forms borrowed from both within and without the culture. Midquest is full of folk tales, jokes, and convincing accounts of farm life, and at the same time it abounds in literary allusions. It is a poem that consistently seeks subtly to situate local dramas in relation to the artistic, philosophical, and scientific touchstones of western discourse, relying on sources as diverse as Plato, subatomic theory, and Louis Armstrong. The verse forms are as varied as terza rima, blank verse, Old English ode, syllabics, classical hexameter, Yeatsian tetrameter, rhymed couplets, and chant royal. Chappell humbly compares Midquest to "that elder American art form, the sampler [or quilt], each form standing for a different fancy stitch" (p. ix). Chappell's style conflates examples of high and low cultures and derives a high lyricism from a rural Appalachian vernacular, a strategy that both ennobles the rural subject matter and concretely locates the lyrical expression.
Many readers have noted what Michael McFee calls Chappell's "split literary personality." On the one side," McFee explains,
we have "Ole Fred," the kind of persona readers tend to remember, a character of extreme Romantic temperament and habits. Ole Fred is feisty; he cusses, he jokes, he drinks, he misbehaves; he is cheerfully politically incorrect, he overstates and exaggerates.... On the other side ... is Professor Chappell, a neo-classical polymath of the first order, deeply and widely read, profoundly learned: a genuine scholar.(6)
This split literary persona arguably reflects an actual "split" within the writer, who understands himself and his world by means of two divided cultures, one belonging to his present life in the academy, and the other to his childhood on the Appalachian farm of his ancestors. In its largest design, Midquest attempts to heal this schism and restore a sense of wholeness by employing the breadth of the poet's learning to recreate the world of his childhood.
Following the model of Dante's Divine Comedy, each of the four volumes begins with Ole Fred awakening on his thirty-fifth birthday in a state of spiritual longing. Of the eleven poems that compose each volume, most take the form of dialogues with family members remembered from the poet's childhood. These recollections serve as a source of inspiration and direction for Ole Fred, who at mid-life finds himself disenchanted with his suburban existence. In "Birthday 35: Diary Entry," the second poem in the first volume, Ole Fred pessimistically considers--from the comfort of his living room--the results of his life's work:
On paper I scribble mottoes and epigrams, Blessings and epithets, O-Holy's and Damn's-- Not matter sufficient to guard a week by. The wisdom I hoard you could stuff in your eye. (p. 4)
The heroic couplets enhance the comic deflation of his vocational crisis. Throughout the poem Ole Fred employs humor to shield himself from raw feelings of despair and loss, as well as from the fear that the spiritual restoration for which he yearns is no longer available.
Like the Wordsworth of the "Intimations" ode, Ole Fred is a poet who romantically longs for the transcendental inspiration of his boyhood but, doubting its availability, is willing to confront the reality of his present alienation:
I'd like to believe anything is possible. That I could walk out on a midnight full Of stars and hear an omniscient Voice say, "Well, Fred, for a change you had a good day. You didn't do anything so terribly awful. Even your thoughts were mostly lawful. I'm pleased."--Or that by accident I'd find A tablet headed, Carry this message to mankind. ... But nothing like that is in the cards. Bit by scroungy bit knowledge affords Itself;... (p. 6)
Ole Fred pokes fun at his juvenile hopes that he would be chosen like Moses as a prophet. Inspiration comes to the now more mature poet not through flashes of "genius" or from the voice of a divine muse, but through hard work and careful observation, "bit by scroungy bit," by subjugating the self to an empirical world stingy with its revelations. For Chappell, however, the empirical world is, indeed, available to the patient, attentive observer. Furthermore, it can be described or captured in language. In a recent interview, he stated his unequivocal objection to the skepticism of poststructuralists, who insist that there is an immitigable rift between language and the empirical world:
That's too easy, and ... it refutes itself. If language cannot make a statement about the nature of reality that has any genuineness, then that defeats itself, because that's a statement and it's made of language, and it's just another statement. So, a blind dead end. Also it's just clearly demonstrable that this is not the case. We,communicate with language. Mathematics is language. There is no communication we have without language. We don't know if we can even think without language. And it's obvious that we have changed the world in a thousand trillion different ways because we had ideas about it, because we formulated our ideas in language, set these down on paper at the time when we had paper or otherwise remembered and used this memory embedded in language to build pyramids, to fashion spears, to make rocket ships, vaccines.... So I just think that it's a crock. If one tried to imagine a universe in which this poststructuralist notion really applied, it's a very strange, what Leibnitz might call a "monadic," existence, where one is self-enclosed entirely and impinged upon by objects, by reality, rather than engaging with it. There's something predictably defeatist in that kind of thinking. But we have a superstition that the gloomiest philosophy, the most violent actions, are the more genuine. And that's sophomoric.(7)
In this same interview, Chappell distances himself from his own early fiction, in which the mind is depicted as what might, in fact, be called "monadic." For example, in his first novel, It Is Time, Lord (1963), the protagonist James Christopher describes the mind as "an isolated citadel standing in a desert ... peopled only with thin ghosts."(8) This Eliotic novel presents a montage of fragmented childhood memories interspersed with scenes from James Christopher's current troubled life. Chappell's first novel is easily his most postmodern: it is impossible to recover from these fragments an underlying narrative of the past that would help to explain the present. Memory is corrupted by the present moment, just as the present is corrupted by memory. James Christopher describes the past as "an eternally current danger, in effect, a suicide. We desire the past, we call to it just as men who have fallen overboard an ocean liner call.... [I]t sours and rots like old meat in the mind" (pp. 34-35). An Appalachian Quentin Compson, James Christopher feels trapped by his familial and cultural past. In order to avoid Quentin's fate, he finds that he must repress childhood memories and live in the present.
Though James Christopher's family (especially his father) resembles that of Ole Fred and of Jess Kirkman of the Kirkman quartet, the attitudes of the later protagonists toward a familial past vary considerably from James Christopher's. The past is no longer a "suicide," but, rather, an antidote for the aridity of modern existence, a touchstone by which the poet finds meaning to live in the present. Furthermore, this changed relation to the past creates a more hopeful attitude about the relation of the individual mind to the empirical world. In contrast to James Christopher's description of the mind as "an isolated citadel standing in a desert" (p. 35), wasteland imagery appears in "Birthday 35," not as an immitigable fate but, rather, as a spiritual condition to be avoided through a consistent effort to escape the prison of the isolated self:
A wilderness of wind and ash. When I went to the river ... I saw, darkened, my own face. On the bank of Time I saw nothing human, ... only moon Upon moon, sterile stone Climbing the steep hill of void. And I was afraid. (p. 7)
This sterile landscape is characterized by dryness and uniformity; except for the reflection of Ole Fred's own face, the scene is drearily monotonous. He obviously fears his own tendency toward solipsism and the possibility that, as in the case of James Christopher, the world he observes or remembers is merely a projection of his own subconscious.
These lines clearly echo the language from the final section of The Waste Land: "Here is no water but only rock/Rock and no water and the sandy road."(9) Chappell's reaction to the dilemma is a parody of Eliot's climactic prayer, with Ole Fred praying for transcendence in the form of "Elysium ... plentifully planted/With trout streams and waterfalls and suburban/Swimming pools, and sufficient chaser for bourbon" (p. 8). In characteristic fashion, he switches back and forth between adolescent cheekiness and heartfelt sincerity; these lines are immediately followed by a shift in tone from cynicism to reverential pleading. Note also that the suburban references are absent from the concluding lines:
Lead me then, Lord, to the thundering valleys where Cool silver droplets feather the air; Where rain like thimbles smacks roofs of tin, Washing away sin; Where daily a vast and wholesome cloud Announces itself aloud. Amen. (p. 8)
The wasteland imagery in "Birthday 35" evokes Ole Fred's spiritual estrangement and draws a distinction, in typical pastoral fashion, between the emptiness of his present urban/suburban condition and the spiritual sustenance to be found in a long-past rural Golden Age.
The prayer for cleansing and quenching that ends "Birthday 35" is provisionally answered in the following poem, "My Grandmother Washes Her Feet," a dramatic dialogue in which, while washing her feet, the grandmother lectures the boy Fred about the dangers of pretension and the unrecognized history of his family's less respectable side, which she accepts as family despite what mainstream society might see as undesirable idiosyncrasies. Again, intellectual pursuits occupy an antagonistic position to the farming life, as indicated in the grandmother's warning to the boy:
You're bookish. I can see you easy a lawyer Or a county clerk in a big white suit and tie, Feeding the preacher and bribing the sheriff and the judge. Second-generation-respectable Don't come to any better destiny. But it's dirt you rose from, dirt you'll bury in. Just about the time you'll think your blood Is clean, here will come dirt in a natural shape You never dreamed.... ... ... When you got true dirt, you got Everything you need ... (p. 12)
The shift in consciousness that occurs from "Birthday 35" to the following "My Grandmother Washes her Feet"--from a jaded scholar, listening to himself pontificate in the prison of his suburban living room, to the mostly passive and humble boy auditor, receptive to the wisdom of another--reveals the strategy Chappell will employ in many of the following poems. He will consistently seek to escape self-absorption and alienation, which he identifies as the problem of his age, and make contact with a concrete and authentic world, evoked by the refrain of "dirt" throughout this poem.
Dirt here has multiple connotations: the basis of agriculture and the source of all life; a symbol for the cycle of life and death; and a representation of the eternal and substantial versus the ephemeral and superficial. Dirt also contains the Biblical allusions to the creation of Adam, as well as Original Sin. The latter ironically is changed by the pious grandmother into a positive attribute of the human condition, reminding us of our common proclivities to error, and thereby requiring one to assume a humility that acknowledges one's common humanity, a basic component of the ancient pastoral myths, which, as Kermode notes, portray the people of a Golden Age in their natural states as "hedonistic and sinless, though wanton" (p. 43). The grandmother's list of cousins in their "natural" states includes drunks, womanizers, a "Jackleg" preacher, and a great aunt named Paregoric Annie who would beg for drug-money by removing her glass eye and asking for assistance in replacing it. Fred idealizes these cousins as still vitally connected to the earth through farming, and thereby exempt from the fallen state and subsequent need for salvation attributed to civilized humanity. Fred longs to forge a lost connection to this extended family that the grandmother and her generation took for granted. In an effort to better visualize these shadow cousins he has never met, the boy Fred shapes their earthen effigies from the mud that soaks up his grandmother's footbath water. The adult Fred concludes the poem dejectedly, contemplating the economic necessity that forced his father to give up farming, then comparing himself unfavorably to his imagined cousins: "I never had the grit to stir those guts./I never had the guts to stir that earth" (p. 13). The reciprocal substitution of the terms "grit," or its synonym "earth," with "guts" in these lines equates the terms syntactically and thereby conflates their meanings, an effect enhanced by the consonance in "grit" and "guts."
This same tendency to ennoble mountain folk by equating them physically with the land itself is found in Brighten the Corner Where You Are when Joe Robert is visited by Pruitt and Ginny Dorson, an extremely rural couple whom he characterizes as "silent farm folk from the genuine old-time mountain stock.... Salt of the earth: That was the common phrase for families like the Dorsons, but my father considered that it was all too common. Soul of the earth, he thought, earth's own earth" (p. 56). The purest expression of Chappell's longing for a complete reunification with his Appalachian heritage is found in his desire to be one with the earth itself, which Jess Kirkman symbolically achieves at the end of Look Back All the Green Valley (also the culmination of the entire octave), when he finds himself on a rainy night covered in the mud of his father's grave.
The Dorsons, Fred's "shadow cousins," the "dirt poor" as Fred's grandmother calls them (p. 12), and all the other "genuine old-time mountain" folk in Chappell's narratives figure the same way that shepherds figure in traditional pastoral poetry, as a liaison between the pure and simple world of Nature and the complicated and impure urban world of the pastoral poet. As J.E. Congleton explains, "The shepherd, actually, is half man and half Nature; he has enough in common with man to be his universal representative and has enough in common with Nature to be at one with it. Because the shepherd is so close to Nature, man, through him, can become united with Nature and consequently feel that he is a harmonious part of the whole and that his ideas are reconciled with the fundamental truths."(10) Through a study of his Appalachian "shepherds," Chappell similarly hopes to overcome his geographic and spiritual estrangement and get in touch with the simple, the concrete, what he feels to be his own essential nature.
The error of leaving the farm and forgetting one's birthright of"dirt" involves perhaps the dominant theme of Midquest: the loss of the concrete world through a process of abstraction. Dirt represents here the empirical world, unornamented by the imagination; this is Stevens's "things as they are," that most elusive of quantities, because the imagination, as Stevens and other modernists discovered, is hardly capable of registering sensory experience without resorting to metaphor and comparisons or even prefabricated formulae. The epistemological anxiety associated with language's inevitable process of abstracting concrete existence is, of course, not a problem new to the twentieth-century modernists. Kermode argues that the "great seventeenth-century war of Ancients and Moderns was really fought on divergent interpretations of Imitation, in the widest sense of the term" (p. 24), considering "Imitation" as the relation of art to its tradition and the extent to which working within such a tradition facilitates or hinders the writer's ability to describe faithfully the natural world. Kermode notes that in pastoral the ubiquitous opposition between town and country always serves to suggest the more general opposition between Art and Nature, and that though this opposition is integral to all literary genres, nowhere is it "so evident and acute as in Pastoral" (p. 12). Pastoral promises a reunification with Nature by means of considering human culture at its most basic level, and yet, as Kermode observes, the challenge to the pastoral poet is to avoid merely an inauthentic imitation of established conventions. This challenge is one familiar to any reader of Southern literature. Just as the earlier pastorals often tended toward derivative accounts of shepherds and nymphs, Southern writers have felt the temptation toward predictable representations of pastoral types: the pure and virtuous belle, the noble colonel-father, the faithful Negro retainer, the hillbilly farmer.
In Midquest Chappell frequently calls attention to this problem, as in the poem "Firewater," in which the boy Fred listens to his father and his father's drinking buddy Virgil Campbell as they lament the passing of the old ways and of the genuine Appalachian farmers. What their dialogue makes obvious to the reader is the difficulty of representing a "genuine" Appalachian farmer--as well as how the label itself implies a level of self-consciousness in which the organic and traditional have been extracted from their living medium to be displayed for their picturesque value. Virgil begins the poem by describing his recent visit to rural Clay County--where some of his backwater cousins live--for the purpose of watching their centennial celebration. The festival's main attraction was the "Grand Parade, /Celebrating their most famous products" (p. 78), with moonshine topping the list. In an effort to celebrate their culture, the local officials have traveled up Standing Indian Mountain to invite Big Mama and her family (whom they have been trying to prosecute for ten years) to "build a model still" and "waltz it down Main Street in broad daylight" (p. 79). The plan backfires during the middle of the parade when a mule following behind Big Mama's float staggers and then collapses, "Drunk as an owl,/Just from breathing the smoke that was pouring out/From Big Mama's model still" (p. 79). A deputy attempts to make an arrest, but "smiling so the crowd would think/It was part of the act" (p. 80), at which point
Big Mama's boys stood up-- Wearing phony beards, barefoot with beat-up hats, Just like the hillbillies in the funny papers-- And threw down on the deputy three shotguns. Whether they were loaded I don't know. He didn't know. Except Big Mama's bunch Nobody knew. (p. 80)
The use of disguises here serves as a metafictional device, calling our attention to the stereotype and thus forcing us to guess at the authentic identity we are incapable of witnessing. These are the pastoral's real shepherds wearing shepherd masks. As Houston Baker notes of the minstrel mask and its adoption by black speakers during the Jim Crow era,(11) Big Mama's boys assume their hillbilly disguises as a means of protecting their genuine identities. That they alone know whether their guns are loaded further suggests their control over their own identity and culture and thereby invalidates Virgil and J.T.'s nostalgic lament of cultural erosion.
Throughout Midquest, Chappell faces the challenge of accurately describing Appalachian culture without self-consciously doing so. Of I Am One of You Forever Fred Hobson has noted a longing toward what Donald Davidson called "the autochthonous ideal," or the artist's total immersion in his culture, which results in a vision that is not aesthetically or critically separate from its subject matter. Hobson notes that despite the common appearance of this aspiration in Southern literature, it is nearly always doomed to failure, since the writer requires a certain critical distance from his culture to make sense of it.(12) Midquest thoroughly exploits this tension between critical distance and a longing for immersion, a tension Chappell has inherited from the two primary models of classical pastoral, Theocritus and Vergil; Chappell possesses the former's close familiarity with the language and folkways of his rural subjects, along with the latter's gifts of philosophy and penetrating analysis of the ways in which simple, rural characters represent fundamental aspects of the human experience. Midquest triumphs in its combination of these two pastoral modes, in its ability to locate the universal in the concrete and thus avoid the two pitfalls dreaded by Southern writers: local color and abstraction.
The difficulty of creating narrative that reveals the essential truths of his experience is a problem Chappell remembers tentatively facing as a teenage farm boy, when churning out dozens of formulaic science-fiction stories seemed infinitely simpler than writing realistically about the natural world around him:
It was not that I had no realistic experience to write about; there was God's grand plenty of realism on a farm. But I found it impossible to organize experience into any kind of shape; reality may have had the advantage of authenticity but it had the disadvantage of stubbornness, of sheer perversity. It didn't want to be whittled, rearranged, or even comprehended; it just wanted to sit laconic in an ungainly lump and refuse to differentiate into parts. (Plow, pp. 13-14)
By choosing in Midquest to differentiate experience into four rubrics associated with the four pre-Socratic elements, Chappell examines experience at its most fundamental level. The effect of the repeated images of water, fire, air, and earth relentlessly locates human experience in a natural, primitive context. The speakers in these poems are constantly in contact with the natural elements and interpret their lives by means of metaphors derived from the natural world. In "Second Wind," for example, the grandmother tells the boy Fred the story of his grandfather's funeral and embodies the despair she felt in the hot, still August weather; similarly, the freshening of a breeze breaks her emotional stasis and leads to hope.
Time in Midquest is cyclical, a concept reinforced by the poem's fourpart structure. In each volume the poet's birthday begins with first light and progresses toward evening. The farming community depicted in Midquest measures time in a pre-modern way, planting crops by the phases of the moon, paying attention to the progress of the seasons, locating memory by references not to calendar dates so much as to significant events, often natural disasters, such as the storm described in "My Father's Hurricane." Images of destruction and rebirth, almost always associated with one of the four elements, recur throughout Midquest. In River, for example, "Dead Soldiers" describes the flood of 1946, a natural disaster that affects all the farmers in the region and invites comparisons to the flood from Genesis. The following poem, "My Grandfather Gets Doused," describes a church baptism that takes place in the same Pigeon River, and the subsequent poem, "My Grandmother Washes Her Vessels," also develops the purification/baptism theme.
In the poems from Bloodfire, the themes of destruction and purification often occur together, as in "My Grandfather's Church Goes Up." Remembering the fire that destroyed his grandfather's church, Ole Fred represents the inferno as a transfiguration in which the material of the church is purified into its fundamental elements, which leads him to a recognition of how these same essences remain a continuing presence in his own life, even though their material manifestations may have changed. Chappell borrows the structure and alliterative pattern of an Old English Ode and employs an abundance of archaic and Anglo-Saxon-derived vocabulary to suggest the ancient quality of the culture; like the language of Old English (still retained in some Appalachian idioms), his grandfather's world is available to him in changed forms that are ubiquitous if not readily apparent. Fred's longing for that lost culture combines with the congregation's past hymns of longing for God, as well as with his sexual longings for Susan when the poet and his wife return to the abandoned church site for a picnic. Their amorous picnic gives way to a transcendental moment in which Fred experiences the return of his grandfather's spirit: "In happy half-sleep I heard or half heard/in the bliss of breeze breath of my grandfather" (p. 76). The poem's catalogue of images of transfiguration, mirrored by its fascination with lexical transformation, puts forth a faith in eternal presence and unity of life, a reality he believes to be overlooked because of the tendency to accept momentary states of being as separate from their pre-existing and subsequent states. As in Faulkner, for Chappell here the past is not dead--it is not even past:
Pilgrim, the past becomes prayer becomes remembrance rock-real of Resurrection when the Willer so willeth works his wild wonders. (p. 77)
Like Wordsworth's "spots in time," for Ole Fred significant moments from his personal and cultural past have a continued existence that must be accessed in order to achieve an awareness of life as an organic whole. Though these recollections are infrequent and ephemeral, and though the poet can do little more than wait patiently and passively for them, they are accompanied by such a profound dissolution of the normal distinctions between subject and object, past and present, that he affirms them as "rock-real."
The momentary perfect unity that Ole Fred experiences in "My Grandfather's Church Goes Up" is not often matched in Midquest, though it is consistently invoked and often approximated. Inherent even in the language we use to describe existence, Chappell points out, is the theme of estrangement from unity, how we rely upon familiar dialectics to make the world comprehensible, artificially dividing existence into body and spirit, subject and object, the spiritual and the secular, and other categories ad infinitum. Chappell views this tendency to dissect as a limitation of the human mind, a metaphysical state for which his cultural dislocation from his Appalachian past serves as an apt metaphor. Within this broader context, his longing for unity with the community of his childhood takes on a much greater significance. John Lang points out how throughout Midquest the central metaphor of marriage "testifies to the union--often a difficult one--of distinct personalities or qualities" and serves as an expression of the universal desire for "love," "order," and "harmony."(13) Both Lang and Dabney Stuart have addressed the poem's recurrent tension between body and spirit.(14) Lang notes Chappell's constant "impatience with the loss of the Creation, whether in Platonic idealism, Cartesian idealism, Emersonian Transcendentalism, or Protestant fundamentalism, with their tendency to denigrate the physical world" (p. 108). One finds the occasional overt rejection of such idealistic abstraction in poems such as "The Autumn Bleat of the Weathervane Trombone" and "Birthday 35: Diary Entry," but more frequently Chappell chooses to dramatize the ineffectualness and comic absurdity of such positions, as in "My Grandfather Gets Doused," the account of his grandfather's abortive conversion to the Baptists' belief in instantaneous salvation, which Chappell writes in a bawdy terza rima as a mock version of Dante's Divine Comedy. Also, in the several poems focusing on the sensualist Virgil Campbell, Chappell creates a character who consistently opposes the shams of local religionists who oppose his fun.
Despite this delight in the sensual world for its own sake, Chappell's strong metaphysical bent finds ample expression throughout Midquest, as in "Firewood," "The Peaceable Kingdom of Emerald Windows," and "Susan Bathing," poems in which he takes pains to deify the material world, to oppose cold scientific rationality with a tentative transcendentalism. In the Preface, Chappell calls Midquest "in its largest design a love poem" (p. xi), which is obvious in the numerous poems Ole Fred addresses to his wife, Susan, especially the morning bedroom scenes. However, Midquest is concerned with multiple forms of love: erotic, platonic, divine, filial, and love of nature. Love, of course, has always been a main theme of pastoral poetry from classical times onward, and, with the influence of Neo-Platonism, the relation of physical and spiritual love became further developed and systematized (Kermode, p. 35). Though Lang is correct in stressing that Chappell is uncomfortable with Neo-Platonism's subjugation of the body to spirit, the essential desire for unity found in Neo-Platonism (as well as Emersonian Transcendentalism and backwoods Christianity) is an essential component of Midquest--and of Chappell's pastoral Kirkman novels. Throughout, love serves to draw the individual out of isolation and to make connection with another person, with God, with the earth itself.
The awakening address to Susan that begins each of the four volumes establishes the basic structure of address that most of the other poems follow, including the four poems in the form of letters, the many dramatic dialogues, and the prayers. In each, Chappell places an intended audience within the poem, emphasizing the use of language to make a connection, rather than--as in the first two parts of "Birthday 35: Diary Entry"--as cloistered, confessional expression. In "Bloodfire Garden," he easily conflates "the disease/necessary to know God" with "the heat/in the animal calling to animals" and longs to return to a primal unity, to forget distinctions between the physical and the spiritual:
Take me into your world of blade and rock help me return to when the sun first struck off in fury the boiling planets. (p. 91)
"Bloodfire Garden" is a meditation on creation and procreation, relating scenes of sexual intercourse with his wife to boyhood episodes in early spring when he watched his father burning down the weeds and vines to prepare the garden for the growing season. He recalls witnessing in the garden the miracle of incarnation as "the ghosts began again to take flesh" (p. 93). The poem ends with a tight four-line stanza in which the four classical elements are envisioned in harmony, an image that periodically recurs throughout Midquest, each time evoking awe at the miraculous unity of creation, how the "jarring elements" ("Earthsleep," p. 186) of fire, water, earth, and air, are held together in an apparently seamless whole, just as spirit and body in their natural states are unified and whole.
In such an optimistic poem abounding in transcendental images of unity, one of the most memorable stanzas depicts Fred as a boy of twelve in the woods at night, longing for the "gleam" of a "hunters' campfire/blinking" at him through the darkness, only to find himself separated from their warmth by the barrier of a dark river, in which he sees reflected "Orion/sliding the water calmly" (p. 92). As a mere reflection or counterfeit of the actual stars, the boy is doubly alienated from the celestial fires of Orion the Hunter, just as he is separated by the river from the terrestrial warmth of the hunters' fire, suggesting the pubescent boy's alienation from both man and God. The image is followed by an address to the adult poet's wife, "Now you warm me," indicating that the adolescent's recognition of desire has led to adult consummation. An alternate reading of the image of the reflected constellation would involve its antithetical relation to the image of the hunters' fire. Rather than duplicating the feeling of alienation, the vision of the stars in the water serves as a compensation. The tone of the stanza begins with a feverish desire to reach the hunters' fire and then shifts to a feeling of resignation and sublimity upon the boy's witnessing the divine order of the stars, their already cold fires made yet colder by their reflection in water. Inner, spiritual warmth comes in compensation for, or as a sublimation of, physical warmth,just as the poet's desire for the imagined childhood unity with family leads instead to a beatific image of an ordered cosmos, one in which the human longing for love and connection plays an integral part. Midquest and the subsequent Jess Kirkman novels abound with images of the alienated adolescent, but, unlike the alienation depicted in Chappell's early novels, in the later work alienation promises the possibility of reconciliation.
Lang observes that "For Chappell, genuine selfhood exists only in and through relationships to something outside the self" (p. 99). If this assessment is accurate, it can help us to understand the reasons for the deterioration of selfhood we find in the protagonists of his earlier gothic novels It Is Time, Lord and Dagon. These characters' schizophrenia and dementia are products of their alienation from any social context that would organize their psyches in a recognizable or meaningful pattern. In Midquest, Chappell reminds us of the need to avoid this trap when he frequently employs a dialectic between the alienated, self-absorbed imagination, and an imagination that is constituted by its contact with other family members, with farm labor, and with exposure to the elements themselves. "Cleaning the Well" begins "Two worlds there are. One you think/You know; the Other is the Well" (p. 14). He goes on to describe being lowered into the well by his grandfather with instructions to "Clean it out good" (p. 15), and imagines on the way down what he will find at the bottom: a "monster trove/ Of blinding treasure ... Ribcage of drowned warlock" (p. 14). Instead, he finds "Twelve plastic pearls, monopoly/Money, a greenish rotten cat,/ Rubber knife, toy gun" (p. 15), detritus from his childhood. He also discovers physical and psychological anguish, "Precise accord/Of pain, disgust, and fear" (p. 15), and comes back up believing that he has died and returned from the dead, "Recalling something beyond recall" (p. 16). Like Poe's alienated narrators, the boy has discovered in this altered perspective a painful reality, from which he is normally protected by his daily life that is contextualized and defined by his relationships with other family members. At the end of the poem, when the cold and frightened child returns from the well exclaiming, "Down there I kept thinking I was dead," the grandfather retorts, "Aw, you're all right" (p. 17), reestablishing the boys sense of security and connectedness, but also dismissing the validity of his vision, attributing it simply to childish fancy and frailty. The reader is left in the same quandary as the boy, disoriented, plunged into the well, unsure which vision is the more valid.
"Feverscape: The Silver Planet" is another study of adolescent alienation. A tendency toward sickliness and an insatiable interest in science fiction coalesce in this depiction of the feverish nightmares that come to the bedridden boy. In "Feverscape" the isolated ego is purged through suffering, as it is throughout the Bloodfire poems. In "Rimbaud Fireletter to Jim Applewhite," Fred looks back on his late teens and twenties with a mixture of nostalgia, condescension, and gratitude for having survived. He remembers the Durham beer joints where he and his poet friend nursed "the artificial fevers, wet [behind the ears]/With Falstaff beer" (p. 58), deeply under the influence of Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Chappell depicts this friendship in the same terms he uses to describe his friendship with his high school buddy Fuzz in "A Pact With Faustus": two outsiders joined by their artistic interests and especially by a mutual interest in a Romantic literary hero whom they both emulate. The adolescent Fred is aware of the differences that separate him from others in his community but chooses to see his lack of social success as the artist's inevitable sacrifice:
So passed my high school years. The senior prom I missed, and the girls, and all the thrilling sports. My teachers asked me, "Boy, where you from?" "From deep in a savage forest of unknown words." The dialogue went downhill after that, But our positions were clear respectively: They stood up for health and truth and light, I stood up for Baudelaire and me. (pp. 58-59)
The boy's grandiose vision of himself becomes a source of comedy for the more mature poet, who is capable of valuing the adolescent's vision of artistic success while vicariously suffering for his naivete: "Those were the days! ... --But they went on and on and on./The failure I saw myself grew darker and darker" (p. 60). This failure derives from an intuition of his own inauthenticity; the process of discovering his identity and his voice bears all the awkwardness of adolescence, a time in which he struggles to distinguish himself from his parents and community but also to determine the commonalties that bind them together.
Painfully, he recalls leaving the university: "They kicked me out and back to the hills I went/But not before they'd taught me how to see/Myself as halfway halved and halfway blent" (p. 60). In suffering this fragmentation of identity and values, Fred becomes what he calls in the preface a "demographic sample" of the twentieth century. His experience as an artist likewise resembles that of the early- to mid-twentieth-century artist. Like the high modernists, his oeuvre shows an interest in social fragmentation resulting from commercialization, urbanization, and technology (especially the world-shattering technologies unleashed during the World Wars), an obsession with the alienation that results from such fragmentation, a net-Romantic privileging of the imagination rather than a strict adherence to verisimilitude, a self-reflexiveness that often tends toward metafiction, and a reliance upon multiple subjectivities to reveal an underlying unified reality.
Perhaps most significantly, Chappell shares with the modernists a growing distrust of Romanticism's emphasis on the individual and the solipsism such an aesthetic implies. With maturity, Chappell came to distance himself from the French Symbolists who had inspired his youth, and, like T.S. Eliot, he embraced the classical and net-classical poets. Just as the later Eliot turned away from the incipient nihilism of The Waste Land to write the optimistic Four Quartets, Chappell "turned [his] back on the ashes of Paree-town" and began studying "folks like Pope and Bertrand Bronson," and the complete works of Samuel Johnson, for which he wrote a massive, 1,110-page Concordance as his Master's thesis (McFee, p. 97). This shift from a romantic to a classical sensibility is readily apparent when one compares the studies in alienation we find in Chappell's early four novels (1963-1973) with Midquest (1981) and the four Kirkman novels (1985-1999), in which Chappell depicts an ordered, harmonious society and, by extension, a harmonious universe. A structural comparison of these works yields similar findings. Unlike the montage of It Is Time, Lord (1963), a brilliant novel, which, nevertheless, resists not only closure but the production of any sort of stable meaning, Midquest presents an ordered repetition of image and event, which reflects a psychic balance and harmony rather than discord. The multiple subjectivities represented in Midquest's dramatic monologues and dialogues create the sense of a community of interdependent speakers. Consider, for example, how the speakers in poems VI, VII, and VIII in Wind Mountain are linked by their relation to the Second Circle of Dante's Inferno, with VI introducing the allusion, VII developing it more fully and then explicitly introducing the windy confession of Virgil Campbell in VIII. The connections among poems are usually more subtle, though no less important. Often, adjacent poems in one of the four volumes are paired, as in VI, VII and VIII of River, poems dealing with themes of fallenness and redemption. Also, there are multiple connections among volumes, poems in the same position of each volume that present the same character, theme, and/or verse structure.
Lucinda Hardwick MacKethan argues that Southern pastorals have always been motivated by the "need of people in a rapidly changing world to have a vision of an understandable order."(15) According to MacKethan, a
particular social structure becomes a dramatic mechanism ... for examining systems of values for any one of a great variety of purposes, emotional and political as well as artistic. Southern literature in its own clear tradition is associated with strong judgments and a positive system of values--not always the same judgments or even the same system, to be sure, yet a literature that seems to insist on shared standards highly visible and widely articulated. (pp. 5-6)
Throughout Midquest and the Kirkman Quartet, Chappell demonstrates just such an eager interest in the network of relationships that define the farming family, the basic political unit of yeoman society. Like Thomas Jefferson's yeoman utopia and Vergil's Golden Age, Chappell promotes yeomanry as the ideal society, one that makes possible the difficult balance between individual freedom and social integrity. This tension between the claim of the individual and the claims of society is at the heart of Midquest and is a tension Chappell seeks to resolve in part by demonstrating how the values of personal autonomy and responsibility are central to the frontier community's vision of itself (drawing attention to the often fine line between autonomy and alienation). In fact, it is the loss of autonomy on the part of the individual and the family that most demonstrates the decline of the community. Fred's father, J.T., is constantly lamenting that farming no longer remains economically viable, as in the poems "My Father Burns Washington" and "My Father Washes His Hands." Both poems present the Appalachian farmer's transition from subsistence farming to the production of cash crops as a fall from grace, after which the farmer is dependent upon market prices and bank loans. Throughout Midquest Chappell simultaneously participates in and undercuts this sort of nostalgia. For example, in "Firewater" (discussed earlier) we are invited to take only half seriously J.T, and Virgil Campbell's lament of cultural erosion represented by the case of Big Mama and her rural family. Virgil explains that out of economic necessity Big Mama has "stopped running corn [whiskey]" and begun "Growing these Merry Widow cigarettes," a fact that leaves both Virgil and J.T. dejected and longing for the old times, mourning the disappearance of what they see as Appalachia's "eternal verities" of"poverty and whiskey and scratch-ankle farming" (p. 80). This comic elegy parodies the more serious longing for a stable order that appears throughout Midquest. Fred's father models the appropriate response to a universe in perpetual flux by proposing a toast "here at the end of the world" (p. 80). The tale of Big Mama itself reveals how, in the midst of change, Appalachian values of defiant independence hold their own--though, perhaps, in an ever more degraded form--exemplified by the moonshiners who merely change crops but remain outlaws, and by the name of the mountain where they live, "Standing Indian," which has lost any etymological connection to the indigenous Cherokee driven out on the Trail of Tears, but whose English name conjures the image of durability and defiance. Furthermore, the mountain now nourishes a race who, like the legendary Cherokee, value self-sufficiency and challenge centralized authority.
Midquest elegizes not simply personal and cultural loss but cosmic entropy. Like most of the poems that serve as frames for the four volumes, "On Stillpoint Hill at Midnight" is a meditation on the relation of the individual to the cosmic order. This poem, addressed to Susan, finds solace in the stability of their relationship while "creation dribbles/out the bottleneck of diminishment" (p. 46). He finds abundant evidence of universal social collapse: "murdered soldiers" in 1971 Vietnam, animals indifferently and wastefully slaughtered by humans, "rivers rotting to lye where the mill-drains vomit inky venom," and "babies thrust into sewer pipes" (p. 48). Nevertheless, like Whitman and Thoreau, whom he elsewhere looks to as optimistic visionaries (see "Earth Emergent Drifts the Fire River," p. 147), Chappell finds in nature and human sexuality hope for the endless renewal of life and order, a theme explored from the very first poem of Midquest, "The River Awakening in the Sea." Here, in long lines and slightly hyperbolic images, both characteristic of Whitman, Chappell ennobles the human form by having Ole Fred describe his wife's body in terms of the natural landscape: "My forehead suckles your shoulder, straining to hear/In you the headlong ocean, your blood, island-saying sea now./Wild stretches, bound to every water, of seas in you" (p. 1). This passage expresses a transcendental faith in the connectedness of the individual to the vast physical universe, and even in the title one finds Emerson's primary metaphor for the Over-Soul, in which the material contiguity of sea and river represents the "influx of the Divine mind into our mind."(16) It should be acknowledged here that, as with most modernists, Chappell's repudiation of the Romantics is only a partial one, which he concedes in "Fireletter" when Fred recalls his father's words: "Fire's in the bloodstream" (p. 61). Wordsworth and the American Romantics, in particular, resonate throughout Midquest. In contrast to the decadence of the late Romantics, their democratic optimism provides an image of the individual immersed in nature and connected with a cosmic order, which provides a source of inspiration for Chappell, even if his own optimism is often qualified by doubt.
"On Stillpoint Hill" mirrors the meditative quality of "The River Awakening." In both, the speaker attempts to merge with the mind of God and consider the present decline of civilization from the perspective of eternity, which allows him to witness the cyclic and eternally renewing processes of nature:
consider how the giants went into earth patiently to wait themselves into stone; considering again how stones will burgeon into animals, erupting to four feet on glossy lawns, and gnawing the ruled streets and lot corners of suburbs (p. 45)
If, as several critics have pointed out, Susan serves as Fred's Beatrice in the poem's overarching journey toward redemption, in "On Stillpoint Hill" Fred takes the lead in imagining wholeness. In the tradition of the pastoral love lyric (and of Whitman's Song of Myself) Fred invites Susan to join him in immersing themselves in nature:
We will rest simple, we will taste with our pores the powerful probabilities massing about indivisible infinite motes of water as the earth sweats itself in this springhead. Or come with me at 6 a.m. in the woods by the lake ... We must lie careless as these forces foment, we also must reflect every fire of the heavens and the cool effortless moon trawling our faces. Must read too the waters clouding us, ... (pp. 47-48)
Like Emerson's transparent eyeball, the poet must purge himself of ego and, passive and permeable to the forces of nature, record their impression upon his soul. At the same time, one finds the transcendentalists' egotistical optimism in the Whitmanian imperative that they "must reflect every fire of the heavens," ultimately placing the burden of perfect conservation of universal energy and order upon the poet. Elsewhere in the poem, Ole Fred boasts that "each upheaval that order is,/my stillness takes in" (p. 45). If we read the poem's protagonist as an Everyman, or "widely representative" (Preface, p. x), then, as with Whitman's persona in Song of Myself, we the readers are invited to identify closely with this persona and to follow his example of transcendental faith, so that what appears boasting is actually a democratic celebration of every person's promise of fulfillment through a connection to nature and the Divine.
One of the most readily apparent tensions throughout Midquest appears between the dramatic monologues and dialogues in Appalachian vernacular and the meditative, often free-verse poems such as "On Stillpoint Hill" and "The River Awakening." Other than the obvious differences in idiom and verse structure, there occurs a fundamental difference in scope, with the dramatic poems typically limited to the concrete world of Appalachia and the meditations often tending toward universal abstractions, as noted above. Considering that Chappell's aim throughout--even in the meditations--is to avoid abstraction, while, nevertheless, attaining the universal, the balance of the two poetic forms helps to accomplish this goal. In effect, his dramatic poems locate the meditations upon universal order in a concrete world,just as Whitman's abundant use of catalogues serves to embody Emerson's Transcendentalism. By associating the specific instance of Appalachian yeomanry with a cosmic order in which that culture's values are sustained, Chappell expresses faith in a Golden Age, accessible, if not in actuality, then at least through poetry.
The faith in sustainability--in a Divine order that manifests itself in the social order of an farming community--is essentially Jefferson's yeoman utopia or, earlier still, Vergil's Golden Age. In "The Poet and the Plowman," his essay on the Georgics, Chappell examines Vergil's dictum, "Nudas ara, sere nudus, Plow naked, naked sow," and declares, "The words are there to remind us of the ceremonial, and ultimately religious nature of farming; they remind us of the selfless rituals we must undergo in order to keep faith" (Plow, p. 76). Further on, he continues this theme:
The largest purpose of the Georgics is not to dignify, but to sanctify, honest farm labor. A reader who has not looked at it in a long time finds he has forgotten that the poem is full of stars. Even the smallest task must be undertaken in due season under the proper constellations. These prescriptions are not mere meteorology; they connect the order of the earth to the order of the stars. The farmer moves by the motion of the stars, and his labors determine the concerns of the government. The Roman State is not founded upon the soil, it is founded in the universe. And so were all the other civilizations which managed to endure for any length of time. If poets do not wish to study these matters and treat of them, they shirk their responsibilities and fail their society. (p. 77)
Just as the hunter-farmers and Orion the Hunter are conflated in "Bloodfire Garden," in this passage Chappell makes explicit his belief in the spiritual harmony that exists between yeomen and the cosmos. The language here is as confrontational as anything found in the Agrarians' manifesto, I'll Take My Stand. Chappell's conviction that the artist bears a responsibility to his public--that he should show that public a vision of its better self--is a distinctly pre-modern notion, and one of Chappell's most notable frustrations with contemporary poetry derives from his observation that the vast majority of it, good and bad, takes the shape of the "autobiographical lyric" with little in the way of "social scope" (Midquest, p. x). Private alienation is a topic Chappell himself thoroughly explored in his first four novels, one that he felt fortunate to escape in his poetry.
In Midquest, he turns away from a fascination with private reality to a consideration of cultural values, which, true to the agrarian culture he describes, are presented in a reverential tone that might be described as oftentimes prescriptive. Indeed, Midquest comes as close to the epic as anything we are likely to find in contemporary poetry. As with Vergil, for Chappell poetry's greatest value lies in its ability to capture not only a life but a world. Poetry has the ability to compensate for a life estranged from farming because poetry shares with farming so many spiritual values: "fatalism, renunciation, awe of nature, reverence for the earth" (Plow, p. 74), and "a life of ordered observation and inspired patience" (p. 79). Even in an age when social fragmentation is accepted as normative, when the world of the Appalachian farmer must seem to most readers as remote as Vergil's Golden Age, with Midquest Chappell convincingly portrays a life that "touches an essential harmony of things" (Plow, p. 79).
(1) Fred Chappell, Plow Naked: Selected Writings on Poetry (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), p. 73.
(2) The Kirkman Quartet includes: I Am One of You Forever (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985); Brighten the Corner Where You Are (New York: St. Martin's, 1989); Farewell, I'm Bound to Leave You (New York: Picador, 1996); and Look Back All the Green Valley (New York: Picador, 1999).
(3) Fred Chappell, Preface, Midquest: A Poem (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981), p. x.
(4) Frank Kermode, English Pastoral Poetry: From the Beginnings to Marvell (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1952), p. 15.
(5) Fred Chappell. "A Pact with Faustus," Mississippi Quarterly, 37 (1984); rpt. in The Fred Chappell Reader, ed. Dabney Stuart (New York: St. Martin's, 1987), p. 489.
(6) Michael McFee, "The Epigrammatical Fred Chappell," Southern Literary Journal, 31 (Spring 1999), 96.
(7) George Hovis, "An Interview with Fred Chappell," Carolina Quarterly, 52 (Fall/Winter 1999), 72-73.
(8) Fred Chappell, It Is Time, Lord (1963; rpt., Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996), p. 35.
(9) T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland and Other Poems (New York: Harvest, 1934), p. 42.
(10) J.E. Congleton, Theories of Pastoral Poetry in England, 1684-1798 (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1952), p. 4.
(11) Houston A. Baker, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
(12) Fred Hobson, "Contemporary Southern Fiction and the Autochthonous Ideal," in The Southern Writer in the Postmodern Worm (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991), pp. 73-101.
(13) John Lang, "Points of Kinship: Community and Allusion in Fred Chappell's Midquest," in Dream Garden, ed. Patrick Bizzaro (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997), p. 98.
(14) See Dabney Stuart, "Spiritual Matter in Fred Chappell's Poetry: A Prologue" (Dream Garden, pp. 48-70).
(15) Lucinda Hardwick MacKethan, The Dream of Arcady: Place and Time in Southern Literature (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980), p. 6.
(16) Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Over-Soul," in Selected Writings of Emerson, ed. Donald McQuade (New York: Modern Library College Edition, 1981), p. 253.
GEORGE HOVIS University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2000|
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