By Fred Chappell
Louisiana State University Press, 96 pp.
Shadow Box, Fred Chappell's latest, formally fascinating collection of poems, contains poems within poems, doubling your money's worth and doubling your rhymes with poems that demand to be read and read again.
In each of these poems a smaller poem haunts the larger, pointing us toward the dual rhyme schemes at play. In fact, there are numerous ghosts or spirits floating through this book, and we might hear the smaller poems as ghosts of memory, the sisters of Echo, spirit voices. For example, the poem "2nd Law," which takes as its subject entropy, contains within itself this minimalist sub-poem: "a pinprick somewhere/ loses the air/ out of a hole/ into a whole/ savants fear/ might not be there." This smaller poem creates an image of a balloon deflating, and turns it into a philosophical adage, like a tiny pearl hiding inside the shell of the larger poem, which deals with quite the opposite: "If the universe expands, why do I feel/ so drained, as if a pinprick somewhere goes psss/ and slowly loses the air, with an adder hiss/ unmusical." The larger poem operates on the scale of a larger universe, capturing the emotive qualities and even the musicality of emotional exhaustion.
In addition to the poems-within-poems structure, there are also occasionally paired poems such as "A Drop in the Bucket" and "A Drop in the Ocean," which both rest on the same page. These poems personify water as an expression of selfhood. In the case of the bucket, the expression is satisfied: "I feel I am the I I am, contained/ and whole" as such a figure resides safely inside a small, peaceful bucket. "A Drop in the Ocean," conversely, loses that self, feeling a part of everything, swayed by the tide: "I do not know how I have come to be/ this self within the waters of the planet." Another intriguing pair of poems in the collection is "AWOL" and "Bolus." "AWOL" begins "A sonnet 'Bolus' is missing from this book/ for timorous reasons of propriety"—though "Bolus" actually sits on the next page—and proceeds to discuss an argument for why it should or should not be included. "Bolus" has a more comic feel than much of the rest of the collection, and a political edge, reimagining war as the president's prescription for erectile dysfunction. There are other similarly comical poems; in "Anecdote of the Ironweed," the poet shows how a beer can seems to naturally fit in our American landscape, tangled in the ironweed, than "that prissy, imperious jar in Tennessee" (an allusion to Wallace Steven's "Anecdote of the Jar").
Each section of the book gives a short explanation of the way in which the poems-within-poems work: Part III creates reliquaries, where Chappell uses lines of other poets interspersed with his own, as in one poem that explains why a critical exegesis of Sappho will never last as long as the words of Sappho (whose words haunt the poem itself). From an accomplished writer who is a former poet laureate of North Carolina, these poems show a poet in a larger world of poetry as an authority—one who dares steal lines of poetry with the audacity demanded by that famous old line from T.S. Eliot: "Good poets borrow; Great poets steal."