Arts & Culture

Shadow Box: Poems by Fred Chappell

  • By Kathryn S. Byer

Chappell has from the beginning set aesthetic challenges for himself, mastering nearly every poetic form.

shadow box

Four years ago, Fred Chappell sent me an elegantly printed poem titled “The Foreseeing,” telling me that it was a new form he was exploring, the “embedded poem,” and that it was devilishly difficult. Inside this poem, the voice of a woman speaks in between the words of her lover, in poetic counterpoint. I was stunned by its verbal texture. What had led North Carolina’s most accomplished and celebrated poet to create a form that made the sonnet seem like child’s play?

Chappell has from the beginning set aesthetic challenges for himself, mastering nearly every poetic form. Had these begun to seem too easy? Was he determined to resist resting on his laurels? Whatever the reason, his readers now have the gift of his innovation in his appropriately titled Shadow Box.

Open it, and one finds each whole poem containing the separate voices or perspectives that create the poetic “narrative.” Identifiable by different typefaces, they may be nested in a nursing home or along a country road, or within an outburst of patriotic rage. They reside within translations from German Romantic poets, and they twist and turn within the counterpoint debates of the fourth section. Because, as Chappell explains, any language we speak “enfolds the prayers of past ages,” the book concludes with “Two Latin Hymns.”

While certainly learned and complex, this poetic shadow box is full of music, wit, and sheer verbal play. Chappell and his wife, Susan, have traveled the state performing these poems. LSU Press should consider inserting a compact disc of the Chappells’ beautifully rendered readings into the book, completing this shadow box of voices within voices created by a poet who continues to amaze and delight us.

Louisiana State University Press. 2009, 81 pages, paperback, $17.95. Available at and

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