Friday, April 24, 2015

Fred Chappell’s “River”

It was in the 1980s that a colleague at work who loved Southern writing introduced me to writer and poet Fred Chappell (born in 1936). She recommended, and I read, one of his novels, I Am One of You Forever. I went on to read two of his other novels, Brighten the Corner Where You Are and Look Back All the Green Valley, and one of his collections of short stories, Farewell I’m Bound to Leave You. 

What I had not read was his poetry, and Chappell first established his literary reputation as a poet. He was an English professor at the University of North Carolina – Greensboro for 40 years, retiring in 2004. In 1997, he was appointed North Carolina’s first poet laureate. 

I love Chappell’s stories. They are Southern, yes, but they are about family and history and all the things that used to define Southern culture. When I read his stories, I read my own family history – the characters and places seem real because they are real. 

I stumbled over a copy of one of his poetry collections, River: A Poem, first published in 1975. My copy is a reprint by LSU Press in 2000; I bought it used and it’s certainly been read many times.  

It’s subtitled “A Poem,” and it should be – River is actually one poem with 11 divisions. It is about family, and specifically his grandparents. It was first published when Chappell was 39, so it is something of a middle-aged memory from the 1940s and early 1950s. 

To write these memories down is important; it helps your own children and grandchildren understand where you and they came from, and how those who came before were as much a part of that river as you and they are now. 

The individual poems that form River are too long to cite in full here, but here is an excerpt of one, entitled “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet,” recounting a conversation between Chappell and his grandmother as she was doing exactly that: 

I see her still, unsteadily riding the edge
Of the clawfoot tub, mumbling to her feet,
Musing bloodrust water about her ankles.
Cotton skirt pulled up, displaying bony
Bruised patchy calves that would make you weep. 

Rinds of her soles had darkened, crust-colored—
Not yellow now—like the tough outer belly
Of an adder/ In fourteen hours the most refreshment
She’d given herself was dabbling her feet in the water. 

“You mightn’t’ve liked John-Giles. Everybody knew
He was a mean one, galloping whiskey and bad women
All night. Tried to testify dead drunk
In church one time. That was a ruckus. Later
Came back a War Hero, and all the young men
Took to doing the things he did. And failed.
Finally one of his women’s men shot him.”

“What for?” 

        “Stealing milk through fences…That part
Of Family nobody wants to speak of.
They’d rather talk about fine men, brick houses,
Money. Maybe you ought to know, teach you

       “What do they talk about?” 

And the damn Civil War, and marriages.
Things you brag about in the front of Bibles…” 

Fred Chapell
Should I say that I have the family Bible from the 19th century. And there’s this family stuff in the font of it, the “kind of stuff you like to brag about,” and I have a photograph of my great-grandparents, which has a Civil War story behind it? 

The other scenes from River include the poet as a child being lowered down the well by his grandfather, to give it its periodic scrubbing; what it’s like for that young boy to discover one day he’s a grandfather himself; and his grandfather’s river baptism (a Methodist getting baptized like a Baptist, for goodness sakes), among others. 

Reading River is wading and then swimming in that river of family and memory that each of us flows from, becoming and being that river ourselves. 

Photograph of the French Broad River in western North Carolina courtesy of the Visit North Carolina.

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