Thursday, September 27, 2012

`The Exercise of Seeing It Whole'

Like a fool, I volunteered for the sweatiest afternoon of my life. Not yet twenty-seven, I was underemployed and visiting friends on a farm in Northwestern Ohio. They heated with a fireplace and two woodstoves, and autumn was coming. I offered to chop a winter’s worth of wood and stack it in the back hall and woodshed. They, of course, accepted. For four or five hours, with an axe, steel wedges and a hammer, I chopped what felt like a forest. It was September, the day was hot and I was hung over. In another time and place, Thoreau’s words of wisdom about chopping logs warming him twice – “once while I was splitting them, and again when they were on the fire” – might have been a comfort. By dinner I was  blistered, aching, stupid with exhaustion and exhilarated.

In the “Bloodfire” section of his great poem Midquest (1981), Fred Chappell includes “Firewood,” starting with a Thoreauvian meditation on chopping wood: “Flame flame where I hit now, the cat is scared, heart / red  in the oak where sun / climbed vein by vein to seek the cool / wedge…” The seven-page poem is too densely woven to be effectively quoted, but Chappell, like Lucretius, recounts a grand cycle in which nature and man – this man, the poet’s alter ego, Ol’ Fred – turn energy into matter and matter back into energy with photosynthesis and burning wood.  The language mingles Appalachian demotic (Chappell is from North Carolina) and the metaphysical. The focus shifts seamlessly from Whitman-like mundanity (“I must pause over the half / driven wedge & water it with the sweat of my / armpit”) to the comically cosmic:

“…Matter, I’m gonna
kick your ass all over this universe, matter has only
to sit quietly thinking, My man, never you heard of
passive resistance?, why that’s the secret of the
world, Mexican stand off is the closest you’ll get
to the heart’s heat heart of the heart…”
One of my favorite moments in American poetry comes a little earlier, about a third of the way through “Firewood,” when Ol’ Fred strikes a knot in the heart of a log:

“…how can I say it
is not beautiful this filigree of primaries,
its form hermetic in the flow of time the
rings transcribe, I will set it down amid
the perfect things, alongside the livid day
lilies here and the terrapins I brought home
as a child & kept in the cool basement
with the arrowheads and alongside Don Larsen’s
Series game in 1956, for
anything so entirely itself must have value even
if it’s only in the exercise of seeing it whole”

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