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Recommendation: “Backsass” by Fred Chappell

BacksassI think it took me about three times longer to read this book than it should have, because whenever I finished a poem, I had to get up, run into the other room, and make my roommate read it too. And then she would try to take the book away and keep reading, and I’d have to wrest it from her and run away.

This is not entirely because Fred Chappell’s “Backsass” is the most brilliant collection of poems I’ve ever read, but it may be one of the most fun. The poetry, as a whole, keeps tongue in cheek, while occasionally hitting a more poignant note, from which it will unfailingly pull away from sentiment by working into the overall “joke” of the poem. For example, he writes a poem entitled “No, Said St. Peter,” in which St. Peter is telling a soul at the gates that he cannot call in his parents or a lawyer, and it ends thusly:

“so your personal lawyer is not an option
but we do provide court-appointed
in cases of spousal abuse like yours
and the firm of Steinem Friedan & de Beauvoir
will send someone over and my advice is
Keep your hands to yourself”

This poem also does something characteristic of the poems in the rest of the book, wherein in the title functions as the first line. Another example of this is “Listen Up, Evildoers Everywhere, Now,” where the first line is “that I have my secret credentials.” This gives the poems a slightly more casual conversational feel, as though the title (instead of announcing the poem) is just providing a segue in, as if to say, “Hey, did you hear about when . . .” This tone is echoed by the two answering machine poems that bookend the book, the first telling us that we’ve reached Fred’s answering machine and he doesn’t really know anything, and the second ending by telling us:

“so now I will tell you the secret
of the universe and save you further bother

here it is:

you may wish to find pen and paper

a time will come when it is no longer time

no I don’t understand it either but then
I don’t have to

I got it from the Delphic Oracle
who is the Mother of all answering machines

don’t call here again”

The problem with having begun quoting, now, is that the urge to quote more poems and more of said poems becomes nearly too great to resist, because this is a collection of poems that fairly begs to be shared with anyone who might need to laugh at something both smart and self-deprecating, both sarcastic and hopeful, and both formal and informal. (He even has a couple of long rhymed poems in the book, proving that he’s capable of more formal, structured work, but clearly prefers the freedom of the nearly punctuation-less free verse of the rest of the collection.)

I would recommend Fred Chappell’s “Backsass” because, while I do (essentially) live for poetry that breaks your hearts with its sheer beauty, sometimes I feel like I have to remember the poetry that makes you smile as well. I want to describe this work as a little bit Billy Collins, a little bit Tom Lehrer, and a little bit . . . something else I can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe it’s just a lot Fred Chappell, then. I wish I could quote entire poems in here to entice the world to read some more, but that seems almost counter-productive if the goal is to get everyone to look at his book. If, however, one were to pick up a copy and only want to read one poem (thereby doing him- or herself a great disservice), I would recommend “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” which has nearly nothing to do with the song of that title and nearly everything to do with the difficulty of having two brains. That description alone ought to clue you in to the kind of strange, irreverent treat these poems are, but I feel that the aforementioned St. Peter poem and answering machines only help to sweeten the deal, so to speak. Additionally, if you need any sort of anecdotal evidence, I have just found myself looking up its price on Amazon, because I’m pretty convinced I need more fun poetry on my shelves.

-Alyssa Johnson

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