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Power and Poetry: A Review of

by Claiborne Walthall

A few years ago, I was watching a television program in Germany while on an exchange. My host snickered when a loud and glitzy advertisement came on the screen for the Backstreet Boys, a popular pop music group of five American teen idol guys.In her accented, gibing English she said, "So that’s America?"In seeming answer to that ridiculous impression, James Schevill’s collection of poetry, The Complete American Fantasies, gives a clear statement: these poems are America.The German commercial was ludicrous because it sold an impression, a single image of America as somehow being the real thing. Contrawise, Schevill gives us the real thing, his life-both concrete and fantastic-and helps us to draw our impressions from that. Schevill prefaces his collection beginning with these words: "In my sequence of American Fantasies, I have attempted to catch the tone of the country as I witnessed it during the major part of the twentieth century." A glimpse of his poems and the eras they describe helps shape our ideas of our country and reflect on our ideas of ourselves.

"My childhood years were permeated by wild-words, wildfire-stories, haunting wildfire-doom," writes Schevill. Indeed in the poems concerning the 1920’s, the lines reflect the wildness of his western upbringing. This wildness is not the vision of cowboys and frontier we often associate with western themes, but rather the energy of youth and the powerful wildness of discovery, exploration, and mystery occurring in the young life. This series of poems keeps well in the section’s title, "The Optimistic Frontier." Finding his voice in himself and his surroundings, Schevill seeks after that clear energy and power of youth, which so many search for when youth has passed. Speaking through other real and fantastic, older characters, Schevill recognizes that tone of the country: a narrative telling the wild cycle of those who possess the youthful energy unaware and those who seek the awareness to reclaim it.

Schevill continues this tone-seeking through the Depression, the New Deal, and the Second World War. Speaking through the voices of Hershey the chocolate-maker, Houdini the escape artist, and many others, he gives us verse accounts of him placing himself in their situations. Schevill explores what his own mind thinks and feels about these people’s perspectives. This is, at once, a outside examination of lives and an inside examination of his own perspective. We as readers are invited into this fantasy world only to discover that we have many ideas about ourselves that are only fantastic themselves!

A prevalent example of this is the idea of a Superman. Schevill opens the introspective door with an account of Kristellnacht, the night of widespread Nazi destruction of Jewish property and lives in 1938. The battle with the wild energy of the 1920’s has turned for Schevill into a madness of war, and he appropriately titles this section dealing with the 1940’s "Wars Within War." We find some of the most powerful poetry in the collection in this section, because Schevill shows vividly the terrible power of an uebermensch dream of youth and energy. Himself put on Limited Service domestic duty because of his eyesight, Schevill writes of the conflicts between and within individuals that make up the larger war. He examines this as himself, as German prisoners-of-war that he guards, and as a whole host of American figures: Jefferson, Emerson, and Melville. Each of these, his verses show, held a certain version of the Superman myth in themselves and must be understood to capture again the tone of the time at hand.

Each of Schevill’s eras have a theme concerning the energy and power of a certain time. The various American myths and perspectives give us unique insight into our own American lives. It is not the philosophical underpinnings of Schevill’s poetry, however, that give it great force, however. The power and truth of this collection lies in its strength as excellent poetry. Schevill seems to say in his "Jazz-Drift", in his "Looking at old Tombstones in a New England Graveyard," or in his "Madness,"that his and our experiences and fantasies have a lyrical and vivid story of their own. His poems express to us that reality is often the most fantastic and energetic happenings of all. While the experience of a nation with such emphasis on power and energy and fantasy takes many joyful as well as terrible forms,by understanding the presence of a fantastic national tone, we can truly begin to understand just what is America.