catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 2 :: 2006.01.27 — 2006.02.09


New poems from an old friend

When I was in college in the early 1980s, I had the unexpected opportunity to have lunch with poet, essayist and novelist Wendell Berry. I didn?t know who he was. I went with a friend. We ended up the only two at the table as other students quickly left for classes. We spent a delightful hour with Mr. Berry, my friend asking intelligent questions and me nodding and smiling. Since then, I have purchased and borrowed many of Berry?s works, particularly loving his poetry. His progressive approach to conservative ideals has appealed to the part of me that still likes to chop my own wood for heat, can the peaches I pick myself, and sit in the laps of old trees. Like Berry, I condemn progress that strips the earth in favor of monetary gain preferring honest labor that adds value to my surroundings. I do not live this out very well. So, finding encouragement along the way from someone who not only lives this way but also articulates a positive vision for a simple life in the midst of adversity is always welcome.

Wendell Berry?s first new collection of poetry in almost a decade, Given: New Poems, takes us again to that unique landscape which is Berry?s gift. It is a place full of life, death and renewal, the miracle of insight coming in large ways through small means. It is a place of naming the beauty that surrounds us so that we do not forget where to look for it. ?When those in power by owning all the words/ have made them mean nothing, let silence/ speak for us?? he intones. Out of silence, he calls to us reminding us that poetry is given out of silence and obtains its power by respecting the given word.

The book is divided into four sections. The first, titled ?In a Country Once Forested,? trades on the author?s memory of things as they once were. This section is like coming home to older friends who love me but challenge my younger ways of seeing the world. For example, ?In Art Rowanberry?s Barn? I am reminded of how much I want to throw away junk that Art would not only save for use but use. I am challenged to think again that there really is no ?away? to which to throw things and the best I can do is to put to good use what I have and minimize the number of things I acquire to use. After all, life is too short to be tyrannized by too many things.

The second part, ?Further Words? is the drink straight up, setting out political views and ideas that make me almost choke because I?ve been accustomed to them watered down. But some are worth a chuckle like when ?The Leader?s? head is likened to a watermelon, ?frequently thumped/ and still not ripe.?

The third section, a dream poem in the form of a play ?Sonata at Payne Hollow,? reminds me of Berry?s play-poem ?The Bringer of Water? Farming: A Handbook (1967). The two plays are written about different times of life, ?The Bringer of Water? at the painful beginning and ?Sonata at Payne Hollow? claiming the blessed grace of afterlife. The staging of this ?Sonata,? keeping stillness as the central quality of the action, communicates Berry?s mind as much as the words of the poem.

Finally, a section of Sabbath Poems, includes poems from 1998-2004. The author?s long habit of taking a walk on the Sabbath and to wait for a poem to come provides a progressive look at life through one observer?s vantage point. This section is a continuation of A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 (1998). They include reflections on resurrection, theology, nature, love, light, war, hate, visions, admonitions and invitations. These poems take us through the events of a life as they pass in time and usually have a ?grabber? line that makes me want to read it to anyone who is within shouting distance. For example, ?What is hard/ is to imagine the Lords of War/ may love the things they destroy.?

I wonder if anything new can come from one who views life more from its end than its beginning. Though called ?new? poems, the places and characters are familiar to Berry?s readers. He roams over territory we have been before, but I am not disappointed because it is a fresh look at old places. Berry takes us to his writing porch over the river as he did in ?Window Poems? (Openings, 1965) to view the water ever present but ever new. We hear the wrens and finches in the forest canopy up the hill from his house. We greet the beautiful Tanya, his wife of over forty years to whom he brings ?aged a young man?s love.? Characters from his novels peep occasionally from these new pages, Burley Coulter, Jayber Crow, Andy Catlett, and others of Port William, Kentucky.

We are transported to a spring hillside to see that the

ewe flock, bred in October, brings forth
in March. This so far remains, this pain
and renewal, whatever war is being fought.
We go through the annual passage of birth
and death, triumph and heartbreak, love
and exasperation, mud, milk, mucus, and blood.
Yet once more the young ewe stands with her lambs
in the dawnlight, the lambs well-suckled
and dry. There is no happiness like this.

And we find that we are squarely in the text of the essay, “The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture” (1977), being taught that agriculture will save us, or at least keep our culture from total self-destruction, if we learn its lessons well. We are also reminded that true happiness is found within the labor.

He?s still raging against the machine, but has made the kind of peace with it that lets him invite the reader to ?Ask the world to reveal its quietude?/not the silence of machines when they are still.? He can, in spite of airplanes criss-crossing the sky, fall asleep in broad daylight under the spring canopy and wake to find the dream of the trees alive in him and be able to declare in another poem that ?under the pavement the soil/ is dreaming of grass.?

The poem, ?Some Further Words,? encompasses an older poet?s defense of his life. He discourses over words that may have lost meaning for being over- or mis-used. He wants to chase machines out of his life as he would a fox from the henhouse and call stewardship and care of the earth ?economics? rather than exploitation and stock trades. He wants to return labor to an honorable niche in our culture and save the designation of genius for one who knows truly who one is and not one for who produces anything spectacular. So, we are treated to the wisdom of one man?s years ending with the lines

But this is what I?m for, the side
I?m on. And this is what you should
expect of me, as I expect it of myself,
though for realization we may wait
a thousand or a million years.

In this collection, Berry calls out of us the patience for realizing his vision, ?for patience joins time/ to eternity.? His mission as poet is to have us sit still and listen; to learn from the wisdom of the trees, from the inscrutable beauty of the Acadian flycatcher; from the ironic worthlessness of the moneywort. He wants us to compare our lives with those who have lived before and to grasp their way of living as a hope for the future prosperity of all life. He wants us to know our kinship with all life, past and present and for that to be wisdom enough.

These poems form a welcoming place to begin a love of Berry?s poetry or, for those familiar with his words, a new resting place along a way I hope will continue to be fruitful in the years to come. Wendell Berry concludes his look at poetry as gift with both a farewell and a welcome.

An old man, who has been on many days
a man of the woods has come again?

where now a great wind has blown, and he
alone is still upright, his old companions
all broken and brought down. It is the place
of endings he has come to, of the world?s end

he says. ?Welcome,? he says. For it is the place
also of the world?s beginning, ever here, for here
there is again a living darkness underfoot,
a small wind is moving farther into time, and here
he is, astir among the fallen.

Naomi and her husband David are co-directors of The Hermitage Community, a retreat center in Three Rivers, Michigan.

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