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Leavings: Poems Hardcover – October 20, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
In his 18th book of poems, Berry (Given) rails against environmental destruction starting with the second poem: While the land suffers, automobiles thrive. He mixes philosophy, religion, politics, and personal experience in poems utilizing formal rhymes, spare jottings, and intimate letters. Most of the book is a long series inspired by Berry's regular Sunday morning walks. While Berry's various modes can make for interesting poetry, some of the poems here, particularly those that rely on a broad political brush, fall flat: The nation in its error... //Destroys its land. When hinging a poem on a candle against the wind, Berry should know he's on infertile ground. What still zings, though, are moments when this old man of letters surprises himself, as when Berry addresses his wife: I love you as I loved you/ young, except that, old, I am astonished. (Nov.)
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Berry has become ever more prophetic. The poems he collectively calls sabbaths, composed on Sundays in the woods on his farmland since 1979, occupy four-fifths of this book. If originally meditational and quiet, however serious and deep the passions they mulled over, the sabbath poems are now oracular in the mode of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the other Hebrew prophets who enjoined their people to come to their senses and remember the Lord and his bounty, promises, and judgment. In the sabbaths of 2005–08 published here, Berry angrily mourns the degradation of the nation wrought by destruction of the land and the pursuit of wealth and power. He says that we must prepare to live without hope for a while, though in the very first of the sabbaths, he prays not to lose love along with hope: “Help me, please, to carry / this candle against the wind.” Despite anger and bitterness, he often recalls and teaches the beauty and propriety of creation, too. If he is a Jeremiah, he is also a David the psalmist. --Ray Olson
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The book is in two parts: the first part is a potpourri, an all-too-short assortment of letter poems, occasional pieces, and brief reflections (the 20 titled poems in the collection are here); the second part is entitled "Sabbaths 2005-2008" and carries the tag line, "How may a human being come to rest?" (54 numbered poems make up this section.)
One of my favorite poems in this collection, one I know I'll return to many times, occurs early in Part I and is entitled simply "An Embarrassment." The severe economy of language--3 or 4 word lines mostly, mostly 1 or 2 syllable words--conveys the embarrassment of friends who regularly offer thanks for a meal when they eat alone but who are now trying to decide whether to do so when they are together. One of them, having decided to make a go of the prayer, leaves (!) them both embarrassed as the prayer falls awfully flat. I'll not ruin the ending for you, but it is a Berry-esque show stopper. For someone who makes his living as a pastor, that one poem was worth the price of admission. But there are many others from this book that will now join my ever growing list of Berry favorites: e.g., "A Speech to the Garden Club of America," which admonishes us to go "back to school, this time in gardens." Or "While Attending the Annual Convocation of Cause Theorists and Bigbangists at the Local Provincial Research University, the Mad Farmer Intercedes from the Back Row." (If you've read the other Mad Farmer Poems, you'll appreciate the appropriateness of this addition to the corpus.)
I have been reading (and re-reading) Wendell Berry's work for quite a while now. That means I've heard many of the words and seen many of the ideas before. But these poems are new, encountered for the first time like today's bracing walk in a familiar woods I've visited many times. The woods and the friends with whom we walk, like the day itself, are the same as they've always been but also different on this day. In that sense these poems are very gratefully received; it is, after all, November and there are too few such walks left to me ...and to you.
Do yourself a favor. Get the book and spend time with it out of doors while the leaves are still falling, or indoors by the fire in the depths of winter.
Sometimes these meditations are dark. Consider "Sabbaths 2005" (XII):
If we have become incapable
of thought, then the brute-thought
of mere power and mere greed
will think for us.
If we have become incapable
of denying ourselves anything,
then all that we have
will be taken from us.
If we have no compassion,
we will suffer alone, we will suffer
alone the destruction of ourselves.
These are merely the laws of this world
as known to Shakespeare, as known to Milton.
When we cease from human thought,
a low and effective cunning
stirs in the most inhuman minds.
This "low and effective cunning" is what sees geography as a commercial asset, an asset to be made over, industrialized and changed forever. While it is not a demand for a "return to pure nature" - that is not what Berry argues here - but it is a romantic notion, to be sure, one grounded in Berry's Christian faith, one that sees people intimately connected to the land.
And then the tone changes, and Berry describes crossing a stream, but still in the same reverent terms. From "The Book of Camp Branch:"
Going down stone by stone,
the song of the water changes,
changing the way I walk
which changes my thought
as I go. Stone to stone
the stream flows. Stone to stone
the walker goes. The words
stand stone still until
the flow moves them, changing
the sound - a new word -
a new place to step or stand.
He's describing a kind of poetry of nature, with the flow of water moving stone to stone, the walker following behind the flow, and the flow creating a new place for the walk to stand.
Berry's writing is a collective whole, or perhaps holistically collective. Whether it his novels, short stories, articles, essays or poems, the same themes course throughout - themes about the land, about people and they become part of the land, the modern loss of connection to that land, and a hope for something better. He rages against the forces, "industrial humanity, an alien species," whom he sees as agents of destruction, not least for the fact that they don't know "one big story, of the world and the world's end...They know names and little stories" (Sabbaths 2007 V).
These meditations and observations are the themes and philosophy that we know as the Wendell Berry trademark - the land, the geography of the heart, upon which he has staked a literary and moral claim. "Leavings" is plainly spoken, lovingly rendered, and unmoving in its insistence for a better way.
A keenly observant philosopher (all farmers are eventually philosophers), Wendell Berry shares his wisdom regarding faith, love, community, and the natural world. Reading his work is an education in how to shape oneself to get the most from one's body and mind. He's the poet laureate of practical, useful joys and a national treasure.
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Read the poems about marriage, they are full of deep truths as I felt when my wife of 44 years died.