Author, poet and essayist Wendell Berry has been known for talking walks on Sunday mornings, walks that he uses for both observation and meditation. Most of Leavings: Poems is a kind of historical record of those walks, poems that observe, poems that are a meditation, and sometimes poems that are both. It is a beautiful volume, a quiet volume, poems to be read in the silence of a morning, in a woodland garden, or perhaps on a anture hike. (I have a vision inmy head of reading these poems in Shaw Arboretum, at a place called the “Overlook” because it perches ona cliff high above the Meramec River with a view of the small farms on the other side.)
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.
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.
Postings and News Updates:
Our poetry giveaway for National Poetry Month continues. We did a giveaway here in February, one a random drawing and one an editor’s pick for the best 100-word answer to “Why is poetry important?” For National Poetry Month, I’m doing another giveaway for InsideOut: Poems by L.L. Barkat. Just leave a comment (your name or a simple “hello” will be sufficient) in the comment section between now and next Monday evening (April 19 at midnight eastern time). We’ll pick a name at random – and that person will get a copy of InsideOut.