Writer Wendell Berry is known for many things – poetry, novels, short stories, essays, his longstanding opposition to what he calls industrial agriculture, his regional depictions of Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley. Berry is not generally known as a children’s poet, although his poetry, especially his poems about the natural world, have a childlike simplicity and appeal about them.
For years, illustrator Tom Pohrt had been gathering those Berry poems that might appeal to children. Pohrt had written and illustrated numerous children’s books, including Crow and Weasel by Barry Lopez and Careless Rambles by John Clare, both selections of their writings or poems that might appeal to children. A correspondence between Pohrt and Berry began, long-time Berry book designer David Bullen joined in, and the result was Terrapin and Other Poems.
The book is slender at 49 pages, and contains only 21 poems, small for an adult poetry book. But the poems, with Pohrt’s illustrations, are a marvel. You look at the natural world with the wonder and sometimes quiet awe of a child.
Consider something as simple as a group of finches.
The ears stung with cold
and frost of dawn
in early April, comes
the song of winter finches,
their crimson bright, then
dark as they move into
and then against the light.
May the year warm them
soon. May they soon go
north with their singing
and the seasons to follow.
May the bare sticks soon
live, and our minds go free
of the ground
into the shining of trees.
What begins as a simple observation – finches in the cold morning hours of early spring – becomes both an anticipation of the warming season and an identification with the natural world” “…and our minds go free / of the ground / into the shining of trees.” Berry effectively uses simple language here (no word is longer than two syllables) to highlight the essential beauty of an early April morning.
The poems cover a range of natural subjects – a squirrel, a snake, a horse, a calf, the woods, a late snow, seasons, the planting of trees. Each uses simple language; each communicates a sense of quiet and wonder. “My Nose, ” which I suppose can be described a poem about the natural order, is the kind of funny poem that would appeal to children (while we adults we smile and murmur at the idea of calling someone’s nose an onion or a carrot).
The illustrations by Pohrt match that sense of quiet and wonder exactly. The pictures contain an innocence, much like the innocence of the poems.
Terrapin and Other Poems is a beautiful book, designed for children and the child in all of us.
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