Friday, November 13, 2009

Leavings: Poems

Wendell Berry, Leavings: Poems, Counterpoint, Berkeley, CA, 2010. (132 pp.)

I have been living for the past few weeks with Wendell Berry's latest anthology of poems in my backpack and have decided it is time to share a few thoughts about it. 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.)

The title Leavings is not the title of any of the poems, but seems to sum up the book, as if Berry were deliberately taking leave of his readers. "It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old." (2007.VI) "In time a man disappears..." (2007.VII) "I know I am getting old and I say so,..." (2005.VII) There are other leavings here too, other than the merely personal, predominantly that of the descending water that flows out from a lowly stream named Camp Branch. Falling tones, falling leaves (literally), falling steps, falling stones, falling snow and falling rain transport the reader to the Kentucky countryside where we see the place that has meant and still means the world to Mr. Berry. This small collection takes the reader on a painful but beautiful journey, a shared pilgrimage down familiar paths measured in ever slower and more halting steps, made all the more valuable for the fact that the reader is not required to leave his native place to join Mr. Berry except in imagination. "So many times I've gone away from here, where I'd rather be than any place I know.... It is death." (2008.X)

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 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. In that sense they are very gratefully received; it is, after all, November and there are too few such walks left to me ...and to you.

It wouldn't be right to end the review without a full list of Wendell Berry's poetic works. Check your shelves! If you do not have all of these, you'll want them on a shelf close by when the winter winds begin to blow the snow around.

The Broken Ground: Poems


Farming: A Hand Book

Openings: Poems (Harvest/Hbj Book)

A Part (Part Paper)


Sayings and Doings

The Wheel

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