Attention to detail: the poetics of Wendell Berry

From a lookout
in the woods

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30 April 2021

Italy is famous for the excellence of its local products. It is renowned for wines that express the specificities of its territories, whose area sometimes covers only a few acres, and for microclimates that permit the production of widely different cured meats. Italy is famous for styles of painting and architecture, dialects and foods that change every few miles as one travels through the countryside. Why did Italy develop so many varieties, with such a deep intuition for the hidden possibilities in every territory? There is an American poet who can help us rediscover the roots of Italy’s greatness, and perhaps also help us find a good road for our common future. That poet is Wendell Berry. He is not yet well known in Italy. However, his works resonate so deeply with the spirit of Italy that it is probable that Berry will not only become well known, but even celebrated, as he has become over the last few decades in North America.

Berry was born on August 5, 1934 in Kentucky to a family that had already worked that soil for five generations. After earning his Bachelor’s degree, Berry went to Stanford for a master’s program under the direction of Wallace Stegner, the extraordinary voice of the American West, together with students of the caliber of Larry McMurtry and Ken Kesey. During the early 1960s, Berry won several scholarships, including a Guggenheim fellowship, which permitted him to travel around Europe and then to work in New York as a professor. But in 1965 Berry got into his car with his wife Tanya and his two small children, and they left the city to live in Lane’s Landing, Kentucky, and work the fields of a small farm. Since that time, he has always lived, worked, and written in that place. Not only does he still cultivate the land as a way to make a living for his family, but he does the work without tractors. He prefers to pull the implements with horses, for serious reasons that he has documented in several essays (not necessarily to express the backwards style of an inveterate curmudgeon).

From the beginning of his work as a farmer until today, Berry also followed a parallel path as a writer. He is an essayist on topics that would today be labeled “ecological”, and a lyric poet characterized by close attention to the elements of daily life. Although some of his contemporaries in the City disapproved of his choice to go back to the land, saying that he would dry up intellectually, far from literary conversation, after half a century one must admit that on the contrary he was able to discover depths, perhaps infinite depths, within the warp and woof of the relationships in a community composed of only a few dozen people.

The attention he paid to those relationships became the material for a series of novels, starting with Nathan Coulter in 1960. The series continues through the family and town relationships of the community across seven other volumes, including Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter. The novels and about fifty short stories are centered around the life of Port William, an imaginary town that looks a lot like the real Port Royal where Wendell Berry lives.

Besides being a farmer, Berry has also long been an activist. Dozens of times he has participated in non-violent protests against activities that he considered damaging to life and to people, for example the war in Vietnam, the building of nuclear power plants, and the death penalty. In 2011 he protested the controversial activities of Kentucky coal mining outfits that removed so much coal from the mountains that they were decapitated, and in some cases levelled. With other activists, Berry occupied the office of the governor of Kentucky for several days. He was 74.

These methods of protest are typical for some ways of conceiving of political activity, but Berry carries no card. He tries to act following his conscience and his reason, not the fashions of the moment. In July 2020, a period marked by the eruption of racial tensions in the United States, many protesters defaced and destroyed statues and public artworks depicting subjects that were considered racist. A mural painted at the University of Kentucky in 1934 was heavily criticized, and the university decided to remove it. On that occasion, not only did Berry not raise his voice together with the protesters, but he even filed a lawsuit against the university in order to block the removal of the mural. The result was that the university decided to commission a new work in the cupola above the mural, and add elements that evoke the experience of the slaves, rather than destroy the partial vision of a work of art that has belonged to that place for many decades. It was a victory, a decision that honors all the people involved in a complex history.

Berry’s opposition to abortion makes him an awkward friend of the political Left, that otherwise appreciates his point of view on ecology and the death penalty. In 2009 he wrote that “As I am made deeply uncomfortable by the taking of a human life before birth, I am also made deeply uncomfortable by the taking of a human life after birth.” On the other hand, his criticism of religious institutions can make the Right bristle.

“I go to church when it rains” gives an idea of his position on religion. For Berry, the Gospel is a serious thing, but the temple of God that is the created world has precendence over the temple that is a church. Sometimes it is important to participate in the presence of the divine through words, songs, and community gatherings — but mostly when it’s raining.

This tension emerges in one of his first “Sabbath poems”, the poetic meditations he writes consistently since 1979 almost every Sunday:

Sabbath


The bell calls in the town 

Where forebears cleared the shaded land

And brought high daylight down

To shine on field and trodden road.

I hear, but understand

Contrarily, and walk into the woods.

I leave labor and load,

Take up a different story.

I keep an inventory

Of wonders and of uncommercial goods.

The natural world, with its multiple and polyvalent interconnections, is an inexhaustible symbol of hidden things. For example, the cycle of water that falls from the clouds, flows into streams and then rivers all the way to the sea, and then returns into the air by evaporation, is a symbol that Berry returns to time and again. Perhaps he is influenced by his setting: he wrote most of his novels and volumes of essays and poetry in a cabin without electricity on the banks of the Kentucky river. In a theological poem entitled The Gift of Gravity, the poet writes

All that passes descends,

and ascends again unseen

into the light: the river

coming down from the sky

to hills, from hills to sea,

and carving as it moves,

to rise invisible,

gathered to light, to return

again. “The river’s injury

is its shape.” I’ve learned no more.

We are what we are given

and what is taken away;

blessed be the name

of the giver and taker.

For everything that comes

is a gift, the meaning always

carried out of sight

to renew our whereabouts,

always a starting place.

And every gift is perfect 

in its beginning, for it

is “from above, and cometh down

from the Father of lights.”

Gravity is grace.

All that has come to us

has come as the river comes

given in passing away.

And if our wickedness

destroys the watershed,

dissolves the beautiful field,

then I must grieve and learn

that I possess by loss

the earth I live upon

and stand in and am. The dark

and then the light will have it.

I am newborn of pain

to love the new-shaped shore

where young cottonwoods

take hold and thrive in the wound,

kingfishers already nesting

in a hole in the sheared bank.

“What is left is what is” —

have learned no more. The shore

turns green under the songs

of the fires of the world’s end,

and what is there to do?

Imagine what exists

so that it may shine

in thought light and day light

lifted up in the mind.

The dark returns to light

in the kingfisher’s blue and white

richly laid together.

He falls into flight

from the broken ground,

with strident outcry gathers

air under his wings.

In work of love, the body

forgets its weight. And once

again with love and singing

in my mind, I come to what

must come to me, carried

as a dancer by a song.

This grace is gravity.

The cycle of water creates the banks of the river by subtraction. The water cuts the soil like a blade, creates a wound, which is also a shape. The water is the matter that creates the wound in the soil, but its action and power are given by the invisible gravity, which is “grace” for Berry. Similarly, the life of a human person is what is given him, and is what is taken away.

It is difficult to place this vision of things in a single religious tradition, but perhaps this is part of the fascination Berry’s poetry holds. We hear the echoes of wisdom without time nor place, exactly located within the details of a very precise time and place. It is not important to assign this truth to one party or another. It is important, rather, that this truth is born of the earth, from human relations lived all the way to their depths, from love of the tools of work, from love of animals and plants. If the truth springs forth from the earth, one may hope that mercy will look down from heaven.

Berry is not particularly worried with sin, considered as the abstract terms of a primordial condition from which one must be redeemed. On the other hand, he is vigorously worried about sin understood as injustice in the relations between persons, and between humans and the natural world. More than a half-century of his writings attest to his concern with the individualism that fragments the world and tears the heart of people away from the only roots that can give meaning to the work and activity of the person. He is concerned about the efficiency-driven capitalism that promotes a vision of life that bulldozes the earth and human persons, presenting itself as “progress”, the inevitable result of evolutionary forces. For Berry, these are rough and ugly mythologies that misunderstand the real value of every human life and lead us toward a destructively promethean view of the world. Man is not a god. He lives better under the leaf-filtered forest light than under blazing neon and spotlights.

In the half-light of the forest, humans can learn to see. The truth is hidden and yet revealed between clumps of earth, between the lines of customary small-talk with the cashier at the post office, and among the branches of an apple tree.

The Apple Tree


In the essential prose

of things, the apple tree

stands up, emphatic

among the accidents

of the afternoon, solvent,

not to be denied.

The grass has been cut

down, carefully

to leave the orange

poppies still in bloom;

the tree stands up

in the odor of the grass

drying. The forked

trunk and branches are

also a kind of necessary

prose — shingled with leaves,

pigment and song

imposed on the blunt

ligaments of fact, a foliage

of small birds among them.

The tree lifts itself up

in the garden, the

clutter of its green

leaves halving the light,

stating the unalterable

congruity and form

of its casual growth;

the crimson finches appear

and disappear, singing

among the design.

The tree seen thus, even only for an instant, acquires eternity in human thought and in poetic script. It has been raised into “thought light”, together with its context, worked by man with a typically rural American care, cutting the grass but leaving the groups of wildflowers to brighten the scene before being cut down. The apple tree coexists with the birds, in a close poetic relationship: the finches find food and shelter among the branches, and are themselves part of the sparkling of the leaves in the light, a red contrasting with green, and a song that completes the humble and expansive silence of the plant.

This tree is grandiose, but the true peaks of Berry’s poetry are reached when he speaks of human relationships. Both in his novels and in his poems, human ecology and the close web of relations between people is the focal point of his attention. The Sunday walks under the trees and the observation of the natural world are like moments of silent breath which permit him to return to the world of men with greater patience, and more honest eyes, less closed and constricted within inadequate categories.

From his years of long and deep contemplation emerged, for instance, Jayber Crow, the protagonist of the novel of the same name. He is an ex-seminarian, a failed ecclesiastic, who returns to his small town and becomes a barber. When necessary, he also serves as an undertaker. Jayber is a failure, it would seem. Yet Berry makes of him a complete man, full of the words spoken and unspoken while he cuts hair, full of the care he has for the other members of the small community, and full of the strong emotions he feels for a married woman and her violent, cheating husband.

Some of Berry’s most touching poems were written for his wife, Tanya. She appears as a center, an anchor; sometimes an adversary; a balm: a wife. In his thirties, he wrote:

Marriage To Tanya


How hard it is for me, who live

in the excitement of women

and have the desire for them

in my mouth like salt. Yet

you have taken me and quieted me.

You have been such light to me

that other women have been

your shadows. You come near me

with the nearness of sleep.

And yet I am not quiet.

It is to be broken.

 

It is to be torn open.

It is not to be

reached and come to rest in

ever. I turn against you,

I break from you, I turn to you.

We hurt, and are hurt,

and have each other for healing.

It is healing. It is never whole.

Many years later, his wife is a grandmother. Time lived well with her has given Berry eyes able to see the history of his life with gratitude and joy:

The Blue Robe


How joyful to be together, alone

as when we first were joined

in our little house by the river

long ago, except that now we know

each other, as we did not then;

and now instead of two stories fumbling

to meet, we belong to one story

that the two, joining, made. And now

we touch each other with the tenderness

of mortals, who know themselves:

how joyful to feel the heart quake

at the sight of a grandmother,

old friend in the morning light,

beautiful in her blue robe!

Berry’s fame grew slowly. He has always seemed a country rustic, difficult to contact, who refuses interviews and throws his weight against many elements of contemporary society. Yet he has also acquired ever more credibility, and ever more readers, to the point that over the last decade he has received the highest recognitions, such as being included in the Library of America, and receiving from the hands of President Obama the National Humanities Medal in 2010.

Like a healthy tree, his roots penetrated into the ground continually, profoundly, and in time his branches grew to fill an ample space of sky. They give shade to those who are tired and disappointed in the inhumane world of ultra-efficient technology, and produce good, nourishing fruit for those who are on pilgrimage, seeking better thought and refinement in perceiving the world. “Live a three-dimensioned life”, he advises himself. The advice is valid for each of us, as a way to rediscover the attention to detail that made Italy great, and as a farewell:

How to be a poet
(to remind myself)


I
Make a place to sit down.   

Sit down. Be quiet.   

You must depend upon   

affection, reading, knowledge,   

skill — more of each   

than you have — inspiration,   

work, growing older, patience,   

for patience joins time   

to eternity. Any readers   

who like your poems,   

doubt their judgment.   

II   
Breathe with unconditional breath  

the unconditioned air.   

Shun electric wire.   

Communicate slowly. Live   

a three-dimensioned life;   

stay away from screens.   

Stay away from anything   

that obscures the place it is in.   

There are no unsacred places;   

there are only sacred places   

and desecrated places.   

III 
Accept what comes from silence.   

Make the best you can of it.   

Of the little words that come   

out of the silence, like prayers   

prayed back to the one who prays,   

make a poem that does not disturb   

the silence from which it came.

by Jonah Lynch