Openings: Poems by Wendell Berry

Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. First Edition

Summary, from front flap:

The poems brought together in Openings are those of an American, a countryman, a husband and a father- a man who is deeply concerned about the pass to which his nation has come.

As a countryman, acutely and continuously aware of the natural world, Wendell Berry writes not just to celebrate the satisfactions it offers, although he does this notably well; he speaks about the use and abuse of our environment, about the violence we arrogantly inflict upon it to the increasing peril of all life on the planet. As a citizen he writes about a man’s responsibility toward himself and his fellow men, and about certain manifestations of American power, most notably in Vietnam. But if there is anger in some of these poems, there is no despair, and in others there is hope- and humor, too. As husband, Wendell Berry writes love poems that are both tender and passionate; as a father, he writes of parenthood. And in an extended sequence entitled “Window Poems”- possibly the most substantial and impressive poetic work he has yet achieved- he weaves into a kind of fugue all the dominant themes of his book.

Subtleties of thought and language open out beyond the surface simplicity of these poems, whose lucidity, directness, and moving eloquence give them an uncommonly strong and wide appeal.

My thoughts:

I don’t know how to phrase my thoughts about Openings. This volume blended antiwar poetry with illuminating poems, like “Before Dark” and “October 10.” As the final installment of my Wendell Berry poetry adventure, Openings is my favorite due to it’s enlightening nature.

The antiwar sentiment expressed throughout this volume comes across loud and clear. “Dark with Power” was the poem that is the most angry of them all, even next to “Against the War in Viet Nam.” This is because “Dark with Power” is raw and unforgiving. The last stanza of the poem, Fed with dying, we gaze/ on our might’s monuments of fire./ The world dangles from us/ while we gaze calls the ugliest pictures to my mind. Berry, such a lover of nature, conjures an image of burning valleys, villages, and people, which reveals his hatred of what was happening. Berry despairs at the lack of empathy in the government and humanity. Instead of outright calling the perpetrators of Vietnam monsters- he says We are carried in the belly/ of what we have become. The reader is left to imagine a great howling monster prowling the countryside. Berry does not deny himself the guilt of Vietnam, but he does allow himself the grief of being a part of a people capable of such despicable destruction.
With this said, the beauty of other poems in Openings can’t be denied. “October 10” is a poem early on in the volume, and it brings alive the transition from summer to fall. “April Woods: Morning” gives life to early spring and “The Meadow” is about life in a place where there was none before. One of the love poems in this book, “Marriage,” showcases the adoration Berry has for his wife. “Before Dark” was my favorite poem in this whole book.
I hope you have enjoyed reading my thoughts about Wendell Berry’s poetry over the last few weeks. While there are a great many volumes of his work I have yet to read, this was the limits of my local library. I encourage you to recommend me other poets I may enjoy- and I hope to explore more poets like this in the future.
Advertisements

Findings: Poems by Wendell Berry

findings

The Prairie Press, 1969. First Edition.

Summary, from front flap:

Reviewing Wendell Berry’s first book of poems, The Broken Ground, in The Kenyon Review, Robert Hazel wrote that it “announces the beginning of a career in poetry that probably will be more durable and on a larger scale than that of any other poet of about thirty years I can see coming up the pike.”

Since then Berry has published a second book of poems, Openings, and now Findings, his third, is before you. He has also published two novels, Nathan Coulter and A Place on Earth.

In point of time, the poems in Findings overlap the latter part of his first book and the earlier part of his second, but Findings stands alone as a very important period in Wendell Berry’s career, a career which now gives clear evidence of becoming that of a major American writer. The two long sections which comprise the bulk of Findings have been constructed with great skill and that forceful delineation inherent in directness and simplicity which the voice is fresh and strong and clear. Berry has woven into these two sections, “The House” and “The Handing Down,” a vital sense of family, a rare feeling for the continuity of life through generations and an affirmation of the goodness and rigorousness of life. On an essentially elemental base, in a style that is quiet an assured, he constructs two sequences that are impressive in their range, totality and unity. Three fine elegiac poems complete, and in a sense sum up what goes before.

My thoughts:

Findings had not moved from its space on the library shelf until I touched it on Tuesday. I struggled through all 63 pages in an hour before bed that night. Findings, unlike Wendell Berry’s other works, is dark, dipping deeply into themes of death. While reading, Berry’s true voice would shudder through, shine, and fade back into the shroud of pretentiousness… or was it grief?

Usually, I have no issues with understanding the messages Berry is trying to get across to the reader. Yet, while reading this book, I had to stop and reread passages to understand them. Due to reading this way, I had no clear favorites or least favorites of the bunch. To me, all were mysteriously beyond my understanding, so I waded through the words until the very end.

At first glance, I thought the way Berry was writing was because he was trying to be a different kind of writer. At first, I believed his words were pretentious and overrated- a work that matched the hyperbolic summaries from before. As I finished the elegies at the end, I realized the way he was writing was because of grief.

When you begin to think of the book as written in grief, every discontinuous aspect comes together. The odd, stuttering words make sense- they are coming from a mind addled by sorrow. Whomever the old man was, he was clearly of the utmost importance to Berry. His grief is plain in how his stanzas fragment and dance across the page.

There is not much else I have to say about Findings. Even though I struggled with this volume of poetry, I will continue on my Wendell Berry reading journey. I have Openings on loan from the library, and some others I can loan in short order. I am excited to keep reading and learn more about Berry as a person, now that he revealed himself in Findings.

 

Farming: A Hand Book by Wendell Berry

farmingahandbook

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc 1970. ISBN 0-15-130408-4

Summary, from inside flap:

Thinking, working, writing, Wendell Berry continues to grow, and his poetry, always more distilled and disciplined, always plainer; achieves more and more often an absolute clarity with a corresponding gain in resonance. Farming: A Hand Book, his fourth volume of poems, is at once the most homogeneous and the most varied he has produced; it is also the strongest.

This time almost all of the poems are pastoral, springing directly from Berry’s life in the part of Kentucky where he was born and where, with his wife and children, he now lives and farms. There are many lyrical or reflective poems, ranging from flawless quatrains such as “Sleep” and “To Know the Dark” to the strange, somewhat extended, yet economical “Meditation in the Spring Rain,” a venture unique among Berry’s poems. A somewhat protean personage called the Mad Farmer, written in his own voice (“The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer”), makes a number of memorable and entertaining experiences. “The Birth” is a narrative poem out of Kentucky which, in its vividness and colloquial ease, bears comparison with the New England narratives of Robert Frost; and a verse play, “The Bringer of Water,” complete and moving in its own right, is a kind of coda to Berry’s fine novel A Place on Earth.

Many people, and many different kinds, are coming to see Wendell Berry as being close to the heart of things, as expressing what America would like to believe that is, isn’t now, but perhaps has not lost all chance of becoming. There will be a wide and grateful public for the voice that speaks with such sanity and such moving eloquence in Farming: A Hand Book.

My thoughts:

What is with Wendell Berry’s books always having such hyperbolic covers? Each one sounds like the work of an uncaring, bullshitting, college student reviewer. (Myself aside, of course.) These summaries don’t reflect the actual nature of the poems inside. Farming: A Hand Book is a much more simple, yet powerful work that brings the Mad Farmer alive. The variety of poems show all aspects and natures the Mad Farmer has inside him.

The poem that struck my heart the most was “Awake at Night.” Often I am the same way the speaker is- restless and trying to reach for the healing that earth brings. This poem also coincides with the Mad Farmer archetype that Berry has created. “Awake at Night” shows the Mad Farmer as a restless man yearning for healing through earthly work. However, as the poem ends, the speaker has calmed and is ready for a night’s rest… only to prepare for the next day.

“The Wish to be Generous” would be the Mad Farmer’s mantra. This poem reveals how deep the Mad Farmer wants to share his world. He wants to understand the world around him so he can rest easy. He sees how beautiful the world is, how hard he works, and how brilliantly his life shines. The Mad Farmer is not truly contrary, this poem it showcases his adoration for his humble, hardworking existence. “The Wish to be Generous” paints the Mad Farmer as salt of the Earth, a servant of the world around him, ready and willing to return to his roots.

A last poem, “The Silence,” is an example of the actual “madness” of the Mad Farmer. You see- the Mad Farmer is not the Mad Farmer because he is angry, but because he lives so wholly for the world. This poem shows his struggle with the actual work he does for himself. The work he does for himself is how he deals with his actual self. The Mad Farmer, in perfection, has no self- he would be one with the land. This poem is how the Mad Farmer is getting past all of it and being embraced by the land. I think this poem ties in well with “The Wish to be Generous.” 

I know these are only three poems among many, but they are the ones that stood out to me when it comes to defining who the Mad Farmer is. The pompous summary on the flap does not describe how Farming: A Hand Book is a guide to understanding the Mad Farmer. There is no frivolity in the poems themselves, but the simple song of a man in love with the earth.

Leavings: Poems by Wendell Berry

leavings

Counterpoint, 2010. ISBN 978-1-58243-624-1

Summary, from cover:

No one writes like Wendell Berry. Whether essay, novel, story, or poem, his inimitable voice rings true, as natural as the land he has farmed in Kentucky for more than forty years.

Leavings, Berry’s first volume of poetry since the widely praised Given, offers a masterful blend of elegies, lyrics, and letters, with the occasional short love poem. Alternately amused, outraged, and resolved, Berry’s welcome voice is the constant in this varied mix. As he looks back on his long life, his works resonates with a renewed depth. The book concludes with a new sequence of Sabbath poems, works occasioned by Berry’s Sunday morning walks of meditation and observation.

Berry’s life is a long witness of love and celebration, and he writes as a poet of deep intimacy with the natural world and the lost heart of our country. With his family and friends, he continues the devotion that had him saying almost thirty years ago, “What I stand for is what I stand on.”

My thoughts:

Once you get through that harassing, brown-nosing summary from the cover, the insides of this volume of poetry are equally disturbing and stunning. There are golden drops of printed summer on these pages, and there are black coal-miner’s tears. If you want to stay peaceful, do not read this book. If you want a part of yourself uncovered and heard, read this book.

My favorite poem in this book was poem XVI from 2005. The poem speaks about birds and Berry’s relationship to birds. This was the poem that knocked the collection into place in my heart: I have always had this long-held belief that I don’t belong in a place where I can’t hear the birds sing. I have been to many places in my life and at every single place I didn’t like, I could not hear the birds sing. I feel like Mr. Berry would have a similar sentiment after reading this poem.

Poem VI from 2007 was the hardest poem for me to read. It was not hard because of the structure or sound, but because the topic was intense. This poem is both sobering and renewing- hope is hard, life is dark, but to have hope shines light on life. To struggle through life with a sliver of hope in your spirit is much better than living easily without. This poem persuades you to try- to keep your spirit alive, to keep the land alive, to keep hope alive.

Two poems come in third as my favorites- poem X from 2005 and poem VII from 2007. Both poems are those aforementioned golden drops of summer. As I read them both, the sun was beginning to dip in the sky and the light was drifting along the pages. They make me think of running my hands over goldenrod and having the pollen on my palms- to smell earthy and have grass stains on my knees. Walk, poem. Watch, and make no noise.

Wendell Berry continues to astound me with his writing. He is firmly my favorite poet, right alongside Mary Oliver. His poems are equally brusque and velveteen, making the reader aware of both the beauty and the goriness of our world. Mr. Berry teaches the reader to look past the momentary beauty and see the destruction wreaking havoc on life… and then to resist and have hope. I am not sure what volume of his work I will be reading next, but it will be hard to displace Leavings as my favorite Wendell Berry collection.

Tidying up August

augusttidy.jpg

Of course, at the end of the first week of the Fall semester, I am sick. Rather dreadfully so- I am not usually the kind of person to be sick. Illness of any kind does not become me. And so, I lie here in my little warm and quiet room watching The Great British Baking Show, sipping Gatorade, and thinking about how handsome Paul Hollywood is. Oh- and maybe some reading. If I can tear my eyes away from Black Forest Gateau for a quick minute.

In August, I managed to read nine books. I was aiming for ten, but the new semester quickly derailed me from my plans. I enjoyed East of Eden the most, followed by Far From the Madding Crowd and Swan. I reviewed Blackberry WineSwan, and The Phantom of the Opera this past month. Other books that I read were The Four AgreementsThe Things They CarriedThe Sea, and In the Clearing. While I did read some of them out of duty to my Currently Reading list, others I whipped through from sheer enjoyment.

 

Star Trek: Voyager was my most watched show in August. I love all things Star Trek, and I hope to finish the series in September. Then I will move on to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. My favorite character on Voyager really is a three-way tie between Commander Chakotay, Ensign Harry Kim, and Lieutenant Tuvok. This trailer I found on Youtube really is nothing like the actual show- but it is full of 90s tackiness that I can’t help but love.

I have two goals for September: read at least five books, and finish one of my WIP projects. I have several books on my Currently Reading shelf that I could finish in a few days, and then two projects that I could finish within hours. Now, if my body would cooperate…

Simplicity

roses
hat

In the last few days I have not done very much reading. In the midst of summer’s end there have been many changes. All these changes were made in effort for life to become simpler during my last year in undergraduate study. Somehow, life become more complicated. I am sure everything will iron out after the first week back to school.

Coping with these sorts of changes is hard. To balance everything out, I have been knitting. I enjoy simple, nearly mindless projects that are made with quality materials. I haven’t had any “exciting” knitting in nearly three years, since I crocheted a beret for a best friend’s birthday. My current project is a Sockhead hat, which I have dubbed Brambleberry. The yarn is nearly the same color as the wine I have been drinking with my nightly Star Trek episode.

I always reach for simple projects. While I have always wanted to knit fantastically lacy and beaded projects, I never have the kind of attention needed. I enjoy knitting as something to keep my hands busy when my mind is otherwise occupied. However, after I have finished the current projects tucked away in my cedar chest, I have the perfect yarns to make a striped Hitchhiker… which is, after all, merely garter stitch!

Last Wednesday, my family and I attended a picnic hosted in Duck Run. The property had many gorgeous rose beds, and I think if I were left to my own devices, I would have had the entire bottle of Zinfandel and photographed the roses all night. Some pictures didn’t turn out (the aforementioned wine is to blame) but the picture above did. They are similar to the roses that grow near our porch at home, just pink rather than red.

Later on this week, I will be sharing all the books I have read this month. I am working on finishing Leavings: Poems by Wendell Berry. I hope I have time to read this coming week- but I have large class breaks that are just perfect for a chapter or two.

Blackberry Wine by Joanne Harris

blackberrywine

Perennial, 2001. ISBN 0-380-81592-3

Summary, from cover:

As a boy, writer Jay Mackintosh spent three golden summers in the ramshackle home of “Jackapple Joe” Cox. A lonely child, he found solace in Old Joe’s simple wisdom and folk charms. The magic was lost, however, when Joe disappeared without warning one fall.

Years later, Jay’s life is stalled with regret and ennui. His bestselling novel, Jackapple Joe, was published ten years earlier and he has written nothing since. Impulsively, he decides to leave his urban life in London and, sight unseen, purchases a farmhouse in the remote French village of Lansquenet. There, in that strange and yet strangely familiar place, Jay hopes to re-create the magic of those golden childhood summers. And while the spirit of Joe is calling to him, it is actually a similarly haunted, reclusive woman who will ultimately help Jay find himself again.

My thoughts:

This review will not be as in-depth or well planned as my previous ones have been. I picked Blackberry Wine up at the AAUW book sale because I liked Chocolat, which is also by Joanne Harris. This book began quite dry, but as the story progressed, it picked up pace. Yet, it lost any realism that it had in favor of imaginative twists that did not fit the story.

The characters broke the story. I did not believe Marise’s reasoning for staying at the farm to be believable. Kerry also a shoddy character, lacking any conceivable realism at the end. I wanted to reach into the story and smack her across the face. Jay himself had no depth, and his later scene with Marise made me cringe. Jay is a directionless lead, especially as the “Specials” lose their hold as the most interesting characters in the story.

Flashbacks work well for many stories, but they did not work completely for this book. Alternating every other chapter worked well for the first half, but the second half seemed to be missing something. That something was the flashbacks- and the scene with Kerry at Pog Hill felt out of place. Yes, it set Kerry up for who she becomes at the end of the story, but it did not belong to the theme.

Even though there is much to complain about regarding this book, there are highlights. A revisit to Lansquenet is very appreciated, as well as Josephine, one of my favorite characters from Chocolat. The flavor of Chocolat was not lost upon Blackberry Wine. The exposition involving Lansquenet was delectable. I could easily and vividly imagine every setting.

In the end, I was disappointed by Blackberry Wine. I expected another stunner like Chocolat, but the mix of luxurious settings and poorly defined characters made for a haphazard story. The story felt fettered and disorganized with Jay leading rather than the “Specials.” The first half, while dry, made more sense than the second half- which managed to be as twisty as the streets of Lansquenet.