Poetry Book Review: New Collected Poems of Wendell Berry

Meeting Wendell Berry several years ago, I found his warm handshake and pleasant voice as down-to-earth as his poems and lifestyle, deeply rooted in his Kentucky farm. Since then, I’ve continued to be an admirer of his poetry and essays, often found in Christian journals or religious publications from most church denominations. I’ve enjoyed, too, reviews of his many books, for instance, as Glynn Young discussed recently in his article, “Wendell Berry and the Land.”

When my review copy of the New Collected Poems arrived a few weeks ago from Counterpoint Press, I began reading right away, thinking I’d quickly post a review, but I was wrong. These poems do not want a quick read but the slow savor one saves for the scrumptious, mouthwatering main meal of the day.

As the contents show, the collection consists of a banquet of books beginning with The Broken Ground in 1964 and continuing through the 2010 book, Leavings. Reading the poems along this timeline can be especially instructive if you’re a poet in search of a mentor, which the poetry itself can be.

Wendell Berry, however, won’t be likely to read the poems with you. As the opening poem, “The Country of Déjà vu,” explains: “My old poems – I like them all/ well enough when they were new,” but now “I have no need to go back to” them. This doesn’t seem to express dissatisfaction but rather declares no particular need for living in or revisiting the past.

Although written as a tribute to a fellow poet and Kentuckian, “A Man Walking and Singing” shows “His singing becomes conglomerate/ of all he sees,/ leaving the street behind him/ runged as a ladder/ or the staff of a song.” And then in “The Design of the House,” we see “the flower/ forgets its growing,” which the very timeline in a collection of memorable poems might be less inclined to let a poet do.

That same poem looks not to the past but the future where “the house is a shambles/ unless the vision of its perfection/ upholds it like stone.” And later in this “Design,” we see the blueprint followed as “Love has conceived a house,/ and out of its labor/ brought forth its likeness.”

As part of that pattern of love, “The Handing Down” reminds us “It is the effort of design/ to triumph over the imperfections/ of the parts.” These wise words go on to warn, “The mind falsifies its objects/ by inattention,” and it seems to me that this is an important advisory to poets, artists, and people in general: Pay attention! Otherwise, we’re apt to sketch a skewed version of what’s there.

Really looking, really seeing, and clearly observing the real might not always be pleasant though, as this same poem of legacy and love continues: “He has lived a long time./ He has seen the changes of times/ and grown used to the world/ again.”

We all experience change. That fact and the warm tones pull us toward the poem, “The Thought of Something Else,” where “the mind turns, seeks a new/ nativity – another place,/ simpler, less weighted/ by what has already been.” And, with the poet, we want to seek “– a place where thought/ can take its shape/ as quietly in the mind/ as water in a pitcher.”

For Wendell Berry that place has been his family farm, where life and death employ seasons of growing. In “Song In A Year Of Catastrophe,” for instance, a prophetic voice says “Die/ into what the earth requires of you.” And the “I” of the poem responds: “I let go all holds then, and sank/ like a hopeless swimmer into the earth,/ and at last came fully into the ease/ and the joy of that place,/ all my lost ones returning.”

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer and poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem, published by Hiraeth Press.

New Collected Poems, Wendell Berry, paperback

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New Collected Poems, Wendell Berry, Kindle Edition, e-book

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