‘They gather like an ancestry…’

The sixth in a series of poems by the great Wendell Berry, from his collection ‘This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems’.

They gather like an ancestry
in the centuries behind us:
the killed by violence, the dead
in war, the “acceptable losses” –
killed by custom in self-defense,
by way of correction, in revenge,
for love of God, for the glory
of the world, for peace; killed
for pride, lust, envy, anger,
covetousness, gluttony, sloth,
and fun. The strewn carcasses
cease to feed even the flies,
the stench passes from them,
the earth folds in the bones
like salt in a batter.

And we have learned
nothing. “Love your enemies,
bless them that curse you,
do good to them that hate you” –
it goes on regardless, reasonably:
the always uncompleted
symmetry of just reprisal,
the angry word, the boast
of superior righteousness,
hate in Christ’s name,
scorn for the dead, lies
for the honour of the nation,
centuries bloodied and dismembered
for ideas, for ideals,
for the love of God!

– Wendell Berry, This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems: 2005 (II)

Wendell Berry: ‘Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front’

This poem by my favourite writer seems somehow appropriate for Easter morning!

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

From The Country of Marriage, © 1973 by Wendell Berry

‘All the important things have happened by surprise’

Jayber Crow, the barber of Port William, looks back on his life near the end of Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry:

‘And so I came to belong to this place on the river just as I had come to belong to Port William – as in a way, of course, I still do belong to Port William.  Being here satisfies me. I have no thought of going away. If I knew for sure that I would die here, I would be glad. And yet definite as all this is, it seems surrounded by the indefinite, like a boat in a fog. I can’t look back from where I am now and feel that I have been very much in charge of my life. Certainly I have lived on the edge of the Port William community, and I am farther than ever out on the edge of it now. But I feel that I have lived on the edge even of my own life. I have made plans enough, but I see now that I have never lived by plan. Any more than if I had been a bystander watching me live my life, I don’t feel that I have ever been quite sure what was going on. Nearly everything that has happened to me has happened by surprise. All the important things have happened by surprise. And whatever has been happening usually has already happened before I have had time to expect it. The world doesn’t stop because you are in love or in mourning or in need of time to think. And so when I have thought I was in my story or in charge of it, I really have been only on the edge of it, carried along. Is this because we are in an eternal story that is happening partly in time?’

I think Jayber Crow may just be the most enjoyable book I have ever read.

A Place on Earth

146155Some time over the past two or three years, without me realizing it was happening, Wendell Berry has become my favourite writer.

Marci and I are currently reading his novel ‘A Place on Earth‘, which, like most of his fiction, is set in the farming community of Port William, Kentucky. Here’s how it’s described on Amazon:

Part ribald farce, part lyrical contemplation, Wendell Berry’s novel is the story of a place-Port William, Kentucky-the farm lands and forests that surround it, and the river that runs nearby. The rhythms of this novel are the rhythms of the land. A Place on Earth resonates with variations played on themes of change; looping transitions from war into peace, winter into spring, browning flood destruction into greening fields, absence into presence, lost into found.

And here’s an excerpt from a customer review on Amazon:

Wendell Berry’s wonderful and beautifully written novel brings us back to a beautiful place on earth, Port William. The time is 1945, and the backdrop is the ending of World War II, and how is affects the lives of the farmers and people of this little and beloved town. Here we see our friends from Berry’s other novels about Port William: Jayber Crow, Hannah Coulter, Old Jack, Burley, Mat, and others we have come to love. We feel the poignancy and despair: we see the inadequacy of platitudes in the face of loss and grief. We also meet new characters whose lives are also incised by tragedy, such as a terrible flood. Through this, though, Berry also gives us hope, and at times, even humor, such as through the character of Uncle Stanley. We live with these character and we love them, and Berry’s writing, simple and elegant, brings us closer to the experience of what it is to be human.

Yes, I agree. And I have one thing to add. Berry is a poet, and he writes like a poet. His sentences are works of art. This is not a book to be read quickly; it needs to be savoured slowly, and preferably read out loud.