Featured Reviews, VOLUME 2

Featured: LEAVINGS: Poems by Wendell Berry [Vol. 2, #44]

The maker’s joy in what is made;
The joy in which we come to rest

A Review of
Leavings: Poems.

By Wendell Berry.

Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.

Leavings: Poems.
By Wendell Berry.
Hardcover: Counterpoint,  2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

LEAVINGS- Wendell BerryReading Wendell Berry’s new book of poems, Leavings, I return to the work of this Kentucky farmer for the same reasons as always: a clarity of language; an interweaving of art and work with the natural rhythms of living and dying; and a vision that looks beyond the present powers to describe the very immanence of the kingdom of God, come on earth. Berry himself, no less, often sounds as if he is reflecting on a long life in his place on the farm and as a writer:

The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?

Tell them at least what you say to yourself.

Because we have not made our lives to fit

our places, the forests are ruined, the fields eroded,

the streams polluted, the mountains overturned. Hope

then to belong to your place by your own knowledge

of what it is that no other place is, this

place that you belong to though it is not yours,

for it was from the beginning and will be to the end.   [91]

Derived from Berry’s native soil, these poems always return to human life which conforms to the order of creation; with a preference for internal or slant rhymes, these poems have an internal cadence that reinforces the structure of the whole. In two parts, Leavings begins with poems written as letters, questions, a speech, and others, most often in a free verse, although iambic pentameter or a haiku can appear so gracefully as to make the complexity of the forms seem only natural.

Part two of Leavings is the newest installment of Sabbath poems, from 2005 – 2008, picking up right where Berry’s last book of poems Given left off, and continuing the cycle begun in 1979.  These Sabbath poems, “occasioned by Berry’s Sunday morning walks of meditation and observation” are as varied in form and content as any healthy ecosystem or community could be, although several themes emerge – death and aging; the streams near Berry’s farm and others as markers of time; the daily and seasonal resurrection of the natural order by grace; and the kingdom of heaven embodied on earth – all of which come into focus through a life lived in conversation with the farm, woods, and stream in Kentucky, and his wife, Tanya.

To suggest the complexity of Berry’s task as a writer, a farmer and a human, as well as the inherent interconnectedness of his work with his place, “The Book of Camp Branch,” a Sabbath poem from 2006 compares “Camp Branch, my native stream,” its contours and sounds, with Berry’s walks along the stream, and the further translation to language. The layers of the stream itself, the walker in the stream, and the language as representation all inform the others:

Going down stone by stone,

the song of the water changes,

changing the way I walk

which changes my thought

as I go. Stone to stone

the stream flows. Stone to stone

the walker goes. The words

stand stone still until

the flow moves them, changing

the sound – a new word –

a new place to step or stand.   [64]

Berry’s description is for an art which is informed by a physical inhabiting the world, which is in turn informed by the natural rhythms such as the song of the stream; art, then, becomes another embodying of the thoughts and relationships afforded by his place in the world. And in writing about the stream, Berry continues a dialogue in which his language clarifies the stream, while simultaneously the stream clarifies Berry; this is not an unfamiliar theme for Berry, as I am reminded of “Damage” in What Are People For? in which Berry writes, “I now live in my subject. My subject is my place in the world, and I live in my place.”

Similarly, Berry describes the order of creation as precursor for human work, as in “Sabbaths 2008, I.”, coming upon two horses, seemingly posed in perfect unity, “a possibility / deeply seeded / within the world. It is / the way the world is sometimes” [105]. At the same time, the principalities and powers of the age do continue antagonistically with that order:

In the name of more we destroy

for coal the mountain and its forest

and so choose the insatiable flame

over the green leaf that within our care

would return to us unendingly

until the end of time.   [107]

Set against deforestation and mountaintop removal in the Kentucky hills, these poems are as elegiac as anything, mourning the very real loss of entire natural systems.

But Berry continues to see heaven embodied in all of this earth, despite the fragmentation and destruction by plan or by error: “Heaven is only present, instantaneous and eternal, / a mayfly, a blue dayflower, a life entirely given, / complete forever in its hour” [116]. Leavings is a book full of a life spent in discerning a particular place, working it and writing about it, such that there is a reciprocity between the  land, Berry’s life, and his language where the fullness of each is expressed only in relation to the other parts. The strength of Berry’s writing is exactly that refusal to fragment parts from the whole, preferring instead the economy of the Kingdom of God in which “undying love which perhaps / is not love at all but gratitude / for the being of all things which / perhaps is not gratitude at all / but the maker’s joy in what is made, / the joy in which we come to rest” [99].

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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  1. Thank you.

  2. Thanks — and a heads up that Berry was on the Diana Rehm show today to talk about this book among other things (for at least a time you can get the podcast here: http://www.npr.org/rss/podcast/podcast_detail.php?siteId=5495237 )


  3. Laryn —

    Thanks for stopping by and for the tip on WB’s appearance on Diane Rehm. My review copy of your novel also arrived in the mail yesterday from the good folks at *CINO. I look forward to reading it…

    Chris Smith

  4. Chris —

    Great! I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


  5. Nice site – Wishing you a very happy and prosperous new year !