Wendell Berry does best in poetry when he hunkers down in his landscape of Henry County, Kentucky, drawing up his subjects from the well of his own patient affection. In some spots, he plainly says so himself: 'We all are gathered / in this leftover love, / this longing become the measure / of a joy all mourners know. / An old man's mind is a graveyard / where the dead arise.' In other places, he takes to shaping characters ordinary as mud and 'unadventurous' in their plain living and loving-that is, exceptional in their persistence to stand by their words for as long as the standing-by needs done: 'The things / He vowed to keep, the things / He had in keeping changed, / The things lost in his keeping / That he kept in his heart, / These were his pilgrimage, / Were his adventure, near / And far, at home and in / The world beyond this world.' Berry's first collection of poems in over ten years, Given takes to questioning what it means not 'to be dead, / which I know from enough practice, / but how to be alive, as these worn / hills still tell, and some paintings of Paul Cézanne, and this mere / singing wren.' His poems carry in them a rhythm more pronounced than his previous collections-a sense of happening (surely) christened by Berry's forty-plus years of literary work. Including a collection of short occasional pieces, eight years of new 'Sabbath Poems,' and an evocation of the painter Harlan Hubbard and his wife Anna, Given
brings to mind the words of W.H. Auden: 'We should direct our mental attention towards [God] only for so long as it takes us to learn what He wills us to do here and now.'
An Eighth Day View:
For five decades Wendell Berry has been a poet of great clarity and purpose. He is a writer whose imagination is grounded by the pastures of his chosen place and the rooms and porches of his family's home. In "Given -- his first collection of new poems in ten years now in paperback -- the work is as rich and varied as ever before. With his unmistakable voice as the constant, he dexterously maneuvers through a variety of forms and themes -- political cautions, love poems, a play in verse, and a long series of "Sabbath Poems" that resulted from Berry's recent Sunday morning walks of meditation and observation.
Berry's work is one of devotion to family and community, to the earth and her creatures, to the memories of the past, and the hope of the future. His writing stands alongside the work of William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost as a rigorous American testament.