30 April, 2018 • • 37.2Creative WritingEnvironmentLiteratureOriginal PoetryPoetry

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“the essential prose / of things”

Rowland Bagnall

Wendell Berry
The Peace of Wild Things
Penguin
2018
144pp
£8.99 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“To speak truly,” writes Ralph Waldo Emerson, “few adult persons can see nature.” Or, at least, most people only see its surface, a “superficial seeing” that somehow fails to capture its complexity. For Emerson, the “lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other.” He seems to be saying that nature, regarded properly, should be effecting and affecting all at once. Where the sun only “illuminates […] the eye of the man”, merely showing him the landscape and its physical properties, it “shines into the eye and the heart of the child”; the lover of nature somehow manages to retain this “spirit of infancy” into adulthood, “a wild delight” that strikes him in “every hour and season,” “for every […] change [in nature] corresponds to and authorizes a different state of the mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight.” This seems straightforward enough: changes in the natural world trigger a kind of involuntary introspection. But Emerson raises some difficult questions here, even in the space of half a paragraph. For one thing, the “spirit of infancy” seems easily lost, and he doesn’t offer much by way of guidance as to how to get it back again,  if it is indeed something that can ever be re-learned. Most important to Emerson, however, is not so much the ability to experience nature in a particular way, but to experience oneself as a part of its continuum:

Standing on the bare ground, – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.

This is a difficult passage, and a strange one. There’s a significant spiritual claim being made, where nature not only brings us closer to God but allows us to take part in Him, tied up with a peculiar contradiction that somehow renders us both “nothing” and a “particle” at once, not to mention the image of the “transparent eye-ball”, absorptive, not reflective, which seems to try and visualise Emerson’s earlier claim about the inward and outward senses being properly attuned to one another. Above all, this passage articulates what Emerson considers to be the inherent harmony of man and nature, the binding unity between the two, the idea which forms the basis of his transcendentalist philosophy. What he also seems to understand, however, is a particular sense of place, of man’s position and involvement in the natural world of which he’s part.

Wendell Berry was born in Henry County, Kentucky nearly a hundred years after the publication of Emerson’s Nature in 1836. He has lived, farmed and written there for more than half a century. Berry’s poems, novels, and essays examine this same question of place, of what it means to live deep-rootedly, a question that returns, time and again, in The Peace of Wild Things, a new selection of his poetry published by Penguin earlier this year.

The book runs roughly chronologically, beginning with poems from Berry’s first collection, The Broken Ground, published in 1964, through to poems from the early 2000s. There’s also a generous selection of “Sabbath Poems”, tied to Berry’s ritualistic Sunday morning walks, which he began to write in 1979, and the most recent of which in this selection is taken from A Small Porch, published by Counterpoint in 2016. The Peace of Wild Things opens with “The Apple Tree”, a poem that establishes a number of Berry’s poetic and conceptual traits, which have remained fairly consistent across his career. As he puts it in “Damage”, an essay from 1974, “If I live in my place, which is my subject, then I am ‘at’ my work even when I am not working. […] When I am finished writing, I can only return to what I have been writing about.”

“The Apple Tree” introduces Berry’s patient, slow attentiveness to “the essential prose / of things”, guiding us among “the accidents / of the afternoon”, from grass “cut / down, carefully”—the line-break and comma enacting the process in real-time—to “orange / poppies still in bloom”, up the “forked / trunk” of the apple tree to “a foliage / of small birds” among its branches. There is a kind of honest simplicity to Berry’s observations, but it’s a simplicity born of precision. Reading his poetry, there is a sense of deliberateness. The “essential prose” of the opening line becomes “a kind of necessary / prose”, as though everything in the poem — every image, every pause — must be there, exactly where it is, fixed in place like the apple tree itself, “stating the unalterable / congruity and form” of the poem’s “casual growth”. This is the same exactitude that seems to govern certain landscape paintings — by Poussin, maybe, or by Constable — a “just-so” quality that emanates from everything, as though if any detail were suddenly removed the whole scene would be strangely compromised.

Part of Berry’s precision comes from a familiarity with his chosen landscape. Born to a tobacco-farming family during the Great Depression, he left Kentucky to attend the Stanford Creative Writing Program in California, where he was enrolled alongside the novelist Ken Kesey. After a brief period in New York, Berry was drawn back to Henry Country, his place of origin, and purchased a small farm close to where he had grown up, a stone’s throw from the place where his ancestors had settled in the early 1800s. “I began to live my subject”, he writes in “The Making of a Marginal Farm”, an essay from 1980, “and to learn that living in one’s subject is not at all the same as ‘having’ a subject.” Berry’s poetry betrays his having lived and worked intensely on the land. It’s a quality that’s hard to describe, and harder still to point out in a single poem. Perhaps it’s in the “opening out and out” of “The Broken Ground”, a poem about digging, whose language seems to pile up like the earth, “taken / from what was, from / what could have been”, until the words, meticulously excavated, are all that remain: “What is left / is what is left”. Berry’s own sense of relation to the farmland of Kentucky is important, and would seem to conform to an Emersonian appreciation of partaking in the natural world. “I am the outbreathing of this ground”, he writes in “To a Siberian Woodsman”: “My words are its words as the wren’s song is its song”. He is both nature’s spokesperson and medium, as if the natural world is “outbreathing” through him. This blurring of self and subject preoccupies many of the poems in this collection.

Returning to the “The Apple Tree”, this affinity between self and subject is clearer still. The tree stands as a metaphor for Berry himself, occupying a single plot of ground, living with and from the land. This is an image that he returns to fairly frequently, most clearly marked out in “The Sycamore”, in which he witnesses a favourite tree:

I recognize in it a principle, an indwelling
the same as itself, and greater, that I would be ruled by.
I see that it stands in its place, and feeds upon it,
and is fed upon, and is native, and maker.

Berry’s is a poetry of dwelling, depending on the slow-grown, felt awareness of one’s place. As such, it is a poetry of cycles, too, returning often to the changes (of “every hour and season”, as Emerson would have it) that determine Berry’s life and work, a world that “feeds upon” and “is fed upon” at once, always in the process of recycling itself. The poems suggest a farmer’s eye, compacting and expanding time to show decay and growth together. The sycamore is damaged and restored repeatedly, its life condensed into the poem’s length. Elsewhere, in “Sowing”, a “place that once was a road”, “where the lives of marriages grew”, is overgrown in the space of a few lines, before the poet enters with a bag of seeds, “spreading on the cleared hill the beginnings / of green”. This might bring to mind “The Trees” by Philip Larkin, with its final, breathing incantation, but it is also reminiscent of one of Berry’s Sabbath poems from A Timbered Choir, published in 1999, unfortunately absent from The Peace of Wild Things. The poem shows his habit of compressing and then stretching time. The first stanza deserves to be read in its entirety:

How long does it take to make the woods?
As long as it takes to make the world.
The woods is present as the world is, the presence
of all its past and of all its time to come.
It is always finished, it is always being made, the act
of its making forever greater than the act of its destruction.
It is a part of eternity, for its end and beginning
belong to the end and beginning of all things,
the beginning lost in the end, the end in the beginning.

There is a Biblical infusion in these lines, as in much of Berry’s work. In particular, they seem to resonate with verses from Ecclesiastes: The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

It’s clear from The Peace of Wild Things that Berry finds a kind of balance between the history and future of a place, “all of its past” and “all of its time to come” cohering in the present moment: “The long age of the passing world, in which / I once was not, now am, and will not be”. This accounts, I think, for his poems about memory, in which he reaches back into the past of things, but also for a separate strand of what could well be called “prophetic” poems. But Berry always seems to come back to the presence of experience, the now-ness of the natural world, the here-ness of his place in it. There’s a powerful immediacy to poems like “The Heron”, for instance, in which the poet encounters the magnificent bird—“the articulation of feather / and living eye, a brilliance I receive / beyond my power to make”—in a moment that recalls Elizabeth Bishop’s moose, or Hughes’ horses, “Megalith-still”.

For all its endless cycles, though, Berry’s nature holds within it something strange and unpredictable. As Robert Macfarlane writes in Landmarks (2016), it’s important to know how nature proceeds, to understand its sequences, “but we need also to keep wonder alive in our descriptions of it: to provide celebrations of not-quite-knowing, of mystification, of excess.” “I relish the etymology of our word thing,” he continues, touching on a word that seems to wander in and out of Berry’s poems: “in Old English thynge does not only designate a material object, but can also denote ‘a narrative not fully known’, or indicate ‘the unknowability of larger chains of events’.” Despite his farmer’s understanding of the land, Berry often pauses on these moments of “not-quite-knowing”. I wonder if they have anything to do with Emerson’s “spirit of infancy”, or the lover of nature’s “wild delight”. Either way, the result in Berry’s poetry is something like a rapt attention, an awed consideration of the world of natural things.

A few pages later, Macfarlane lingers over what he calls a “language of tact and of tenderness”, a language sensitive to “the relationship between tactfulness and tactility, between touch and ethics”:

Tact as due attention, as tenderness of encounter, as rightful tactility. Tactful language, then, would be language which sings (is lyric), which touches (is born of contact with the lived and felt world), which touches us (affects) and which keeps time – recommending thereby an equality of measure and a keen faculty of perception.

It strikes me that Berry is, above all, a tactful poet. His surety of observation holds within it an uncertainty that celebrates the natural world in all its changeability, holding together the “peace” and “wildness” at the heart of his poems, the tension between the two, in “an equality of measure.”

On the whole, Berry’s poetry has been relatively under-acknowledged in the UK until now. The Peace of Wild Things offers itself by way of introduction to his work, which is perhaps long overdue, but there’s a way in which the timing of this publication seems appropriate. As one of America’s foremost environmental advocates, Berry’s tactfulness is resonant today. But his poems also speak to our uncertain sense of place, an anxiety of belonging, of affirming our identity. As Paul Kingsnorth writes at the beginning of The World-Ending Fire, a selection of Berry’s essays published in 2017, “Berry’s formula for a good life and a good community is simple and pleasingly unoriginal. Slow down. Pay attention. Do good work. Love your neighbours. Love your place. Stay in your place. Settle for less, enjoy it more.”

~

Rowland Bagnall is a freelance writer and poet. He studied English at St. John’s College, Oxford, and completed an MPhil in American Literature at the University of Cambridge. His poems and reviews have previously appeared in various magazines, including Poetry London, PN Review, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. A selection of his poems can be found in New Poetries VII (Carcanet Press). He is currently working on a first collection.