The New Poems of Wendell Berry
By Kristen McCarty
March 6, 2006
Wendell Berry’s newest collection of poems may be his angriest. The Kentucky farmer has written over forty books of fiction, poetry and essays, and Given is his first collection of poetry released in ten years.
The anger seems to be a gut reaction against things happening in and to the world, directed at multiple sources. Punches are thrown at the government in poems like “The Leader” and “The Ongoing Holy War Against Evil” and at the collected religious in “Dante” and “A Small Theology.” “In A Country Once Forested” shows his despair at the loss of community and the large-scale pollution and ruin of nature. Throughout, there is frustration peeking through the lines of poetry at those who forget the world is God’s gift to humanity, those who do not love the world enough, taking the rape and pillage of its wonders calmly.
Most followers of Christ struggle at some point with knowing when, if ever, anger is appropriate. Remembering the story of Christ cleaning the moneychangers out of the temple, it seems that perhaps anger is sometimes an appropriate response to the abuses going on around us to God’s creation, both humanity and nature. Anything less would appear apathetic and uncaring. The anger expressed in Given is strangely comforting for those who are disheartened by the large and small tragedies taking place in the world today, and for whom platitudes and clichés don’t do much, but would be destructive if not balanced with some form of hope or healing.
His poems admit that Berry has a great fear of being overcome by such despair and that he searches for a balance. Luckily for him and for the reader, the entire collection keeps circling back to the rest and peace he finds in nature. The collection ends with his "Sabbath poems", in which the writer shares with us the best efforts of his practice of writing a poem every Sunday. For Berry, nature becomes his sanctuary, the place he finds “the health of self-forgetfulness” and the assurance of God’s presence, claiming “here God and man have rest.” Poetry becomes the place he explores that Presence.
Near the end of the collection, one of the Sabbath poems explains, “I dream of a quiet man / who explains nothing and defends / nothing, but only knows / where the rarest wildflowers / are blooming, and who goes, / and finds that he is smiling / not by his own will.” One gets the sense that at the end of the day, the poet and farmer is a man who grows tired of words, and wishes just to find rest in God. For Berry, it seems trust in God comes easiest when he is as far away from human invention as possible. Language used with beautiful restraint takes us to the heart of such rest and peace, after assuring us that it does not come as a result of blindness to the pain everywhere present in our world today.