Tuesday, June 28, 2016

On the back porch. . .

Early on summer Sunday mornings, I often sit on my back porch with This Day, a book of Wendell Berry’s Sabbath poems written between 1979 and 2013. While all the machines are silent, I read and savor two or three poems, reading slowly and rereading. For instance, with birdsong, ". . .the day ends/and is unending where/the summer tanager, warbler, and vireo/sing as they move among/illuminated leaves," and "heaven seizes its moment" (1998, VI). For years, Berry has been taking walks into his woods on Sunday mornings. From time to time, a poem emerges, polished on the front porch of his writing cabin at the edge of the trees.

A Small Porch (counterpointpress.com) gives us twenty-five new Sabbath poems from 2014 and 2015, plus an essay, "The Presence of Nature in the Natural World: A Long Conversation." The hardback just appeared in my mailbox, and I don’t want to hurry through it—at my usual rate, this many poems could take a couple of months of slow reading. So we’ll only explore the book a little; a spoonful or two to share the flavor with you.

First the essay, "The Presence of Nature." In surveying more than 50 years of reading, Berry reports that he has been in conversation with Scripture, which imposes "on humans the obligation to take good care of a world both given to them. . .and to which they have been given," and with several poets whose work was formed by Scripture, especially Chaucer, Spencer, Langland, Milton, Pope; and who "seem to have remembered" Alan of Lille’s Plaint of Nature (c. 1170). So, there are several pages about Alan’s Plaint followed by comments on the poets, giving some clues to how Berry reads his fields and woods.

And now, a poem from the Porch (2014, V.). "The silence of the barn at evening,/when the shepherd draws shut the door/and starts home for the night, is heavenly,/for it says almost aloud that every lamb/is found, every ewe has found her lamb/and is feeding, and is content." Reading this just before dark, I notice the silence. The hatchlings in the wisteria have ceased chirping and the wren is with them, settled for the night. She has fed them all day and now they rest.

The second stanza in Berry’s poem speaks of "another of the barn’s silences. . .[when] the ewes and their young ones/now are gone. . .to new pasture." The nest in the wisteria will empty into silence in a few more days, to be discovered by a grandson when the leaves fall in autumn.

—Larry Sibley