Thursday, May 22, 2014

Review of "Given" by Wendell Berry

In Animal Vegetable Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver wrote glowingly of her friend, Wendell Berry. When I learned that Berry is a Kentucky farmer, activist, novelist and poet... I knew I had to check him out for myself. My husband's cousin is pursuing her MFA in poetry this fall, but I haven't read much poetry since high school, so I thought I'd start culturing myself with this slim volume from my local library. "For those who believe that life and the world are gifts, this is an invaluable book," reads the Booklist quote on the cover of Given: Poems. I'm a fan of Ann Vosskamp's "One Thousand Gifts," so the recommendation sold me. The first half of the book is made up of  two chapters: "In a Country Once Forested" and "Further Words." These are mostly short poems observing nature's beauty and honoring his wife and other loved ones. In these poems, he lovingly paints a word portrait of his wife's white head in the fields.  In a series of Spring Haikus, Berry describes a wild plum tree as a bride dressed in white blossoms and a cluster of Mayapples as a crowd under little umbrellas. In "How to Be a Poet," Berry reminds himself to find a quiet place away from screens and electronic distractions and really listen for "what comes from silence." As I read and reread these gentle words, it seemed to provide instructions for more than just making good poetry. The third section is written as a play called "Sonata at Payne Hollow," and read like an enchanting dream. The fourth section, "Sabbaths 1998-2004" features poems written on his long Sunday walks around his farm. As the name implies, these poems often have a spiritual substance to them, pondering life, death, God and our purpose as reflected in nature. Poem VIII from 2004 spoke of our yearning for "the Word that calls the darkest dark/ Of this world to its lasting dawn," and describes people as "separate as fireflies or night windows," who piece together "a foredream of the gathered light." So beautiful.

I enjoyed Given and read through the entire book twice, lingering on a few of my favorite poems longer. I also checked out Berry's "The Mad Farmer Poems," but couldn't quite get into them. Berry has written several novels, and I felt as though Mad Farmer poems were told in the voices of his characters, without the benefit of the back story to enlighten me. They have an angry, activist tone to them, which some readers might find more exciting than the contemplative tone of Given. If you, like I, enjoy staring out the window or listening to bird sing or contemplating how a river has shaped the terrain through which it runs, I think you'll enjoy the imagery in Given. If you feel that God cares for His creation beyond His initial act of speaking it into being, then I also think you'll enjoy Berry's words.

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