Wednesday, October 12, 2011

from the book pile, 2011: A Timbered Choir by Wendell Berry

I've been working my way through the tower of books teetering off the antique writing desk that serves as my nightstand.  Working my way through reading and working my way through the thoughts and learnings each title provokes.

When I first started this blog in 2006 one of my goals was to nurture a forum that kept me accountable for the cultural goods I consume.  Of course, I didn't really know then to articulate the goal in those terms.  The truth dawns gradually: as in in worship so as in culture -- I did not make it, but it is making me.

Having also gotten quite clear with the truth that I will never be a professional book reviewer, I've let myself off the hook and changed up the way I document my reading.  Hope you enjoy!


23A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997

Author:  Wendell Berry

Genre: Poetry

Published: Counterpoint Press, 1998

General Impression:  The word love is overused, but what do we have left trying to describe the deep affection I have for Wendell Berry's poems?  Actually, I feel a bit twitterpated with every single thing I've ever read of Mr. Berry's:  the essays I stumble on across the internet, his poetry, his fiction.  Ironically, I almost never got to know the work of Wendell Berry.  Several years ago, before I'd been properly introduced to his work, a friend who'd actually written her Ph.D. dissertation on the work of Wendell Berry described him to me as a contrarian.  As it turned out that friendship took on a contrarian flavour all the way around and, sadly, that scared me away from Wendell Berry as guilty-by-association.  Thankfully, I overcame all those negative presumptions and started reading.  As grace often does, the more I became acquainted with Berry's writing, the more I forgave and enjoyed the memories of that ill-fated friendship as well.

From what I can understand, this collection of poems were written as a response to his practice of Sunday morning walking meditations over a period of two decades.  In order to truly hear Mr. Berry in his poetry and his prayer, I read --out loud-- each poem as a chapter of a book.  So for one evening, I read, for example, the six poems included from the 1990 collection.  I do not know why the number of poems included from each year vary.  For example, 1979 is made up of twelve poems and 1986 only one.  Was Mr. Berry more prolific or more skilled in one particular year over another?  Also, interesting were the themes that hid out like little secrets from one year to the next: mournful years where it seems many friends and neighbors passed away, angry year when war and technology butt up against the authors personal theology and sociology, pleasant years of farming and family fulfillment.

Ecclesiastes 3 as a framework for this collection of poetry:  

To everything there is a season.
A time to be born... (The ewes crowd to the mangers; their bellies widen, sag.... 1991 II)
and a time to die...(Now you have slipped away...1996, I)
a time to plant...(The seed is in the ground...1991, V)
and a time to pluck up that which is planted (The summer ends...1984, IV)
A time to kill, (What hard travail God does in death...1980, I)
and a time to heal; (Great deathly powers have passed...1980, III)
a time to break down, (Who makes a clearing makes a work of art...1983, IV))
and a time to build up; (The crop must drink...1984, III)
A time to weep, (Now you know the worst...1995, V)
and a time to laugh; ("You see," my mother said, and laughed...1997, IV)
A time to mourn, (Not again in this flesh will I see...1985, I)
and a time to dance; (The year relents, and free...1983, II)
A time to seek, (One day I walked imagining...1989, VIII)
and a time to lose; (No, no there is no going back...1993, I)
A time to keep, (The sky bright after summer-ending reign...1989, VII)
and a time to cast away; (The fume and shock and uproar...1985, IV)
A time to tear apart, (We have walked so many times, my boy...1982, VI)
and a time to sew; (A gracious Sabbath stood here while they stood...1985, II)
A time to keep silence, (I go among trees and sit still... 1979, I)
and a time to speak; (They sit together on the porch...1994, IV)
A time to love, (Our household for the time made right...1982, VIII)
and a time to hate; (Hate has no world...1993, IV)
A time of war, (The year begins with war... 1991, I)
and a time of peace; (Cut off in front of the line...1990, VI)

From the work of one poet to another, the body of work surveys creation, fall, crucifixion, resurrection.  This is work wholly written.

The poem from which the title was drawn:  

Slowly, slowly, they return
To the small woodland let alone:
Great trees, outspreading and upright,
Apostles of the living light.

Patient as stars, they build in air
Tier after tier a timbered choir,
Stout beams upholding weightless grace
Of song, a blessing on this place.

They stand in waiting all around,
Uprisings of their native ground,
Downcomings of the distant light;
They are the advent they await.

Receiving sun and giving shade,
Their life's a benefaction made,
And is a benediction said
Over the living and the dead.

In fall their brightened leaves, released,
Fly down the wind, and we are pleased
To walk on radiance, amazed.
O light come down to earth, be praised!

                                  --1986, I

More Wendell Berry poems that have inspired me:

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