- Instantaneous and Eternal: Wendell Berry’s Sabbath Poems
Wendell Berry writes in his earlier preface to A Timbered Choir, Sabbath Poems 1979–1997 (reproduced in the present volume): “These poems were written in silence, in solitude, mainly out of doors. A reader will like them best, I think, who reads them in similar circumstances—at least in a quiet room. They would be most favorably heard if read aloud into a kind of quietness, that is not afforded by any public place.” As is my wont with reading poetry, I have read these poems in such a way: aloud in a quiet voice, listening to their music, their pauses and movement, for their sound to help me understand them and muse on them better. Day by day, for the past month—save for four days canoeing a nearby stream with folks from a land conservancy—I’ve been reading them at my office desk overlooking our garden. In this time, our sunflowers have risen from shoulder high to eight-foot cyclops, and the goldfinches have come to tug and worry at their ripening seedheads.
I should add that I have read these poems in the shadow of a death; a good friend, a medievalist colleague of mine here at Wabash for the past twenty-seven years, has just died after a relatively brief illness. The reading of these poems has deepened this summer for me, provided a meditative practice that has sorted well with my mood. Perhaps also because I’ve done this reading in the final month of my final sabbatical, I’ve been able to read them into a deeper “kind of quietness” than I usually can sustain. So I hope, anyway.
The fact that I am a medievalist may also assist me in this task. I subscribe to the value of what has been called wisdom poetry—a poetry that affords insights or intuitions into the shape of our world, its physical and metaphysical nature, as mysterious as they both are. Such is the genre, generally, that I would place these Sabbath poems in. As Berry explains, these are poems that honor the day “when God rested after finishing the work of creation.” For Berry, the Sabbath work of rest and restoration continues perpetually. Perhaps the most ready at hand evidence for Berry that the Sabbath work continues is the capacity of the land “to repair itself as it is now doing on the reforested hillsides of [his] home country.” Berry writes in the introduction to this present volume: “In such a place—as never, for me, under a roof—the [End Page 182] natural and the supernatural, the heavenly and the earthly, the soul and the body, the wondrous and the ordinary, all appear to occur together in the one fabric of creation.”
These Sabbath poems are poems written from a particular place and on particular Sabbaths, and so should be read as part of a spiritual practice and as poems, in some sense, devoted to dwelling, to living thoughtfully in one place. This place is a marginal farm among the folds of hills and creek-valleys trending toward the Ohio River in northeastern Kentucky. Berry and his wife, Tanya, have lived on and farmed this land since 1965. Berry wrote tenderly, and at some length, of this farm in a 1991 Sabbath poem. In it, the poet invites his imagined guest to walk up to the farm on foot, under the tall trees, “small / as a mouse at a feast”:
However you may come, You’ll see it suddenly Lie open to the light Amid the woods: a farm Little enough to see Or call across—cornfield, Hayfield and pasture, clear As if remembered, dreamed And yearned for long ago Neat as a blossom now With all the pastures mowed And the dew fresh upon it, Bird music all around. That is the vision, seen As on a Sabbath walk . . .
This is beloved country, bathed in light, but held in memory. It presents “The possibility / Of human life whose terms / Are Heaven’s and this earth’s...