Poetry that shines with gentle wisdom, beauty; Openings, by Wendell Berry. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. $3.95 (paperback). A Part, by Wendell Berry. San Francisco: North Point Press. $12 in hardcover,
Wendell Berry is a farmer who shares the environmentalists' concern for the safety of the earth. He is most famous for "The Unsettling of America," an attempt to remind his countrymen and women of their responsibilities for their land and their lives. He is something of a cult figure to some nature lovers.
But he is also a poet -- a good poet, with a talent that deserves more than the adulation of worshipers or the denigration of skeptics. While Berry' poems are neither intellectually scintillating nor complexly allusive, they shine with the gentle wisdom of a craftsman who has thought deeply about the paradoxical strangeness and wonder of his life.
The new paperback edition of "Openings" is especially welcome, for it offers some of Berry's best poetry. Originally published in 1968, the book includes meditations on the natural world which are essentially devotional in their ardent simplicity -- yet which harbor no religious posing or affectation. One of the most memorable of these lyrical meditations is "Grace," which includes a quotation from one of Berry's friends in the last line: The woods is shining this morning.m Red, gold and green, the leavesm lie on the ground, or fallm or hang full of light in the air still.m Perfect in its rise and its fall, it takesm the place it has been coming to forever.m See how surely it has sought itself,m its roots passing lordly through the earth.m See how surely it has sought itself,m all that it is, and how flawlessm its grace is.Runing or walking, the waym is the same. Be still. Be still.m "He moves your bones, and the way is clear."m
But "Openings" includes not only these meditations. Written during a tumultuous decade, it rings with the integrity of a man who knows the human capacity for greatness, and who thus laments the consequences of human meanness. In "Against the War in Vietnam," Berry begins by rhetorically daring his readers to take the inhumane course: Believe the automatic righteousnessm of whoever holds an office. Believe the officials who see without doubtm that peace is assured by war, freedomm by oppression. . .m
Courage, not cowardice, underlies Berry's concern for his nation. This courage is born of conviction -- a conviction based on the principle that conscience, compassion, and a reflective, questioning mind will guide one even in times of great danger. In "do Not Be Ashamed," Berry examines this conviction in the face of pressure from an outside authority to conform at any price.
The courage Berry demostrates is not mere willfulness. These poems consistently reveal a man who listens with compassion and certainty for an intelligible voice of peace, speaking to his own soul.
Berry's new book, "A Part," reveals him growing more succinct, attempting both to present his day-to-day concerns more vividly and to provide laconic keys to trenchant philosophical insights. In such poems as "goods," "To Gary Snyder, " and "Seventeen Years," Berry pursues the secrets of daily mysteries:
he falling again from loneliness to love," the wonder of friendship over time and distance, the cycles of ignorance and understanding in marriage. Other poems reveal the influence of Eastern poetic conventions -- particularly haiku -- in the combination of arresting precision and suggestive understatement: Flying at night, above the clouds, allm earthmarks spurned,m los in Heaven, where peaceful entrym must be earned,m I have no pleasure here, nothing to desire.m And then I see one light below there like am star.m
While these later poems are not as consistently remarkable as Berry's earlier work, there are many gems among them. Both "Openings" and "A part" deserve to be turned to again and again for the pleasure of plain yet skilled expressions of honest conviction and simple, profound beauty.