My Leaves All Dissolved In Flight

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September 2

by Wendell Berry

In the evening there were flocks of nighthawks
passing southward over the valley.  The tall
sunflowers stood, burning on their stalks
to cold seed, by the still river.  And high
up the birds rose into sight against the darkening
clouds.  They tossed themselves among the fading
landscapes of the sky like rags, as in
abandonment to the summons their blood knew.
And in my mind, where had stood a garden
straining to the light, there grew
an acceptance of decline.  Having worked,
I would sleep, my leaves all dissolved in flight.


Wendell Berry has been a steady progressive voice for decades, sounding the alarm on environmental degradation and the need to conserve the natural world and agrarian soils and the economies and resources from which our sustenance depends.   His poetry and essays are personal, accessible and lead by example of searching his own soul, not the souls of others, while putting forth challenging and even difficult ideas and opinions.

I am attracted to poets who use the word “I” as the narrator of their poetry.   I know, from my own experience in writing, that using first person does not always mean its autobiographical or my story.   But, by doing so, it changes the dynamics between the writer and the reader such that I feel like the reader is peaking through the window of a house lit up at night, unsure if the person you are observing intended for themselves to be on display or whether the reader is now a voyeur, watching something that might at any moment, the next word, become deeply personal.  It heightens the tension, particularly in short poems.  It puts the reader on notice, that out of our own modesty, we may have to turn away briefly,  if suddenly the writer gets completely undressed before us, before returning our gaze.

If you read the poem above, there are three references to himself, one “I” and two “my”(s).  Think how different the poem would be if it was written in third person:

And in our minds, where had stood a garden
straining to the light, there grew
an acceptance of decline.  Having worked,
We would sleep, our leaves all dissolved in flight.

Now you have to ask yourself, with that small change, did Berry build consensus earlier in the poem? As a writer did he bring his reader’s in under his spell and we have given over to his vision?  We would be left pondering is this really our collective experience and perspective that the poet is sharing or is he being bossy?  By making it first person, the poet is sharing and caring for himself/herself and letting the reader decide what to make of it.

For me, it’s easy to fall into third person when writing because it is the nature of my inner voice speaking to my corporal self.   I find in my own writing that often after the first draft, even writing this blog, not just poetry, that I have to go back and reinsert the first person, make it my own narrative, singular, and let others find the slivers to which they can relate or be shocked by the incoherence of thought that is on the page.   It is an odd thing to send off words into the ether of the internet, only to see a faint trace of where they go, with very little perspective on what the receivers on the other end are thinking, other than a warm glow in my suspicion that we share something in common – a curiosity which is fed and fueled in part by poetry.


Grace

by Wendell Berry

The woods is shining this morning.
Red, gold and green, the leaves
lie on the ground, or fall,
or hang full of light in the air still.
Perfect in its rise and in its fall, it takes
the place it has been coming to forever.
It has not hastened here, or lagged.
See how surely it has sought itself,
its roots passing lordly through the earth.
See how without confusion it is
all that it is, and how flawless
its grace is. Running or walking, the way
is the same. Be still. Be still.
“He moves your bones, and the way is clear.”

Before We Have Had Time To Breath

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“Like children bathing on the shore
Buried a wave beneath,
The second wave succeeds before
We have had time to breathe.”

Matthew Arnold

Sonnets To A Republican Friend

by Matthew Arnold

God knows it, I am with you.  If to prize
Those virtues, priz’d and practis’d by too few,
But priz’d, but lov’d but eminent in you,
Man’s fundamental life: if to despise
The barren optimistic sophistries
of comfortable moles, whom what they do
Teach the limits of the just and true
And for so doing, have no need of eyes
If sadness of the long heart-wasting show
Wherein earth’s great ones are disquieted:
If thoughts, not idle, while before me flow
The armies of the homeless and unfed: –
If these are yours, if these are what you are
Then I am you, and what you feel, I share.


I can almost feel the anxiety creeping up through the internet the past couple of days from people reading this blog. I am torn between posting fluff and feel good poetry as a distraction to the disruption in our lives or share something with a bit more gristle attached to the bone.  If I am wrestling with it, the answer is probably do both.

If there are good things to come out of COVID-19, it will be what each of us focuses on in response to these challenges of change.   Here’s the good I see; friends and family rallying around their elders, dropping off food, connecting with them by phone and Facetime and Skype.  I hear friends reconnecting with their neighbors, sharing food and childcare and reassuring each other, supporting each other.  I hear both fear and boastfulness of good health, but across that wide span, I am watching people talking to each other. Maybe what will come out of social distancing is a sense of community.  A realization of what we value, a longing for our neighbors and neighborhoods when we re-emerge.  We can’t isolate ourselves completely from this global world we find ourselves. This is true for the person sitting on their couch binge watching Netflix and for nations. At some point we are going to have come out of social isolation and take the risks we have always taken.  The risk that there are communicable diseases in our world.

Wendell Berry is a gifted writer and poet, who speaks to our personal well being in ourselves as a direct reflection of the well being of our communities:

“A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.”

Wendell Berry

I listened to the church service I had planned to attend Sunday morning at Westminster Presbyterian in Minneapolis by live stream.  It was a first.   It wasn’t nearly as spiritual or relevant.  It wasn’t even a good substitute for being there. I won’t pretend.  It was a thing unto itself that if I am going to get anything out of it, I will have to accept it for what it is, a video on a screen.   I still enjoyed viewing it. What did it inspire me to do?   Take a few of my business cards and slip them under my neighbors doors, who I have said hi to in the hall in the past but never really met as they all have moved in relatively recently and I am never home.  I wrote on the back – “Howdy Neighbor,  I am your neighbor in 208.  If you need anything, give me a call.”

As this thing progresses and turns into weeks, months and potentially years, the question we are going to ask ourselves at some point is when do we shift from fear to living bravely? We can’t shut out our parents, our neighbors forever, we can’t close our schools forever, we can’t all work from home and actually survive and move forward.  At some point we have to accept the risk of living.   Otherwise, like the protagonist in Wendell Berry’s poem below, we shall cease to experience, cease to be even in, our own lives.  For as Matthew Arnold says: “Then I am you, and what you feel, I share.”


The Vacation

by Wendell Berry

Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.
He went flying down the river in his boat
with his video camera to his eye, making
a moving picture of the moving river
upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly
toward the end of his vacation. He showed
his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,
preserving it forever: the river, the trees,
the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat
behind which he stood with his camera
preserving his vacation even as he was having it
so that after he had had it he would still
have it. It would be there. With a flick
of a switch, there it would be. But he
would not be in it. He would never be in it.