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.”