Given: Poems by Wendell Berry

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Readers of Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry will remember that the author has many concerns about the way we live our lives and about the impact of our actions on the people we love and the earth that supports us. He questions whether the commonly accepted idea of progress, the proliferation of machines, pavement, noise, and crowding, is really a worthy goal for us. In the course of the story, he shows his readers a better way, people living thoughtful lives, caring for the world around them.

Many of the same concerns appear in the poems in his new collection Given. Many of the poems focus on the forest, the river, the soil, and the people that he knows well. Not all of these people are strictly real, as several of the poems and the short play in verse “Sonata at Payne Hollow” focus on characters from the world of his novels and short stories. Berry poses that people who care for the land on which they live are happier and more satisfied. There is gentleness in much of this verse, like in the following untitled work:

This is the time you'd like to stay. Not a leaf stirs. Not a sound. The fireflies lift light from the ground.

Berry does at times raise his voice in forthright criticism of current society. In his poem “Some Further Words,” he begins “Let me be plain with you, dear reader,” and continues with frank discussion of politics, science, and economics. His emotions peak in the following verse:

When I hear the Stock Market has fallen I say, “Long live gravity, long live stupidity, error, and greed in the palaces of fantasy capitalism.” I think an economy should be based on thrift, on taking care of things, not on theft, usury, seduction, waste, and ruin.

"Part IV: Sabbaths 1998-2004" is the largest and final section of the collection. These poems written on Sunday morning walks continue a series begun in previous collections, and they often deal on the surface with what Berry sees in the changing seasons. With them, he also expresses his Christian beliefs, as in the third poem in the subsection for 2000:

As timely as a river God’s timeless life passes Into this world. It passes Through bodies, giving life, And past them, giving death.

The collection can be read quickly, but I recommend taking a few poems at a time. Some readers will find many quotes to collect and keep. Given belongs in most public libraries.

Berry, Wendell. Given: Poems. Washington, DC: Shoemaker Hoard, 2005. ISBN 1593760612

Review by Rick Roche