Wendell Berry

The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry

“I lack the peace of simple things.”

A carefully crafted and culled collection of poems from Wendell Berry’s long career and various publications including The Broken Ground, Openings and The Wheel.1

Wendell Berry (b. 1934), an American poet, has been writing deeply-felt poems about humanity, landscapes, time, nature and relationships for decades.

His poem “Marriage,” (published in Openings in 1968), contains some of the most truthful words on what marriage is – and isn’t – that I’ve ever read:

“It is not to be
reached and come to rest in
ever, I turn against you,
I break from you, I turn to you.
We hurt, and are hurt,
and have each other for healing.
It is healing. It is never whole.

This need for completeness, for perfection, the tidying up of all things is so uniquely human. We look to shore ourselves against some order we cannot have inside. To minimize longing for the impossible. Berry kindly reminds us, over and over, it is not to be: “Except in idea, perfection is as wild as light: there is no hand laid on it.”

Berry has been an active farmer in Kentucky for more than forty years. He knows all too well there is snow in March, there are years of catastrophes, there is pain in marriage. Nature, and our distinct interaction with it, is a regular source of Berry’s narrative and imagery.

There will be
a resurrection of the wild.
Already it stands in wait
at the pasture fences.
It is rising up
in the waste places of the cities

Wendell Berry
I crossed a muddy field to see what bright white and yellow gleemed in the sun. It was lichen, crawling and adding color of its own. Reminded me of Berry’s poem, a ‘resurrection of wild.’ Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Comforting thought, nature rising at the gates. Like the mid-century writings of biologist and writer Rachel Carson, and many others, Berry felt nature was a part of humankind: hands as roots, bodies as soil, our feet in the ground. He is mournful, watchful, notices things present and missing.

Berry is also urgent, “lacking the peace of simple things.” Berry’s poetry, his weighty words, remind me of English poet John Clare, who wrote a century earlier but was equally caring yet unsentimental about nature, humanity and the restlessness of those awake to suffering.

A personally meaningful poem is Berry’s “To the Unseeable Animal”, was inspired by a comment his daughter made “I hope there’s an animal somewhere that nobody has ever seen. And I hope nobody ever sees it.”

That we do not know you
is your perfection
and our hope. The darkness
keeps us near you.

This need to see, to witness, is also uniquely human, consider Last Chance to See a sort of documentary of animals who are critically endangered. Something in us needs to see and know. If we do not see something, does it matter?

Wendell Berry’s most generous gift is he shows us how to let go, how to exist in both hope and stillness, how to long and remain.