If there were anyone that could convince me to go back to the land and live on a farm, it would be Wendell Berry. His writings reinforce in various ways his belief in connection to the land, sustainability, stewardship, and spirituality. He just comes across so genuine and seems like the kind of guy you would want as a neighbor. Actually, I would like him setting policy at the federal level but he’s too smart for that. I haven’t read his fiction yet but have some on my shelf waiting for its turn to be read. I have two collections of his essays that are fabulous as well as owning some trade editions of his poetry. I’ve also read his essays in some of the many journals he publishes in.
I’m a sucker for fine press books by authors I like and admire. So I’ve always wanted to check out the Berry titles published by Larkspur Press. Located in Monterey, they ARE neighbors of Berry, situated across the river (or is it a branch?) from his Kentucky farm.
Sabbaths 2006 is a chapbook containing some poems previously published in the journal Christianity and Literature, Winter 2007. According to the website of the Conference on Christianity and Literature, the journal “is devoted to the scholarly exploration of how literature engages Christian thought, experience, and practice. The journal presupposes no particular theological orientation but respects an orthodox understanding of Christianity as a historically defined faith.” The poems deal with his faith and spirituality as well as his sense of place and his connection with the land around him.
Spirituality and Poetry go together for me and Berry hooks me right away in the first stanza:
then I am not one of them,
if an ‘elect’, well then
I have not been elected.
I am one who is knocking
at the door. I am one whose foot
is on the bottom rung.
But I know that Heaven’s
bottom rung is Heaven
though the ladder is standing
on the earth where I work
by day and at night sleep
with my head up on a stone.
This is an earthy spirituality that I can wrap my head and heart around. It reminds me of the saying from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas that says something to the effect of “…the kingdom of heaven is here on earth. We just refuse to see it.” He goes on in stanza VII (The Book of Camp Branch) to state what would be “heaven” for him:
instead for the Heaven of creatures, of seasons,
of day and night. Heaven enough for me
would be this world as I know it, but redeemed
of our abuse of it and one another. It would be
the Heaven of knowing again…”
His sense of place and connectedness to the land comes through in the stanzas subtitled The Book of Camp Branch. He celebrates the way it throws light up into the trees, plays an irregular music, and changes subtlety in a way that makes every walk along it’s banks a new walk.
Its sound is a song that flings up
light to the undersides of leaves.
Its song and light are a way
of walking, a way of thought
moved by sound and sight.
He is also clearly affected by the things going on in our country and society. He starts stanza IV with “The times are disgusting enough,/surely, for those who long for peace/and truth…” and then moves on to state in stanza IX:
Before we kill another child
for righteousness’ sake, to serve
some blissful killer’s sacred cause,
some bloody patriot’s anthem
and his flag, let us leave forever
our ancestral lands, our holy books,
our god thoughtified to the mean
of our smallest selves. Let us go
to the graveyard and lie down
forever among the speechless stones.
That’s not a typo. We’ve “thoughtified” our god to the mean of our smallest self. Thought provoking stuff.
Larkspur Press typically publishes their books in three states: a paperback, a cloth hard back, and special edition. In this case, the paperback and hardback editions had a print run of 950 copies and the special edition was limited to 100. The books are printed letterpress on a hand-fed C&P press. The special edition was printed on Zerkall Book paper and hand-bound with custom paper sides. It also comes with a separate broadside of the three wood engravings that appear in the book.
This is a lovely chapbook. Why is it so much less intimidating to read poetry in chapbook doses instead of big collections? You can read it in ten minutes. And you can read it again and again as you continue to digest and ponder the words. The wood engravings by Wesley Bates evoke the sense of place that so grounds Berry. The paper selected to cover the boards is perfect, bringing to mind the water running over the rocks in Camp Branch. It is quarter bound in cloth with a paper label running up the side. In a nice extra touch, they also provide a paper wrapper/dust cover with the title and one of the illustrations printed on the cover and the title again printed on the spine. I immediately covered mine with a dust jacket protector and hence don’t have to worry as much when I’m reading it as I do with some of my fine press books.
These are nice little chapbooks and I look forward to adding more Larkspur Press titles to my library, especially anything by Berry. They are simple but elegant.
Availability: Sabbaths 2006 shows available (in all three states) on their website.