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New Collected Poems
352 pp., $20.95
The Mad Farmer
Thirty years separate Wendell Berry's Collected Poems (1982) and his New Collected Poems. Those intervening years saw the publication of new work in three additional volumes: Entries (1994), Given (2005), and Leavings (2010). New Collected Poems omits twenty or so poems from those three volumes plus all of the "Sabbath" poems. This means in all likelihood that the "Sabbath" poems will at some point appear under separate cover, as they did before in A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 (1998).
So we have nothing yet like the complete poems—for Berry, who will turn 80 next year, is still very much with us and hard at work. What we do have is an attractive compendium from a poet who has never written so much as a line for the anthologizers or the peripatetic professionals whose home is the cash bar wherever the national convention for tenured poets is being held. Berry's work is the careful artistry of someone firmly placed in this world, a man mindful of contingency and ardent for the minute particulars that mass culture would first obscure and then obliterate altogether.
And obliteration has long been the menace. A "divine man / is hanging from a tree" at the end of the poem "Air." This unrisen Jesus hangs because "another child / is burning" below. A fighter pilot has turned
homeward in the dark
heaven, free of his burden
of death by fire, of life in fear
of death by fire, in the city,
now burning far below.
This man, "proud and young," is yet another of those whom "we have taught / to be amused by horror" "in the work of death. Ahead of him / wait those made rich by fire."
"Air" is a poem that, at a time when only the bellicose are thought patriotic, may displease a certain kind of reader. But it is of a piece with the poetry that Berry has been writing for the last half-century. It calls to mind such poems from Openings (1968) as "Against the War in Vietnam" and "To a Siberian Woodsman" (1968) and, from Entries, their thematic reprisal in the 12-poem ...