Poetry & The Self Help Movement (Or, A Grouchy Man Looks at a Poem by Wednell Berry) by Joe Weil
Poetry And The Self Help Movement (Or A Grouchy Man Looks at a Poem by Wendell Berry)
The only American Zen Buddhist I ever believed in was my late and greatly missed friend, Joe Salerno. Unlike most Zen Buddhist's he did not rub serenity in your face (they tend to lay it on thick, like the evangelicals do corporate Jesus, or the self helpers do "positive" thinking). He was a big shambling, gentleman-- with salt and pepper hair often tied in a biker's pony tail, and, as no Zen Buddhist who was smug would readily admit, a true fondness for woman's breasts. Our conversations ran the gamut from Plato to Play-doh, from Wallace Stevens to Wally Cleaver, and I don't know how breasts got in there, but, one July night, the year he died, he said to me in his soft, deep baritone: "I'm a breast man." And I said: "I thought so." And nothing more was said. I bring him up because I am reading Wendell Berry's Sabbath, and, in my usual grouchy way, I am getting annoyed at it. For the last two weeks, I've been clearing sod, very tenacious sod, and planning an organic garden, a huge organic garden. My kitchen is taken over by sprouting plants that I will grow in doors before transplanting. I love digging up dirt. I am using only a shovel, a pitch fork, and a hoe, and, pretty soon, all the sod will be dug up, and I'll feel sad because it will be time for the finesse stuff, and I like to grunt and curse under the sun in my rigor, and watch the swallows devour insects, and scatter the geese with a loud yodel, and all that intricate stuff of caring for the sprouts will greatly curtail my bliss. I like the violence involved in digging out the sod. I like the abandonment of it. The gentle, hourly virtue of "care" is not my forte. I have always associated a certain level of ferocity with largeness of spirit. It didn't matter whether this ferocity was active, or dormant, as long as I felt its pulse under all the calm. This is why most American Buddhists make me barf up my cookies: because I suspect they are either control freaks under all that OM, or worse: they are truly tepid, and have used a spiritual practice as a rationale for their smallness of spirit.This is why I am annoyed at Wendell Berry, and, actually, I am not annoyed at Wendell Berry so much as with the serenity junkies who worship him. Let's get to the poem that irks me:
Over the river in loud flood, in the wind deep and broad under the unending sky,pair by pair, the swallows again, with tender exactitude, play out their line in arcs laid on the air, as soon as made, not there.
As meter goes, this poem is the most free and well wrought in the book. Some of the meter is down right stodgy, but this is nice and playful: except in some respects, it is only a notch above a Disney cartoon-- nature as man's serenity whore. For Pete's sake Wendell, you have stood in fields a lot longer than I have! Those swallows are on a feeding frenzy. The flood has released insect hatches, and the inner clock of the Swallows has brought them back to devour the hatch above the river. Yes, from a distance, the play of swallows in the light, their little white bellies, and bronze,/violet plumage, is pretty, but the pretty is not the beautiful. I'm not saying you have to turn it into a death poem, and I love the ending of this particular work, but I am worried about poetry junkies who think nature exists to enthrall or teach them. Emerson: "All of nature shall thunder forth the ten commandments." Spare me. So why am I in a field when not teaching, digging sod for four hours at a clip? I like the smell of dirt. I, too, am happy to see the swallows, even though I know they are ravenous descendants of reptiles, and rapacious little beasts. And I do not see them flying pair by pair. Bull shit. That makes them smeared with the smugness of the well married. Give me a break. They are not suburbanites, They are a happy chaos, as well as a precision, the precision of chaos when it is ravenous, and my disturbing of the grass sod displaces the bugs in the river side field, and they swoop, and dare devil all around me because they want to eat. The robins, too, they come, knowing there are worms involved. They do not sing to me of God's glory, or of my long lost beloved, or of how happy it is to be out in the sun light under a powder blue sky. They come to feast on whatever worms are to be had. And the red Fox who has built his den in the rocks of my flood wall licks his chops, and hopes to steal some goose eggs while the geese are not paying attention. This is the ferocity of which I speak, and it is necessary that it be given honor, and that we know it pulses under all our pretty sunsets, just as, within the ferocity, there is a calm, a stillness, a storm eye which remains ever steadfast and silent. All this leads me to say: I love the beautiful, but I take issue with the merely pretty. Pretty is a denial of death, and violence, and hurt, and the chaos of all things swirling around us. Chaos is not a lack of order, but as Wallace Stevens said, a "great disorder is an order." At the same time, I jump on my shovel and plunge below the root system of the sod, and wrench what will not yield easily to me, Red Wing Black Birds are in the thickets down by the river, going off like noisy alarm clocks to announce their territory. There is death all around me, as the Buddha noted so long ago, and, yet, this suffering, this chaos, this ferocity does not seem wrong here. it has none of the ontological fear of death by which man butchers, and betrays his best heart. it is not hiding in a pretty poem. It is not Mary Oliver with sugar in her hands for the grasshoppers. It does not regard us except as food or danger, and its patience is infinite because it is motion, not act-- the great mechanism of day and night, and the clouds moving about in the sky, and the violence with which those seeds I have pushed into dirt, will push up out of dirt. Everything stinks here of compost, of decay, of death, but I do not mind the violence around me. It is the best sort. It is not trying to escape into some pastoral dream of a life on the land. I raise my voice in a loud yodel, and the geese bolt into the river. The foxes neurons twitch with the need to catch a meal. My hands are blistered. my back aches. My clothes are covered in clay. Wendell Berry is someone I read when I come out of the field, and sit at my glass top table, under the white pine, giving the finger to the crow who has dropped a pine cone on my head. I do not look like a nature lover. I do not wear the uniform. All the uniforms are the ontological fear of death,, and the vanity of man, the semiotics of imposition, the projection of will upon a landscape we can only enter with violence, and which, under certain conditions, does great violence to us.. I remember Joe Salerno, and I wonder what he would have said about it. it is good to have a dead friend I love, one who will never be able to speak to me again. It taints my own smugness with loss enough to know that nothing here is for me, even when the law says it is mine. All things are in motion, and I hate the word change because it has become one of the minor gods of self help gurus. I hate change. I hate that frigging crow. I love the ache in my muscles, and the whiskey on ice in my rocks glass. The crow takes off to find something to eat. Maybe I should, too.