Four Poems

By Wendell Berry

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From Sabbaths 2011



for David Garrard Lowe


Matisse’s Dominique of Vence*
on a postcard from a friend
stands in my window, a presence
in the light, below a bend

of the Kentucky River.
His face is featureless,
yet he stands in character,
a book displaying a cross

held against his heart
by a hand in bare outline,
remade entirely by art.
The falling folds of his gown

are several vertical strokes
signifying to the eye
in black lines quick as looks.
The saint is standing by

in silence while the light
performs its holy work
in colors on the white
wall. After the dark

it is morning in Vence.
Many years ago
I went there, and ever since
have recalled the light, now

replaced by later light,
how it filled the room,
crowding the darkness out,
allowing vision its time.

Behind the pictured saint,
meanwhile, my washed window
is a grid in black paint
rationally ruled, although

admitting sensational light. Beyond
are trees, the river, a dark line of hills,
familiar as hand to mind,
but the prospect fills

no term of human truth,
no form of human thought.
A heron hunched at stream mouth
fishes quietly as he ought.


* A figure in outline of St. Dominique, one of Matisse’s “decorations” for the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence,
a hill town in southern France. The Chapel was consecrated on June 25, 1951. I went there in 1962.




Off in the woods in the quiet
morning a redbird is singing
and his song goes out around him
greater than its purpose,
a welcoming room of song
in which the trees stand,
through which the creek flows.




New come, we took fields
from the forest, clearing, breaking
the steep slopes. And this was
a fall from a kind of grace:
from the forest in its long Sabbath,
dependent only upon
the Genius of this place, to the field
dependent upon us, our work,
and our failure first and last
to keep peace between
the naked soil and the rain.
From the laws of the First Former
we fell to the place deformed.
The hard rains fell then
into our history, from grace
to fate upon our gullied land.

We numbered the years, not many,
until the forest took back
the failed fields with their scars
unhealed and long in healing,
our toil forfeit to the trees
of a new generation: locust,
cedar, box elder, elm,
and thorn. In spring the redbud
and wild plum, white and pink
on the abandoned slopes, granted
such beauty as we might
have thought forgiving.

By leaving it alone, we are
in a manner forgiven. And yet
we must wait long, long—
how much longer than we
will live?—for the return of what
is gone, not of the past
forever lost, but of health,
the promise of life in and
remade finally whole.

Left alone, the “pioneer
generation” of trees gives way
to the oaks, hickories, maples,
beeches, poplars of the lasting

             By keeping intact
its gift of self-renewal, not
as our belonging, but asking how
we might belong to it,
what we might use of it
for ourselves, leaving it whole,
we may come to live in its
time, in which our lives will pass
as pass the lives of birds
within the lives of trees.




Will-lessly the leaves fall,
are blown, coming at last
to the ground and to their rest.
Among them in their coming down
purposely the birds pass,
of all the unnumbered ways
choosing one, until
they like the leaves will
will-lessly fall. Thus freed
by gravity, every one
enters the soil, conformed
to the craft and wisdom, the behest
of God’s appointed vicar,
our mother and judge, who binds
us each to each, the largest
to the least, in the family of all
the creatures: great Nature
by whom all are changed, none
are wasted, none are lost.
Supreme artist of this
our present world, her works
live and move, love
their places and their lives in them.
And this is praise to the highest
knowledge by the most low.



Wendell Berry lives and works with his wife, Tanya Berry, on their farm in Port Royal, Kentucky. He is the author of more than 30 books, including the recently released, A Place in Time. These poems will appear in the forthcoming collection, This Day: New & Collected Sabbath Poems 1979-2012 (Counterpoint).

Kentucky forest and stream photo by Alexey Stiop, courtesy Shutterstock.

  1. Maurice Manning on Wendell Berry, from an interview in _Smartish Pace_:

    Wendell Berry was my professor at the University of Kentucky nearly 25 years ago. He taught a course called Pastoral Poetry, which was a course in close reading—The Faerie Queen, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Wordsworth, Jane Austen, Hardy, and E.M. Forster. I did not distinguish myself in the course! But I have been amazed and inspired to realize that I am still learning from the experience. I expect I will continue to learn from the focus of the course, from Mr. Berry’s example as a reader and thinker. He would read a passage from “Michael,” for instance, and note that it was an example of good writing. The moral and social features of our readings were implicit; the course was much more focused on observing a well-written sentence. It seems like a simple approach, but it isn’t. It is a way to read and think with deep attention.

    Yes, I have written poems about my so-called farming, but our farm is a very basic affair. We have fruit trees, bees, and three big garden areas. We try to raise as much of our own fruit and vegetables as possible. I have to take care of the land and try to improve it. I have designed ways to get water to our garden areas, using gravity and such. We have rather rugged land, mostly rolling with a bottom area and a flat area on top of the hill. I’ve learned we have to work with the land on its own terms. Our little patch of land also requires my deep attention.

    My gratitude to Wendell Berry is incalculable. He is an example for anyone who writes and thinks, for anyone who has hope, for anyone who enjoys work, for anyone who is amazed by the hills and trees, by the fields and the wind, by wild creatures, by love.

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