In Leavings, as in his poetic works, Wendell Berry combines elements from the bucolic tradition stretching back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, from Jeffersonian agrarian democracy, from the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850), from the Stanford University Creative Writing Program, from raging modern-day environmentalists, and from the Old Testament prophets. Mostly, though, he is a Kentucky farmer and intellectual. He has written about life close to the land in a tight-knit rural community not only in some eighteen volumes of poetry but also in a series of novels and short stories chronicling events in fictional Port William (modeled after Port Royal, the Kentucky River town near Berry’s farm). He has also produced numerous works of nonfiction that have influenced contemporary thinking.
The title of Leavings strikes a valedictory note, as do some of the collection’s poems about growing old, as if the author were collecting the remnants of his fifty-year writing career. It seems early, however, for the seventy-five-year-old author to be saying good-bye. In fact, the greater part of Leavings consists of a continuation of the series begun in the earlier volumes Sabbaths: Poems (1987) and A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, 1979-1997 (1998). These volumes were inspired by Berry’s Sabbath strolls and meditations, and many poems in Leavings were inspired by similar Sabbath reflections from 2005 to 2008. Other poems, collected in the first part of Leavings, more closely resemble a culmination of Berry’s career, distilling his lifelong themes. These include “A Speech to the Garden Club of America” (which first appeared in The New Yorker), “Questionnaire” (which first appeared in The Progressive), and “Look It Over” (which first appeared in Appalachian Heritage).
These key poems and others in Leavings make it evident that the poet is not writing confessional poetry about himself and his career. Instead, Berry uses his perspective to comment on society and its ills in the manner of a public spokesperson, speaking as a laureate, a prophet of American life, or a “mad farmer” the subject of The Mad Farmer Poems (2008). From this perspective, the collection’s title evokes the remnants some beneficent farmers leave in their fields after harvest for the public, especially the needy, to come and pick. In contrast, it may also evoke abandoned farms, rundown small towns, empty Rust Belt factories, strip-mined lands, uranium tailings, radioactivity from atomic ventures, acid rain, chemical residues, poison, pollution, global warming, and other “leavings” of industrial society.
These physical leavings of industrial society are only the most obvious part of the picture Berry sketches. He also connects industrial society’s need for raw materials, energy, manufactured goods, and trade to America’s continuous or intermittent warfare. Moreover, industrial society for Berry has horrific psychological, moral, and theological ramifications. In essence, he indicates, industrial society no longer needs a hell, since it is making its own, as Berry humorously describes in “A Letter (to Ed McClanahan)”:
I dreamed that you and I were sent to Hell.The place we went to was not fieryor cold, was not Dante’s Hell or Milton’s,but was, even so, as true a Hell as any.It was a place unalterably publicin which crowds of people were rushingin weary frenzy this way and that . . .
The poem goes on to describe a teeming university or city street where everyone in the crowd is “alone” and “hurrying”: “It was a place/ deeply disturbed.” The description is reminiscent of New York City or of the crowds crossing London Bridge in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), which in turn are reminiscent of the hordes crossing the mythological River Styx.
A brief statement of Berry’s themes appears in the short poem “Look It Over,” about a walk in the woods. Berry leaves behind all the seemingly necessary accessories of life in industrial society: “I bring/ no car, no cell phone,/ no computer, no camera,/ no CD player, no fax, no/ TV, not even a book.” Instead, sitting down on “a log provided at no cost,” he communes with “the earth itself, sadly/ abused by the stupidity/ only humans are...
(The entire section is 1899 words.)