Tag Archives: Wendell Berry

Three Poems About Marriage

The following poem beautifully and, kind of darkly, describes the duress that marriage presents to two people who have opted to engage in the process of becoming, “one flesh.”  I like to think, facetiously, that marriage was invented by the gods just to torment mankind, forcing two diametrically opposed forces to live together under the same roof.  Traditional life has controlled the tension of this union of opposites by implementing overt power, defining the term “marriage” as a relationship in which the female would be subservient to the male.  Technically this subservience went to the extent that it deprived women of a subjective experience, that their desire should only be to please their husband. But women usually managed to get their pound of flesh in the relationship which Alfred Hitchcock beautifully and darkly portrayed in his movie “Frenzy.”  In this movie a psychopathic killer was on a rampage of grisly murder of young women and the stiff and proper police inspector was obsessed with stopping the rampage.  After a hard day at the office and on the streets looking for the killer, the poor police inspector would retire to the comfort of his home where his would wife would have dinner waiting.  However, as she dutifully and daintily presented an ornate and formal dinner, he would grimace as she had prepared food that he didn’t like or was given to him in minuscule portions.  In one scene, when she stepped back into the kitchen he hurriedly poured his soup out.  But all the while as he was tortured through these scenes, she would be so delightful, loving, and gracious and he would respond in kind.

Here is a narrative poem by poet Anne Carson in the most recent edition of The New Yorker Magazine.  It is quite witty and pointed:

We really want them to like us. We want it to go well. We overdress. They are narrow people, art people, offhand, linens. It is early summer, first hot weekend. We meet on the street, jumble about with kisses and are we late? They had been late, we’d half-decided to leave, now oh well. That place across the street, ever tried it? Think we went there once, looks closed, says open, well. People coming out. O.K. Inside is dark, cool, oaken. Turns out they know the owner. He beams, ushers, we sit. And realize at once two things, first, the noise is unbearable, two, neither of us knows the other well enough to say bag it. Our hearts crumble. We order food by pointing and break into two yell factions, one each side of the table. He and she both look exhausted, from (I suppose) doing art all day and then the new baby. We eat intently, as if eating were conversation. We keep passing the bread. My fish comes unboned, I weep pretending allergies. Finally someone pays the bill and we escape to the street. For some reason I was expecting snow outside. There is none. We decide not to go for ice cream and part, a little more broken. Saturday night as an adult, so this is it. We thought we’d be Nick and Nora, not their blurred friends in greatcoats. We cover our ears inside our souls. But you can’t stop it that way.  

And here Wendell Berry offers my favorite poem on marriage, vividly stresses and strains of two different forces of energy living in the constraint of committed relationship:

How hard it is for me, who live
in the excitement of women
and have the desire for them
in my mouth like salt. Yet
you have taken me and quieted me.
You have been such light to me
that other women have been
your shadows. You come near me
with the nearness of sleep.
And yet I am not quiet.
It is to be broken. It is to be
torn open. It is not to be
reached and come to rest in
ever. I turn against you,
I break from you, I turn to you.
We hurt, and are hurt,
and have each other for healing.
It is healing. It is never whole.

And here is W. H. Auden with a witty, facetious and playfully grim description of marriage.

If all a top physicist knows
About the Truth be true,
Then, for all the so-and-so’s,
Futility and grime,
Our common world contains,
We have a better time
Than the Greater Nebulae do,
Or the atoms in our brains.

Marriage is rarely bliss
But, surely it would be worse
As particles to pelt
At thousands of miles per sec
About a universe
Wherein a lover’s kiss
Would either not be felt
Or break the loved one’s neck.

Though the face at which I stare
While shaving it be cruel
For, year after year, it repels
An ageing suitor, it has,
Thank God, sufficient mass
To be altogether there,
Not an indeterminate gruel
Which is partly somewhere else.

Our eyes prefer to suppose
That a habitable place
Has a geocentric view,
That architects enclose
A quiet Euclidian space:
Exploded myths – but who
Could feel at home astraddle
An ever expanding saddle?

This passion of our kind
For the process of finding out
Is a fact one can hardly doubt,
But I would rejoice in it more
If I knew more clearly what
We wanted the knowledge for,
Felt certain still that the mind
Is free to know or not.

It has chosen once, it seems,
And whether our concern
For magnitude’s extremes
Really become a creature
Who comes in a median size,
Or politicizing Nature
Be altogether wise,
Is something we shall learn.

*****************************

Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invited you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

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My “Skewed View of the World” and Marriage

Marriage has been so important to me, a gift from the heavens designed to penetrate my isolation and introduce me to reality.  When we married 27 years ago, I quickly realized just how skewed her view of the world was and at times wondered, “Now what in the hell have I gotten myself into?”  But almost immediately the first of many life lessons was on the table for me, “Lewis, look how skewed your view of the world is.”  That was disconcerting for I had been comfortably ensconced in my uncomfortable life of isolation and suddenly it dawned on me that my very view of the world was skewed, including my view of myself and of my wife.  This process of disillusionment is now a 27-year journey into the world of “reality” which my life experience had taught me to avoid, a “reality” made up of billions of people all with their own “skewed” view of the world.

Another way of approaching this phenomenon is as the discovery of “difference”, that the difference I had always known, superficially having achieved “object separateness” (more or less), extended much further than I had thought.  For “difference” included the realization that someone who I dearly loved and was devoted to, and thought I knew, was always beyond the pale of that ego-ridden cognitive apparatus through which I viewed the world, my ego.  Conrad Aiken described it this way, “We see only the small bright circle of our consciousness beyond which lies the darkness.”  Aiken realized that to engage meaningfully in any relationship is to venture into darkness, to recognize that one is approaching a “darkness” and that the approaching one is in turn a “darkness” in reference to the other.    Marriage, and any close relationship, might be described as two “darknesses” bumping into each other and beginning the process of venturing into another world, penetrating the barriers that each had set up to protect his/her splendid isolation.

“Difference” is a difficult phenomenon to comprehend.  For, if we begin to realize just how “different” another person is, it will entail the understanding and experiencing of just how profoundly alone we are in this overwhelming and incomprehensible void that we live in.  It will be venturing into and exploring the existential solitude that each of us is plagued with, a solitude which the owning and experiencing of can provide the only meaningful human connection.

So, how does “a hand reach across the abyss” and make contact?  Well, it requires body and soul, but the body is often the easy part as it provides physical intimacy and the various contrivances of culture–gender rules, sexual mores and sexual politics.  And these physical “contrivances,” though essential, can be an obstacle to true connection. For the soul part of the equation is more challenging as it will include language; for it is with words that we can reach across that abyss and learn that, “Hey, there is somebody out there.”  This involves “wrestling with words and meanings”  (T. S. Eliot) including…to put this in personal terms…who exactly is “Lewis” and who exactly is “Claire.” This entails understanding that to some degree I have no idea, for “I am not who I ‘think’ I am” and she is not who she “thinks” she is.  For, personal identity is not a rigidly defined quality; it is quite amorphous, and can never be captured with a mesh of words and conceptual formulations.  The individual, and the other person is always a mystery if there is to be a dynamic quality to the relationship.  Auden had this in mind when he posed the question, “Suppose we love not friends or wives, but certain patterns in our lives…?”

Marriage by Wendell Berry

How hard it is for me, who live
in the excitement of women
and have the desire for them

in my mouth like salt. Yet
you have taken me and quieted me.
You have been such light to me
that other women have been
your shadows. You come near me
with the nearness of sleep.
And yet I am not quiet.
It is to be broken. It is to be
torn open. It is not to be
reached and come to rest in
ever. I turn against you,
I break from you, I turn to you.
We hurt, and are hurt,
and have each other for healing.
It is healing. It is never whole.

A friend has proof read this posting prior to publishing and I’m going to include a poem that he shared with me in response to the Berry poem.

A love poem by Bertrand Russell to Edith Finch Russell (his fourth and last wife: )

To Edith

Through the long years
I sought peace,
I found ecstasy, I found anguish,
I found madness,
I found loneliness,
I found the solitary pain
that gnaws the heart,
But peace I did not find.
Now, old & near my end,
I have known you,
And, knowing you,
I have found both ecstasy & peace,
I know rest,

   
After so many lonely years.
I know what life & love may be.
Now, if I sleep,
I shall sleep fulfilled.

 

 

Wendell Berry & “The Peace of Wild Things”

One of my readers responded recently with a note about the value of his “dogs, garden, and wild life” in his spiritual life. His response really spoke to me and reminded me of my own affinity with the natural world and helped to ground me on that occasion, bringing me down from the lofty heights of the aether that I often get intoxicated with when I trot this “stuff” out. I have two dachshunds who just thrill my soul each day, a desert garden that I hope to see bloom again real soon, and birds, bunny rabbits, skunks, and coyotes that live in the neighborhood. This earth, and this “dust of the earth” of which each of us is a particle, is the only thing that is in a very real sense. And all this “stuff” that I discourse about…though important…is only about a context that gives meaning to all of this beautiful world.

Here is a link to Wendell Berry reading one of my favorite poems in which he recognizes the “Peace of Wild Things” and notes the comfort he finds there. And he speaks of the “wild heron” which adorned the lovely Beaver Lake on which I lived for 21 years in Northwest Arkansas before I moved here to New Mexico. And he noted how that these beautiful birds and other “wild things” do not “tax their thoughts with forethought of grief.” Berry was telling us of the importance of living in “The Now” which is the term that Eckhart Tolle coined to speak of the Presence which is the only thing that ever is. Our culture teaches us to live in the past and in the future and rewards us for doing so; thus it is a real challenge to ever-live in the present. I’m sure having trouble doing it!

The Peace of Wild Things

 

A blog-o-sphere friend of mine shared a devotional she has recently written after a return from another country, a trip which aroused in her lots of fear and anxiety. And she honored me with use of a couple of thoughts I have shared here recently.

I too have traveled abroad some and always experience the same hyper-vigilance that she described, terrified on some level with the knowledge that I am a “stranger in a strange land.” I always enjoy the experience of being outside of my native land, thrilled with the experience of “difference”, delighted to note how these beautiful people have carved out for themselves a life so different than my own and how it works just as well as does life in my culture. But, nevertheless, there is the under current of fear and anxiety as I’m not in the comfort of my “hearth and home” and don’t have the security provided by my “stuff”, including the commonplaces of day to day life certainly including my native tongue.

Regarding her anxiety, my friend referenced the beautiful observation of Jesus about the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, “how they toil not, neither do they spin” yet are marvelously taken care of. This brought to my mind a beautiful poem by Wendell Berry that often comforts me, particularly his observation that he finds comfort in the midst of despair with “the peace of wild things” who “do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.”

I have used this “taxation” idea so many times in recent years, often in reference to my two beloved dachshunds, Ludwig and Elsa, who always appear so much at comfort inside their own skin, not having any need to “tax their lives with forethought of grief.” They are simply present…in the moment…following the advice of Ram Dass to “be here now.” (I bought for them the doggie translation of Mr. Dass’s book though I felt ripped off as every word was translated as “arf.”)

Now I realize that the deck is stacked in Ludwig and Elsa’s favor in that they don’t have this neo-cortical machine that is always whirring, plotting and scheming to accomplish the desires of an ego. The good Lord has blessed/cursed us with this contrivance though I feel strongly it can be a blessing if we follow the advice of Jesus and remember these beautiful birds and flowers that are present as a prompt to adjust our focus when the stresses of life buffet us.  As always, we must remember, “This too shall pass.”

THE PEACE OF WILD THINGS

BY WENDELL BERRY

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

 

My 25th Wedding Anniversary!!!

Last Sunday I celebrated by 25th wedding anniversary with my lovely wife Claire. It is unbelievable to realize that I have now been married a quarter of a century! Where has time gone?

Getting married was a mind boggling experience for me as I had given up by the time I met her at age 36. But it was love and magic at first sight…pretty much…as I was immediately captivated by her boundless energy, enthusiasm, intelligence, and beauty. We were soul mates almost immediately and I had longed for one of “them there thangs” all my life!

A college psychology professor of mine once described marriage as an opportunity for a young man to “be redeemed by the love of a good woman.” That redemption started immediately and will continue to the end of my life as redemption is always an ongoing process, a process which is best conveyed by the poet Wendell Berry in the poem I will conclude with shortly. One dimension of this redemptive process is just the simple structure provided by the commitment of marriage, two separate individuals with separate agendas deigning to live together under one roof. “commingling” their lives.

And when a man and woman begin to live together under one roof, that is when the sparks begin to fly! And they have certainly flown and it is a wonder at times that the entire house did not burn down! For marriage is work and if it is done “right” the work will challenge one to the core. Someone once noted that we marry a fantasy and when we get “in the saddle” together, the fantasy begins to dissipate and we discover the reality of the other person. AND, in the process we make a parallel discovery of the “reality” of who we are ourselves.

This “self” discovery is the most important gift that marriage has given me. As the work of marriage unfolded, I began to realize the true meaning of the biblical description of man and woman together as being “one flesh.” I began to see how Claire was truly my complement, embodying so many things that I wanted but also so many things I did not want! And, of course, being a professional…and compulsive…“care giver”, I wanted to “fix her” which I came to discover meant that I wanted, and even demanded, that she be just like me. Well, I soon learned that hell would freeze over before that would happen!

It probably took twenty years for me to learn just exactly what relationship is, to see…and feel…that Claire and I were “one flesh.” I had to learn to make space for her in my life, to make room for her in my heart, and that entailed that I had to understand that I had not been doing so in the first place! And, even more so, it meant that I had not been doing so with anyone! I had known about the notion of “otherness” for a long time but suddenly the experience, or “feeling,” of “otherness” was on the table and that was, and still is, disconcerting to say the least. Suddenly I was face to face with the subtle narcissism that had shrouded my life since early childhood. And slowly, and even shyly, I began to peer out of that shroud and to discover not just Claire but the whole of God’s beautiful creation. I had understood Karl Jung’s notion of “withdrawing our projections” but now I began to “feel” it also.

Here are two poems that so beautifully capture the mysterious work of marriage:

MARRIAGE
by Wendell Berry

How hard it is for me, who live
in the excitement of women
and have the desire for them
in my mouth like salt. Yet
you have taken me and quieted me.
You have been such light to me
that other women have been
your shadows. You come near me
with the nearness of sleep.
And yet I am not quiet.
It is to be broken. It is to be
torn open. It is not to be
reached and come to rest in
ever. I turn against you,
I break from you, I turn to you.
We hurt, and are hurt,
and have each other for healing.
It is healing. It is never whole.
And the second poem conveys the redemptive dimension of living together within the confines of marital commitment:
BOW DOWN TO STUTTERERS
by Edgar Simmons

The stutterers hesitation
Is a procrastinate crackle,
Redress to hot force,
Flight from ancient flame.

The bow, the handclasp, the sign of the cross
Say, “She-sh-sheathe the savage sword!”

If there is greatness in sacrifice
Lay on me the blue stigmata of saints;
Let me not fly to kill in unthought.

Prufrock has been maligned.
And Hamlet should have waived revenge,
Walked with Ophelia domestic corridors
Absorbing the tick, the bothersome twitch.

Let me stutter with the non-objective painters
Let my stars cool to bare lighted civilities.

 

 

Nature in Hopi Prayers & Wendell Berry Poem

Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset. Make my hands respect the things you have made and my ears sharp to hear your voice. Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people. Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every leaf and rock.
I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother,
but to fight my greatest enemy —Myself—
Make me always ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes.

(Asquali, Kawquai)

Someone recently sent me an Hopi prayer and I was taken with its wisdom and posted it yesterday.  That prayer and this one today reflects a sensitivity to nature that I greatly admire.  The Native Americans saw the unity of man and nature, not having been taught the Western subject-object distinction to the same degree that we European “invaders” had been.

And I really appreciated the insight into the “real” enemy—“myself.”  This reflects the “discerning spirit” spoken of in the New TestamentEmily Dickinson described the absence of this quality as “the mind too near itself to see itself distinctly.”  That “discerning spirit” is often missing in our culture, leaving us without “self” awareness.

These two Native American poems emphasis of nature makes me think of a beautiful poem by Wendell Berry.  A friend of mine last spring, who was dying at the time, asked me to define grace for him.  I paused only briefly before telling him, “Let me quote you a poem by Wendell Berry.”  Here it is:

THE PEACE OF WILD THINGS

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

My friend was greatly comforted by this poem, immediately agreeing, “Yes, this is about grace, the same grace offered by Jesus.”  The beautiful phrase, “I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their thoughts with forethought of grief” often comforts me when I’m stressed, bringing to mind the words of Jesus, “Let not your heart be worried.  Ye believe in God, believe also in me.”

 

Paean to Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry is one of my favorite contemporary poets. He is a farmer and a poet as well as a retired professor from the University of Kentucky. His love of nature enriches his poetry. Here is one of my favorite of his poems:

To the Holy Spirit

O Thou, far off and here, whole and broken,
Who in necessity and in bounty wait,
Whose truth is light and dark, mute though spoken
By Thy wide grace show me Thy narrow gate.

I also highly recommend “The Peace of Wild Things” which you can find on the internet with a Google search. I recently answered a friend’s question, “How would you define grace” with the quotation of this poem. And I love his poem entitled “Marriage” which describes the torture of intimate relationship— “it is to be broken. It is to be torn open. It is not to be reached and come to rest in ever.”