Aug. 5, 2003

Wild Geese

by Wendell Berry

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Poem: "Wild Geese," by Wendell Berry from Collected Poems 1957-1982 (North Point Press).

The Wild Geese

Horseback on Sunday morning,
harvest over, we taste persimmon
and wild grape, sharp sweet
of summer's end. In time's maze
over fall fields, we name names
that went west from here, names
that rest on graves. We open
a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise,
pale, in the seed's marrow.
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear,
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of film director John Huston, born in Nevada, Missouri (1906), where his grandfather had won the Water and Power Company in a poker game. Huston's movies had lean, fast-paced scripts with unpredictable plots. His first film was The Maltese Falcon. Besides directing, he also acted in some twenty pictures, including Chinatown (1974) and Winter Kills (1979).

It's the birthday of Wendell Berry, born in Port Royal, Kentucky (1934). As a young man, he traveled to California, Europe, and New York City, but eventually he came back to the land in rural Kentucky where his family had lived since the early 1800s, on what he calls "one of the last heights of the Bluegrass upland" near the Kentucky River. He left a longtime teaching job at a university so he could farm full-time. When he was a boy his grandfather taught him how to harness and hitch a team of mules, and he still works land with horses. He writes poems, fiction, and essays about the benefits of the simple life, and about human's responsibility to the earth. His collections of poetry include The Farm (1995) and A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 (1998). But it is his essays that have brought him the widest readership, including such books as The Gift of Good Land (1981), What Are People For? (1990) and Life Is a Miracle: An Essay against Modern Superstition (2000). This fall, he'll publish Citizenship Papers, with an essay about America's new national security policy, which he says "depends on the acquiescence of a public kept fearful and ignorant." Wendell Berry said, "Better than any argument is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup."

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Conrad Aiken, born in Savannah, Georgia (1889). When he was eleven, his father shot Aiken's mother and then himself. Aiken wrote about it in his autobiography, Ushant (1952): "After the desultory early-morning quarrel, came the half-stifled scream, and the sound of his father's voice counting three, and the two loud pistol shots and he tiptoed into the dark room, where the two bodies lay motionless, and apart, and, finding them dead, found himself possessed of them forever." Aiken won awards for his poetry and was admired by many writers of his day, but he refused to make his poetry fashionable and he never became a popular poet. In 1930, he won a Pulitzer prize for his Selected Poems. Conrad Aiken wrote: "All lovely things will have an ending,/ All lovely things will fade and die;/ And youth, that's now so bravely spending,/ Will beg a penny by and by."

It's the birthday of Guy de Maupassant, born in Normandy (1850), one of the great French short story writers. In the decade from 1880 to 1890 he wrote three hundred stories, while also writing most of his other work, including five novels. He was an apprentice of Gustave Flaubert, who used to invite him to lunch on Sundays, lecture him on prose style, and correct his early work. Flaubert also introduced him to some of the leading writers of the time, like Émile Zola, Ivan Turgenev, and Henry James.

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