armchair cultural observation since 1995

Long live gravity

wildblessing
By Matthew Ralph

“Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary
some in the wrong direction
Practice resurrection”

When I heard these familiar lines of poetry recited in the opening moments of a play celebrating the farmer, author, poet and activist Wendell Berry on Thursday, I felt a chill come over me like I have seldom experienced watching a stage production.

Practice resurrection. Two words of the 1973 poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” that, repeated while a hammer dulcimer played softly in the background, nearly moved me to tears as I pondered the deep meaning behind a simple, yet insightful turn of a phrase.

The poetry of Wendell Berry is full of moving moments like that, times where a simple phrase, a humorous anecdote or an observation of the natural world triggers the so-called light bulb of our minds to ever so gracefully turn on.

Wild Blessings, a new play based on Berry’s poetic works, is billed as a celebration of a faithful steward, a friendly neighbor, a loving husband and a kind of modern day prophet claimed by environmentalists, literature enthusiasts, Christians and conservatives alike. But the 75-minute play is as much a celebration of the things Berry has inspired readers for decades to appreciate, enjoy and protect. 

Aided by the lurid sounds of a hammer dulcimer and the striking photographic and video images visible through a large wall resembling a bay window in the middle of the stage and an even larger screen behind it, the play features four actors – an older couple and a younger one – dramatically reading Berry’s words. The actors march in circles, dance, play violin, guitar and percussion and sing. The hammer dulcimer player also sings, but the music mostly provides the soothing backdrop for the words that indirectly weave (using only words from Berry’s pen) a narrative of a slightly mad farmer, out of place in the city who falls in love, returns to the fields, raises a family and fights to hold onto the simple, beautiful things in life like family, friends and God’s creation.

Following along, even for someone familiar with many of his works, was somewhat dizzying at times. Unlike reading the words on a page, the combination of stunning visuals, soothing music and dramatic acting gives little time for you to completely digest. Breaks in the action do occur and the topically connected transitions are generally well played (he titles of poems flash on the screen as the images change), but as the play inches intermission-less toward the finish it does make you wish you could hit pause or maybe rewind on a few of the scenes.

An outline in the playbook might have been helpful as a guide, but in the end Wild Blessings succeeds in maintaining a lot of the subtlety, humor and vivid description that make reading Wendell Berry’s poetry such an enriching and life-giving experience. It doesn’t tell you how to think or lecture about why mountain top removal, conspicuous consumption or infidelity should be avoided. It shows you what you are missing when you trade in natural beauty, elegance and grace for artificial comfort, perceived safety and reckless convenience.

In other words, it shows you what it means to practice resurrection.

Wild Blessings is appearing until April 26 at The Actors Theatre of Louisville as part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Click HERE for more information.

Tagged as: , ,

6 Responses »

  1. There are lightbulb-moments in his poetry. “A Purification” had one for me.

  2. Thanks for the kind thoughts about the play. If you’re interested, I can post the list of poems in the order we used them for the play (they are now available in the lobby after the play; they weren’t back from the printer in time for the preview you saw.) Just put in a comment and I’ll post it.

    Best,
    Adrien

  3. That would be great, Adrien. Thanks!

  4. It’s long, but here you go:

    Poems in Wild Blessings
    All poems by Wendell Berry, used by permission
    (listed in order used in the production)

    1. The Mad Farmer Manifesto: The first amendment
    Published in The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982
    2. Sabbath, 1982: X, “The dark around us, come”
    Published in A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997
    3. Mad Farmer Liberation Front
    Published in The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982
    4. May Song
    Published in The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982
    5. The Guest
    Published in The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982
    6. The Mad Farmer in the City
    Published in The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982
    7. A Letter
    Published in The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982
    8. The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from
    the Union
    Published in The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982
    9. Sabbath, 1991: The Farm, “Go by the narrow road”
    Published in A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997
    10. A Letter, part two
    Published in The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982
    11. The Fear of Love
    Published in The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982
    12. The Mad Farmer Revolution
    Published in The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982
    13. The Country of Marriage
    Published in The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982
    14. The Wheel
    Published in The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982
    15. The Dance
    Published in The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982
    16. Rising
    Published in The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982
    17. The Clearing
    Published in The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982
    18. Song (2)
    Published in The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982
    19. How to be a poet (to remind myself)
    Published in Given: Poems
    20. The Sycamore
    Published in The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982
    21. The Wild Geese
    Published in The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982
    22. The Satisfactions of the Mad Farmer
    Published in The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982
    23. Some Further Words
    Published in Given: Poems
    24. Window Poems
    Published in The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982
    25. Sabbath, 1982: V, “A child unborn, the coming year”
    Published in A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997
    26. My Great Grandfather’s Slaves
    Published in The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982
    27. The Morning’s News
    Published in The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982
    28. Questionnaire
    Published in The Progressive Magazine, December 2007
    29. Sabbath, 2007: I, “I dream by night the horror”
    Published in The American Poetry Review
    30. Sabbath, 1986, “Slowly, slowly, they return”
    Published in A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997
    31. The Blue Robe
    Published in Given: Poems
    32. Boone
    Published in The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982
    33. At a Country Funeral
    Published in The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982
    34. The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer
    Published in The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982
    35. Rising, part two
    Published in The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1957-1982

  5. I sure hope I get a chance to see this play. Sounds absolutely inspiring.

  6. Thanks for posting the list, Adrien.

Leave a Reply