Thursday, April 24, 2014


For more than thirty-five years, Wendell Berry has been writing a series of poems inspired by the solitary, reflective walks he takes around his Kentucky farm on most Sundays.  According to Berry, the Sabbath poems "are about moments when heart and mind are open and aware."  

Many of the Sabbath poems appear in This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems (2013), which I have been reading in recent days.  One poem that keeps returning to my mind is No. VI of the 1998 collection.  It's a poem that reminds us of the fluid nature of life, the impermanence of all things, and the mounting losses that every person must encounter as the price for existence.  I find it both insightful and inspirational, and hope you will as well.

                                           SABBATH VI, 1998

                                        By expenditure of hope,
                                        Intelligence, and work,
                                        You think you have it fixed.
                                        It is unfixed by rule.
                                        Within the darkness, all 
                                        Is being changed, and you
                                        Also will be changed.

                                        Now I recall to mind 
                                        A costly year:  Jane Kenyon,
                                        Bill Lippert, Philip Sherrard,
                                        All in the same spring dead,
                                        So much companionship
                                        Gone as the river goes.

                                        And my good workhorse Nick
                                        Dead, who called out to me
                                        In his conclusive pain
                                        To ask my help.  I had
                                        No help to give.  And flood
                                        Covered the cropland twice.
                                        By summer's end there are
                                        No more perfect leaves.

                                        But won't you be ashamed
                                        To count the passing year
                                        At its mere cost, your debt 
                                        Inevitably paid?
                                        For every year is costly,
                                        As you know well.  Nothing
                                        Is given that is not
                                        Taken, and nothing taken
                                        That was not first a gift.

                                        The gift is balanced by
                                         Its total loss, and yet,
                                         And yet the light breaks in,
                                         Heaven seizing its moments
                                         That are at once its own
                                         And yours.  The day ends
                                         And is unending where
                                         The summer tanager,
                                         Warbler, and vireo
                                         Sing as they move among
                                         Illuminated leaves.


  1. Oh, lord, that is beautiful. "It is unfixed by rule." What a powerful statement among so many. This is exactly what I needed to read this evening, and I thank you for it, George.

    1. Thanks so much, Teresa. Yes, like you, I found it vaguely comforting to read that "it is unfixed by rule," something we instinctively know but often resist. Hope all is well with you. I've been a bit off track with my blogging lately, but hope to kick it up a bit in the coming months.

  2. I love Wendell Berry and I have two of his books, one of which you mention here. (and thanks, for the title of my newest poem… )

    1. Thanks for the comment, Margaret. Given your love for Wendell Berry, I recommend that you check out Bill Moyers' 2013 interview with Berry at I suspect you can also find it on Youtube.

  3. I simply love the directness and unpretentiousness of this, George. Each line tells the sober, unvarnished truth — leading to the restrained epiphany at the end. I'm glad for that doubled 'and yet...', and that glimpse of timelessness and illumination.

    1. Thanks, Robert. I love the two words you have used to describe the qualities of this poem — "directness and unpretentiousness." These words also provide an apt description of the life of farming, activism, and writing that Berry has followed for most of his adult life. If you have a chance, take a look at the video of last year's interview of Berry by Bill Moyers. I've referenced it above in my response to Margaret's comments. Personally, I found it very moving and thought-provoking.

      As for the poem itself, I, too, was seized by the doubling of "and yet." That seemed to be the turning point of the poem, as it can be a turning point in our lives — a reminder that the sheer experience of being alive, of being a witness to beauty and mystery during our brief journeys, is reason enough to press forward each day, accepting as we must the losses that come our way.

  4. An impressive poet, Mr Berry.

    1. Thanks, Nick. Glad you enjoyed this. You may be interested in checking out the Bill Moyers interview with Berry mentioned above.

  5. If one has lived long enough, it is inevitable that we will experience moments of despair and hopelessness such as this. Berry does try to infuse it with light ... but not enough to elevate my mood after reading the poem. His Sabbath musings are the dark domaine of the mind, who struggles ceaselessly against the fact of impermanence. The despair and pain for us all is a result of resisting what is. Each day I try to work to reduce my resistance ... not easy after years of employing such a deep, conditionned response to the difficult givens of existence.

    What a beautiful photograph, George. A perfect image to illustrate the light's power over the dark.

    1. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, Bonnie. I agree with you entirely that resistance to the reality of the unfolding world is the source of most of our pain and suffering. That said, I found my own spirits lifted by Berry's recognition that everything taken was once a gift, and by the observation that the day not only ends, but is also "unending" in terms of the mystery and beauty that surrounds all of this impermanence.

      Thanks for the compliments on the photograph. This is the back of the property we recently moved to in the Blue Ridge foothills of upstate South Carolina.

  6. First I’m brought to a standstill by Berry’s act of Sabbath keeping itself. It is beautiful to picture him doing this, the intentionality and openness of it, on a regular basis. This is what Sabbath is for!

    The poem is very moving. No matter how much or hard he works — this farmer who more than anyone in this country represents for me hope and the will to change how we view land, crops, community — the poet will lose. He’ll lose people, animals, crops, he’ll lose himself one day. Yet in all this work and loss, like Mary Oliver, he ends echoing the praise of light and song. He doesn’t solve the problem of death and loss, or of all the despair he knows, but he is able to “rest in the grace of the world” and be free as he wrote in “The Peace of Wild Things.” If we just keep letting this light and song in, we can transcend the hard things of this world. O let us keep the Sabbath like this!

    The photo is gorgeous! How lovely that this is where you live.

    1. Thanks so much, Ruth, for your lovely, insightful comment. I share your admiration for the manner in which Wendell Berry observes the Sabbath. Though not formally religious, I have long felt that it makes great sense to dedicate at least one day a week to stillness, reflections, peace, and fasting from everything associated with speed (especially technology).

      Yes, as you say, we need to "just keep letting this light and song in." Otherwise, there is little reason to walk the earth. And thanks for reminding me of Berry's guidance on finding "rest in the grace of the world." Two wonderful ideas here — "rest," which is one of the central reasons for keeping Sabbath, and "grace," which is the foundation for a life of gratitude.

  7. What a glorious setting for just being ... looks like an absolute dream property, George.

    Going back to your post on Berry's Sabbath poems:

    ... " and yet" ... I cannot help but wonder if even the "taking", the loss, the impermanence is itself a gift. What if, in resisting the impermanence of "everything taken", we don't see that all these losses are our opportunity to awaken from the nightmare of 'not enough'? What if the mounting losses are not the price we have to pay for existence but the nudge to awaken to a reality beyond body/mind's limited view? What if the taking is not done TO us, but FOR us ... and is itself, thus, a gift?

    Just sharing where your post took my thinking. Thank you George, for your always thought-full posts that always act as treasured prompts for reflection.

    1. Thanks for the additional thoughts, Bonnie. I think you are absolutely right in your observations that the takings and losses associated with impermanence are gifts. First, as you note, they create the opportunities to wake up from our delusions about what is important in life. Second, I'm drawn to the Zen/Buddhist/Tao perspective on things — the notion that everything is unfolding as it should; that things are neither good nor bad in the larger sense of life; rather, all things work together for the creation of meaning, purpose, and growth. I'm reminded here of the Tao Te Ching teaching that you cannot become full unless your are willing to first become empty. Similarly, one cannot fully appreciate and enjoy the gift of life unless one is willing to encounter and accept that every gift will eventually be taken. As T.S. Eliot tells us in the line that remains on the banner of this blog, we are constantly "wavering between the profit and the loss, in this brief transit where the dreams cross" — hence, the name of my blog, "Transit Notes."

  8. I love your photo and also your quotations in the side panel.
    The poem is superb and I like the sound of Sabbath poems, I shall seek out this book, thanks for the mention.
    I am off to catch up with your previous posts now.

    1. Thanks so much, Cait. Glad you liked the poem, and if you're not familiar with Berry's work, I think you will like his writing. He's a farmer, environmentalist, activist, and poet, and all of these pursuits show up in his poetry.

  9. You always find the best poems for contemplation, George. I like the golden light filtering through the trees in your photo. I'm hiking in the desert of AZ just now. The cacti are blooming.

  10. Thanks, Barb. Glad you liked this poem. That light filtering through the trees is from the pasture behind our new house in South Carolina. Have a great hike in the AZ desert. You're quite amazing, Barb. One never knows where you will show up. As Hellen Keller said, "life is either a daring adventure or nothing."

  11. I intend to read this at our Poetry afternoon this coming week, George.

    1. That's terrific, Pat! Delighted to know that you will be introducing Wendell Berry to a larger audience. In his mid-eighties, Berry is still a working farmer, an environmental activist, and a productive poet. I also think you will find there is much in this particular poem to elicit an interesting discussion in your poetry group.

  12. Thanks for that. Another poet grasps at the numinous nature of birdsong. I'd not heard of tanagers or vireos before. (They may be handy next time I play scrabble!)

  13. Thanks, Dominic. Always glad to lend a hand to a scrabble player, and I also think you would like the poetry of Wendell Berry. Nice to have you back in the blogging world.