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A Georgic for Our Time

Crazy for the Good Earth

Janet Lembke

  The Mad Farmer Poems.
Wendell Berry.
Counterpoint Press, 2008.
64 pages, $25 (hardcover).
ISBN: 1458757404 (Library of Congress).
Buy at Amazon.

Rollicking, rowdy, impassioned—The Mad Farmer Poems not only exude the damp smell of newly turned earth but also are meant to be given breath, to be whispered, growled, and, most of all, shouted. We can let our voices honor Wendell Berry's heartfelt concerns.

Those concerns radiate from a Virgilian core: love of his native soil. He writes:

The growth of trees, the gardener, the man born
    to farming,
whose hands reach into the ground and sprout,
to him the soil is a divine drug.

And his Mad Farmer, a man born to the Kentucky soil sings its praises, just as Virgil lauds the soil of Italy, its crops, livestock, and seasons, in his Georgics. Berry gives a modern voice to many of Virgil's ancient perceptions. When Berry writes, in "The Satisfactions of the Mad Farmer," of "the pastures deep in clover and grass / enough, and more than enough" and of "the maidenhood of the day, / cobwebs unbroken in the dewy grass"—I hear Virgil (Book Three, lines 322-25):

But, when joyful summer at the West Wind's
    bidding sends
both sheep and goats into the woods, into the pastures,
let us go to the chilly fields as the Morning Star
rises, while the day is new, while the grass still glistens.

Berry also shares Virgil's didactic streak. The Mad Farmer intends to teach right-thinking, no matter how contrary his views may be. He laments the foolishness of burying people in coffins and vaults instead of letting their bodies return to the earth. He castigates those who look for "the quick profit, the annual raise, vacation with pay" and instructs anyone willing to listen to

Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

He knows, as Virgil did, that only at our peril do we fail to husband the land on which our lives depend.

Berry, however, is not always in dead earnest. Tenderness has its place: "Let my marriage be brought to the ground. / Let my love for this woman enrich the earth." And an antic sense of humor lets Berry's narrator play out some low-jinks. In "The Mad Farmer Revolution," our hero not only overindulges in communion wine but also does a little off-beat farming: "He plowed the churchyard, the / minister's wife, three graveyards / and a golf course."

The farmer's madness is double-edged. It lies in his rage at the earth's despoliation by concrete that traps roots and at the manmade clutter that suffocates our lives. It comes also from his knowledge that his ranting is viewed as insane by those mad enough to value quick profit and an annual raise.

The Mad Farmer Poems were originally published by Press on Scroll Road on handmade paper with handset type and silk binding in a strictly limited edition, now available only at an astronomical price. We are lucky to have this book and its engraved illustrations in Counterpoint Press's affordable version.

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