Review of A Place in Time: Twenty Stories of the Port William Membership, by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint Press, 2012)
This review first appeared in Issue 28: Not Forgotten
Reviewed by Thomas Schmidt
There is hope for us all. Wendell Berry at seventy-nine is still prolific, still profound, still with a grip on words as sure as Burley Coulter’s on his old hunting knife, “its handle worn smooth and pale,” which “as much belonged to his sense of himself as his two thumbs.” But when I write that there is hope for us all, I do not refer merely to aging writers who want to produce something more substantial than crossword puzzles in their golden years. Wendell Berry’s mature vision is for all ages, but especially for the young who have the time and obligation to incarnate it.
Berry’s hope is delivered in images that point to what could be and what should be.
When I received the invitation to write about this book
, I was reading expositions of Dante by Charles Williams and Dorothy L. Sayers. Neither of these writers would find it at all surprising that I would see connections between Dante and Wendell Berry, nor that I would find connections between my reading of their work and the larger purposes of my life.
For them, all stories connect, the better-crafted ones more clearly, to those with eyes to see.
For once upon a time Dante fell in love with a girl named Beatrice, and God brought him by means of this love to a higher Love, which he then inspired Dante to articulate in a remarkable poem. The breakthrough for Dante is known as the Way of Affirmation, which is to recognize images in the experiences of the natural world (or natural love) that point to their completion in the experience of God. This is a journey that begins in simplicity and must endure great complexity—perhaps great pain—in order to emerge once again in simplicity.
Along the way, one learns that not only human love but also nature, work, and community correspond and lead to ultimate truths, to bigger worlds. As Berry writes here of the beloved dead, “you remember them, because they were always living in the other, bigger world while they lived in this little one, and this one and the other one are the same.” Images connect or co-inhere in experience, in books, in the words you are reading right now in this place and time.
Wendell Berry, like Dante, is a prophet, not as a predictor of the future (although he is also that) but in the biblical sense as one who speaks God’s truth authoritatively to his generation. The reader who does not have eyes to see will dismiss him as a relic of the past, perhaps as a kind of literary Thomas Kinkade who paints word pictures of a quaint Kentucky village where nice folks tend crops and eat peach cobbler.
But Berry is another Jeremiah, denouncing the injustices of the age in precisely the same forms: poetry, prose (essays and novels)—even direct confrontation of the king (political letters). And like Jeremiah, the complexity of Berry’s vision points beyond itself to a profound simplicity that involves mere obedience. If we find this vision nostalgic, it is because we do not want to obey. We want our idols, our houses and lands, our fossil fuels, our fast food, our machines. We do not want community, staying put, love of the land, honest work with our hands.
Like the poet Dante, like the biblical Jeremiah, Wendell Berry is an old man. But it is only to our peril that we consign his wistful view of the past to the sentimentality of age. To look back is not necessarily to be backward looking, and a prophet knows that the way back is sometimes the way forward—and a difficult road to find. For Dante, who awoke in a dark wood and took a wrong turn, only a long detour through complexity brought him to the simplicity of “the love that moves the sun and other stars.” For the Jews who did not listen to Jeremiah, only exile and centuries of longing prepared them to begin again with the Messiah. Those who ignore Wendell Berry and others like him may need quite literally to run out of gas before they realize that our machines are taking us nowhere.
Will they then find themselves too far from Paradise, or Jerusalem, or Port William, to walk back to that better place?
In this collection, the very structure melds with content to convey the journey from rural Kentucky to “the bigger world” of transcendent truth. Each story title specifies a year in the life of Port William, from 1864 to 2008, suggesting along with the book’s title that a true community involves both physical location and continuity through generations. But that is not all. Many of the stories transcend their moment in that the character-narrator describes the action from mature memory or in some other way reminds the reader that all moments here co-inhere. So Burley Coulter sets off hunting with “six cold biscuits made by himself just the way they had been made by his mother and her mother and her mother.” So Art Rowanberry, walking up a long ridge to locate some calving cows, finds each place that he passes pregnant with the past, “and the living pages of his memory, as if blown or thumbed down, showed past days as they were, or perhaps as they are.” So Andy Catlett, the most autobiographical of Berry’s characters, contemplates “the country of his own life and history” and finds that “his thought can travel like a breeze over water back and forth upon the face of it. As in thought he passes backward into time, the country becomes quieter, and it seems to become larger.” Indeed, here is both the cause and effect of this remarkable collection: a mature writer from a peaceful and powerful height looks back in a manner that points the way forward.
Here, finally, is a single image that I think illustrates the book as perhaps the pinnacle of Berry’s work and vision. It is a moment in a barn. A good farmer, a simple and great man named Elton Penn, has died suddenly. The “membership” of Port William comes to his home the next day to bring food to his widow and solace to one another. Young Marcie Catlett, restless in the crowd of consolers, wanders outside until he reaches the threshold of Elton’s barn. There he receives a vision through and beyond the images that shows him what he must do, who he must be. Every word here is crafted by a master, inspired by a prophet, who would have us his readers fit for the mantle in which we must, finally, be clothed
He walked quietly, not wanting to hear his footsteps, into the doorway of the barn. And from that threshold for a time he went no farther, for Elton had clearly been at work there, probably just yesterday. The dirt floor of the driveway had been raked and swept clean as a pin. A shovel, a rake, and a heavy push broom stood leaning against the wall. And near them, hanging from a nail, was Elton’s work jacket. It hung still, still. It had not the shape of Elton’s shoulders and back and arms, but the shape only of any garment dangling from a nail.
And now a strange freedom came upon Marcie. Now he could walk freely into the barn. Now he could touch the handles of the tools. Now he could touch the jacket. And all the while he heard himself crying, for he had recognized finally the changed world.
And so the world of loss and the possibility of gain, a world that joins a larger world, begins for each of us in A Place in Time
--- Read this review in Issue 28: Not Forgotten
. Thomas Schmidt
has taught writing, literature, and religion for twenty-five years. He writes fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, including the forthcoming The Apostles after Acts: A Sequel
. He and his wife tend a small riverside farm.
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