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Sabbaths 2001
Wendell Berry
He wakes in darkness. All around
are sounds of stones shifting, locks
unlocking. As if some one had lifted
away a great weight, light
falls on him. He has been asleep or simply
gone. He has known a long suffering
of himself, himself shapen by the pain
of his wound of separation he now
no longer minds, for the pain is only himself
now, grown small, become a little growing
longing joy. Something teaches him
to rise, to stand and move out through
the opening the light has made.
He stands on the green hilltop amid
the cedars, the skewed stones, the earth all
opened doors. Half blind with light, he
traces with a forefinger the moss-grown
furrows of his name, hearing among the others
one woman’s cry. She is crying and laughing,
her voice a stream of silver he seems to see:
“Oh, William, honey is it you? Oh!”
Wendell Berry was born in 1934 in Henry County, Kentucky. Berry grew up on a small tobacco farm. He studied at the University of Kentucky and Stanford, and then taught writing, living for a while in New York City. In 1964, he changed course: he and his wife Tanya moved home to Kentucky. They bought a farm of their own, eventually becoming a full-time organic farmers. Berry has been a major voice for small-scale farming and agriculture as well as a writer of essays, novels, and poetry. He is also known as an environmentalist and peace activist.
Berry is a Christian, and his Christian belief infuses his writing. He has said of religion: “I tried to get along without it, because I thought I was going to be a modern person. But you can’t think about the issues [I write] about without finally having to talk about mystery…. the gospels, for me, were not a church discovery. I had to carry them into the woods and read them there in order to see my need for them.”
Today, Berry says, he does go to church, “in bad weather.” For him, poetry is a form of church-going. Beginning in 1979, Berry began writing what he calls “Sabbath poems.” On Sunday mornings, he walks out on the land, “free from the tasks and intentions of my workdays, and so my mind becomes hospitable to unintended thoughts: to what I am very willing to call inspiration.” The Sabbath poems are a kind of “spiritual practice,” rooted in Sunday and in the land that Berry works the rest of the week.
In the poem Scott read, “Sabbaths 2001,” we get an extraordinary vision. A man wakes in darkness; something is happening around him, but he does not know what; nor is he quite certain of who he is.  What is going on here? Gradually, we realize that Berry is imagining the resurrection of the dead. We are in a cemetery, and the “stones shifting, locks / unlocking” are the gravestones moving aside, the tombs opening. The “alabaster chambers” Emily Dickinson talked about in the poem we looked at last time are unlocked at last, and the sleepers awake.
The man does not know what has happened at first, or where he has been—“he has been asleep or simply / gone.” There is the memory of pain and separation: “ long suffering of himself, himself shapen by the pain / of his wound of separation he now / no longer minds.” The suffering is neither erased nor forgotten. How can it be when he is “shapen by the pain”? He would not be himself without it. But that “wound of separation” is transformed into “a little growing / longing joy.”
Darkness gives way to light. The man stands and moves into the light—notice how Berry says “something teaches him to rise.” He is not in charge here—he is obedient to an invitation from elsewhere—from God, though God is not mentioned.
The man finds himself on a “green hilltop.” Here we see a cemetery broken open: “skewed stones, the earth all / open doors.” The man turns to his own grave, and “traces with a forefinger the moss-grown furrows of his name.” He died a long time ago—perhaps centuries. At the same time, he hears voices around him—one voice in particular, “crying and laughing,” and calling out to him in recognition: “Oh, William, honey, is it you?” Only when it is spoken by someone who loves him do we learn the man’s name, “William.” And that is where this vision of the resurrection ends, with the homey and familiar language of his wife’s voice—“William, honey, is it you?” The resurrection of the dead brings reunion, not in a generic way—but with wonderful specificity.
 With its imagery of light, of open doors, and of joyful reunion, Berry’s poem reminds me of the Catholic funeral rite, which is full of those same images: “let perpetual light shine upon them… open the gates of paradise to your servants… until we all meet in Christ and are with you and with



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