WENDELL BERRY has lived as a farmer and writer in Kentucky for a quarter century. In his fiction, essays and poetry, he often meditates on the human relation to the earth. His poem "The Slip" is precipitated by a disaster. A river bank has given way, leaving an acre of farmland swallowed by water. The poet gazes at the devastation and bemoans the utter loss of valued land and the dissolution of the farmer's plans for it. The poem is describing a calamity, yet a profound calm pervades it.
I'm intrigued by how Berry has pulled this off. His blank-verse voice certainly helps. Iambic pentameter is English poetry's most grounded rhythm. And all the lines run over into each other like the river overflowing the land--except for four lines that are complete sentences. These are the poem's anchors, the lines that hold the poem still at key points.
There's a calming, too, in the incantatory effect of repeated words. The river "leaves nothing" ... "nothing is there" ... "nothing will stay." "All human plans dissolve" ... "all will be lost" ... "this nothing is the seed of all." Mere repetition may not be calming. Repeated words can be hammered out, as in political rhetoric, or they can drone on in a dull discourse. What creates this poem's restorative quiet is the vision that grows within the repeated words. With each repetition, a word receives a new and increasingly biblical and salvific dimension.
This begins with a hint of the Genesis creation in "As before the beginning, nothing is there." This is the poem's second whole-sentence line. The first presented nature as a force that devours itself and leaves "nothing"--absolute negative absence. But with creation's beginning, this "nothing" gets a touch of hope. Biblical language becomes explicit when Berry describes the earth as "like a flower, so soon passeth it away." Nature's force, however devastating, becomes part of the earth's transience, which the psalms contrast to God's enduring love. In the poem, God is not named; in God's place as the renewing, staying power is "this nothing." But "nothing," instead of being a negative absence, is now filled with regenerative content: "this nothing/is the seed of all--the clear eye / of Heaven, where all the worlds appear. …