WHEN I FIRST HEARD that Actors Theatre of Louisville was mounting a production called Wild Blessings, adapted from the poetry of Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry, I had two immediate thoughts. The first was: I hope it isn’t terrible, that it isn’t hokey and overearnest in a way that would betray Berry’s amazing body of work. My second thought was that ATL has come a long way since the contentious theater of the late ’80s. Twenty years ago, ATL staged Arthur Kopit’s Bone-the-Fish, about which the playwright said, “I’m almost positive that it has something to offend everyone.” It apparently did. In his essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community,” Wendell Berry took exception, not to the play (which he chose not to see), but to the premise: that its purpose was to alienate members of a community. While acknowledging that art aspires to many different purposes — one being to offend — Berry maintained, “Some artists, and I am one of them, wish to live and work within a community, or within the hope of community, in a given place.”
That art can be put to the work of helping form communities seems to me one of the fundamental impulses behind Berry’s poetry. It calls us into the common experience of pleasure, work, pain, and healing. But if solidarity represents one side of Berry’s poetry, then solitude represents the other. There is, after all, a considerable amount one can learn from his fifteen volumes of poetry about how to be alone.
This, then, was one of the challenges for Marc Masterson and Adrien-Alice Hansel, who adapted Wild Blessings for the stage: to make the often solitary nature of Berry’s poetry work before an audience, a community, but also to keep alive indoors its decidedly outdoor impulses. To the latter end, the set was built to suggest the interior of Berry’s writing space — the “long-legged house” that was the title of an important early essay, a meditation on “how a place and a person come to belong to one another.” A huge video screen, bifurcated into thirty-six smaller squares, evoked the multipane window that looks out from Berry’s studio onto the Kentucky River. A larger screen, suggestive of the landscape itself, stood behind the “window” screen.
For the script of Wild Blessings, Masterson and Hansel pulled together thirty-six poems from Berry’s fifty years of poetry. Four unnamed characters — an older and a younger couple — made up the cast, along with a musician who provided a kind of one-man Greek chorus. There is no “plot” to Wild Blessings, except for the anecdotal nature of some of the poems. The actors recite them as monologues or dialogues, and in many places, the effect is quite dramatic and moving. Some of the poems are addressed to the audience; others are presented through the actors addressing each other, as in “The Country of Marriage,” one of the finest modern poems about that fragile institution. Seven of the poems in Wild Blessings employ the persona of the Mad Farmer — a contrarian figure whose critique of a predatory economy and a vapid politics has made him an outcast from “the union of power and money.” His voice is the thread that keeps reappearing throughout Wild Blessings to establish both the sovereignty of the solitary poet and the integrity, the authenticity, of the community.
The play begins with the Mad Farmer’s declaration:
To be sane in a mad time
is bad for the brain, worse
for the heart. The world
is a holy vision, had we clarity
to see it — a clarity that men
depend on men to make.
The performance felt shaky at first — the blocking too stagey, the music a bit too Hair-inspired. But then the voice of Berry the poet took over — a voice that is by turns dissenting, exultant, comic, elegiac, and sensuous. Indeed, I fear that in becoming so accustomed to thinking of Wendell Berry as a moral force (which obviously he is), we may overlook that he is also “a great relisher of the world,” a poet of appetite for the elemental, unmediated pleasures of wild strawberries, “buildings well built,” “the bodies of women in loose cotton.” “The Blue Robe,” for instance, is a damn fine love poem to Tanya Berry, “a grandmother / old friend in the morning light.” And “Wild Geese” ends with all of the actors chanting these chthonic lines:
. . . And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.
Such a sentiment points us to a place — spiritually, psychologically, geographically — to begin thinking about how the root of the word ethic (the Greek ethos) means “dwelling place.” As both Emerson and Heidegger noted in their respective treatises on poetry, the job of the modern poet is to call us back into that experience of ethical, meaningful dwelling. Wild Blessings was quite successful in conveying that powerful idea. “My purpose,” intones the older male actor, “is a language that can make us whole.”
The opposite of wholeness is separation, which Martin Luther King Jr. once called our most modern and most troublesome sin. And in many ways, we still remain very estranged from our native landscapes, our neighbors, our government, and the sources of our most basic needs. Emerson wrote that the poet’s task is to “re-attach things to nature and the whole.” In his time, Walt Whitman most successfully forged these associations; in contemporary America, our greatest poet of reattachment is Wendell Berry. His purpose is a language that can make us whole as a land community, a human community, and as the community of organisms that we sometimes call the self. Solidarity, solitude.
It is out of solitude, of course, that the poem is usually born. Outside the theater, the ATL gallery displayed an intense collection of black-and-white portraits of Berry, the solitary poet, taken by his lifelong friend, poet-photographer James Baker Hall. In a stunning writer-at-work portrait, the young Berry sits in coveralls, with boots propped up on his desk. He writes in a notebook as light pours through the large window of the long-legged house. What intrigued me most was how the photograph captures Berry’s belief that the work of the farm is allied with the work of the mind. Poem and farm — two complementary fields.
In “How to Be a Poet (to remind myself),” the older male actor instructs the younger actor: “Make a place to sit down.” The younger actor pulls up a table and chair. “Sit down.” The actor sits; the audience laughs. Is it really this easy? It isn’t. Now comes the hard part, to wait patiently for the poem, because “patience joins time / to eternity.” The older poet tells his younger self,
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
Within the context of Wild Blessings, the audience understands that the elder actor-poet is advising not only his younger self but us. We should live three-dimensioned lives, away from screens, away from all devices that obscure our own lives from ourselves. And yet, two huge screens project alternating landscapes of eastern forests and eastern strip mines throughout Wild Blessings, almost as if the images from Berry’s own work were somehow redeeming this technology, bending it to show that truly there are only sacred and desecrated places.
However, after an hour and fifteen minutes of video montage, something seemed wrong about this aspect of the production. It felt too slick, and too out of keeping with Berry’s own philosophy, his own advice to avoid the screens that blind us to the real. This seemed to me to be a contradiction within the production: at times the video image supplanted and undercut the poetic image. The actors, however, worked deftly to bring the play back to its core — the poet’s voice. When a video image of a wasted strip mine draws the Mad Farmer back onto the scene, the actor excoriates the fatuous logic of an economy grounded in “theft, usury, seduction, waste, and ruin.” Conversely, Berry’s “Sabbath poems,” written on Sundays, are august in their praise of a stand of trees, “a timbered choir, / Stout beams upholding weightless grace / Of song, a blessing on this place.” This combination of resistance and reverence builds throughout Wild Blessings, until one realizes that what the audience is being charged with is simply this: to be more fully human, to return to the authentic experience of the body and the body politic.
The performance of these poems reminds us that poetry — the breath animated through rhythm — is music, and music is the language of the body and the dance. The act of dancing itself is one of Berry’s favorite metaphors for reattachment within communities, for fidelity to person and place. Toward the end of Wild Blessings, I found myself thinking: we don’t hear enough poetry performed in this dramatic, public way — outside both the lecture hall and the coffee shop. Which is regrettable, because Wild Blessings did what Bone-the-Fish could not; it turned the audience into a community, bound by the power of Berry’s vision and the music of his poetry.
Ezra Pound once defined poetry as “the news that stays news,” and that is what was on offer at Actors Theatre. Critics have often dismissed Berry’s work as too idyllic and too idealistic — too . . . old-fashioned. I would suggest, however, that we may finally be ready for a movement I will call the New Old-Fashionism. It is an era of climate crisis and peak oil, wherein the Jeffersonian values of conservation, decentralization, and local self-sufficiency don’t look quite so “unrealistic.” To this point, Berry’s poem “Some Further Words” begins, “I am an old-fashioned man,” then builds to the line, “When I hear the stock market has fallen, / I say, ‘Long live gravity!’” That got a roar of approval from the audience. But why? Haven’t we all seen our 401(k)s take a beating? Perhaps because, as Berry wrote exactly forty years ago in The Long-Legged House, our economy, our culture, is fundamentally unsound as long as it prizes personal liberty over personal and collective responsibility, as long as it cannot imagine a future far different from these fraudulent days.
Wild Blessings offers a window into that future, into a time and a place where forests replace strip mines, where communities resemble ecosystems, and where poets show us how to take back our lives.