Wendell Berry’s commitment to rural life is apparent in his poetry. Many of his poems celebrate the beauty of working in and observing the natural world, and many of his elegies, particularly the second part of “Three Elegiac Poems,” are good, but two of my favorite poems are “The Cold Pane” and “The Vacation,” which this discussion log will focus on.
In “The Cold Pane,” Berry begins the poem with an abstraction: “Between the living world/ and the world of death;” he then turns the abstraction into a concrete metaphor: “is a clear, cold pane” (1-2). He does not specify what type of “pane;” however, readers can assume that it is made of glass because of the properties described.
Although glass can be found in nature as a volcanic material known as obsidian, the glass associated with a “pane” is more likely to be found in a window or a door. The image is grounded in the world of constants, not the changing natural world.
A constant provides an advantage in this poem because the division between life and death is constant: one is either dead or alive. This image is reminiscent of Pound’s “complex,” a image that exists within an instant of time that provides “liberation.” “Liberation” is achieved as Berry extends the metaphor: “a man who looks too close/ must fog it with his breath,/ or hold his breath too long” (105). This technique creates a distancing, an alienation effect, because the poem is so objective; however, readers who visualize the image will see the division between the “living world” and the “world of death” (1-2).
Another poem that interested me was “The Vacation,” which is a short narrative that employs irony. The beauty of irony is that a chuckle always emerges; however, a downside with irony exists: if one notices the irony, then one realizes that the author is using a form of derision to his or her own ends. In “The Vacation,” Berry starts the poem with the only end-stopped line: “Once there was a man who filmed his vacation” (1). The end-stopped line offers some validity to the line, but the first word–“Once”–associates the narrator’s tale as a legend. I suspect he did this to balance the division between fact and fable.
As the poem progresses, readers learn that the persona is observing the natural world with a video camera while “flying down the river in his boat” (2). To suggest that the boat is moving fast, Berry uses alliteration and assonance: “his sleek boat moved swiftly/ toward the end of his vacation” (5-6). Before the persona ends his vacation, he manages to capture it on film, and Berry suggests longetivity by using participles, including “making” and “preserving” (3-8). Even though the persona wants to preserve nature “forever” on film, no logic is offered why the man wants to immortalize nature’s temporal beauty, but the poet’s derision is present in the language: “A moving picture of the moving river/ upon which his sleek boat moved (4-5). The repetition of the word “move” becomes a bit absurd, and one can see that the poet is not interested in sympathizing with the man’s situation. As a result, the poet ridicules the man’s attempts at creating this video by repeating the verb “have” four times: “he was having it/ so that after he had had it he would still/ have it” (11-12).
Through the use of repetition, words lose their power, their significance; they become as meaningless as the Logician’s in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. Why would Berry use these poetic devices? These devices help him illustrate how ridiculous people are for trying to possess nature because nature is an entity in its own right; how people should not be concerned so much about preserving their own creations; how people should be integrated with nature, not passively watching, which Berry’s final line sums up nicely: “He would never be in it”
Berry, Wendell. The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. Washington: Counterpoint, 1998.