|Issue 2:2 | Non-Fiction | Jim Clark|
One Writer’s Inspirations (on Byron Herbert Reece)
On Sundays when I was young my family would make the 40-mile trip from Cookeville, Tennessee, where we lived, to Celina, Tennessee, where both sets of my grandparents lived. Celina is located at River Mile 380, at the junction of the Obey and the Cumberland rivers, and was a major port during the steamboat years between Nashville and Burnside, Kentucky. My mother and father told great stories of the floods of their youth, and my father had vivid memories of the timber trade, when great logs were lashed together into giant rafts and floated down the Cumberland to Nashville to sell. Ten years or so before I was born the Tennessee Valley Authority built the Dale Hollow Dam which flooded both my parents’ family farms and put an end to Celina’s periodic flooding, but also to its importance as a steamboat port.
My Uncle Durell, my father’s older brother, lived on a farm on the banks of the Cumberland River, very near the confluence of the Obey and the Cumberland rivers, whose fields were a wonderland of Indian arrowheads, stone tomahawk blades, pottery shards and other strange and mysterious signs of a vanished world and its people. Whenever my uncle would plow his fields for spring planting, we would go and spend the afternoon hunting for arrowheads, competing to find the biggest, the shapeliest, the most inexplicable, the most perfect. When we would cross the bridge over the Cumberland River, heading out of Celina toward Uncle Durell’s farm, I would look to my right and see the confluence of the Obey and the Cumberland Rivers, the Obey coming in clear and cool and green, and the Cumberland all brownish and silty. Then I would look to my left, and easily within the field of my vision see the one river, becoming one color.
As a writer, such a metaphor seems almost ready made for these ruminations on my creative influences, and their confluence, which I am. Stylistic streams, fresh and clear, particulate and opaque, commingle in me, one dominant for a while, then another, and all of them flowing, circling, enriching. I carefully navigate them, float lazily upon them, cross and re-cross them in search of buried treasure. I find I hardly begin to incorporate a new influence before I see its myriad relationships to old influences with which it is unexpectedly congruent. If all this sounds rather Whitmanesque I can only admit it. Up ahead, I see my latest tributary.
I first heard of the poet and novelist Byron Herbert Reece quite by accident. I was teaching at the University of Georgia in Athens in the early 1990’s and I spent a lot of my free time driving north and roaming the hills and hollers of the North Georgia mountains. Quaint little mountain towns like Dahlonega, Blairsville, Helen, and Toccoa exerted a powerful attraction on me, and even more so state parks like Unicoi, Amicalola Falls, Black Rock Mountain, and Moccasin Creek, with their miles of steep trails and breathtaking gorges and waterfalls. Perhaps because of my childhood in the Tennessee foothills of the Smoky Mountains, one of the things I have made a point of doing in every state I have lived in is seeking out the state’s highest elevation, and so I came to know and love the vista from the observation tower on top of Brasstown Bald in Northern Georgia, and the breathless, shivery exultation I felt after climbing the trail to reach that prominence. Though I didn’t know the poem at the time, these lines from Reece’s “Roads” capture perfectly that feeling:
Therefore whatever roads repair
To cities on the plain, my own
Lead upward to the peaks; and there
I feel, pushing my ribs apart,
The wide sky entering my heart.
Just north of Brasstown Bald, off Highway 76, lies the little town of Hiawassee, nestled on the border between Georgia and North Carolina. There, on the banks of Lake Chatuge, is a campground I used to frequent, and just up the road is the site of the Georgia Mountain Fair. Sometime in the summer of 1992, while camping there, I saw signs advertising The Reach of Song, Georgia’s state historical drama, which at that time was being performed in the big warehouse-like theatre of the Georgia Mountain Fair. It seemed like a pleasant way to spend an evening, and so I went. The play, by Tom DeTitta, encompasses three decades around the time of World War II, when the modern world came careening precipitously up the mountain back roads to knock at lonely cabins and offer its alluring, ambiguous promise. The play is narrated by a character based on Byron Herbert Reece, and his poetry is woven into it. Though people have mixed opinions as to the merits of the play, having seen several other such “state historical dramas” I am of the opinion that The Reach of Song is clearly a cut above most. At any rate, the character of the narrator of the play resonated with me strongly, and lines of Reece’s poetry haunted me. I determined to find out more about this “mountain farmer/poet.”
From the two primary biographical sources available— Raymond A. Cook’s Mountain Singer: The Life and the Legacy of Byron Herbert Reece (Cherokee Pub. Co., 1980) and Bettie Sellers’ The Bitter Berry: The Life of Byron Herbert Reece (Georgia Humanities Council, 1992)— I learned that Reece was born in 1917 in a cabin on a small farm near Choestoe, in Union County, Georgia. From the mid-1940’s to the mid-1950’s, he published four volumes of poems and two novels, all with E.P. Dutton, and all receiving generally favorable reviews. His mother and father had contracted tuberculosis by the mid-1930’s, and Reece faithfully tended their mountain farm, even while accepting visiting writing positions at the University of California at Los Angeles, Emory University, and the University of Georgia. He eventually contracted the disease that killed both his parents. Depressed by his deteriorating health and the prospect of hospitalization and dependency, he took his own life on June 3, 1958, in his quarters on the campus of Young Harris College, in Northern Georgia, where he was teaching at the time. He was 40 years old.
At the height of his success, Newsweek magazine published a profile of Reece entitled “Georgia Poet” in its January 1, 1951 issue, which contains this description of the Reece farm, and of Reece as a farmer:
Reece is a working farmer. He gets up about 6 o’clock in the winter to
do with his father, Juan Reece, his share that 147½ acres require. The
farm grows potatoes, beans, corn, rye, and some fruit (cotton won’t
take hold there); and the Reeces keep 100 chickens, six milk cows,
two teams of mules, and a new Farmall tractor.
Reece’s twin loyalties to farming and writing took their toll on him, and his biographer Raymond Cook observes that “He had long since learned that there was no perfect balance to farming and writing; both had to go on at all costs.” In a 1953 article Reece wrote for the Atlanta Journal magazine, he explained the relationship using the metaphor of “marriage,” much as Kentucky farmer/poet Wendell Berry would do later:
We all have to participate in some form of marriage in this life, and
mine has been to farming and writing. The marriage contract is to
love, honor, and cherish through sickness and health. If a confession
of bigamy is implicit in my figure of speech I can only admit it, but like
the poet to Cynara I have been faithful to each in my fashion. I have
dropped work on a story to do spring plowing when the hero was on
the point of giving the villain his comeuppance. I have made the land
wait for its harvest while I finished a book.
Reece’s relationship to academia was more difficult and complex. Though it is clear that he was admired and respected as a teacher, and that the teaching he did was a source of some satisfaction to him, it is equally clear that he did it primarily because he needed the money, and that it was a considerable aggravation to him. Feeling the pressure of E.P. Dutton’s deadline for delivery of the manuscript of his second novel, Reece observes: “[W]hen I get thirty or forty papers to read and grade answers to questions nobody has any business being asked anyway, I think: My God, what am I doing here? Of course the answer is I’m doing it for money, which is not a very good reason for teaching. I lack the scholar’s impersonal interest in knowledge for its own sake, and of course I also lack the scholar’s scholarship.”
Given his rural background, and the fact that he never finished college, Reece never felt comfortable among the academic “highbrows,” as he referred to them. After his return to North Georgia from his stint as Poet-in-Residence at UCLA, he writes: “The farm seems good after a sojourn among the intellectuals who scorn anything simply stated and who have no belief in anything to pull themselves together.” “Universities,” he continues, “are such disappointing places because one demands that they fulfill his ideals for the university and they do not.” In an observation as timely now as it was in 1950, Reece concludes, “Too, steeped as Americans are in the traditions of Success which means money and position and power, the universities just can’t help treating the arts as a sort of step-child from which nothing much is expected.”
The more I read by Reece, the more impressed I was. Here was a genuine, rural mountain farmer, who, despite his difficult and rather circumscribed life, was also a genuine literary artist of considerable merit and who had, at least during his lifetime, a considerable national reputation. Reece was a compelling figure to me because of my own background and interests. I grew up on a small farm in the Upper Cumberland area of Middle Tennessee; my father was a county agent for the University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service, and my mother was a high school teacher. I graduated from Vanderbilt University, where many of my professors were students and friends of the members of the Fugitives and Agrarians who gained international fame there in the 1920’s and 1930’s for their poetry, their literary criticism, and their scathing critique of the modern industrial mindset. Literature and the land had always been strongly connected in my mind, and Reece seemed to be a perfect example of that connection.
I also saw a lot of myself in Reece. I had always aspired to a symbiotic balance of culture and agriculture in my own life, agreeing with the “folk art” vision of Fugitive poet Donald Davidson, espoused in his essay “A Mirror for Artists” in I’ll Take My Stand, that the artist is best served and nourished by an agrarian society “since only in an agrarian society does there remain much hope of a balanced life, where the arts are not luxuries to be purchased but belong as a matter of course in the routine of his living.” Likewise, I sought a balance that would embrace the best of “the modern” while holding on to whatever good age-old tradition had to offer. Today, I live on a couple of acres in the country, about six miles from Barton College, the small liberal arts school where I teach. Barton is located in Wilson, North Carolina, the self-proclaimed “Tobacco Capital of the World,” a small town on the coastal plains of eastern North Carolina. Farming is still a major means of livelihood in the region, though it is often a sad sight to see the small farmers here struggle to hold on to their heritage as they are buffeted by the maelstrom of the modern world. As for me, I have a good-size vegetable and herb garden, a small stand of dwarf fruit trees, three large dogs, and, like everyone else out here, I get my water from a well. I don’t have many close neighbors, and there are acres of fields and woods beyond my backyard that stretch back to Contentnea Creek. It’s not a farm, by a long shot, but it’s enough land to keep me busy and happy and centered.
Though Byron Reece was highly intelligent and very well read, and able to offer knowledgeable and exacting critiques of modernist poets like Eliot and Auden and of the state of modern poetry generally, he also remained intimately and practically acquainted with farming and hunting and all aspects of country life, including the influence of the language of the King James Bible and the ancient ballads handed down from generation to generation by close-knit mountain families. And just as my parents’ family farms were flooded to create Dale Hollow Lake, Reece’s home place in Choestoe, at the foot of Blood Mountain, is now covered by Lake Trahlyta, a part of the TVA’s rural electrification project completed in the early 1940’s. Finally, in poems like “The Speechless Kingdom” and “The Service of Song,” Reece articulated a poetic credo that speaks to my own sense of aesthetics and artistic purpose. “Unto a speechless kingdom I/Have pledged my tongue, I have given my word/To make the centuries-silent sky/As vocal as a bird” he declares in the former, and in the latter he concludes:
For this is the service of song:
To brighten the dim
Coin of a kingdom whose king
Lies centuries asleep,
To render the humblest thing
To memory’s keep.
As for me, I came into this world in 1954 in Livingston, Tennessee, in Overton County, shortly before Byron Reece made his exit from it. I suppose the year of anyone’s birth always seems special, pivotal, poignant, so I’ll make bold to say that it seems to me that 1954 in many ways marked the beginning of the modern world in which we still live. 1954 saw the first successful test of the hydrogen bomb, in the spectral shadow of whose mushroom cloud I existentially laughed and played, learning, absurdly, in elementary school to “duck and cover” should one explode in our vicinity. 1954 marked the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, in whose heretical, Dionysian cult I remain enthralled, believing still, on occasion, that it really can “save your soul.” It witnessed the end of the reign of terror of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the beginning of a pervasive and long-term cynicism on the part of American citizens regarding the world of politics and its denizens. It saw the Supreme Court’s final, unequivocal repudiation of “separate but equal” in Brown v. Board of Education and served as midwife to the difficult birth of the Civil Rights movement. In 1954 IBM marketed the first mass-produced computer, the IBM Type 650 EDPM, which, in large measure, officially kicked off the “computer revolution.” Boeing tested the 707, the first jet-powered transport plane. The U.S. Navy commissioned the USS Nautilus, the first atomic submarine. Well, I could go on, but back to me.
I was born in Livingston because there was no hospital in Byrdstown, in neighboring Pickett County, where my family lived and where my father was the county agent. At that time, the state of Tennessee coded its automobile license plates by numbers representing the rank, by population, of Tennessee’s ninety-five counties. Thus Memphis license plates began with the number 1, indicating that Shelby County was the largest county, population-wise, in Tennessee. Pickett County’s license plates began with 95.
Talking with people nowadays about where they were born, and where and how they grew up, it almost seems to me that I was born in another country, another century. Growing up on a farm in the wild, shaggy, sparsely populated hills of the Cumberland Plateau, in the severe and rigorous lap of the fundamentalist Church of Christ, I knew from an early age that I was “different.” My young playmates who lived in town spent their free time at the swimming pool, the roller rink, and at lawn parties in immaculately redundant subdivisions. Though I did make it into town occasionally for some party or event, mostly I roamed the endless woods and fields, kept company by my dogs and an occasional horse or cow or pig, often singing, sometimes at the top of my lungs because I could, or talking to myself, making up stories and people and worlds. As a child I was often alone, but I was never lonely, and never bored. Recording his own similar experience, Byron Reece wrote: “In the far, dark woods go roving/And find there to match your mood/A kindred spirit moving/Where the wild winds blow in the wood.”
I loved to sing hymns, especially, though more for their strong and sorrowful music than their pious lyrics. A perverse favorite was “At the Cross,” number 7 in Christian Hymns, Number Two. “Alas! and did my Savior bleed? And did my Sov’reign die? Would He devote that sacred head, For such a worm as I?” I’d bellow, while mowing the front pasture on our dusky, rose-colored Farmall Cub tractor. Isaac Watts’ great lyric of self-abasement, even though followed by a triumphant, ecstatic chorus, is an artifact of the old world. In the politically correct, self-actualized new world, the neutered modern lyrics substitute the line “For such a one as I?” The worm has indeed turned.
The hypnotic drone of the tractor, coupled with its ceaseless circling path, drew out of me Bible passages memorized in Sunday School: Job’s magnificent “Hath thou given the horse strength? Hast thou clothed his neck with thunder . . .,” or Paul’s moving disquisition on Charity, with its memorable beginning, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”
Lest anyone surmise from this that I was some sort of weird backwoods child evangelist, even if only preaching to the birds, snakes, and mice whose little abodes I leveled as the tractor wheeled inexorably, cutting its neat swath, let me hastily add that the secular was also well represented in my repertoire of field hollers and work songs. In Junior High I had an English teacher who made us memorize poems, and, unlike most everybody else, I quickly discovered I was pretty good at it. I memorized the whole of Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill,” and could induce a sort of self-hypnotic trance merely by chanting those lines about being “green and carefree, famous among the barns/About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home.” I am unashamed now to admit that, for a time at least, Leigh Hunt’s “Abou Ben Adhem” was a favorite recital piece of mine, as was John Gillespie Magee’s “High Flight,” which I memorized from a TV “short” that always seemed to air on Sundays after church, during the wonderful old “Pete Smith Specialties.” I remember a time, around 1968 or so I suppose, when I would often unironically (as best I can remember) follow my stilted, sonorous recitation of “High Flight” with a spirited rendition of Eric Burdon and The Animals’ anti-war song, “Sky Pilot” (“Sky Pilot, Sky Pilot/How high can you fly?/You never, never, never, reach the sky”), bouncing atop the tractor and singing along to my tiny, tinny AM transistor radio. My favorite songs from around that time, though, were ones that seemed to speak to my country life during those long, lazy, hazy days of summer break: Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe,” Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man,” Tony Joe White’s “Poke Salad Annie,” Neil Diamond’s “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show.”
From an early age, I knew that every situation in which I found myself, every experience I incurred, had a corresponding set of words, and those words a corresponding music. And at my best, when I was thoughtlessly but mindfully immersed in the physical and mental and spiritual flow of life, those correspondences were seamless and transparent and shimmering and whole. Experience - Word - Music was my formulation for the genesis of a poem. Small wonder, then, that a poem like Reece’s “The Mower,” with its focus on the ineluctable small core of transcendence at the heart of even so mundane a task as mowing would almost seem to be written especially for me:
Sometimes he knew, strangest unlikelihood,
Amidst the dull toil in the sweltry day
A flash of beauty to quicken his blood
A memory time could not take away.
Such was the wonder he beheld with awe
When through the dew-spray mowing at morning made
A lance of sun came piercing, and he saw
Rainbow on rainbow widening from his blade.
I eventually got to college, Tennessee Tech University, and, alas, spent less time roaming the farm in the company of myself. I met a friend, a fellow writer and free spirit from Virginia, who introduced me to the subtle, anarchic discipline of listening, really listening, to the Grateful Dead, and also to the wonders of contemporary poetry. Not “modern” poetry, like that of T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost, but poems written by real live poets like W.S. Merwin, James Dickey, Gary Snyder, Charles Bukowski, William Pitt Root, and Robert Morgan. In smoky candlelight, through odors of venison, onions, and brown rice, the Dead, echoing T.S. Eliot, sang “Shall we go, you and I while we can/Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds,” while James Dickey’s Poems 1957-1967 became a ball of light in my hands as I read:
To sing, must I feel the world’s light?
My green, graceful bones fill the air
With sleeping birds. Alone, alone
And with them I move gently.
I move at the heart of the world.
For a time I sought the primal, the unmediated. The soil in the neat furrows of a farm field smelled to me of civilization, and, yes, of its discontents. I worshipped at the altar of the Ur-; participation mystique was my game. My hair and beard grew long and my clothes ragged. I roamed as far out, or as far in, as I could, on foot, by canoe, mental traveler in a wilderness of stone, leaf mold, water, and words. I began writing poems with titles like “Baptist Ridge: Notes of a Native Son,” “Rivereyes,” and “Voices of the Forest.” With apologies to James Dickey, and for the first time ever in print, here is a verse from “Campfire,” circa 1972:
I sit in a clearing grown thick with presence.
My eyes are the eyes of the trees.
Darkness is sweeping the fire in on itself,
Becoming again the spirit of night
As my shivering cloak of night-skin
Seeks the power gone out of the fire.
Alone, cocooned within my sleeping bag,
I echo the light of the ritual moon.
“Baptist Ridge” is a geological formation in Middle Tennessee, located between Cookeville and Celina, near Hilham. But in that poem I was obviously thinking of one of my favorite biblical characters, too, John the Baptist, who grew his hair long and wore “camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle,” oblivious to societal conventions and niceties. His was “the voice of one that crieth in the wilderness.” Byron Reece’s odd, elliptical litany, “John: A New Testament Ballad,” captures his essence: “‘O who is that with raven tress/And fire-face, crying in the wilderness?’// ‘It’s John.’”
Around this time I transferred to Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, and, along with the classes required for a major in English, I began taking courses in anthropology, religious studies, and philosophy, to try and satisfy a hunger I could not name. I wanted a solid, physical spirituality, body centered, free of the straitjacket of centuries of civilized, mental religion. The names of those courses are indicative: “Ecstatic Experience in the History of Religion,” “Native American Literature and Spirituality, Psychology of Perception,” “Angelic and Demonic Themes in Twentieth-Century Literature.” I did and did not find what I was looking for. I came closer, perhaps, by losing myself in truly ecstatic events like the Grateful Dead concert I attended one fine Saturday in October.
But in those courses I did begin reading translations of Native American songs, and found in them powerful analogs and sources for poems by contemporary poets I was reading like Gary Snyder, W.S. Merwin, and William Pitt Root. These were poems with titles like “Song of Man Chipping an Arrowhead,” “Song of the Vines Ripening,” and “Song of the Taste,” as if to emphasize my earlier formulation: Experience - Word - Music. Here are two such short Native American “Dream Songs,” the first from the Papago, and the second from the Wintu:
In the great night my heart will go out,
Toward me the darkness comes rattling,
In the great night my heart will go out.
* * *
Where will you and I sleep?
At the down-turned jagged rim of the sky you and I will sleep.
In a Modern Poetry course I read Wallace Stevens’ line from “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,”— “The poem is the cry of its occasion,”— and I cried “Yes!” I included some of my own efforts in this genre in my first book of poems, Dancing on Canaan’s Ruins, poems with titles like “Song of Departure,” “Song of the Survivor,” and “Mountain Walking Songs.” Here is the first section, entitled “Nashville,” of a suite of short song-poems called “Songs from the Lost Map’s Legend”:
The air bloomed
wherever we walked.
the bright wind
that whirled in our wake?
Somehow, perhaps through the Cherokee of his own North Georgia mountains, Byron Herbert Reece arrived at this same formulation, writing poems with titles like “Song after Harvest” and “A Song for Breath.”
Through my interest in the Grateful Dead and their large, loose-knit community of northern California psychedelic, post-beat artists, writers, and characters, I discovered the emerging Bioregional movement, especially its literary manifestation, and voraciously read such writers as Edward Abbey, Ernest Callenbach, and Gary Snyder. I could hardly wait for the next edition of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, or, later, the next issue of CoEvolution Quarterly. I published poems in Katuah, the bioregional journal of Southern Appalachia. I have found that many people of my generation, at least those possessed of a social conscience, have an abiding interest in and commitment to ecological concerns. Born too late to participate in the major Civil Rights and Vietnam War protest movements of the tumultuous 1960’s (I was a twelve-year-old Tennessee farm boy during San Francisco’s “Summer of Love” and fourteen the summer of Woodstock) I embraced, in spirit at least, the decentralist, communally oriented “back to the land” movement of the early 1970’s. Ironically, it was this California-based “hippie” movement that led me back to the farm, and back to the South.
Sometime in the mid-1970’s I picked up a curious looking anthology with the even more curious title One Lord, One Faith, One Cornbread and discovered that the wild and wooly Grateful Dead/Merry Pranksters community had a Southern contingent, made up mostly of Kentucky writers like Gurney Norman, Ed McClanahan, and Wendell Berry. Though I had read and enjoyed Norman’s Divine Right’s Trip, which was serialized in The Last Whole Earth Catalog, this was my first introduction to Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer with some radically traditional ideas, who quickly became a favorite of mine. Berry’s carefully crafted, rhetorically powerful, and above all musical poems led me inexorably back, spiritually, to the land of my birth. While capable of some of the darkest and direst critiques of the excesses and the failings of modern day America (“Dark with power, we remain/the invaders of our land” are just two lines of his that speak volumes), he also attempted answers and solutions, as in poems like “The Peace of Wild Things,” “A Discipline,” and most especially, “Enriching the Earth.” And anyway, how could I possibly resist a collection of contemporary poems entitled Farming: A Hand Book? So I seem to have completed yet another circle in discovering Byron Herbert Reece, another, earlier, tradition-minded but modern “farmer-poet” who, like Berry, makes me glad to be who and what I am, a country man and a poet, and the descendant of farmers. Here is one of Reece’s finest farming poems, “Now to the Fields,” oddly reminiscent, to me, of the ecstatic section VII of Wallace Stevens’ great meditation on modern-day paganism “Sunday Morning”:
Now to the fields the bronze men rise and go
About the business of the harvesting.
The autumn sun is all the god they know
And labor all the rite of worshiping
That deity of weather. While the sun
Lamps the round dome of their enormous church
They worship, and till harvesting is done
God is no farther than the fields to search.
Whenever I encounter a new artist for the first time - whether literary, musical, or visual - my first impulse is to compare him or her to similar artists with whom I am familiar. When I first encountered the poems of Byron Herbert Reece, two writers immediately came to mind: Wendell Berry and James Agee. Berry’s relevance is perhaps the most obvious. He remains one of my three or four favorite contemporary writers and a fine example of someone who truly practices what he preaches. In his essays, fiction, and poems, he encourages people to “stay home,” as one of his poems puts it, participate in the life of the community, and practice proper stewardship of the land and other natural resources. Berry has lived, with his wife Tanya, for many years on their small farm in Kentucky, which they farm by horse power.
And yet for all my considerable admiration of Berry, his portraits of farm life sometimes seem a little studied, or mannered. The picture is sometimes too sweet and pretty, with too little acknowledgment of the sour and the ugly. Even as I write this it occurs to me that Berry is too good a writer and observer of human nature to pen a book that is anything less than complex and mixed, as human nature is, but I am speaking here of a general tendency in his fiction toward a studied optimism and a confidence in the ultimate working out of things for the good.
Reece, on the other hand, while he did often praise farm life, nevertheless seemed to wrestle with its physical demands and aggravations, especially as they tended to eat into the precious time and energy (energy that was in increasingly short supply as his tuberculosis progressed) he tried to reserve for his writing. He himself observed, to his editor at E.P. Dutton, Elliott Graham, that farming and writing both “make too many demands on your energy and time.”
Nor was he, I think, a farmer by natural inclination, but more so by fate and circumstance. One feels this sense of frustration and disquiet in lines like these from “The Travelers”:
It was not yesterday time taught,
By keeping me to fields confined,
How there may be escape in thought.
And in “The Stay-at-Home,” the poem’s speaker stoically and somewhat fatalistically takes his place
. . . with other men
Like him in bone and blood,
Who often thought of going
But had the will to stay
And turn them to their hoeing
When cocks crew up the day.
This despite the fact that,
The sounds he most regarded
Were all of passing things:
Swift waters flowing,
Winds to westward blowing,
Footsteps outward going
And wild, wandering wings.
Reece’s two novels— Better a Dinner of Herbs and, in particular, The Hawk and the Sun— also offer grimly poetic naturalistic critiques of their rural communities, as opposed to Berry’s still-evolving depiction of the relatively healthy, sane, and decent fictional community of Port William. The Hawk and the Sun, for example, tells the story of the brutal mob lynching of a presumably innocent crippled black man and the “good people’s” hypocrisy, cowardice, and general ineffectuality. Nevertheless, both Berry and Reece are authentic farmer/poets who even use the same metaphor, namely “marriage,” to describe their relationship to the land.
James Agee may seem at first and to some a strange comparison to Reece. After all, though Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and though his relations, on his father’s side at least, were mostly rural farm people, he was educated at prestigious prep schools, and, ultimately, Harvard University. Add to this the fact that he lived most of his decidedly bohemian adult life in the urban Northeast, writing for magazines such as Time, Life, Fortune, and The Nation, and the comparison begins to seem unlikely indeed. It is Agee’s writing, however, in particular his nonfiction masterpiece about the lives of tenant farmers in northern Alabama during the depression, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, that makes him a useful and enlightening comparison to Reece. That book has been called many things, but one thing it can certainly be said to be is a sort of phenomenology of farm life, or at least of tenant farm life.
One passion that Reece and Agee shared was photography, and each man’s similar comments regarding the relatively new art form reveal much about his aesthetic and artistic inclinations. In a letter to E.V. Griffith, a younger writer with whom he often corresponded, Reece, after his return to Choestoe from his stint as Poet-in-Residence at UCLA, comments on the fall color in the mountains: “The world here is so astonishingly beautiful one can hardly bear to look at it. . . . I have been taking a few color photos on Kodachrome,” he reports. “I can’t afford to shoot too many, but it is a great temptation to wreck my bank account, which wouldn’t take much doing, and record some of the beauty of the countryside.” In another letter to Griffith, a few years later, Reece describes this almost visionary moment: “The other day I drove about half way down Georgia, and suddenly I saw a filling station isolated in sharp light against the hills, and for a moment it was as beautiful as anything I ever saw and absolutely timeless. I don’t know what it meant. I know it hurt me and I was grateful for the hurt because it was proof that I am alive.”
I mention these two passages to point up the similar aesthetic and artistic vision held by both Reece and Agee. In his astonishing “Preamble” to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee writes:
For in the immediate world, everything is to be discerned, for him
who can discern it, and centrally and simply, without either dissection
into science, or digestion into art, but with the whole of consciousness,
seeking to perceive it as it stands: so that the aspect of a street in
sunlight can roar in the heart of itself as a symphony, perhaps as no
symphony can: and all of consciousness is shifted from the imagined,
the revisive, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what
“This is why,” he concludes, “the camera seems to me, next to unassisted and weaponless consciousness, the central instrument of our time.”
Near the end of his “Preamble,” Agee writes similarly of music. He advises his reader to get a phonograph or radio “capable of the most extreme loudness possible” and listen to Beethoven, or Schubert. “Turn it on as loud as you can get it,” Agee instructs, and put the speakers as close to your ears as possible, focusing exclusively on what you hear. “You won’t hear it nicely,” he says. “If it hurts you, be glad of it.” What you hear, says Agee, “is beyond any calculation savage and dangerous and murderous to all equilibrium in human life as human life is; and nothing can equal the rape it does on all that death; nothing except anything, anything in existence or dream, perceived anywhere remotely toward its true dimension.”
Reece was clearly a lover of music, as well. The oft-repeated story of the discovery of his suicide includes the detail of a phonograph in his quarters at Young Harris College playing Mozart’s Piano Sonata in D. Several of Reece’s Christmas lyrics were set to music by Kenneth Walton and published by Boosey and Hawkes, and John Vincent, director of UCLA’s department of music, asked him to write a libretto for an opera based on the old folk song “The Ballad of Little Mattie Groves.”
Reece and Agee both seemed to find mere words almost inadequate to the task of capturing “the cruel radiance of what is,” and so they sought inspiration and borrowed techniques from other arts such as photography and music. The toll exacted on both men by such a sustained effort at artistic transcendence, however, was considerable. Reece and Agee were, to one degree or another, “doomed romantics.” Both led relatively short, intense, creative lives, and while Reece took his own life, both led lives that hastened their own demises, with alcohol, tobacco, and other vices figuring prominently. Each man marched to a different drummer and detested falseness and compromise. Physically, even, Reece and Agee seem to fit the romantic stereotype, as each could be characterized as “dark and brooding.”
It would be interesting to know what Wendell Berry would make of these men, and their complex, flawed lives and art. A partial answer, and a recognition of his kinship with men such as Reece and Agee, is afforded by his poem “A Warning to My Readers,” in which he says “Do not think me gentle/because I speak in praise/of gentleness, or elegant/because I honor the grace/that keeps this world. I am/a man crude as any.” Berry concludes the poem with an acknowledgment of the difficulties inherent in being an artist, and a human being: “That I/may have spoken well/at times, is not natural./A wonder is what it is.” Neither culture, which the poem addresses, and of which the world of art is a part, nor agriculture, with its formal, orderly cycle of tilling, planting, and harvesting, is “natural,” and the wonder is that these three writers found their way to an art that hides its artistry, presenting the natural, rural world to readers in all its “cruel radiance.”
Earth Day, April 22, 2003: I have tried for some time now to find an appropriate ending to this meditation on influence and inspiration, but it has all come to naught. Like a dammed up river, my words and thoughts circle and sink, refusing to spill, their ineffectual sediment settling slowly out of sight. Around Celina, Tennessee, they tell stories about Corps of Engineers divers, working in the icy dark waters on the intake ducts near the bottom of the Dale Hollow Dam, who have paused for a moment in their work, turning at the flicker of a shivery shadow, and come face to face with monsters. Catfish, six feet long, they say. Or more. Benign giants nourished by river nutrients carried downstream to sift and settle in the still waters of the dam’s pool, their wide, whiskered faces and flat, blank eyes close enough to touch. “Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?” a voice out of a whirlwind asked Job. Risking sacrilege, I’m inclined to answer, “Maybe, just maybe.” And maybe the best way to end is by example. To those hither by whose help I’ve come, I make this small offering of an oddly shaped, glistening curio, drawn out from the depths, plowed up in the fields:
Moonrise at Dale Hollow Lake
as evening’s dark hand
stills the water
and tourists glide
like boats to their homes,
I sit with friends
on an island point
and watch the moon
dance above cedars,
across black water.
A fish rises
as though to strike
the feathered light.
Something just this side
aches in my jaw.