Georgics onrnMy Mindrnby R.S. GwynnrnA Timbered Choir: The SabbathrnPoems, 1979-1997rnby Wendell BerryrnWashington: Counterpoint;rn216 pp., $22.00rnThe Deed of Giftrnby Timothy MurphyrnAshland, Oregon: Story Line Press;rnno pp., $12.95rn(.i Farmer-poet” is one of those hyphenatedrnepithets that summonsrnup a vision, and for most readers ofrnAmerican poetry that vision is embodiedrnby Robert Frost, who, the legend has it,rnturned out memorable poems in sparernmoments stolen from apple-picking,rnwall-mending, and woods-stopping. ButrnFrost, despite his undeniable poeticrnstature, was never much more than arnsymbolic farmer, to borrow a phrase fromrnhis biographer, William Pritchard; hisrnimsuccessful venture as a poultrymanrnwas mercifully cut short by an inheritancernthat allowed him to go to England,rnpublish his first two books there, and returnrnhome in triumph to spend the largerrnportion of his days as a university poetin-rnresidence. As great as Frost’s poemsrnabout farming are (and the list is long),rnone gets the impression that the literalrndrama of farm life interested him lessrnthan its inexhaustible stores of metaphorrnby which he might extend and universalizernthe farmer’s experiences.rnWith Frost, the hyphen betweenrnfarmer and poet should be an arrowrnpointing toward the latter, and his case isrntypical: How you gonna keep ’em downrnon the farm after they’ve seen the ParisrnReview! Farming brings with it such potentialrnfor heartbreak that it strikes me asrnodd that, while novelists like Gather andrnSteinbeck have explored its capacity forrntragedy, only rarely in our poetry havernthe four horsemen of drought, disease,rnflood, and freeze made an appearance.rnHenry Mahan, a talented poet I knew inrngraduate school who never, to my knowledge,rnpublished a collection of verse,rnonce wrote a poem titled “The GhickenrnFarmer’s Vision of Doom”:rnDead chickens ain’t no goodrnto eat.rnNo chickens hatch from rottenrneggs-rnMy shoes are rotting off my feet.rnMy feet are rotting off my legs.rnYears ago I thought that witty, surreal,rnand preposterous, but as I drove fromrnBeaumont to Austin recently during ourrnunrelenting Texas drought and saw fieldrnafter field of parched, withered corn,rnMahan’s quatrain came back to me withrnutter seriousness. Every blasted acre representsrnyet another farmer’s dream deferred,rnif not killed outright. How manyrnprayers, in this year of El Nifio, havernbeen offered for what nature can sornabundantly provide or withhold? Andrnwhat poet has given voice to thosernprayers?rnWendell Berry has. The poems in ArnTimbered Choir originated as “Sabbathrnpoems,” meditations written over tworndecades. Sunday walks provide the occasions,rnand the appropriate themes ofrnhard-earned rest and hopes of renewalrnsurface on virtually every page. At times.rnBerry describes a stewardship of the earthrnthat is rewarded with only an overwhelmingrnsense of fatigue. In one poemrnhe reminds us that “As grist is ground tornmeal / The grinders are ground down”;rnin another,rnI climb up through the fieldrnThat my long labor has kept clear.rnProjects, plans unfulfilledrnWaylay and snatch at me likernbriars.rnFor there is no rest herernWhere ceaseless effort seems tornbe required.rnYet fails, and spirit tiresrnWith flesh, because failurernAnd weariness are surernIn all that mortal wishing hasrninspired.rnIf it were always thus, one mightrnprotest that the woods are indeed toorn”lovely, dark and deep” to resist and thatrnthe farmer-poet—”promises to keep” berndamned—is justified in burrowing into arnsnowbank. But Berry, while he neverrnlets us forget the weight of his quotidianrnchores, is equally a poet of praise. Hisrnmood is most elevated by signs of seasonalrnadvent. In one poem he stands besidern”a ragged half-dead wild plum / inrnbloom, its perfume / a moment enclosingrnme.” Even if the old tree, like the restrnof us for that matter, has few long-termrnprospects, it still causes the poet to “recognizernas a friend / the great impertinencernof beauty / that comes even to therndying.” ^rnBerry’s reputation as a social thinkerrnso far precedes him that it is at timesrndifficult to separate the poet from thernpolemicist. While many of the poemsrndisplay sure craft (the larger portion ofrnthem are metrical and rhymed) and coherentrncontent, one is left with the impressionrnof having read a lot oipoetry butrnonly a few poems. At Berry’s weakest moments,rnhis language is flat (“Wherernceaseless effort seems to be required”)rnand his lines are indistinguishable fromrnprose:rnIt is the destruction of the worldrnin our lives that drives usrnhalf insane, and more than halfrnTo destroy that which we wererngivenrnin trust: how will we bear it?rnBut at his best, in a wonderfully directrn13-page poem called “The Farm,” hernunderscores what every farmer knowsrnbut few have articulated: of all those whornlabor for the sake of permanence, thernfarmer stands most tenuously on the landrnhe works. The earth always stands readyrnto cover over the faint marks of a lifetime’srntoil. As Berry puts it.rnAnd so you make the farmrnThat must be daily madernAnd yearly made, or itrnWill not exist.rnThose who are most attracted to A TimberedrnChoir, I suspect, will come to Berryrnout of reverence for the high seriousnessrnof his message and their attractions to thernGhristian austerity of his lifestyle; thesernpoems will make few converts, but theyrnwill preach eloquently to the choir.rnTimothy Murphy may, like Berry,rnhave a trusty ax to grind, but he is determinedrnto sharpen it deliberately, withrneach stroke of the whetstone correspondingrnto an individual line, stanza, or poemrn—a care that is attested to by his waitingrnuntil his fifth decade to publish arnfull-length collection. Murphy studiedrnwith Robert Penn Warren, and he seemsrnto have taken to heart the Old Agrarian’srnlessons about the virtues of memorization:rnthe poems, which are for the mostrn32/CHRONICLESrnrnrn