Celebrating Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry
          In the middle of Poetry Month, I’m remembering a raft of poets who continue to enrich my life – and the lives of countless others – in so many powerful ways: Scott Cairns, Raymond Carver, Maya Angelou, W.S. Merwin, W.B. Yeats, e.e. cummings, Cornelius Eady, Carolyn Forché, Donald Hall, Jane Kenyon, Langston Hughes, Galway Kinnell, Mona Van Duyn, Edward Hirsch, Martin Espinada, Mary Oliver, Wisława Szymborska, William Stafford, Stanley Kunitz, Yehuda Amichai, Denise Levertov, Adam Zagajewski, Christian Wiman, Marge Piercy, Wallace Stevens, The Psalter, Louise Glück, Walt Whitman, Czeslaw Milosz, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Countee Cullen, and, of course, always, Wendell Berry.
          I’ve heard that Wendell Berry won’t let any friends or associates form a campaign committee to get him nominated and, hopefully, chosen as a recipient for a Nobel Prize. That’s a shame on two accounts. It’s a shame that such a campaign committee should be necessary for such an award. And it’s a shame, if such a committee really is a necessity, that Berry won’t let it be formed.
          I can think of few writers in American letters as esteemed as Berry is. Author of 28 volumes of poetry, 14 books of fiction, 29 books of nonfiction, and 26 substantive introductions, prefaces, forewords, or afterwords for books by others, Wendell Berry, 81 years old, has provided galvanizing inspiration and wise guidance throughout his writing life.
          At the same time, for most of his years as an inscriber of words, he has been a horse‑drawn plough farmer and an unwavering advocate and activist for a healing stewardship of our planet home. And he has written and ploughed and advocated as a clear‑eyed, deep‑hearted person of faith, a mystery-saturated faith in community, in fidelity, in the earth, and in God. Assessments and scholarly works about his place and value as a commentator and source of inspiration are legion.
          Countless friends, colleagues, and occasional airport strangers have endured my paeans to Berry’s genius. Some have undoubtedly grown weary of my recommending his “Sabbath” poems collection, A TIMBERED CHOIR – now gathered in the more voluminous THIS DAY collection of old and new “Sabbath” poems – as a devotional masterpiece deserving of everyone’s attention.
          I’ll make a quick deal, right now, however. I’ll tone down my recommendations when Wendell Berry is in either Stockholm or Oslo receiving a Nobel Prize. It’s difficult to anticipate whether he deserves it more for literature or for peace. His contributions to both have been prodigious and profound.
– Bob Hill
© 2015, Robert Lee Hill
[This is an adapted portion from a chapter in LIFE’s TOO SHORT FOR ANYTHING BUT LOVE (Woodneath Press, 2015).]


Elevator-Up-web-695x521(1) Wake Up to the magnificent gifts and graces that are yours.

(2) Let Up on moralizing about other people’s behavior.

(3) Loosen Up and be silly once in a while.

(4) Lift Up your thanksgivings to God for who you are.

(5) Give Up trying to do everything for everyone.

(6) Stand Up for your faith and your perspectives on life.

(7) Grow Up and move beyond your pretensions of being superior.

(8) Face Up to what needs changing and change it.

(9) Open Up to the love around and within you.

(10) Dress Up however you want.

– Bob Hill

© 2016, Robert Lee HIll

(From ALL YOU NEED IS (MORE) LOVE, to be published in September 2016. For similar ruminations and reflections, see LIFE’S TOO SHORT FOR ANYTHING BUT LOVE, Woodneath Press, 2015.)


Daves Milwaukee Diner - Hotel Patee

It just may be that the American tongue constitutes one of the richest linguistic fields ever. Regional inflections delight our American ears (and others) with their quick clips and blunt gutterals (as in Maine, New York, and parts of Chicago) and their slow drawls and unabashed twangs (as in nearly all the South and most of Texas). Even more enriching are the various picturesque terminologies, sometimes verging on secret code, that imbue nearly all segments of culture.

In Perry Iowa, at the amazing Hotel Patee, one can discover an interesting lexicon associated with railroad cars.

In “Dave’s Milwaukee Diner” there, James D. Porterfield provides the following dinner menu introduction regarding railroad lingo: “One of the most picturesque aspects of dining-car lore is the strange and unique language employed by those who worked the cars. Often a code to enable communication with each other to the ignorance of those outside the service, it is also a perfect example of how jargon can offer succinct summary. Expressions were applied to passengers, to the equipment, to each other, and to the food.”

And what were some of the “coded” expressions? Listen.

HOG’s LIPS and CACKLEBERRIES: Bacon and eggs.

POSSUM BELLY: An area under the dining-car floor where extra coal for the stove, or bedding for the crew, was carried.

MR. GREEN: The newest person on a crew, also referred to as “young blood.”

GREASED: To get paid.

SNAKE: Someone who doesn’t leave a tip, as in, “That snake bit me,” or “The snakes are eating me up tonight.”

SHORTY WHITE-CAPPED and JUICY: Strawberry shortcake with whipped cream.

WATCHING TELEVISION: Doing dishes in a dishwasher with a glass window.

THE DOG HOUSE: The main refrigerator, where beef was stored.

SMOKE WAGON: A dining car in a train pulled by a steam locomotive.


What intriguing language, such a strange “succinct summary,” so very different from my non-railroad-car-riding experiences!

All of which leads me to wonder: Does our religious language seem like so much “lingo” to the uninitiated?

– Bob Hill

© 2016, Robert Lee Hill

(From ALL YOU NEED IS (MORE) LOVE, to be published in September 2016. For similar ruminations and reflections, see LIFE’S TOO SHORT FOR ANYTHING BUT LOVE, Woodneath Press, 2015.)

Will faith and prayer help finally feed all the poor?

Honored to offer a response to the question “Will faith and prayer help finally feed all the poor?” in today’s “Voices of Faith” column in The Kansas City Star, Sat., April 9, 2016, p. 2C.
Faith and prayer are the heart-and-soul dynamics motivating many a hand to feed the poor.
The seeming intractability of poverty and hunger can certainly weary the spirit. But the sacred blessings of food – for hunger’s satisfaction, proper nutrition (especially for children), and caring fellowship – can also inspire those who pray to embody acts of compassion.
Let us remember that innumerable food pantries and soup kitchens have been established by religious individuals and communities. Relief agencies like Bread for the World, Heifer International, and the Salvation Army, were likewise founded by countless faithful folks.
Faith and prayers, by themselves, however, have never filled anyone’s belly. The New Testament book of James offers a summary critique for those engaged in “talking the talk” without “walking the walk”: “If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
Thus, a crucial calculus abides between a faith of integrity and feeding the poor.
A poignant prayer from Latin America can serve as a model petition for us all: “O God, to those who have hunger, give bread; and to those who have bread, give a hunger for justice.”
With such a prayer – and sufficient time and imagination – it is feasible that all the poor could be fed, both here and around the world.
– Bob Hill
© 2016, Robert Lee Hill


Easter Sunrise 2016

“But what is Easter for?” he asked from behind Tennessee prison bars.

“What does Easter really prove?” she queried dismissively from across a banquet table.

“How do we know that Easter actually happened?” they wondered, as their eyes traced the fluttering of fireflies and the rising of campfire sparks into the nighttime sky.

Questions like these come to clergy folks all the time, from agitated agnostics, playful friends who like to question the basics of Christian belief, and earnest members of the Church. And always, every spring , when we climb to the bright summit of Easter Sunday’s great news of God’s love overcoming death, such questions rise once again.

Allow me to suggest that the main question concerning Easter is not “What is Easter for?” but rather can be recast as “WHO is Easter for?”

This is the main question to ask, since God’s gift of Jesus of Nazareth was a very personal response to our very personal needs for a very personal encounter. What the world needed, and needs still today, is not merely an abstraction which might possibly elicit an intellectual engagement of our mental processes. Rather, we yearn for a holistic response to our deepest needs, most particularly the deep need for the divine. So, let us consider “Who is Easter for?”

Easter is for those touched by hardship and hunger – for the homeless child in downtown Kansas City, for the senior citizen whose legacy of independence is shrinking, for the illiterate mother of three children who works four jobs to make ends meet, for the veterans standing forlornly at our doorways, for the kidnapped girls of Africa, for the huddled masses in every war-torn country….

Easter is for those who have battled loneliness and heartache – for the business tycoon who knows the vacuity of making material things into ultimate concerns, for the widow who miss more than words can say the one they still called “beloved,” for the janitor who sees no end to dirty floors, for the teacher who catches the early signs of defeatism in the dull eyes of a despairing young one, for the person racked by the haunting memory of early childhood abuse, for the father who watches a son grow distant and aloof, for a grandmother who sees a granddaughter enter into the valley of the shadow of death….

Easter is for those who have struggled against all the odds – for the small farmer who maintains a grand vision of a family’s stewardship of a precious piece of earth, for the attorney who helps the great and the meek with grace and caring, for the doctors and the nurses who help countless patients do battle with disease and illness, for the secretary who holds a business together with the finesse of personality and quicksilver timing, for the truck driver striving to maintain a balanced financial sheet at the end of the month and not violate weight or speed restrictions, for the painter who remains vigilantly faithful to what she envisions in her imagination, for the musician who remains consonant with the inner music he hears, for the sales representative who really does believe in the product and deals fairly, for the social activist who champions a cause which no one else will touch….

We could go on, but we need not. Simply put, Easter is for everyone! May God bless us, everyone of us, here and everywhere, during every Easter celebration and forever.

– Bob Hill
© 2016, Robert Lee Hill

[from ALL YOU NEED IS (MORE) LOVE (to be published in September 2016)]


Good Friday 2016

Even though the clouds roll in front of the sun, and the crucifixion occurs in all of its harsh brutality, and the disciples “all fall away,” and death and destruction seem to prevail all too frequently in too many lives, still we call this day “Good Friday.” Why?

Perhaps because, while things may be bad, the worst has been overcome. Perhaps because, in some mysterious way, the ultimately good purposes of God are being manifested.

Perhaps because the only way out or around is through.

Modern Psalmist – OSIP MANDELSTAM

Osip Mandelstam 2016

“For being alive, for the joy of calm breath,/tell me, who should I bless?” Normally we would expect to find lines like that in the book of Psalms in the Bible. When we discover such poetry in a modern context, our attention is arrested.

That was the case for me as I responded to a friend’s suggestion and searched for the work of Osip Mandelstam. What a gift to learn about this rare artist – poet, essayist, journalist, persecuted for his political beliefs, exiled by Stalin, sentenced to a Siberian camp where he would die at the premature age of 47.

Now, admittedly, Mandelstam is hardly a household name in the United States. Nor was he during his adult years in Russia where he lived and died, nor in Poland, the land of his birth.

And yet his poetry and poetic influence, I discovered, live on with grace and power. In his own time during the first portion of the 20th century, he would come to be acclaimed by the great artists of his generation, including one of his dearest friends, Anna Akhmatova.

Like the Psalter, Mandelstam’s words stir the imagination, quicken the impulse of gratitude, ennoble the soul. Such good, solid words. And always striving to convey a love for the world which God has given, even if and when in the midst of distress.

One of my favorite Mandelstam poems contains the following phrase: “… I love this poor earth,/ for I have not yet known another.”

Awash in the joy of reading lines like that, echoing the sentiments of the Psalms,I know Whom to bless.

© 2016, Robert Lee Hill

[from ALL YOU NEED IS (MORE) LOVE, to be published in September 2016]