Reading Through the Stacks: 10. A Sentient House

Reading through the Oakland Public Library’s poetry collection.

Findings by Wendell Berry, published in 1969.

Wendell Berry (1934-) is a novelist, essayist, poet, environmental activist, and farmer. His work is grounded in place, and the landscape of Kentucky, where he was born and has spent a large portion of his life, is very important to his work. As such, in his poetry he’s known for writing pastoral and elegiac poems. He’s been publishing poetry consistently since the 1960s, but his essays are more widely read.

Findings is a short book divided into three sections. The first and largest section is “The House,” which is structured almost like a five act play, ending with an epilogue. Although the poem is not really menacing or sinister, the sentient nature of the house and its experience of so much family death through the generations definitely gave me haunted house vibes. It’s really only the first section, “The White and Waking of the House” that fits this perception so neatly, but it was hard for me to shake that first impression even though the rest of the long poem ties more neatly into cyclical ideas of life and death and the stability of place through change.

From the ashes and lives
of the past house, this house
continues to a summiting
now-waking at hot noon
in the deadly sun’s emblazonment;

Wendell Berry, from section 3 in “The White and Waking of the House”

Even though day and night are juxtaposed here (and throughout the poem), I can’t help but feeling death and dark get more time on the page. Consider just the word “ashes” compared to lives–the “sh” of ashes lingers in the mouth, and the two syllable word takes longer to say than “lives.” Also the lives are of the past house, a past structure, a myriad of past lives–to me this reinforces a kind of haunted feeling. And then you can continue that through to the “deadly sun”–even daylight becomes menacing.

I’m not sure if other people would interpret this poem the same way, but I think it was absolutely the perfect poem to read in October–my favorite time of year to read spooky things.

But here’s a passage from the end of the first movement of the poem, which I think may be more in line with the themes on continuity through cycles elsewhere in the book:

the house
performs a substantial movement
of interiors–
each day a room,
where waking is made whole
though day proceed to day
by accident,
and succumb by necessity
to night
when the stars
verify their continuance

Wendell Berry, from section 14 in “The White and Waking of the House”

To me this passage speaks of how the places we live give meaning to life, although day to day proceeds without our say or guidance or control, the house makes life whole–purposeful. As if the purpose is the house, is the community therein. And this is just one part of this poem! Each section builds in really interesting ways, and then we move to “The Handing Down,” which is a meditation on aging, and then we end with three elegies at the end of the book. This collection gets top points for structure in my opinion.

No one needs me to say that Wendell Berry is a complex, interesting poet. I can definitely see myself spending a lot of time dissecting his work (and there’s a lot of it out there), so I can’t wait to start searching out Berry’s work and making lots of notes in the margins.

What do houses represent for you? I’d love to know what you think of this symbol in the comments!

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