In memory of Royce Buice (1924 – 2012) and Allie Rose Buice (1923 – 2012),
my great-great uncle and great-great aunt, who knew Hub Reece and cherished his poetry
Love is never abstract. It does not adhere to the universe or the planet or the nation or the institution or the profession, but to the singular sparrows of the street, the lilies of the field,
‘the least of these thy brethren.’
—Wendell Berry, “Word and Flesh”
I stood in paradise, no land of thrones
Nor of streets of gold, nor of harps, nor of jeweled halls,
Alone, unchallenged, in a place of stones—
Suitable setting for such a quiet as falls
On him just entering. With eager eyes
I looked, and saw the place to which I came
Was my own land…
—Byron Herbert Reece, “On Dreaming of Ascending to Paradise on Foot”
From the slopes of Blood and Slaughter Mountains, Wolf Creek flows beneath green veils of rhododendron into the Nottely River, creating a narrow valley bounded by some of the highest peaks in Appalachian Georgia. It was here in 1917, amid the fertile bottomland of creek and river and mountain shadows, that the poet Byron Herbert Reece was born.
The Cherokee had settled the valley long before and named it Choestoe—“The Land of Dancing Rabbits.” At points throughout his writing career, Reece would leave this land for residencies and teaching positions at various universities—once going as far as the University of California at Los Angeles—and for readings would travel to places near as Atlanta and far as Ohio, but he never strayed from his family’s farm for long. Choestoe and the mountains that framed it always held the poet close.
“It’s not that rabbits ever really danced here,” Reece writes in an early poem about his home, “Though sometimes in the dusk when nothing happens / We could believe they danced and wish them dancing.” Throughout the next few stanzas, the young poet illuminates his native place in ways no outsider could, describing the ridges that roll out from Blood Mountain, the “richness of fields” along Wolf Creek, and the lives of mountain people who precariously toe the lines between Appalachia and Atlanta, the nineteenth century and the twentieth.
Of all the lines in this poem, titled “Choestoe,” the finest come from the last stanza; they best exemplify the sensitivity to place that would come to characterize Reece’s later work:
And it has seemed to me by Slaughter Mountain
Deep in a cove where noon is always twilit,
Our land is summer leaves distilling bird-song.
There is magic in the way the light falls
Upon the broad leaves of the corn in summer,
Upon the herds grass in the autumn meadows
Whose seeded heads seem on a dewy morning
To rise like slow smoke from a hidden burning.
The poets who have meant the most to me have all embodied a similar devotion to place in their work. Just as one could not separate Reece from the slopes and valleys of Choestoe, one would be hard-pressed indeed to separate Emily Dickinson from the fields and orchards of Amherst, William Butler Yeats from the green cliffs of Ireland, Langston Hughes from the vitality of 1920’s Harlem, Wendell Berry from Kentucky’s marginal hillside farms, and so on.
Such devotion, I believe, stems from the appreciation of a place’s sacredness. It is significant that Wendell Berry weaves the lines “There are no unsacred places; / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places” into a poem titled “How to Be a Poet.” It would, of course, exclude a number of poems and poets to say that poetry must be rooted in place, that a poet must write with the understanding that all places are inherently sacred; but, then again, a good poem or poet that tends otherwise does not readily come to mind.
Sensitivity to the sacredness of place absolutely permeates good poetry, and Reece’s poetry is no exception. It is unfortunate, though, that this kind of sensitivity is often confined to the ambiguous, modern genre of “nature writing,” into which the poems of writers like Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, and Mary Oliver are customarily placed. But these “nature writers” are not the only heirs of Dickinson and Thoreau—and in fact these nineteenth century New England writers were themselves working with material at least as old as the Bible.
It is difficult, for example, not to hear strains of Psalm 96:12—“Let the field be joyful, and all that is therein: then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice”—when Emily Dickinson writes, in her famous lines that perfectly exemplify the sacredness of a given place, “Some keep the Sabbath going to church; / I keep it staying at home, / With a bobolink for a chorister, / And an orchard for a dome.” Appropriately, Raymond Cook, Reece’s primary biographer, once commented in an interview on the poetic ethos shared by Reece and Dickinson.
To speak of a place’s sacredness is, of course, to speak in religious terms, though such terms tend toward the mystical rather than the dogmatic. Even so, there is perhaps no greater reason for the relegation of the appreciation of sacred places to “nature writing” than the fact that religion often disintegrates to dichotomy—heaven and earth, heaven and hell, the spirit and the body, body and soul, dust and breath, good and evil, and so on. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to account for these dichotomies, it would be helpful to give some examples of poetry that do not exhibit such separation to fully appreciate Reece’s contributions to American literature, to see him as both heir to the place-based poets of the past, as inspiration for poets and readers of the present and a likely catalyst for those to come. To ease the burden of choosing, I will simply relay lines from four poets whose names I have encountered in my studies of Reece: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson (who will be accompanied by Walt Whitman, for the sake of contrast), William Butler Yeats, and Wendell Berry.
Upon the publication of The Season of Flesh, Reece’s fourth and final volume of poetry, the syndicated critic Edward M. Case called his discovery of Reece “one of the most moving and encouraging literary experiences” he’d had since he first read Gerard Manley Hopkins years before. To be sure, Reece and Hopkins are “vastly different” poets, as Case acknowledges in his review, yet the comparison is there—both in the quality of the writers’ poetry and the sacredness of place that informs it. “Pied Beauty” and “God’s Grandeur” are perhaps the best known examples that show how sacred places saturate the work of Hopkins, and these lines from “In the Valley of the Elwy” do no less:
Lovely the woods, waters, meadows, combs, vales,
All the air things wear that build this world of Wales;
Only the inmate does not correspond:
God, lover of souls, swaying considerate scales,
Complete thy creature dear O where it fails,
Being mighty a master, being a father and fond.
Hopkins could have written this in no other place, for it contains no hint of abstraction; the poet does not begin with God, but rather with a litany of the Welsh landscape and finds God therein. The failures of humanity (“thy creature dear”) are brought to a clearer light set against the loveliness of “the woods, waters, meadows, combs, vales,” yet such loveliness also points to humanity’s dearness, which suggests a kinship with creation, and re-establishes the union of the sacred and the worldly that infuses these lines. I cannot help but hear Hopkins in these lines of Reece, from a poem called “Testament”:
I make to lovely things for thanks:
The bloodroot of the March-wet wood,
The yellow susan and the banks
Of frosty asters and the rose
Bleeding with bloom from every bud;
And every broadening brook that flows…
Any study of the sacredness of place in poetry owes a certain debt to Hopkins, and this one is no exception. While Reece would have been Reece even had Hopkins chosen to remain silent within the Jesuit priesthood and never publish a line of verse, Reece, to me, does not seem so great a gift without him.
Reece’s poem “Autumn Mood,” reinforces this notion: “The leaf flies from the stricken bough, / The aster blows alone; / And in the curve of heaven now / The wild geese tread the dawn.” It is tempting to set these lines down as nothing more than lovely nature writing, or to comment on Reece’s excellent use of metaphor with the phrase “curve of heaven.” But through Hopkins, and his poetic concepts of “inscape” and “instress,” Reece’s poem becomes all the more moving. If “inscape” is the realization of one’s kinship, through the senses, with this beauty-steeped world, and “instress” the revelation of God within that beauty, then the blowing leaves and asters and wild geese are not objects of mere sentiment, but evidence of Reece’s sense of inscape—of his participation in what Hopkins called the “beauty that is past change.”
The link between Reece and Emily Dickinson, as mentioned, has been noted by Raymond Cook, Reece’s biographer. And Dickinson, perhaps more so than any other American poet, exemplifies the poetic richness that springs from place-based spirituality. In significant ways, she laid the groundwork for place-based poets like Reece, and provides the precedent and hope that Reece will one day be recognized for what he is: a “regional” poet, to be sure—a poet wedded to the landscape of north Georgia’s Blue Ridge and the greater Southeast—but, beyond that, an American poet.
While Walt Whitman may be widely regarded as the American poet, his poetry doesn’t strike me as being so rooted in place as Dickinson’s. To be sure, he writes lovingly and beautifully of various places, but he seems to do so in an effort to transcend place, to show that all places, while certainly not the same, are essentially one. These lines from “Song of Myself” are typical of this conflation of place:
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable
down by the Oconee I live,
A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest
joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth,
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deer-skin leggings, a
Louisianian or a Georgian,
A boatman over lakes or bays or along coasts, a Hoosier, Badger,
At home on Kanadian snowshoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off
At home in the fleet of ice-boats, sailing with the rest and tacking,
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine, or the Texan
Comrade of Californians, comrade of free North-Westerners…
Oddly enough—not long after delivering this expansive litany of the American landscape—Whitman writes, “I resist any thing better than my own diversity, / Breathe the air but leave plenty after me, / And am not stuck up, and am in my place [my emphasis].” But one cannot write in place while claiming, among other things, to be “at home on the hills of Vermont…or the Texan ranch.”
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
I do not mean to take my criticism of Whitman too far, for Leaves of Grass stands beside Walden as one of the books that has most enriched my life and contributed to my identity. Anytime I read from Leaves of Grass, I walk awayglad that I am a human in a world replete with wonder. Whitman is a fine model—perhaps the best American model, at least—of a poet who knows the sacredness of earthly things:
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the
And the tree-toad is chef-d’oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven…
And truly there are places in Leaves where Whitman sings, as no one else could, of his native New York:
Starting from fish-shape Paumanok where I was born,
Well-begotten, and rais’d by a perfect mother,
After roaming many lands, lover of populous pavements,
Dweller in Manahatta my city…
But, again, Whitman manifests elsewhere before too long—“on southern savannas,” or “in Dakota’s woods,” or “aware of the fresh free giver the flowing Missouri” or on a walk in Alabama watching a mockingbird tending her nest in a briar patch; he is, in that sense, only starting from Paumanock. I do not fault Whitman for this, for, as Wendell Berry writes in a critical essay titled “Poetry and Marriage,” “This is new, this confrontation with a continent needing to be realized, and we grant Whitman his liberty and his exultation; we feel ourselves free and exultant with him; we willingly forgive the absurdities that occasionally jeopardize his exuberance.” Even so, I find it difficult—perhaps even impossible—to read Leaves of Grass and get any sense of the poet’s rootedness, with the important exceptions of the New York references and the many poems that emerged from his work as a nurse in the Civil War. For the most part, Whitman seems to be both everywhere and nowhere in particular, celebrating the intricate wonder of a wren’s egg all the while surveying America’s grandeur from some mountain peak—whether of the misty Appalachians or the snow-capped Sierra-Nevada, it doesn’t seem to matter.
This is why I believe that Emily Dickinson can elucidate Reece’s poetry with greater clarity than Whitman: Where Whitman obtained his permanence writing from the outside-in—somehow painting the breadth of America without overlooking blackberry bramble, mockingbird nests, soldiers dying in hospital tents, children playing in the grass—Dickinson obtained hers writing from the inside-out, beginning with her own soul, extending that to the Connecticut Valley of central Massachusetts. Her poetry is New England to the core, and, in that sense, it is American. Where Whitman was never a “regional” writer—we would probably not know he was a New Yorker had he not told us—Dickinson and Massachusetts are inseparable. In fact, we might safely say that she worked in a much smaller context than the New England region or even the Connecticut Valley—by which I mean her household and the village and fields around it.
I do not mean, of course, to romanticize the reclusiveness that some have ascribed to her, but simply to establish the century-long connection between her and Reece. Her poems, steeped in the landscape of Amherst, manage to transcend the regional label; more than a New England poet, she is an American poet. While Whitman sounds his “barbaric yawp” and declares he is a poet of America, Dickinson and Reece do no such thing—we are left simply to gather the fact for ourselves.
But Reece—though some have championed his cause, and though I believe his status will soon shift—is still considered a “regional” writer. Yet he and Dickinson seem to me of a kindred spirit, however differently they may have formed their lines. Just as I could not imagine Dickinson’s poetry to have come from anywhere other than Amherst, so it is with Reece’s poetry and Choestoe. Both, to me, are characteristically American, though their Americana is not so expansive or declarative as Whitman’s; I sense in them something softer, much more subtle, wedded as they were to their places and the sacredness of each.
The following poems well demonstrate why Raymond Cook—and, for that matter, anyone familiar with the work of the two poets—can mention Dickinson and Reece in the same breath. Here is Dickinson on the change of winter to spring using images that could have come from nowhere other than her own landscape and religious imagination:
An altered look about the hills;
A Tyrian light the village fills;
A wider sunrise in the dawn;
A deeper twilight on the lawn;
A print of a vermillion foot;
A purple finger on the slope;
A flippant fly upon the pane;
A spider at his trade again;
An added strut in chanticleer;
A flower expected everywhere;
An axe shrill singing in the woods;
Fern-odors on untraveled roads,—
All this, and more I cannot tell,
A furtive look you know as well,
And Nicodemus’ mystery
Receives its annual reply.
The final two lines of this poem make reference to the first few verses of John 3, in which Jesus tells the Pharisee Nicodemus that to see God’s kingdom, one must be “born again,” to which Nicodemus responds, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?”
The standard interpretation of Nicodemus and his question—at least in my experience—tends to make Nicodemus into something of an innocent simpleton, a possessor of good intentions yet too dense for metaphor, a sheep in need of Christ’s instruction. But I do not see Nicodemus as a seeker with a mind paralyzed by literalism; I think he knew very well what Jesus meant by saying one must be “born again” to see God’s kingdom, and dismissed it as sentimental nonsense.
But Christ’s reply to the derision of Nicodemus sheds some light on Dickinson’s lines: “We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?” Dualistic minds from Nicodemus onward have either dismissed Christ’s words outright or turned them into a formula for getting to heaven, but perhaps it is not too much conjecture to say that I think Christ would sooner approve of the grace of Dickinson’s poem, echoed a century later by Reece in a sonnet titled “Earthly Evidence”:
Since not theology has marked it out,
Nor sages appearing through thought’s telescope
Defined beyond a shadow of a doubt
Bounds of the country of his fondest hope,
Each traveler must face into the night
With trepidation, bearing in his mind
Only hearsay directions to the bright
Country he trusts his questing foot may find.
Its name is heaven, and he has the need
For time extended past his mortal range
To prove the planting of himself. If seed
Bear in themselves their image clear of change
Safe from their burial, why not he? And hence
He bears this frail and earthly evidence.
I posit that Reece—familiar as he was with the King James Bible—had the story of Nicodemus in mind when composing “Earthly Evidence,” as Dickinson certainly did when crafting her lines on the advent of spring. But whether he did or did not proves irrelevant, for only one who sees the truth and wonder in earthly things—which, according to John’s gospel, Nicodemus had failed to do—can attempt to understand the spiritual. Dickinson saw what so confounded Nicodemus in the simple spinning of a spider; Reece saw it in a seed resting in his native soil.
Spring and rebirth figure prominently in the work of Reece, and, as with Dickinson’s poetry, these themes are deeply rooted in the sacredness of the poet’s landscape. In “The Peach in Bloom,” Reece writes of going out to plow to find, as it were, peach blooms in resurrection: “The peach blooms made a holiday / Of fragrance under every bough, / So I was hindered on my way / As I was going out to plow, / Enchanted by the simple sight / Of peach boughs blossomed overnight.” Given Reece’s craftsmanship and control of his art, I do not believe he used words like “holiday” and “enchanted” nonchalantly; rather, these words suggest something holy at work in his orchard. He points to such holiness of the land and the resurrection taking place in it in many other poems, such as “Easter”:
Easter is on the field:
With bloom their tomb unsealed
To April air.
New as the dew shake cold,
Beside their anxious dams:
Easter is on the fold.
The wonder of inscape is that it can take place anywhere—the Welsh countryside no less that central Massachusetts no less than a little north Georgia farming community called Choestoe. It was, after all, Gerard Manley Hopkins who wrote “The world [my emphasis] is charged with the grandeur of God.”
Yet if there is one place that best epitomizes such inscape—one place that is heritage for all place-based poets like Hopkins, Dickinson, and Reece—Ireland proves among the most significant. Though my maternal grandmother claims Irish lineage, I have never been to Ireland myself; even so, through what I know of that country’s literature, I sense a species of Irish gravity freighting the poems I’ve mentioned here—including those of Reece, of course one cannot properly read Irish poetry without sensing the reverence for landscape—for place—that suffuses it. John O’Donohue, the great commentator on Celtic spirituality, puts it this way:
In the Celtic world. . . there was a wonderful sense of how the visible and the invisible moved in and out of each other. In the West of Ireland, there are many stories about ghosts, spirits, or fairies who had a special association with particular places; to the mind of the local people these legends were as natural as the landscape.
Talk of Celtic legends being “natural as the landscape” calls Yeats to mind. As with all the aforementioned poets, reading his work for the first time was nothing less than formative for me, and it interests me that Reece might have thought the same. In fact—though no immediately extant scholarship supports this theory, I suggest that he read widely in Hopkins and Dickinson—Reece counted Yeats as an inspiration.
Raymond Cook notes that, while Reece was not particularly influenced “by contemporary schools or trends,” Yeats was among a handful of poets (the other two Blake and A.E. Housman) whom Reece admired. This makes sense, as Reece, though I haven’t touched upon his ballads in this essay, was primarily a balladeer; one need only browse the titles of Reece’s ballads—of which “Fox Hunters of Hell” figures prominently—to hear the Yeats in these.
Yet there is a deeper connection between the two than mere poetic form, and it is found in the enchanted landscapes both poets sensed around them. Indeed, the Kentucky poet Jesse Stuart—often credited with “discovering” Reece—found in certain Reece lines inspiration comparable to the inspiration he had discovered in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”
As early a poem as it may have been, “The Stolen Child” is practically synonymous with Yeats, for it is the first poem by him I encountered, and it—more so than Dickinson or Whitman—woke me to the possibilities of poetry:
Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams,
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
I know of no poem in the English language with a mythological narrator—in this case, a chorus of changelings—so believable, so genuine.
Yeats reveals the sacred landscape as also enchanted, and here is his value in illuminating Reece: While a kind of orthodox holiness suffuses the most mundane landscape ignites discussion about religion (think the “Nicodemus’ mystery” of Dickinson’s lines about spring), such holiness also exposes our ignorance, and thus there is a part of it that can never be orthodox. By this, I mean that while there are plenty of Christian organizations that would admit, as per Dickinson’s lines, the budding of flowers to be at least symbolically akin to Christ’s resurrection, I hardly believe one would admit to the existence of changelings as seen in “The Stolen Child.”
I do not know, of course, how many contemporary orthodox Christians would respond to this, beyond blandly saying that Yeats dabbled in the occult and such is to be expected. But, whatever the case with Yeats, Reece was no mystic. Cook reports that Reece preached in the minister’s stead at Salem Church in Choestoe on several occasions, and that
…his sermons were always simple and straightforward in the idiom of the mountain congregation, but his allusions had the purity and starkness which characterized his poetry. There was about him an air of utter simplicity, of modest delivery that made him fully accepted by the mountain folk.
The slightly patronizing reference to the congregation as “folk” notwithstanding, I detect Cook’s intention: The mountain people for whom Reece sometimes preached were conservative Christians largely intolerant of scriptural liberalism, or being told that fairies inhabited the forest. Reece knew his conservative Christian audience so well because he was one of them. I think this makes his connection to Yeats and his understanding of the sacred landscape all the more luminous.
One, for instance, can hardly imagine these lines coming from a conservative Christian preacher of any popularity today, and yet they belong to Reece, so loved by the members of Salem Church of Choestoe, Georgia in the middle of the last century:
Whenever the heart’s in trouble
Caught in the snare of the years,
And the sum of tears is double
The amount of youthful tears,
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.
These lines are to north Georgia what “The Stolen Child” is to southwestern Ireland, but where Yeats leaves no doubt of the land’s sacredness through the presence of fabled beings, Reece is a little more ambiguous. Whether the “kindred spirit moving” through Reece’s poem is the Holy Ghost of Christianity or the Cherokee’s Yunwee Chuns Dee—“little folk” said to make music on Blood Mountain—or their Nunnehee—an invisible race of people said to aid those who get lost or hurt on Blood —I cannot say; but, again, it doesn’t seem to matter, for the function of each is to pacify the lost and wearied human heart.
In “The Stolen Child,” a fairy race comes to take a child away “from a world more full of weeping” than the child can understand. And though the subject of Reece’s lyric seems to be a more willing wanderer (no supernatural race need come steal him away in the cover of night), both subjects of the poems of Yeats and Reece seem benefactors of a holy providence best encountered in the woods, whether above the falls at Glen-Car or on the slopes of Blood Mountain.
One more Yeats lyric comes to mind before leaving the connections between Reece and the Irish sensibility to place behind, and that is the poem “A Faery Song,” which, according to Yeats, was “sung by the people of Faery over Diarmuid and Grania, in their bridal sleep under a Cromlech,” and goes:
We who are old, old and gay,
O so old!
Thousands of years, thousands of years,
If all were told:
Give to these children, new from the world,
Silence and love;
And the long dew-dripping hours of the night,
And the stars above:
Give to these children, new from the world,
Rest far from men.
Is anything better, anything better?
Tell us it then:
Us who are old, old and gay,
O so old!
Thousands of years, thousands of years,
If all were told.
It is worth comparing these haunting yet peaceful lines to the following from Reece; if he had “A Faery Song” in mind while composing them, I cannot say, but what is clear is that for both poets—whether evidenced by the presence of fairies or Cherokee spirits or the Holy Ghost—the soil beneath their feet was absorbed into the holy, and the holy into it:
I give my love to earth where I
A longer, deeper sleep will take
Than when woken from when the night is by,
As I lie down to wake.
I give to earth my love, my love;
I give my love to earth to keep
Against the time, with earth above
When I lie down to sleep.
It is not my aim here, of course, to test the lines of Reece against orthodox Christianity, or orthodox Christianity against the lines of Reece; both are distinct forces in my life. I have previously mentioned that Reece often served as a lay preacher at his Methodist church, and both Reece’s biographers—Raymond Cook and Bettie Sellers—go to great lengths to place Reece within the Christian tradition of his community. An aspiring Reece scholar will immediately discover that he read and loved such books as the King James Bible and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Beyond that, and despite the claims to agnosticism toward the end of his life, Reece’s poems—with such titles as “John: A New Testament Ballad,” “Bow Down in Jericho,” “Christ Jesus Had Three Gifts from Men,” “Jehovah Blew My Shards to Form,” and so on—all reveal that Reece, albeit a wrestler of angels, wrestled them within the context of his own tradition.
Even so, to say that Reece regarded his place there in the shadow of Blood Mountain as sacred—sacred to the point of being enchanted, at least when compared to Yeats—suggests pantheism, and Reece was no pantheist. I think the word panentheist is a little more informative to the understanding of Reece, but even that phrasing—which distinguishes between nature worship and worshiping God in nature—proves rather esoteric. What is needed, I think, is a link to scripture.
One verse that unifies Reece’s understanding of worldly sacredness with that of a mystical poet like Yeats is John 12:24: “Verily, verily I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” Imagine the fairies sleeping beneath the stone cairn in the lines of Yeats, or the narrator in Reece’s poem giving his “love to earth to keep / Against the time, with earth above” when he lies “down to sleep”; to have faith in the resurrection of a seed, and to use such faith as a metaphor for sacrificial love— as Jesus does in the gospel passage—implies a wedding of the earthly and the spiritual that, I hope, would go far in establishing credibility in sacred landscapes among orthodox Christians. There is, if nothing else, an etymological connection between Christ’s sacrifice and the concept of sacred ground that I do not think is enough appreciated. To see that death leads to life—that sacrifice and sacredness ever move in a replenishing circle—is to see Christ in the physical world, and therefore to partake in the sacrament of that world.
The image of the dormant seed dying to spring forth once again is one with which Reece, as a farmer, would have been familiar (as seen already in his poem “Earthly Evidence”), and it is here that the connection to Wendell Berry, the agrarian farmer-poet from Kentucky, becomes pertinent. I do not know if Berry has ever read Reece (unlike Hopkins, Dickinson, and Yeats, Berry is after Reece’s time), but Reece scholar Jim Clark ilustrates a compelling link between the two in his essay “A Kindred Spirit Moving: The Rural Ethos of Byron Herbert Reece, Wendell Berry, and James Agee.” While Reece and Berry had somewhat different reasons for becoming farmers—Reece, says Clark, was more a farmer by “fate and circumstance,” whereas Berry, though he did come from generations of farmers, chose to farm—both clearly came to farming with a love for it by way of heritage. Both poets, in subtly distinct ways, would employ the metaphor of marriage to describe their work in writing and farming.
Both poets, though Reece never married, would also understand marriage as a sacred union, a sacrificial gift, as found within the pages of the gospels, especially within that of John. (It is significant that Berry uses John 12:24—the passage about the kernel of wheat only being able to produce fruit in its death—as the epigraph for an early poetry collection called The Country of Marriage.) And it is not a long step—if it is a step at all—from the sacredness of marriage between people to the sacredness of marriage between people and the earth. Each implies a kind of giving that enables life; without that giving, each “abideth alone.”
Consider this poem by Berry, titled “The Man Born to Farming”:
The grower of trees, the gardener, the man born to farming,
whose hands reach into the ground and sprout,
to him the soil is a divine drug. He enters into death
yearly, and comes back rejoicing. He has seen the light lie down
in the dung heap, and rise again in the corn.
His thought passes along the row ends like a mole.
What miraculous seed has he swallowed
that the unending sentence of his love flows out of his mouth
like a vine clinging in the sunlight, and like water
descending in the dark?
Here there is no clear line between seed and farmer; both, in a sense, must “fall into the ground and die” to fulfill their work.
When I first encountered Reece a few years ago, I was looking through a collection of his poetry and encountered a poem titled “The Dark and the Light.” After reading it, I scribbled “WB” in the margin of the page, for its resemblance to Berry’s work. It goes like this:
Each thing woken into light
Is of darkness, and it goes
Hence into its native night;
Yet the sun has shaped the rose.
Nothing of its genesis
Bears true testament: the vine’s
Tendril thrust through darkness is
Rooted where all creation shines.
It is, in fact, a task indeed to consider the body of both Reece’s and Berry’s poetry as it relates to John 12:24; the interplay of death and life, light and dark, giving and receiving informs just about all of it, often in the form of agricultural metaphors. Where it is possible to fail to acknowledge a place’s sacredness from a distance, that a vine thrusts its tendrils “where all creation shines” is no news to the one, poet or not, whose hands are in the dirt.
Beyond the agricultural connection between the two poets—the giving and the dying and the rebirth that informs the work of both—I sense in both Reece and Berry a deep sense of reverence for the world around them that springs directly from their religious heritage. To them, the sacred world is also the created world; there is no separation between the two. This notion, I believe—that the world is to be regarded, if for no other reason, because God made it and found it good—is orthodox to the core, and I know of no poets who express this orthodoxy so creatively as Reece and Berry. I, for example, can no longer look at water striders the same knowing these lines of Berry: “My country, ‘tis of the / drying pools along Camp Branch I sing / where the water striders walk like Christ, / all sons of God…” And this kind of grace and creaturely excellence extends also to more domestic places known by Berry, as in the poem “Her First Calf”:
Her fate seizes her and brings her
down. She is heavy with it. It
wrings her. The great weight
is heaved out of her. It eases.
She moves into what she has become,
sure in her fate now
as a fish free in the current.
She turns to the calf who has broken
out of the womb’s water and its veil.
He breathes. She licks his wet hair.
He gathers his legs under him
and rises. He stands, and his legs
wobble. After the months
of his pursuit of her, now
they meet face to face.
From the beginnings of the world
his arrival and her welcome
have been prepared. They have always
known each other.
Having witnessed the birth of my son, I cannot read such an account without emotion. There is a holiness that binds us all—the seed, the human, the water strider, the calf—to the grace of creation.
What adds to the sanctity of Berry’s lines is that they were clearly formed by a specific landscape. While water striders are common here in Georgia and elsewhere, as they are in Kentucky, Berry writes of the ones that walk on the “drying pools of Camp Branch”; they are not abstract water striders, but familiar ones—known and loved and Christ-like, no less. The same is true of the cow and the calf: Cows give birth to calves all over the world, yet one gets the impression from this poem that Berry was out in the field when this particular birth occurred. And while the allusion is not so direct as it was in the lines about the Camp Branch water striders, that the calf’s arrival and the welcome of the cow have “been prepared” since time began signifies the work of providence and rings of the prophet Isaiah: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed…A voice of one calling: ‘In the desert, prepare the way for the Lord.”
Reece often captures the same divine mystery and love in his lines that extends beyond, yet ever includes, the human. Consider the lyric “Boy and Deer,” among my most loved of Reece’s work:
Over the white, the frozen ground
With cautious step the deer came down.
The boy who had come to be
Alone with cloud and rock and tree
Suddenly saw the deer and hid
To see what that proud creature did.
But the sharp snapping of a limb
Made the proud deer aware of him.
Kindred two, each watcher stood
With perfect stillness in the wood,
Each seeing each with mild surprise,
And each with wonder in his eyes.
As with the creatures in Berry’s poems—the water striders and the cows—deer are rather common animals, yet it is not difficult to imagine Reece as a boy sitting on one of the boulders that dot the slopes of Blood Mountain watching the “proud deer” of this poem. This was a Choestoe deer, and a Choestoe boy, finding one another. As the poet Bettie Sellers writes in her biography of Reece, the poet “left a legacy of thoughtful lines natural to one who had spent his life in the closest communion with the oak tree and wild ginger, squirrels and the shy deer that roam the slopes of Blood Mountain.” To Reece, the deer was not an object, but something more akin to a brother, a fellow pilgrim in the north Georgia woods, a bearer of poems no less sacred than the ones Reece carried. Christ told the Pharisees that even the rocks would cry out if men fell silent in their praise, and Reece knew it.
I believe that Reece’s life, cut short as it was, was no less a testament to the silent sacredness that fills the woods around Blood Mountain. “Unto a speechless kingdom I / have pledged my tongue, I have given my word,” he sings, “To make the centuries-silent sky / As vocal as a bird.” And the psalmist of Choestoe continues:
The stone that aeons-long was held
As mute through me has cried aloud
Against its being bound, has spelled
Its boredom to a crowd
Of trees that leaned down low to hear
And tongue to the mute stone.
One with complaint so like their own
— I being to the trees an ear
And I being pledged to fashion speech
For all the speechless joy to find
The wonderful words that each to each
They utter in my mind.
In his introduction to John Muir’s The Mountains of California, Edward Hoagland writes that “nature writing, despite its basis in science, usually rings with rhapsody as well—a belief that nature is an expression of God,” and, for that reason, he calls nature writing “a very special and nourishing genre.” I, too, find the genre so—but, simultaneously, I often find that the labeling of certain works as “nature writing” misleading. Certainly Reece, among all the other poets and writers mentioned, writes beautifully of nature—of peaches in bloom, of herds grass rising “like slow smoke from a hidden burning,” of whitetail deer cautiously treading a snowy mountainside. Yet, as with these mentioned writers, I believe Reece contributes more to the body of American literature than merely lovely lines about the outdoors. To Reece, Choestoe was not his “material” or his “theme”; it was bound to him and he to it, and to express it as wonderfully as he did was only natural. In his best work, he proves symbiosis between humanity and nature, people and place.
Indeed, as Sellers reports, at least half of Reece’s poems rose from the landscape about him. “Whether he is writing of love or hatred, joy or despair,” writes Sellers, “he tells it in the brown rabbit hiding in the hedge near his cornfield, the wren and the mouse he saw in a house ‘abandoned by men.’” In this time when people are becoming more and more estranged from not only the natural world but their very places, I believe that Reece has something vital to offer.
In his treatise on pneumatology—the study of the Holy Spirit—Mark Wallace seeks to reground Christianity in a proper appreciation for the spirit’s work. He writes that the spirit is perhaps best understood—not as “divine intellect,” as it is typically understood in the West—but “as a healing and subversive life-form—as water, light, dove, mother, fire, breath, and wind—on the basis of different biblical and literary figurations of the spirit in nature.” Wallace goes on to establish an assiduousacademic argument for the renewing of the spirit’s importance within the Christian tradition, but I believe our poets have put it best. Sellers writes that Reece was moved by the winds blowing down Blood Mountain from ridgeline to hollow, and such is evident in his poetry. It seems to me that the breath of God that moves when Reece writes “Jehovah blew my shards to form / from chaos” is the selfsame breath blowing from Blood, as when Reece writes: “I am the wind’s worshiper. / I love the sound of the wind: / Though it never be in sight / I name it when I first hear / It soughing and sighing behind / A hill of pines in the night.” And, in the second to last stanza of the same lines, the poet continues: “O, I know the wind is more / Than movement of air unseen. / With swift invisible power / It blows to me from the door / In which the angels lean / Hour on eternal hour.”
“Breathe me, for love, in breathing the common air,” writes Reece in a poem titled “In Absence,” and continues, “Of spirit or matter, of all things find me part.” I cannot but do otherwise, for the dualities with which some would shroud the holy are nowhere to be found in the body of Reece’s poetry; there is a sacredness in his lines that binds word and flesh, poet and place.
Even when Reece takes us to heaven in his lines, we find little evidence of otherworldly religion, but rather a religion rooted in the earth. Consider “Mountain Fiddler”:
I took my fiddle
That sings and cries
To a hill in the middle
I sat at the base
Of a golden stone
In that holy place
To play alone.
I tuned the strings
And began to play,
And a crowd of wings
Were bent my way.
A voice said
Amid the stir:
‘We that were dead,
‘With purest gold
Are robed and shod,
And we behold
The face of God.
‘Our halls can show
No thing so rude
As your horsehair bow,
And your fiddlewood;
And yet can they
So well entrance
If you but play
Then we must dance!’
It is significant that Reece titles the poem “Mountain Fiddler” rather than “Heavenly Fiddler,” or something similar. Once, after Reece’s publisher encouraged him to leave Choestoe for New York and be more at the center of the literary world, Reece replied that the slopes and valleys around Blood Mountain were just as good a Penuel for wrestling angels as any other place. In fact, though beautifully put, I find this something of an understatement, for I can imagine no other Penuel for Reece than Choestoe, his sacred ground, as Penuel of the Euphrates valley was for Jacob centuries ago. When Reece wrote that he was kin to “laurel and rhododendron and granite,” he meant it.
Whatever the case, the wonder of “Mountain Fiddler” is that, while Reece indeed wrestled the angels arising from the sacredness of his landscape, he also could take to them a piece of his place—a lowly fiddle with horsehair bow—and set the heavenly hosts to dancing, as he had seen them do all his life in the rust-red leaves that rustle among the mountains in autumn, in the shivering lambs and the blossoming peach trees that stir in the Choestoe spring.
What Are People For?. New York: North Point Press, 1990. Print. p. 200
Bow Down in Jericho. Marietta, GA: Cherokee, 1985. Print. p. 134
(Note: All of Reece’s poetry collections were originally published by E.P. Dutton, New York: Ballad of the Bones and Other Poems, 1946; Bow Down in Jericho, 1950; A Song of Joy and Other Poems, 1952; The Season of Flesh, 1955. My copies, which I have referenced in these endnotes, were all reprinted by Cherokee in 1985. For those interested in reading more of Reece’s poetry, there are good samplings of his work at the ends of the Cook and Sellers biographies. I would recommend, however, starting with Fable in the Blood: The Selected Poems of Byron Herbert Reece, edited by Jim Clark, published by University of Georgia Press, 2002. Though I have not referenced it in these endnotes, Clark’s selection has been indispensable to me.)
“Choestoe.” “Reece Literary Ramble.” byronherbertreecesociety.org. Byron Herbert Reece Society, n.d. Web. 25
Given: Poems. Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2006. 18. Print. p. 18
Selected Poems and Letters of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Robert N. Linscott. New York: Anchor Books, 1959. Print. p.
“Voices: Finding Byron Herbert Reece.” Georgia Public Broadcasting. 21 Nov. 2010. Television.
Cook, Raymond A. Mountain Singer: The Life and the Legacy of Byron Herbert Reece: Poetry and Biography of a
Hill Country Genius. Atlanta: Cherokee, 1980. Print. p. 114
God’s Grandeur and Other Poems. Ed. Thomas Crofts. New York: Dover, 1995. Print. p. 20
A Song of Joy and Other Poems. Marietta, GA: Cherokee, 1985. Print. p. 97
Ballad of the Bones and Other Poems. Marietta, GA: Cherokee, 1985. Print. p. 73
This phrase is from the second to last line of “Pied Beauty” (“He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change”)
This and all other Whitman quotes from this point are from Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York: Signet
Classic, 2000. Print. pp. 37, 38, 50, 11 (ordered as quoted)
Standing by Words: Essays. Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2005. 92 – 105. Print. p. 104
Selected Poems and Letters of Emily Dickinson. Ibid. pp. 44 – 45
Bow Down in Jericho. Ibid. p. 155
A Song of Joy and Other Poems. Ibid. p. 99
The Season of Flesh. Marietta, GA: Cherokee, 1985. Print. p. 67
O’Donohue, John. Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom. New York: Harper Perennial, 2004. Print. p. 51
Cook, Raymond A. Mountain Singer: The Life and the Legacy of Byron Herbert Reece. Ibid. p. 141
Yeats, William Butler. The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. New York: Scribner Paperback
Poetry, 1996. Print. pp. 18 – 19
Cook, Raymond A. Mountain Singer: The Life and the Legacy of Byron Herbert Reece. Ibid. pp. 12 – 14
“In the Far Dark Woods Go Roving.” Bow Down in Jericho. Ibid. p. 127
Lillard, David Edwin. Appalachian Trail Names: Origins of Place Names along the AT. Mechanicsburg, PA:
Stackpole Books, 2002. Print. p. 14
Yeats, William Butler. The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. Ibid. pp. 38 – 39
Quoted Sellers, Bettie. The Bitter Berry: The Life of Byron Herbert Reece. Atlanta: Georgia Humanities Council,
1992. Print. p. 27
Clark, Jim. “A Kindred Spirit Moving: The Rural Ethos of Byron Herbert Reece, Wendell Berry, and James Agee.”
Black Earth and Ivory Tower: New American Essays from Farm and Classroom. Ed. Zachary Michael Jack.
Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2005. Print. pp. 164 – 165
Collected Poems: 1957 – 1982. New York: North Point Press, 1984. Print. p. 103
The Season of Flesh. Ibid. p. 67
“Independence Day.” Collected Poems: 1957 – 1982. Ibid. p. 116
Collected Poems: 1957 – 1982. Ibid. p. 149
Ballad of the Bones and Other Poems. Ibid. p. 77
Sellers, Bettie. The Bitter Berry: The Life of Byron Herbert Reece. Ibid. p. 27
“The Speechless Kingdom.” Bow Down in Jericho. Ibid. p. 114
Hoagland, Edward. Introduction. The Mountains of California. By John Muir. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.
Sellers, Bettie. The Bitter Berry: The Life of Byron Herbert Reece. Ibid. p. 10
Wallace, Mark I. Fragments of the Spirit: Nature, Violence, and the Renewal of Creation. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity
Press International, 2002. Print. p. 2
“Jehovah Blew My Shards to Form.” A Song of Joy and Other Poems. Ibid. p. 117
“Obsession with the Wind.” Bow Down in Jericho. Ibid. p. 119
The Season of Flesh. Ibid. p. 39
Ballad of the Bones and Other Poems. Ibid. p. 56
Faithfully Yours: The Letters of Byron Herbert Reece. Eds. Raymond A. Cook and Alan Jackson. Atlanta: Cherokee,
2007. Print. p. xiii