A Belated Prequel

choral music Composer poetry wendell berry


When I visited the Berrys at their farm in 2012, I thought I had come prepared for everything. I had duplicate copies of the poems that Wendell had agreed to read. I had two different audio recording devices in case one failed. But after reading “A gracious Sabbath stood here while they stood…,” Wendell caught me off guard. “How are they going to know who they are?” he asked, referring to the “they” mentioned in the first line and throughout the poem he had just read. I shrugged. I hadn’t ever paid attention to that detail; I just loved the words and was acting on the music I heard in the text. He clarified that the subject of the poem was introduced in the poem that preceded it chronologically, and so he found his own copy of A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 and graciously read “Not again in this flesh will I see,” numbered “1985, I” in the Sabbath poems sequence. 

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This experience was a gift, though it took me several years for the creative clarity to manifest itself. As I read it, this text meditates on different kinds of losses. Some losses we can’t avoid, such as “...women and men, days and trees I will not know again,” and so we take these memories as comforts when needed. Some losses, such as what we blight with our greed and blindness, we can avoid but often don’t, and so I take these lines as a caution and reminder to act well.

This piece now forms an extended introduction to “A gracious Sabbath,” which follows it without pause (attacca in musical terms). It also means that my newest writing now flows into the first piece I wrote for the project, nearly 10 years ago. To create a more coherent connection between these two musical expressions, I decided to continue the string quartet accompaniment through both pieces, emphasizing the connection in the text as well.

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Not again in this flesh will I see
the old trees stand here as they did,
weighty creatures made of light, delight
of their making straight in them and well,
whatever blight our blindness was or made,
however thought or act might fail.

The burden of absence grows, and I pay
daily the grief I owe to love
for women and men, days and trees
I will not know again. Pray
for the world’s light thus borne away.
Pray for the little songs that wake and move.

For comfort as these lights depart,
recall again the angels of the thicket,
columbine aerial in the whelming tangle,
song drifting down, light rain, day
returning in song, the lordly Art
piecing out its humble way.

Though blindness may yet detonate in light,
ruining all, after all the years, great right
subsumed at last in paltry wrong,
what do we know? Still
the Presence that we come into with song
is here, shaping the seasons of His wild will.

Berry, Wendell. “1985, I.” A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979–1997. 1998. Washington, DC: Counterpoint Press.

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