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Fall 2018 · Vol. 47 No. 2 · pp. 281–284 

Book Review

The Place of Imagination: Wendell Berry and the Poetics of Community, Affection, and Identity

Joseph R. Wiebe. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2017. 272 pages.

Reviewed by Romand Coles

“We and [great works of literature] meet in imagination; by imagination we know their truth,” writes Wendell Berry (25). Truth, here, refers less to what they imagine and more to how they {282} imagine and work upon their readers’ capacities for imagination. You sense their truth through the ways they struggle to discern patterns and possible coherence in a blasted world. You sense their truth through how they exercise a regenerative love with that which is at once miraculous and terrible. Swept into their dance we might learn something about how to move less clumsily and more gracefully in relation to the distinct places and people with whom we live.

Great works are the farthest things from so much academic writing, because they work beyond the range of currency circulation and the cottage industries that fetishize the fashionable. In this regard, Joseph Wiebe’s, The Place of Imagination, is a brilliantly refreshing text that moves more responsively and generatively with Wendell Berry’s writing than any others I have read. Reflectively engaging in the difficult imaginative processes of Berry’s fictional characters and Berry himself, Wiebe incisively illuminates how we might endeavor to lean our lives into affectionate perception and responsive interaction that gradually transform violent legacies toward beloved communities. The result is a rich phenomenology of the role of dynamic imagination in processes of place-making.

From the outset Wiebe pursues a poetics that is “neither sentimental nor quaint” and thus shifts how we might engage the Port William community of Berry’s fiction. Far from reading Berry’s novels as accounts of good and settled communities—a reading that provides the terrain shared by many of his followers and critics—Wiebe rightly reads Berry through the line from William Carlos Williams that serves as the epigraph of Berry’s pivotal reflections on the racist legacy of the place he calls home in The Hidden Wound: “I am—the brutal thing itself” (33). Agrarian selves and communities are places wrought by the genocide of settler colonialism, slavery and (New) Jim Crow, exploitative relationships with the earth, and countless forms of damaged life. The land one farms, is bloody. The stories of the imaginative work of becoming community in such places—which is to say, every place—are stories of sensing and remembering both the divine and the violence that are systematically and existentially disavowed, responding with a “preemptive sympathy” and affection that generates relationships, which in turn involve obligations and creative, rectificatory action. With persistent lucidity, Wiebe illuminates Berry’s parables of “what it means to live well in wounded communities and broken places” (10). Everything depends upon using our capacities for imagination to sense the harmony beneath the chaos of places and engage the mysterious singularity of others in ways that radically reform our lives.

In Wiebe’s acknowledgments, he expresses gratitude to a “Mennonite mafia” of friends who have for years probed his work with difficult questions. One of these, in the face of an effort that extols the virtues {283} of imagining our way beyond the limits of unthinking conventions, is: “Why is routinization itself a problem?” Yet—perhaps in response to this excellent question—what Wiebe offers is not a theory of free individuality with autonomous powers to escape routine, but rather something infinitely more interesting. He conveys modes of habituating virtues conducive to a dehabituating imagination energized by intercorporeal affection and oriented toward enlivening communities that struggle to flourish in the midst of the fraught. If Berry’s ethos consists in “remaining faithful to life beyond convention” (25), it is significantly because the conventions we inherit so often sweep us unwittingly into legacies of violence, and even when they are at their least problematic they pale in comparison to the plenitude of the holy. Communities that become increasingly attuned to these complexities and paradoxes seek to cultivate virtues and experiences that significantly shape affectionate perception. Berry’s characters illuminate the radical receptivity, interpersonal struggles, and agonistic community efforts involved in doing so—the “reaching, joining, remembering, gathering: the new space of communion is constituted by these affectionate activities” (48).

Entangling his words with Berry, Wiebe summarizes: “The way forward from here is . . . downward toward the soil, to become entangled within the ‘rhythms of God’s other creatures’ and the possibilities of imagining a joining to other peoples in and through joining their lives on the ground” (48). As Wiebe’s words move with the rhythms and flows of Berry’s parables, they too become beautifully resonant with energies and efforts of making-place. The imagination moves us responsively toward and springs from place in ways too vibrant and entangled to be caught at rest.

Except, perhaps, when they are caught by a conception of place-as-locality that itself may deserve to be reimagined, sensed anew, if our imaginations are not to be stifled in ways that I think we must avoid if our communities and planet are to flourish. Immanent in every place are all the others.

I am writing this review on a rock overlooking the Pacific Ocean along the wounded coast of Australia, where twice each year I see hundreds of humpbacked whales leaping skyward, in the midst of their journeys to and from an Antarctica that is crumbling and a Great Barrier Reef that is dying—both at accelerating rates in response to global warming. Sublime and holy, they are but one charismatic species, a messenger for the countless numbers as small as atmospheric molecules, weightless seeds, and song birds that flow through and are absolutely integral to each place, immanent in so many others. On the same weekend in late June when the number of humpbacks peaked, I was in a large assembly hall with Sydney Alliance’s community organizing initiative called Voices {284} for Power, which aspires toward just renewable energy transitions in communities that suffer on the underside of global corporate markets and an Australian nationalism that is still much too white. We seek to resist planetary climate catastrophe and also to adapt in better ways to that which is already underway. The hall was packed full of immigrants and refugees—Muslims and Christians from the Middle East, Sikhs and Hindis from India, Vietnamese, Pacific Islanders, and many others. The problems voiced were as local as the elderly relatives in a nearby neighborhood who nearly died in record-breaking temperatures last summer, and as planetary as a Pakistani man who spoke of the five years left before the glacier that supplies his home community with water is gone, a Pacific Islander who spoke of unprecedented typhoons smashing her grandmother’s village, a Middle Easterner who spoke of temperatures that will make human life impossible where she is from.

In a world of global entanglements and accelerating displacement, to live well on the rock where I write, or the assembly hall, vitally involves a certain dis-placing as well as a placing of our imaginative capacities for resisting the worst and flourishing—for being involved diversely in making more than one place. An imaginary singularly oriented toward place-as-locality may, then, impede some of this indispensable work. Not in the sense that it blocks it, for it does not. But rather in the sense that it tends to focus our efforts and energies too singularly on the face-to-face, the land beneath our feet, crucial as these are. We need parables of ways of imagining that also circulate and resonate across diverse and often distant places because we need communities that do. Strictly rooted communities are, as anthropologist James Clifford has argued, a fictitious imaginary oblivious to how communities are always both rooted and routed—constituted by routes.

Wiebe offers an insightful and riveting reading of the moment in the late 1950s when Berry’s life was utterly reoriented toward a poetics of place. Berry was riding a bus through New Jersey, depressed, and the dismal landscape was not helping. Then, suddenly, he began to sense the place through recently read poems of William Carlos Williams, who had affectionately imagined a relationship to it that was, for Williams, the way of homing. From this experience, Berry and Wiebe illuminate the vitality of imaginative life ways of becoming rooted. And I love that they do. We must. But I also think we must tarry further with the fact that this rich striving comes from another place, moving on a bus, and with this routing allows our imaginations and lives to vastly extend and complicate the “place” and work of human communities. This, I believe, is entirely in keeping with the spirit of Wiebe’s wonderful first book.

Romand Coles
Australian Catholic University

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