What happens when you dehumanize language?
POET L. R. BERGER, Wellspring House’s inaugural writer-in-residence, will read. Tuesday, 7 p.m. Belding Memorial Library, Ashfield. Her book, “The Unexpected Aviary,” received the Jane Kenyon Award for Outstanding Book of Poetry. In celebration of National Poetry Month. She will sign books after the reading. firstname.lastname@example.org. Hetty Startup photo.
On a spring night in 2003, not long after the United States military fired as many as 3,000 satellite-guided, precision missiles on the city of Baghdad within a 24 to 48 hour period, poet L. R. Berger attended a poetry reading in her home state of New Hampshire. In the wake of what the media described as a “shock and awe campaign,” the reading brought poets from all over the country to “voice what they needed to say about the impending war,” Berger explained.
Berger, a resident of Contoocook, N.H., and winner of many awards, including an NEA grant and a PEN New England Discovery Award, is the first writer-in-residence in a new, evolving program at Wellspring House, a retreat center in Ashfield founded by writers Preston and Ann Hutt Browning. Berger’s two-week residency culminates in a reading at Ashfield’s Belding Memorial Library on April 9.
Berger works with Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service, an organization dedicated to building “a more just and peaceful world” through nonviolent action and, in 2003, had been working to prevent the Iraq war. The night of the New Hampshire reading, she had no poem to bring, Berger recalled. “I felt just devastated … I felt speechless. I had no words.”
But, driving home, she began to fantasize marching into then-President George Bush’s office as “a sort of ambassador of language.” By the time she arrived home, Berger had created a fairly complete draft of “The President and the Poet Come to the Negotiating Table.”
In the poem, the word that would most outrage the poet to lose was the word “awe.”
“It felt like the penultimate crime, of all the words that I had been fighting for in that poem,” Berger said. “I think most of us have those tipping points, when something happens to things we love and the love makes us rise up.”
Like environmental writer Rachel Carson, author of “The Silent Spring,” and “The Edge of the Sea,” whose work she has studied and admires, Berger considers “awe” to be not an easy or “cozy” experience but “deeply complex.” Her collection of poems, “The Unexpected Aviary,” published by Deerbrook Editions in 2003, includes a 26-part poem, “Notes from Eagle Island,” that explores the experience of living in an old farmhouse without electricity or running water on an island off the coast of Maine.
“You could only use the word peaceful/ if you weren’t looking,” Berger writes in one poem, going on to describe the way the tide pulls her feet out from under her, burrowing them deeper into the sand.
“People think that nature is about scenery,” Berger said. “But it’s so much more complex than that. It’s about what it is to live in a quality of deep engagement where there’s really a conversation going on between crows and trees and human beings … And what it means to know that all of that is in peril. ‘The President and the Poet’ poem grows out of that,” she said.
The poem is one in a series Berger is working on that explores, “What it does to our humanity when you dehumanize language.”
“Soft target,” a military phrase used to denote an undefended target, means, “murder,” she pointed out. Or, she explained that for children growing up with no knowledge of bees, “The word ‘drone’ has only one meaning.”
The names of nuclear tests and military operations often appropriate the language of the natural world: “Operation New Dawn, Operation Blue Jay,” Berger pointed out.
“And how deeply confusing it becomes,” she continued. “In some way, it adds to the paralysis we feel because when words are separated from their true meanings, it leaves us very unbalanced.”
Reclaiming language and reconnecting to the natural world with humility may help right this imbalance. Humans tend to consider themselves “the penultimate species,” Berger said. But, “The intelligence of what’s going on around us is very humbling.”
Recently, she read of the discovery that birds, unlike humans, can see ultraviolet light. “They are seeing more than we are,” she marveled.
Being humbled by nature, Berger said, “Exposes you to your own small assumptions about yourself … And it’s magnificent. It’s magnificent to be small.”
Readings at Ashfield’s Belding Memorial Library Wednesday
L.R. Berger, Wellspring House’s inaugural Writer-in-Residence, will read on Wednesday, April 9, 7 p.m. at Belding Memorial Library, 344 Main St., Ashfield. A book signing will follow.
And on Wednesday, April 16, 7 p.m., in honor of National Poetry Month, the Library will host a Community Poetry Sharing. Bring poems of your own or poems by a favorite poet.
For more information, contact the library at 413-628-4414 or visit www.beldingmemoriallibrary.org.
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She is always looking for Franklin County poets with recent publications or interesting projects to interview for her column. She can be reached at email@example.com.