John Berger: Collected Poems

Novelist, draughtsman, film-maker, essayist and critic – John Berger is one of the major European intellectuals of our time. For sixty years he has been challenging the way we see the world and how we think about it, in books like Ways of Seeing, Permanent Red, To the Wedding, A Painter of Our Time, Pig Earth, Once in Europa, Lilac and Flag and From A to X. But although Berger has always written poetry, often smuggling poems inside books like The Seventh Man, The White Bird and Pages of the Wound, this is the first time his poetry has been collected in English.

Collected Poems reflects Berger’s longstanding concerns with art and politics, love and war, history and memory, emigration, immigration and the life of the European peasantry. It includes well-known poems like ‘The Ladle’, ‘Village Maternity’ and ‘Death of La Nan M.’ as well over twenty previously unpublished poems. From ‘My Coney’ (written in 1952 when Berger was just twenty-six) to ‘They Are the Last’ written in 2008, Berger the poet demonstrates an enduring commitment to the extraordinary lives of ordinary people. These are perfectly framed still-life images, sensual and plain, delicate sketches of hard lives caught between the provisional quality of language and the permanence of things. John Berger’s Collected Poems reveals its author to be a major poet of our time.

Sample Poems

Born 5/11/26

Redder every day
the leaves of the pear trees.
Tell me what is bleeding.
Not summer
for summer left early.
Not the village
for the village though drunk on its road
has not fallen.
Not my heart
for my heart bleeds no more
than the arnica flower.

Nobody has died this month
or been fortunate enough
to receive a foreign work-permit.
We fed with soup
let sleep in the barn
no more thoughts of suicide
than is normal in November.
Tell me what is bleeding
you who see in the dark.

Hands of the world
amputated by profit
bleed in
streets of bloodsheds.

1983

Self-portrait 1914-18

It seems now that I was so near to that war.
I was born eight years after it ended
When the General Strike had been defeated.

Yet I was born by Very Light and shrapnel
On duck boards
Among limbs without bodies.

I was born of the look of the dead
Swaddled in mustard gas
And fed in a dugout.

I was the groundless hope of survival
With mud between finger and thumb
Born near Abbeville.

I lived the first year of my life
Between the leaves of a pocket bible
Stuffed in a khaki haversack.

I lived the second year of my life
With three photos of a woman
Kept in a standard issue army paybook.

In the third year of my life
At 11am on November 11th 1918
I became all that was conceivable.

Before I could see
Before I could cry out
Before I could go hungry

I was the world fit for heroes to live in.

1970

Story Tellers

Writing
crouched beside death
we are his secretaries

Reading by the candle of life
we complete his ledgers

Where he ends,
my colleagues,
we start, either side of the corpse

And when we cite him
we do so
for we know the story is almost over.

1984

October

Perhaps God resembles the story tellers
loving the feeble more than
the strong
the victors less
than the stricken.
Either way
in weak late October
the forest burns
with the sunshine
of the whole vanished summer.

2004

Ladle

Pewter pock-marked
moon of the ladle
rising above the mountain
going down into the saucepan
serving generations
steaming
dredging what has grown from seed
in the garden
thickened with potato
outliving us all
on the wooden sky
of the kitchen wall

Serving mother
of the steaming pewter breast
veined by the salts
fed to her children
hungry as boars
with the evening earth
engrained around their nails
and bread the brother
serving mother

Ladle
pour the sky steaming
with the carrot sun
the stars of salt
and the grease of the pig earth
pour the sky steaming
ladle
pour soup for our days
pour sleep for the night
pour years for my children

1977

Reviews

‘These poems bleed empathy with those in our world and their children who have been dispossessed from their lands and homes.’

Race and Class

‘comprises some of the most exceptional figurative lyrical poems this reviewer has read by any English poet currently writing.’

The Recusant

‘their affirmation of the living voice stands firm in this world of constant noise and information, this world of the constant deceit of corporate and political language, as a carefully crafted attempt to bring experience into language that often rings with the clarity of the bell forged by a master.’

The Con