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includes well-known poems like ‘The Ladle’, ‘Village Maternity’ and ‘Death of La Nan M.’ as well over twenty previously unpublished poems.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.
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
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
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
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
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
‘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.’
‘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.’