One of the Heartland Film Festival’s 2017 offerings was a documentary about the poet and agrarian activist Wendell Berry, some of whose work was familiar to me. Before I read Heartland’s catalog description of the film, I called my friend in Louisville. “Do I remember correctly,” I asked, “that you know Wendell Berry?” Nancy Mahanes said that indeed, she did, then named for me Berry’s wife, Tanya and daughter, Mary. She also noted that Berry was a contemporary of the poets James Wright and Gary Snyder. She mentioned that because I had introduced her to those two.
I met Nancy Mahanes at the marriage of my friend, eponymously named Nancy Mahanes. The two Nancys were sisters-in-law for a period of time, and still maintain a warm relationship. Her sister-in-law has been my friend since I was a a student at Indiana University Southeast and “The other Nancy” and I began a friendship that has also lasted for decades. Nancy is an artist who, some years ago, had a show on Wendell Berry’s farm. Her connection to Berry and his family was one of the reasons that I did not want to miss “Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry.”
In the darkened theater at Castleton Square, I listened to the passionate voice of Wendell Berry reading one of his poems and watched images of someone’s fingers working the keys of an old typewriter, making imperfect impressions of letters on a sheet of paper; another person is shown locking slugs of hot type into place and onto a printing press. When a sheet is pulled from the press, it is a poem by Wendell Berry. A shock of recognition tingled within me as I watched Tanya Berry speak, for she greatly resembles Nancy. And when Tanya quoted Gary Snyder, the author of one of my favorite poems, my deep dive into Wendell Berry’s life was almost complete. After I had seen the movie, my conversation with Nancy allowed me to touch the intimate details of the lives that had loomed above me on the screen.
My friend Nancy burrows beneath the surface of things, minutely examines them; when I introduced her to the poet Gary Snyder she researched Snyder’s life and learned of his association with Berry. The two, she told me, wrote letters to each other for more than 40 years. She said that Berry’s first volumes of poetry were printed by hand, by Gray Zeitz, of Larkspur Press, information that made me understand the working hands and arms, and the printed sheets shown being examined. Nancy has a photo of herself with Tanya Berry and Tanya’s mother, and as she described it, I was able to imagine being in that artistic and poetic place with her. And when she made an oblique reference to “putting pictures away,” my heart smiled: “Looking At Pictures to be Put Away” is a poem by Gary Snyder that, long ago, I shared with Nancy.
A documentary tries to give us a picture of the subject’s passage through life, to let us see and hear the people, places and things that helped to form and inform the person. After speaking with my friend, I felt as if I’d had my hand placed on Berry’s arm, the muscles of which rose and fell as he tilled his beloved soil. Wendell Berry was dismissive of the filmmaker’s art, citing the limitations of the camera’s frame, so I took my eye from the lens and spoke to Nancy, who painted for me a broader landscape, and reinforced for me the value of both movies, and friends.
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