I couldn’t let World Poetry Day pass without posting a poem. I love so many poems that I can’t ever pick a favorite, but St. Kevin and the Blackbird is one of my favorites:
St Kevin and the Blackbird (1996)
~ Seamus Heaney
And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.
Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.
And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time
From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth
Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.
I love the line: “A prayer his body makes entirely,” not only because I think those are the only real prayers: the ones my friend makes belly-dancing; the ones I make transfixed in a garden, pouring worship out onto the trees doing photosynthesis in an act of world-making; the ones the Sufis make whirling and whirling; the ones that lovers make in bed; the ones that nursing mothers make putting nipple to mouth; the ones that poets make, putting fingers to keyboard. But also for what that line and the whole poem say about mystical experience. We can (and should!) prepare, and prepare, and prepare (kneeling, arms stretched out inside the cell, praying without ceasing, “laboring and not seeking reward,”) but then, when the mystical experience comes, it’s grace, which is always random and more special for that. Suddenly, unexpectedly, and almost against our plan, there’s a blackbird laying an egg in your hand. Who could have known? That’s maybe the perfect metaphor for grace, for mystical experience, for love.
And when it happens, there we are: forgotten self, forgotten bird, and, on the riverbank, forgotten the river’s name. But in that moment, we do know the one really important thing, the thing that’s it’s really error to forget.
What’s your favorite poem?
Picture found here.