by Seamus Heaney
St. Kevin and the Blackbird
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 labor 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.
— Seamus Heaney
Notes from 2014
How achingly lovely is this poem?
It’s based on an old Irish legend that Heaney retells to perfection. The vivid imagery of the first section holds you hostage. You are captive in the cramped cell of this verse with its kneeling saint, its window, and that single upturned palm. Then the arrival of the bird!
Hard to read these lines and keep your hands from tingling. Such a precise description that for a moment it is the reader’s hand that cradles the nesting bird. It is the reader who has with the arrival of this winged legend, been linked into “the network of eternal life” [what a stately phrase.] Then the birth of an astonishing commitment, so casually announced: “Until the young are hatched, and fledged and flown.” The exacting implications and plainness of the vow confuse the reader, and require a moment to recover from. How thoughtful Heaney’s placement of that starry asterisk * A beat, in which to find the ground again.
And how masterfully the storyteller shifts the tone directly after. Lifting the curtain to tease out the truth that lurks beneath the mythical. Introducing the paradox of seeking out the real in the realm of the imagination. We must try to put ourselves in the skin of the saint. And doing this, are shown a fork in the road — does our inhabitation of the holy introduce our rickety mortality to the saint, or does it elevate us into his transcendent experience? Heaney gives us both possibilities to live. And how.
He gives us the sore forearms and the suffering knees. He gives us too, the numb lostness, the creep of the underearth. We, in all our unsaintliness, know exactly what this feels like. Because while we may have never incubated blackbird’s eggs in the hollow of our palms, it is still given to us to extrapolate. We know what it is to have pins-and-needles.
“Is there distance in his head?” And again the poem makes a beautifully abrupt turn. From the physical to the metaphysical. A question that places distance like an object as a possibility in someone’s head. And the beauty of it is that we know instinctively what that means. To feel the stretch of miles in the mind. The spaciousness that can sometimes be stumbled into. “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space…” said Shakespeare’s Hamlet [only to conclude that sentiment with the brilliant, mortal confession,”…were it not that I have bad dreams.“]
But Kevin’s dreams are cloudless. His heart mirrored undistorted in love’s river. His prayer unsullied and transparent, “To labor and not to seek reward.” The timeless essence of the Gita reborn on the lips of an Irish saint. An un-compartmentalized aspiration, issued not from lips or mind, but the wholeness of his being.
And then those bewitching last lines–
“For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.”
And we standing in our own skin full of mistakes and memories and self, we experience what the poet relies on us to experience. We experience what St. Kevin in his transcendent oblivion cannot: The resplendence of our forgetfulness. The forgetfulness that is at once and always too, our ultimate remembrance.
Heaney reading his poem
April 20th, 2023 at 12:51 pm
The poem by Seamus Heaney and your description of it both take my breath away. Thank you Pavi for these images that will not fade.