St. Kevin and the Blackbird
by 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 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.
How achingly lovely is this poem? It’s based on an Irish legend nearly 1000 years old, 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 holds the nesting bird. And it is the reader who has, with the arrival of this winged legend, been linked into “the network of eternal life” [what a magnificent phrase]. And then the birth of that breathtakingly generous commitment so quietly announced. “Until the young are hatched, and fledged and flown.” A softly stunning line that requires a moment to recover from. How thoughtful Heaney’s placement then, 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. And we, in all our unsaintliness, know exactly what this feels like. Because while we may have never incubated blackbird’s eggs in the hollows of our palms, we can 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 an inner expanse that is not an attenuation [Remember St Augustine’s claim: time is the distension of the mind.] The spaciousness that does not stretch, that is one with timelessness and 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, and being no saint he concluded the sentiment with “…were it not that I have bad dreams.” But Kevin’s dreams are unclouded. His heart mirrored undistorted in the river. His prayer untainted and transparent, “To labor and not to seek reward.” An aspiration that mirrors the pith of the Gita:”You are entitled to your labor, not to the fruit of your labor.” An aspiration that issues forth not from mind or lips but from the entirety of his being– and then those lovely, lovely last lines:
“For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.”
And we, standing again in the skin of our own lives, full of mistakes and memories and self, we know, as the poet relies on us to know, what St. Kevin does not. That the river’s name, of course, is Love.
Heaney reading St. Kevin at the offices of his publishers, on the occasion of his 70th birthday.
“[This poem is] based on a sense of doing the right thing for the reward of doing the right thing. And I think that a literary publishing house which continues to hold those values is in that domain of a self belief and faith and chosen values opted for and stood by. Publishing is to some extent still, and to a great extent here I think, a labor of love, and a matter of work for the right reason, and–even if you aren’t going to get any great monetary reward–to keep going.”