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 labour and not to seek reward,' he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bid
And on the riverbank forgotten the river's name.
Seamus Heaney 1996
Finishing this poem, I am reminded of a quote by (I think!) Frank O'Hara: "A poem should leave its readers distressed, / curious, and ready to believe / It is curious to be alive." What draw me in are Heaney's care and affection with language (something he is ever capable of), the deft with which he invites the reader into the poem, and his treatment of skepticism and prayer within the poem.
In the first section Heaney draws a simple and beautiful allegory of spiritual discipline and awakening. He moves from the initial announcement of the story--"And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird"--to the story, bring us into the present tense and the presence of Kevin. He attends to Kevin's knees, the size of the cell, his exact body position, inviting the reader to imagine in detail the afternoon.
The allegory itself is laden with Christian imagery. Kevin places his hand out the window "as a crossbeam," or forming one axis of the cross. The bird descends, settling in his hand, to form the vertical axis. From the intersection comes an egg, the possibility of sacred experience, and with patience is born a new bird. This bird represents both a mark of spiritual discipline and Ireland, for the blackbird is associated with Ireland. Heaney thus manages to pull together the personal, spiritual, and even the national in the simple story of one saint. Incorporating such breadth in one story underlines the following section's statement of universality, or non-duality.
At the opening of the second section, then, Heaney turns the poem again to the reader, this time addressing skepticism. Rather than using skepticism to dismiss the poem, though, he invites the reader to move deeper into Kevin's thoughts, Kevin's experience. Heaney uses simple questions to soften us to supernatural occurrences; willing to believe after imagining our knees hurt on the cold stone, we can accept earth blossoming beneath his knees.
The final two stanzas express unity with nature, a loss of definitions, boundaries--not a forgetting in the strict, apathetic sense, but the forgetting of nonattachment, a prayer wherein the body enters the cycles of the earth, and in becoming part of them loses itself, its definitions, those names and forms binding and fettering it. As St Kevin stands on the bank of the river of love, he can no longer name it, for the two are no longer separate.