Thursday, June 14, 2012

Living with Poems

Illuminated Manuscript, by Sarah Cain
via Bryan Miller Gallery

I've been thinking about what poems I might like to carry around in me, memorized, to take refuge in when necessary. Already, my list of poems far outstrips the time I'm willing to put in to such a project. After making this list of future poems I will have in my head some day, I thought of one that I've already been living with for a decade now. I still don't have it memorized, but I am always returning to it. I think I first read this poem because my dad pointed it out to me in some publication (maybe the daily newspaper?), so it's always felt a little bit like a gift--something that I should appreciate and take care not to lose. 

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.

    —"Saint Kevin and the Blackbird," by Seamus Heaney

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