St Kevin and the Blackbird

By Seamus Heaney, from The Spirit Level (Faber and Faber, 1996)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

This poem is one of my favorite descriptions of compassionate love. I did this drawing in response to it. This poem continues to speak to me today, to those moments when I find myself in situations where I think I just do not have anything more in me to give.