Perthshire-born poet Kenneth Steven is a lover of Celtic landscapes and Celtic monks. One of his collections is titled Iona, and his novel, The Well of the North Wind, is the gentle story of young Fian, who is recruited by St. Columba to paint illuminations for the Book of Kells.
Steven has an Irish monk’s attentiveness to the fragility, mystery, and hidden beauties of things. In “The Unfound” (all remaining citations are from his collection, Coracle), someone walks through ploughed fields looking “For lumps of stone like old potatoes, / clogged with mud and heavy as clenched fists; / Their secrets sleeping deep inside.” Split open, the agates are “made of rings / Like slices of a fossil tree, and coloured / Ochre, silver, dragon blue and red,” each unique. Leaving the field, he can’t shake the feeling “the best are left behind / Unfound, unopened where they lie.”
Each poem is a coracle, launching into a sea of mysteries. Steven goes to the wood to get a glimpse of “A Green Woodpecker.” As soon as he passes the tree line, “a great door closes behind me,” and he begins to see and hear wonders:
Little quiverings of things
Quick among twigs;
Two deer, their eyes listening,
Flow into nowhere in a single blink. . . .
Swans stretching north
Swimming the open sky—
The silence so huge
I hear their wings.
As he trudges home, he thinks: “I came here searching one bird / And found all this instead: How like my life.”
What stands out most vividly are Steven’s brief narrative poems. “Glendalough” tells of a monk who goes outside the cloister to pray. Coming out of a long meditative trance, he finds a bird has laid eggs in “the bowl of his hands.” The monk stays put, hands nested, until the chicks hatch and fly away. A group of friends arrive at “Finlaggan” to explore island ruins, but discover that rain has made the site inaccessible. Seeing their disappointment, the caretaker carries them all through the water to the island: “They had to be carried across / to reach the island dryshod”—surely an exodus allusion? Driving at night, “we” see “The Mid-March Frogs” huddled on the road. The driver carefully skirts the squirming knot, but worries other cars will come over the hill “slushing senselessly, / Leaving imprints of frogs, frog rubbings.”
The narrator shares a breakfast table in Belfast with a Welsh stranger. It’s all “shyness of a shared table” until they realize they both know “Dafydd” Owen: “vibrant, wild, and fiery, / Generous-hearted” Dafydd. They find “the link, the piece between us”:
There in Belfast we talk of him,
Like to men beside a bonfire, lit by strange flames
Of someone who’s resurrected by such talk—
Who’s there again in front of us, as large as life.
A woman’s “Son” dashes out the door with his lunchbox and bag, forgetting his fifty pence. “It lies there still”:
He ran across the road,
turned once to wave, and there’s his face—
the photograph of how he froze
a blink before the car.
Most of Steven’s tales are simple, hardly worth the telling. But they’re the kind of tales that are the texture of life, like the stories we recount at the dinner table. Steven’s stories stay with us, moments that remind us of the small delights and instant tragedies of life. Robert Penn Warren once wrote that the best and most natural reading of a poem isn’t the first or fifth or fiftieth reading, but the hundredth. We need to remember the poem forward as well as backward. We can’t achieve that with the Iliad or the Divine Comedy or Paradise Lost. But we can hold Steven’s narrative gems in our heads all at once, stories condensed into snapshots, told like flashes of lightning.
For Steven, poetry is prayer and asceticism, a paring away of distraction and clutter to know the world as it is. What he does as a poet, he does also for his readers.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
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Image by Br. Jeffrey Pioquinto, SJ licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.