I’m currently reading through a poetry anthology, which gives a poem a day from Advent to Epiphany. It’s called ‘haphazard by starlight’ because, ‘like the Magi who travelled a long distance to search out and adore the infant Jesus, and who took some wrong turns on the way, we too have a journey to undertake before we find that we have ‘walked haphazard by starlight straight into the kingdom of heaven’ (U. A. Fanthorpe).’
I particularly liked the poem from this morning, so I thought I’d share it here, along with an abbreviation of the commentary that accompanies it in the anthology.
Blackbird in Fulham
A John the Baptist bird which comes before
The light, chooses an aerial
Toothed like a garden rake, puts a prong at each shoulder,
Opens its beak and becomes a thurifer
Blessing dark above dank holes between the houses,
Sleek patios or rag-and-weed-choked messes.
Too aboriginal to notice these,
Its concentration is on resonance
Which excavates in sleepers memories
Long overgrown or expensively paved-over,
Of innocence unmawkish, love robust.
Its sole belief, that light will come at last.
The point is proved and, casual, it flies elsewhere
To sing more distantly, as though its tune
Is left behind imprinted on the air,
Still legible, though this the second carbon.
And puzzled wakers lie and listen hard
To something moving in their minds’ backyard.
P J Kavanagh
This poem makes use of the traditional notion that it is light that is the place of life energy and hope. The catalyst for illumination here is the blackbird, which is always the first voice in the dawn chorus. The bird’s activity, so acutely observed here, is most noticeable in early spring, rather than in December, but this poem is often chosen as an Advent meditation because of the comparison made between the blackbird and John the Baptist – both are heralds of the light.
It is a ‘John the Baptist bird’ because of the Church’s celebration of John especially during Advent as the forerunner of the Christ. In the Gospels, much is made of the significance of John, and many stories show him pointing to the coming of the Messiah, and recognizing Jesus as being that person. Most important here is the prologue of John’s Gospel, which speaks of Jesus as the light of the world, and John, ‘a man sent from God’ as his witness (John 1:6-8). John is a strange and insistent figure in the Gospels, whose teaching and baptizing stir people to repent their sins and make changes in their life (Luke 3:1-14).
The poem attributes precise intention to the blackbird – intention related to its effect on the human beings who hear it. Of course, in reality the bird is establishing its territory against other blackbirds, and seems to get going while it is still dark in order to create a powerful ‘sound presence’ ever before it is visible. But here, the bird is seen; it ‘chooses an aerial’ and ‘opens it beak and becomes a thurifer’, as if these moments and singing are part of deliberate liturgy of praise or invocation. A thurifer is the person who handles the incense-burner in Catholic high mass liturgies, with which Kavanagh would have been familiar. It is a skilled role, and involves swinging the thurible, a metal container holding hot coals and incense, on its chain constantly, so that the fire is maintained and the incense keeps smoking its fragrance reliably. At key moments the smoke of the incense is directed variously towards the altar, the priest or the congregation as a gesture of blessing. It is as if the song of the blackbird does something similar to the patches of ground beneath him. This is a brilliant image of the blackbird’s song, not only because of the associations of ritual blessing, but because of the associations of ritual blessing, but because does seem to keep going continuously, like the action of the incense-bearer.
So within the first few lines the poem has already placed us both in the specific location of back gardens in Fulham before the dawn, and, it is implied, in the realm of human lives, which are all equally offered an unasked-for-blessing from above, announcing the hope of light. After this, the image of the differently maintained gardens is worked again for its capacity to image the human heart and mind. The song ‘excavates’ the memories of the people sleeping beneath it, ‘Long overgrown or expensively paved-over’. The suggestion is that some memories of great significance may get overlaid and buried either through neglect or through the veneer of success and riches. These are the direct childhood memories of ‘innocence unmawkish, love robust’ – unlike, it is implied, the nostalgia of adulthood and its unstable loves.
We return to the blackbird, and its intense conviction that ‘light will come at last’. The half-rhyme of ‘last’ with ‘robust’, with their strong endings, suggests that the blackbird holds its beliefs a lot more simply and single-mindedly than we do. Immediately, ‘The point is proved’ as the light is dawning. The image is of the song being ‘imprinted on the air’ in the place where the poem is set, still reverberating although the bird has flown further away so the actual sound is fainter. This effect is described here as the ‘second carbon’, the fuzzy and faint second carbon coby. This is the image of the ‘Still legible’ but much fainter song described in the poem.
The last two lines finally mention the human beings whose sleepy, almost awake presence has been implied throughout. It is only when the blessing of the ‘full power’ song has been received, and is now receding and difficult to ‘read’, that they being to attend properly to what is going on, and what the birdsong has stirred or excavated in their memories. In a brilliant final use of the ‘garden’ image, the poet suggests the emergence of something (perhaps a kind of hope) ‘moving in the minds’ backyard’. This sense, not overstated but beautifully implied, speaks of a kind of Advent readiness to receive the blessing and mystery that may be drawing near. For, as the responses that are repeated at morning prayer during Advent proclaim: ‘Now is the time to awake out of sleep’ (echoing Romans 13:11).
In what state is the ‘backyard’ of your mind and heart? (‘Long overgrown or expensively paved-over?) What needs to happen before the song of blessing can be fully received by you?