by Brett Foster
A great variety of people are looking forward to reading and digesting Pope Francis’s new encyclical, Laudato Si, which the Vatican officially releases today.
I am as interested in reading it as the next person, but maybe not immediately. That comment may understandably demand some defense, or at least some context. Currently, I am sitting in a friend’s cottage in West Moveen, in the far west side of County Clare, Ireland, and less than a mile from the Atlantic’s breakers crashing upon the Munster cliffs. I am restfully reveling—if that be possible—in a few uneventful days here devoted to rereading some of the great Irish authors, including Yeats, Joyce, Patrick Kavanagh, and Seamus Heaney. This reading sequence has also involved more recent poetry collections by Eavan Boland and Dennis O’Driscoll, not only his Dear Life, released in the United States last year, but also one I found on a shelf here called Update: Poems 2011-12, which appears to be an assembly of the last poems found on one of O’Driscoll’s computer documents after his death. You see, I am currently writing beneath four tall shelves filled with Irish literature and history. For my tastes, this cottage may be the best place in the country for a few days of reminding myself what both deep and diverse reading feels like, the Irish National Library notwithstanding. (I’m pretty sure it is more comfortable here.)
It is also a great time for such a reading marathon. Saturday marked the 15oth anniversary of W. B. Yeats’s birth. There were many festivities in Sligo, to the north of here, but I paid my respects by revisiting poems in a small selected volume found on these bountiful shelves. His poem “The Magi” resonated with me and my sense of these shaken times, into which the pope’s encyclical will likely speak. Like the title characters’ “ancient faces,” we too are seekers “Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,” and hoping to find “The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.” Or maybe, conversely, we feel that too much is beyond control already, and wish for nothing of the magi’s sort.
Then, only two days later, it was Bloomsday, a celebration of James Joyce that has an international scale, but whose epicenter is in Dublin, the setting of Joyce’s grand Modernist novel Ulysses. I contemplated driving the few hours from County Clare to Dublin to take in the readings and other festivities firsthand, but shrugged off the urge, opting instead to read from The Essential Joyce already here and awaiting me. I savored especially its “Nestor” episode from Ulysses. The figure standing in for the old, talkative, over-advising Greek hero Nestor is Mr. Deasy, headmaster at the school where the brooding young man Stephan Dedalus works. In one scene, Deasy pays Dedalus his wages from his “savingsbox,” and while waiting, the young man moves his hand over the “shells heaped in the cold stone mortar.” He identifies one as the “scallop of Saint James. An old pilgrim’s hoard, dead treasure, hollow shells.” Soon Dedalus hastily stuffs his wages in his pocket, which Deasy disapproves of—he advises his employee to obtain a savings box of his own. The debt-ridden Dedalus is hardly listening. But he does touch again those shells, and has a different thought this time, one he sets alongside his, and many others’, desperate finances: “Symbols too of beauty and of power. A lump in my pocket. Symbols soiled by greed and misery.” Mr. Deasy also advises, “Put money in thy purse,” to which Dedalus dryly identifies where the quotation comes from— Iago, one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains.
What does this week of reading have to do with the new papal encyclical? Well, let me describe here a final reverberation of texts, one being the anticipated encyclical and its author, and the other, or two others, by the deeply humane Irish contemporary poet Seamus Heaney, Ireland’s last Nobel Laureate. You’ll forgive the possibly strained association when I mention that I’ve been rereading great gobs of Heaney’s poetry this week, and came across his poem “Saint Francis and the Birds” in Death of a Naturalist, the poet’s debut volume from 1966. (My copy is a recent Faber edition, handsome with its bright-orange spine but, more importantly, tiny—a highly portable selection for summer travels.)
The poem opens with St. Francis preaching love to the birds, which “listened, fluttered, throttled up / Into the blue like a flock of words,” released by the saint’s lips, and implicitly the freeing Gospel message they were espousing. Immediately, though, they return to the fold, so to speak, whirring about the saint’s head and “Pirouetted on brothers’ capes.” This isn’t a Hitchcockian turn, however. The birds’ activity is not menacing at all, but “sheer joy” sparks their flying and singing. Heaney’s speaker declares the birds, or perhaps the uplifting scene itself, “the best poem Francis made.” The final line, set apart form the preceding three tercets, is likewise declarative, more powerfully for being tersely so: “His argument true. His tone light.”
I am struck that the truthfulness and light tone ascribed to the saint could just as easily describe the poem’s birds: there is a sweet truth in the tableau of the birds’ being made joyous and energetic upon hearing Francis’s words. Their tone, you might say, has been lightened. If the attribution does feel malleable at the end, then it reflects nicely, and pairs with, the opening shift of identification. Francis is preaching, but the birds soon take flight “like a flock of words.” It is this phrase that resonates with me on the occasion of the release of the pope’s first encyclical. In the poem, it is as if Francis by his words transforms the birds into words. Our situation is more complicated, or maybe less complicated. The encyclical’s text will be Pope Francis’s words, or his and his committee of advisors, but Christian believers of all stripes—American Catholics conservative and less so, Catholics and non-Catholics, and non-believers, too, for that matter—will soon participate in, are already doing so, are already becoming, a “flock of words.” And that is fine, but will we also allow ourselves that experience of “wheeling back” that is so enjoyed by the birds in Heaney’s poem?
I don’t know, and I am not even sure what that could look like for the flock in the largest sense, for it seems pretty apparent by now that the first papal encyclical from Francis promises to be rather confrontational, and likely divisive. A call for action on climate change is a central focus, leading one Republican energy lobbyist and conservative Catholic, quoted in The New York Times, to state, “For the real churchgoers, this is going to be an indictment of the pope.” He referred to the encyclical’s focus as a the pope selling a “line of Latin-American-style socialism,” a veiled reference to Liberation theology, and judged him as not “in sync” with the American Catholic Church.
Some of this may be true, and certainly Pope Francis is a controversial figure, nowhere more so, paradoxically, than among Catholic believers. Among my Catholic friends in the United States, most would agree that his tone has been light compared with his predecessor (some approving of this and some not), but there would be far less consensus, regarding this pope, on Heaney’s speaker’s first claim for Saint Francis: “His argument true.”
Let me conclude with a second poem by Heaney, arguably the other poem in his oeuvre prominently about a saint. (His superb sequence “Station Island” is set on the holy island and pilgrimage site in Lough Derg, County Donegal, known as Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, and Heaney appropriates the context of Christ’s showing Patrick the entrance of Purgatory to create his own modern Irish version of Dante’s Purgatorio.) “St Kevin and the Blackbird” in its similarly structured title may seem to revisit Heaney’s earlier poem about Francis, published thirty years earlier. This second poem appeared in The Spirit Level (1996), shortly after Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. (The poem may best be found in Opened Ground, a generous and recommended selected volume of Heaney’s poetry.)
The first section, comprising the first four tercets of the poem’s eight total stanzas, narrates Saint Kevin’s kneeling in prayer and outstretching his arms in a cell so narrow that “one up-turned palm is out the window, stiff / As a crossbeam.” Soon a blackbird lands in his palm and incubates its egg. The physical, tactile acuity for which Heaney is known now displays itself: “Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked / Neat head and claws.” Finding himself “linked / Into the network of eternal life,” the saint is moved to pity. He leaves his arm and hand outspread for weeks, “Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.”
But this is only half of the poem. The second half addresses the reader directly: imagine being Kevin. The speaker then asks, which is he, self-forgetful or in agony? Heaney’s continued focus on physical details more or less favors the latter option without saying it. Kevin’s neck and forearms must have hurt so. Could he finally feel his hands, his knees? “Is there distance in his head?” the poem wonders. At the end, Heaney has it both ways: the saint’s body is in agony, but it is also the agonized body that makes his prayer entirely, “For he has forgotten self,” and along with it has forgotten “bird” (not “the bird” or “the birds,” as if the designation is universal) and the name of the river on whose bank he resides.
This last move of Heaney’s improves the poem by precluding a simpler reading of Saint Kevin as sacrificial proto-environmentalist, though some may still be inclined to see him as such. The major presence in the poem is indeed sacrifice, but, to my mind and readerly bent, it refuses to be circumscribed in its origin or motivation. Tom Sleigh, a fellow poet, in a recent essay on his friend Heaney writes of a conversation in “St. Kevin and the Blackbird” that bypasses “both his [Kevin’s] holiness and his achy shoulders.” Sleigh’s focus is on care and “bodily fellow feeling,” and that last phrase strikes me as a useful means of appreciating better that plumbless quality of sympathy throughout Heaney’s work, a quality many have marveled at in the current pope. That sensitivity to bodily feeling “pervades” Heaney’s writing, Sleigh asserts, adding that in Heaney “bodily pleasure and bodily harm have been the secular equivalents of the crucifixion and resurrection.” Sleigh does not seek out a secular equivalent for the sacrifice at the center of the poem (different from the pain or agony itself, I would assert), or even mention the word, but that is ok: I suppose that the secular equivalent for the poem’s Christian or hagiographic depiction of sacrifice is . . . sacrifice.
Sacrifice promises to be one of Pope Francis’s themes in the new encyclical, but will it be accepted, or acceptable, to a wide swath of Catholics? A response to climate challenges, the pope allegedly writes in a draft of the encyclical leaked earlier this week in Italy, “requires honesty, courage, and responsibility, especially by the most powerful and polluting countries.” That note on the “most powerful” tacitly gives nod to the powerless and the “poor church for the poor” for which Francis has been advocating.
This much seems clear from this pairing of two poems of Seamus Heaney in retrospect with the prospect of Pope Francis’s first encyclical: a sense of any affinity between the figures must begin with their origins and formations— Francis’s Latin-American ministry and Heaney’s Irish upbringing and poetic identity. That is, they hail from places that know economic or political oppression, or worse. Heaney was born at a family farm, Mossbawn, in Northern Ireland, and that earliest book, Death of a Naturalist, is full of rural laborers and the working poor. “Old dough-faced women with black shawls / Drawn down tight kneel in the stalls,” he writes in “Poor Women in a City Cburch,” and in “At a Potato Digging,” we find “A people hungering since birth, / Grubbing, like plants, in the earth.” Of course there’s a reference there to The Great Hunger during the nineteenth century, and unsurprisingly the very next poem, “For the Commander of the Eliza,” dramatizes a patrol’s unwillingness to feed or assist a boat of all but starved men suicidally setting out from County Mayo.
Likewise, one finds dotting the Irish landscape and filling its guidebooks the ruins of religious buildings and presence of many a castle and fortress, reminders of Cromwell’s deprivations of Ireland and its culture in the seventeenth century.
These events do not feel too far in the distant past in Ireland. Some of the ruins may be approaching near oblivion, but Ireland’s citizens are anything but oblivious to them, and nor are its tourists. The other day, I was sitting and working in a pub in Kilkee, and there was a news feature on the telly overhanging the bar about tension among EU countries about waves of immigrants approaching by sea, mainly from destabilized areas and combat zones in Africa and the Middle East. Italy and Greece are unfairly bearing the brunt of this crisis, one side claims, whereas countries such as France have lately refused to allow such immigrants entrance.
The female barkeep reacted to news of this refusal in a powerful—personally felt because still nationally felt—way, by invoking Ireland’s own history of mass migration caused by the great famine. “What about us and our people?” she exclaimed to the half dozen or so men present, sipping their Guinness’s. “What would have happened to us if America had shown us such refusal? Where would we be?” It sounded to me, thanks to her vivid, up-close historical perspective, like a case of “bodily fellow feeling,” and maybe even, to quote Heaney’s “St Kevin” poem one last time, a glimpsed link “Into the network of eternal life.”
Brett Foster is associate professor of English at Wheaton College.