In search of a green woodpecker, the poet enters the wood’s stillness. Through his vivid language, we accompany him – deer, swans, a ‘huge’ silence. ‘I came here searching one bird and found all this instead,’ he says, adding cryptically ‘How like my life.’
A key theme in Coracle, the new collection of poems by Scottish writer Kenneth Steven is the journey we all find ourselves on as human beings, an inner journey, the journey of life as far from shore in our fragile coracle we seek ‘another island and a new beginning.’
Kenneth is a gifted writer: a few words, arrestingly chosen, allow us to see the world through his sensitive eyes – his beloved Scottish landscapes, wildlife, and people met or imagined, all come vividly alive. His Christian faith imbues all his seeing, and all his work, whether or not it is explicit. We bring our own lives to these word-coracles, and they carry us forward.
Some of my favourites: Two wrens dead. Eight wrens find shelter through a punishing winter in the eaves of the poet’s home. For two of them ‘this winter’ is ‘just too big.’ He finds them, their life extinguished. ‘How little did they weigh, and yet, all day I held them heavy in my heart.’
I’m moved by Kenneth’s St Francis-like compassion and by a recollection of Jesus words ‘Not one sparrow will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.’ The poet mirrors God’s compassion for all creation, and especially for human beings who ‘weigh’ so little in a cosmic sense yet are deeply cherished and heart-held by our Maker.
Ruanan. ‘I am the limping one,’ Ruanan says, bullied at school, finder shelter in the monastery’s loving acceptance. ‘They said they wanted my soft voice for song.’ Daily she draws water for the community from the well. Hauling to the surface the ‘heavy dark’ of the bucket, she remembers the woman Jesus met at the well-head and asked to draw water for him, another outcast brought home. It is for Jesus that Ruanan draws the daily draught of water.
I suspect there’s something of the poet in Ruanan: finding shelter in the Christian community, offering his own gift of song, drawing water to refresh us from deep wells of inspiration, doing it for the Master, limping because poems such as these are only formed through struggle and pain.
Sometimes we are lost for meaningful words feeling as the poet does when meeting Edith in the poem of that name whose son is dying and who ‘had lost God a long time ago.’ Says the poet ‘I felt like a dry well, hollow and empty – nothing but the same old echoes.’ In the silence, Edith says that it’s not expressions of belief that matter, but ‘how you go to the gallows.’ Is our faith, is the Master we trust in, stronger than death.’
But the genuiness of faith is seen, not just in our dying but in how we live. Calvinism depicts the stern legality of extreme Calvinist theology; After all describes a minister’s fiery, incomprehensible sermons. But go in need to the Calvinist’s door and you will find a precious, priceless kindness ‘as old as the one from Galilee.’ And the old fiery preacher was loved for the compassion he showed to his flock. Better good theology and love, Steven suggests – but love can annul the damage of toxic theology.
I love The Ghost Orchard, a post-apocalyptic poem in which cave-bound survivors in a devastated world tell their children of how it used to be. Horses, fields, flowing water ‘birds bringing morning into song.’ For a while, the poet says, the children will believe ‘It was that beautiful, that good.’
The parents have been silent about the human greed and selfishness which defiled the beauty and precipitated the apocalypse. But the point for us is that it is ‘that beautiful, that good’. It’s worth cherishing and struggling and praying to protect our fragile world, holding it in our cupped hands like the hermit in another poem who sat still until the eggs laid by the blackbird while he prayed hatched and new birds took to the air.
A marvellous book, containing 40 poems. If poetry speaks to you, get hold of a copy. We sow these poems like seed in our heart and they bring forth fruit.
The poet searched for a green woodpecker and found ‘all this instead.’ Those of us who have reached the island, who have drawn water from the Master’s deep wells know that in our search for Jesus we have both been found by him and had our eyes opened to a new way of seeing. The journey continues, but we have found the object of our search and ‘all this’ as well.
Coracle by Kenneth Steven is published by SPCK. ISBN 978-0-281-07209-5 Order from Amazon here.
(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 29th May 2014)