Poet Kenneth Steven Takes Us to the Island of Iona
Poet Kenneth Steven grew up in what he calls “the only truly land-locked part of Scotland,” otherwise known as the highlands of Perthshire. He recalls hills, lochs, forests, and rivers — but no sea. His favorite childhood memories involved summer holidays to the sea, and specifically the sea of the Atlantic Coast. Many of those holidays involved the island of Iona in the Hebrides.
Iona wasn’t, and isn’t, only a beautiful island surrounded by the sea, filled with adventures for a young child. It was also the island where St. Columba (521-597) came when Irish monks were undertaking their famous missions. It was also the place where the Book of Kells was (most likely) created. And it is poems about the island that compose the heart of Steven’s latest poetry collection, appropriately enough entitled Iona.
The 73 poems of the collection are grouped into three sections. The Iona poems form the middle section and the unifying idea, for it is the spirit and sense of those that inform the entire collection. Reading these poems is an exercise in walking seashores and listening to waves, remembering the essence of family vacations, running down green hillsides, and listening to the chanting, singing, and prayers of monks, resting from the scratching of their quill pens.
Here is how Steven imagines the life of one such copyist, working in an abbey on Iona.
The Illuminated Manuscript
I remember the day I left —
soft bread, a silvering of geese, the sound of my mother.
Now I slip the stone of these steps every day
long before dawn, breathe the dark
and hear the whelming of the winds about this fastness
before my one candle like a petal of gorse
flutters the shadows in ghosts over cold walls.
Out of the thin window I watch the sea all winter
heave and drag like a dying man,
the skies blackened and bruised.
Some days there is nothing in the pen except
my own emptiness; I hold it hoping
until the stars blow out from the attic of the skies
and a ledge of moon lifts across the hills.
Just sometimes something breaks inside
like the brittle lid of a casket
and pours out light onto the waiting page.
Steven has published 14 poetry collections. He’s also the author of a short story collection, Winter Tales; three novels, Glen Lyon, The Well of the Wind, and 2020; several children’s books, including The Santa Maria; and a nonfiction book, Beneath the Ice: The Search for the Sami. He’s translated works from the Norwegian (reflecting a lifelong love for the country and its language) and he’s written and presented several poetry programs for BBC Radio. He lives in Argyll on Scotland’s west coast (and much closer to the sea than his native Perthshire).
Iona is the poetry of the landscape and the sea. It reaches back 1,500 years to the time of the Celtic missionaries. It moves forward to the recent past of remembered childhood, and to contemporary time. And it blends past and present into a rich tapestry of memory, life, and faith.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
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