On fans, thirteen blackbirds and the ineffable heart of all things

A blackbird bathes in the Cambridge Unitarian Church garden
A recorded version of the following piece can be found at this link

We inhabit a culture that has become increasingly obsessed with the idea that, through language (whether the language employed by mathematics, physics, logic, philosophy or poetry) we can somehow know reality, know what this or that thing is in its fullness. But this is an illusion because there is always something ineffable about every thing. Even as it constantly gifts us a world of things full of meaning and use this ineffable-something-that-is-no-thing-at-all will always resist total comprehension. 

The Zen story of the fan helps here. A teacher handed one student a fan and asked what it was. The student handed it back with the words: “A fan.” The teacher frowned and handed it to a second pupil. They said nothing but, instead, she scratched her back with the fan, poked the brazier with it, opened it, fanned herself; then, placing a gift upon it, handed it back to the teacher. The teacher smiled. (I know this story thanks to Paul Wienphal who quotes it in his book, The Matter of Zen (New York University Press, 1964, pp. 124 & 157-158).

What is true of the fan is, of course, true of every thing around us, and one of my favourite poems which illustrates this phenomenon well is Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Although Stevens lists for us thirteen ways of looking it’s important to realise that different ways of looking at things will never run out and no single way of looking can, or will, ever grasp what a blackbird or, indeed, anything else, really is. Our task as free-thinking mystics with hands is to keep ourselves and our ways of commingling in the world fully open and alert to the ineffable that lies at the heart of all things.    

Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” 

(from The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. Copyright 1954 by Wallace Stevens)


Among twenty snowy mountains,   

The only moving thing   

Was the eye of the blackbird.   


I was of three minds,   

Like a tree   

In which there are three blackbirds.   


The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.   

It was a small part of the pantomime.   


A man and a woman   

Are one.   

A man and a woman and a blackbird   

Are one.   


I do not know which to prefer,   

The beauty of inflections   

Or the beauty of innuendoes,   

The blackbird whistling   

Or just after.   


Icicles filled the long window   

With barbaric glass.   

The shadow of the blackbird   

Crossed it, to and fro.   

The mood   

Traced in the shadow   

An indecipherable cause.   


O thin men of Haddam,   

Why do you imagine golden birds?   

Do you not see how the blackbird   

Walks around the feet   

Of the women about you?   


I know noble accents   

And lucid, inescapable rhythms;   

But I know, too,   

That the blackbird is involved   

In what I know.   


When the blackbird flew out of sight,   

It marked the edge   

Of one of many circles.   


At the sight of blackbirds   

Flying in a green light,   

Even the bawds of euphony   

Would cry out sharply.   


He rode over Connecticut   

In a glass coach.   

Once, a fear pierced him,   

In that he mistook   

The shadow of his equipage   

For blackbirds.   


The river is moving.   

The blackbird must be flying.   


It was evening all afternoon.   

It was snowing   

And it was going to snow.   

The blackbird sat   

In the cedar-limbs.