Bird’s Eye

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

-- From “Thirteen Ways of Looking
at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens

Baba Ram Dass recounts a Sikh story about a holy man who gave a chicken to each of two disciples and instructed them to kill the chicken where no one could see. The first disciple went behind a fence where no one could see and slaughtered the chicken; the other wandered around for a couple of days and returned with a live chicken. The holy man asked him why he hadn’t killed it. The disciple explained, “Everywhere I go, the chicken sees.”

I am reminded of this story when I read the brief opening stanza of Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” quoted above. Both the story and the poem have a way of radically reordering our anthropocentric perspective on the world. We are accustomed to thinking that the world and even other sentient beings are merely a backdrop to our personal drama. Suddenly, seeing is paramount, and it no longer matters who or what is doing the seeing.

The Stevens poem opens with what we might imagine as a postcard scene: twenty snowy mountains, majestic and still. Not entirely still, as it turns out, since the whole scene is set in motion by the roving eye of a blackbird. If, as Bishop Berkeley maintained, to be is to be perceived, then all is indeed in the eye of the beholder; in this case, twenty snowy peaks that owe their existence to a blackbird.

Baba Ram Dass, Be Here Now

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