Saint Francis and the Sow
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.
— Galway Kinnell (from Three Books, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002)
You know Saint Francis. He’s the founder of the Franciscan Order, and one in whose name Catholics and Anglicans ceremoniously bless the animals once a year. He’s also said to have arranged the first live nativity scene. Galway Kinnell, in this poem, imagines him blessing a sow.
I so much admire this poem for its ability to turn love and passion both inward and outward. Kinnell begins with a bud, which later shows up as a sow’s teat. Yet it “stands for all things / even for those things that don’t flower, / for everything flowers from within, of self-blessing.” That may be the most important line in the poem. It is not the outward flowering that matters most. It’s the recognition and celebration of the internal flowering of all things. Sometimes, though, things can forget their loveliness and have to be reminded. Both in words and in touch.
Hence, Valentine’s Day.
When we’re told we’re lovely, we begin to remember that yes, actually, we are! Saint Francis put his hands on the sow, and there follows the most graphic picture of how, being touched, the sow begins to remember her beauty all the way down her body until the remembrance spurts out at last as milk for her 14 piglets. Her body is “thick,” “earthen,” of “hard spininess.” Not exactly traditionally lovely.
Kinnell told the Los Angeles Times, “I’ve tried to carry my poetry as far as I could, to dwell on the ugly as fully, as far, and as long, as I could stomach it. Probably more than most poets I have included in my work the unpleasant because I think if you are ever going to find any kind of truth to poetry it has to be based on all of experience rather than on a narrow segment of cheerful events.”
So the hand of the poet caresses all parts of the sow. The lines become long, musical, and almost trancelike as the speaker succumbs to her sensual richness. But the last line is surprisingly short: the “long, perfect loveliness of sow.” A summation.
I also notice her “great broken heart.” The line stands alone, and the thought seems quite different. But the poet wants to include it in the perfect loveliness. It feels trivial talk about a shiny Hallmark Valentine’s heart. Truth is, all our hearts are broken in one way or another. And a broken heart is lovely.
Kinnell’s "Selected Poems" (1980) won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. He lived in Vermont for many years, and he died in 2014 at the age of 87.
Fleda Brown of Traverse City is professor emerita, University of Delaware, and past poet laureate of Delaware. For more of her work, and to see her website, go to www.fledabrown.com.