Iona: New and Selected Poetry. Kenneth Steven. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2021.
Summary: A collection of poems connected to the island of Iona, the spiritual home of the author.
The island of Iona, part of the Inner Hebrides, located off the west coast of Scotland has been a destination of spiritual pilgrims from around the world. The Iona Abbey is a focal point, purported founded by St. Columba, an exile from Ireland, who brought Celtic Christianity to the island, and Scotland in turn. It became a center of scholarship and monasticism throughout the isles. It is believed that the Book of Kells was at least begun here.
Between the island’s rugged beauty, history, and the abbey, it is regarded by many as a “thin place,” one where the veil between earth and heaven, humans and God seems especially thin. Kenneth Steven, a widely published poet and frequent BBC guest, has spent summers since childhood and longer periods on the island, roving its hills and beaches, often barefoot, as he notes in many of his poems. In this book, poems written on the island on many occasions and for different publications are gathered together. It is apparent that Iona is a “thin place” for Steven, a title of one of his poems and the questions he asks in a poem titled “Iona: “Is this place really nearer to God?/Is the wall thin between our whispers/and his listening?”
Many of the poems begin with simple observations of the natural world–of otters, butterflies, spider webs, geese, and woodpeckers. Others hark to the past of the island. We imagine the harp of a Celtic bard or the fiddle of St Kilda. We observe Columba in prayer in the marshlands. We visit the ruins of Clonmacnoise monastery, imagining the community of men who broke the water of wells and lit turf fires in winter.
Some of the poetry in the collection reflect his devotion. In “Honestly,” Steven encounters God not in the stone buildings but the moorlands. In “Island,” he describes coming to the island with prayers that were “ragged things,” the breaking of the jar of his heart, and leaving the island “see through, clear.” “Prayer” wonders how anyone could not believe in God after a blue spring day, fields, orchids, the sea, the wind.
The last part of the book takes us from Iona to the shores of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the communities of the Amish and more global reflections on the land, and on the realities of Good Friday and Resurrection. Yet we cannot help but think that his thoughts take him back to Iona in his final poem in this collection, “Sacred Place.”
This is poetry that lingers long enough in a place to see and receive what is present. To linger in these poems is to glimpse and imagine the world of Iona, as seen and experienced by the author. Until you or I can visit, these poems take us to this “thin place” known as Iona.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
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