William Everson, (also known as Brother Antonius when he was a Dominican brother), in the poem, "A Canticle to the Waterbirds," calls for the birds of fresh and salt water to use their voices, melodious or not, to praise God.
"Break wide your harsh and salt-encrusted beaks unmade for song
And say a praise up to the Lord."
It is a fitting poem for this week between Palm Sunday and Easter, for, as Jesus said when he entered Jerusalem and church leaders wanted him to quiet the praise of his disciples, “I tell you, . . . if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40)
In the nooks and crannies of the world, with no human present, songs of praise to the Creator still sound.
"You sanctify His hermitage rocks where no holy priest may kneel to adore.."
As Everson, in this tumbling, descriptive poem shows us, the world is filled with creatures who are capable of praise—not only through their squawky throats and clacking beaks, but also through their mode of living in the world.
"Wholly in Providence you spring, and when you die you look on death in
Not anxious about their life—or death—they demonstrate what trusting in God looks like. This is a fitting theme for Holy Week, especially in light of Jesus' attitude of acceptance toward his own painful crucifixion and death.
One of my favorite lines in this poem,"You hold His outstretched world beneath your wings, and mount upon His storms," gives a beautiful picture of immersion, joy, and trust in God's presence and care. It also brings to mind images of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem and his outstretched arms on the cross.
As we move through Holy Week toward Good Friday and Easter Sunday, I invite you to read this poem as an invitation to look and listen for other voices of praise in creation. May you join your praise to theirs and experience Holy Week more deeply as a result.
A Canticle to the Waterbirds
by William Everson
Clack your beaks you cormorants and kittiwakes,
North on those rock-croppings finger-jutted into the rough Pacific surge;
You migratory terns and pipers who leave but the temporal clawtrack
written on sandbars there of your presence;
Grebes and pelicans; you comber-picking scoters and you shorelong gulls;
All you keepers of the coastline north of here to the Mendocino beaches;
All you beyond upon the cliff-face thwarting the surf at Hecate Head;
Hovering the under-surge where the cold Columbia grapples at the bar;
North yet to the Sound, whose islands float like a sown flurry of chips
upon the sea;
Break wide your harsh and salt-encrusted beaks unmade for song
And say a praise up to the Lord.
And you freshwater egrets east in the flooded marshlands skirting the
sea-level rivers, white one-legged watchers of shallows;
Broad-headed kingfishers minnow-hunting from willow stems on meandering
You too, you herons, blue and supple-throated, stately, taking the air
majestical in the sun-flooded San Joaquin,
Grading down on your belted wings from the upper lights of sunset,
Mating over the willow clumps or where the flatwater rice fields shimmer;
You killdeer, high night-criers, far in the moon-suffusion sky;
Bitterns, sand-waders, all shore-walkers, all roost-keepers,
Populates of the ‘dobe cliffs of the Sacramento;
Open your water-dartling beaks,
And make a praise up to the Lord.
For you hold the heart of His mighty fastnesses,
And shape the life of His indeterminate realms.
You are everywhere on the lonesome shores of His wide creation.
You keep seclusion where no man may go, giving Him praise;
Nor may a woman come to lift like your cleaving flight her clear contralto
To honor the spindrift gifts of His soft abundance.
You sanctify His hermitage rocks where no holy priest may kneel to adore,
nor holy nun assist;
And where His true communion-keepers are not enabled to enter.
And well may you say His praises, birds, for your ways
Are verved with the secret skills of His inclinations,
And your habits plaited and rare with the subdued elaboration of His
Your days intent with the direct astuteness needful for His outworking,
And your nights alive with the dense repose of His infinite sleep.
You are His secretive charges and you serve His secretive ends,
In His clouded, mist-conditioned stations, in His murk,
Obscure in your matted nestings, immured in His limitless ranges.
He makes you penetrate through dark interstitial joinings of His thicketed kingdoms,
And keep your concourse in the deeps of His shadowed world.
Your ways are mild but earnest, your manners grave,
Your customs carefully schooled to the note of His serious mien.
You hold the prime condition of His clean creating,
And the swift compliance with which you serve His minor means
Speaks of the constancy with which you hold Him.
For what is your high flight forever going home to your first beginnings,
But such a testament to your devotion?
You hold His outstretched world beneath your wings, and mount upon
And keep your sheer wind-lidded sight upon the vast perspectives of His
But mostly it is your way you bear existence wholly within the context
of His utter will and are untroubled.
Day upon day you do not reckon, nor scrutinize tomorrow, nor multiply
the nightfalls with a rash concern,
But rather assume each instant as warrant sufficient of His final seal.
Wholly in Providence you spring, and when you die you look on death in
Go down, a clutch of feather ragged upon the brush;
Or drop on water where you briefly lived, found food,
And now yourselves made food for His deep current-keeping fish, and
then are gone:
Is left but the pinion-feather spinning a bit on the uproil
Where lately the dorsal cut clear air.
You leave a silence. And this for you suffices, who are not of the
ceremonials of man,
And hence are not made sad to now forego them.
Yours is of another order of being, and wholly it compels.
But may you, birds, utterly seized in God’s supremacy,
Austerely living under His austere eye—
Yet may you teach a man a necessary thing to know,
Which has to do of the strict conformity that creaturehood entails,
And constitutes the prime commitment all things share.
For God has given you the imponderable grace to be His verification,
Outside the mulled incertitude of our forensic choices;
That you, our lesser in the rich hegemony of Being,
May serve as testament to what a creature is,
And what creation owes.
Curlews, stilts and scissor-tails, beachcomber gulls,
Wave-haunters, shore-keepers, rockhead-holders, all cape-top vigilantes,
Now give God praise.
Send up the strict articulation of your throats,
And say His name.
©1978, William Everson,from The Veritable Years 1949-1966, Black Sparrow Press.
Reflection Questions: Do you see spiritual mentors for yourself among the nonhuman creatures of this world? What can you learn about a life of praise from the creatures who so naturally praise God with their life and song? Do you gain a different perspective on how Jesus lived a life of praise and trust, even as he moved toward death?
Feel free to comment below or contact me directly at email@example.com.
An invitation to readers! If you've seen something recently that intrigued or amazed you enough to take a photograph, draw a picture, or write a (short) poem, send it to me by April 10th so that I can include it in an upcoming column bringing these artistic responses together. Along with your photo, picture, or poem, I would love to include a sentence or two from you introducing your piece.