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What Makes Us Beautiful

By Chip Prehn

I offer a beautiful thing to Covenant readers today. It is a poem by Wendell Berry.

The yellow-throated warbler, the highest remotest voice
of this place, sings in the tops of the tallest sycamores,
but one day he came twice to the railing on my porch
where I sat at work above the river. He was too close
to see with binoculars. Only the naked eye could take him in,
a bird more beautiful than every picture of himself,
more beautiful than himself killed and preserved
by the most skilled taxidermist, more beautiful
than any human mind, so small and inexact,
could hope ever to remember. My mind became
beautiful by the sight of him. He had the beauty only
of himself alive in the only moment of his life.
He had upon him like a light the whole
beauty of the living world that never dies.

“Yellow-Throated Warbler” is a masterpiece of poetic art. Berry included it in Given: New Poems, which he published in 2005. It is a beautiful poem about a beautiful creature, but I find the humility of the poet likewise beautiful. The poet’s humility once enabled him to experience something even more rare than a colorful and melodious warbler sitting on his porch rail. For a brief moment, Berry experienced Being, but notice that the being of the creature was not eclipsed by the Being of the Creator. This is a valuable insight!

Berry works in a writer’s studio a short distance from the house he and his wife Tanya have lived in for decades. The Kentucky River forms one boundary of their farm in Henry County, Kentucky. We can imagine how the bird came unexpectedly close to the poet one day, and how both bird and poet could scarcely comprehend each other. But it appears that grace enabled some level of understanding between them.

John James Audubon painted the Yellow-Throated Warbler in 1821, when he was living near Bayou Sara and St. Francisville in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana. That painting may be accessed on the web here.


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