Making Footprints Not Blueprints

Bonus Episode - On fans, thirteen blackbirds and the ineffable heart of all things

September 03, 2021 Andrew James Brown/Caute Season 3
Making Footprints Not Blueprints
Bonus Episode - On fans, thirteen blackbirds and the ineffable heart of all things
Show Notes Transcript

A short meditation inspired by a well-known Zen story concerning a fan and Wallace Stevens' poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.

The full text of this podcast can be found in the transcript of this edition or at the following link:

Please feel to post any comments you have about this episode there.

Music, "New Heaven", written by Andrew J. Brown and played by Chris Ingham (piano), Paul Higgs (trumpet), Russ Morgan (drums) and Andrew J. Brown (double bass) 

Thanks for listening. Just to note that all the texts of these podcasts are available on my blog. You'll also find there a brief biography, info about my career as a musician, & some photography. Feel free to drop by & say hello. Email: caute.brown[at]

We inhabit a culture that has become increasingly obsessed with the idea that, through language (whether the language employed by mathematics, physics, logic, philosophy or poetry) we can somehow know reality, know what this or that thing is in its fullness. But this is an illusion because there is always something ineffable about every thing. Even as it constantly gifts us a world of things full of meaning and use this ineffable-something-that-is-no-thing-at-all will always resist total comprehension.

The Zen story of the fan helps here. A teacher handed one student a fan and asked what it was. The student handed it back with the words: “A fan.” The teacher frowned and handed it to a second pupil. They said nothing but, instead, she scratched her back with the fan, poked the brazier with it, opened it, fanned herself; then, placing a gift upon it, handed it back to the teacher. The teacher smiled. (I know this story thanks to Paul Wienphal who quotes it in his book, The Matter of Zen (New York University Press, 1964, pp. 124 & 157-158).

What is true of the fan is, of course, true of every thing around us. And one of my favourite poems which illustrates this phenomenon well is Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Although Stevens list for us thirteen ways of looking it’s important to realise that different ways of looking at things will never run out and no single way of looking can, or will, ever grasp what a blackbird or, indeed, anything else, really is. Our task as free-thinking mystics with hands is to keep ourselves and our ways of commingling in the world fully open and alert to the ineffable that lies at the heart of all things.   

Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”
(from The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. Copyright 1954 by Wallace Stevens)

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

I was of three minds,   
Like a tree   
In which there are three blackbirds.   

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.   
It was a small part of the pantomime.   

A man and a woman   
Are one.   
A man and a woman and a blackbird   
Are one.   

I do not know which to prefer,   
The beauty of inflections   
Or the beauty of innuendoes,   
The blackbird whistling   
Or just after.   

Icicles filled the long window   
With barbaric glass.   
The shadow of the blackbird   
Crossed it, to and fro.   
The mood   
Traced in the shadow   
An indecipherable cause.   

O thin men of Haddam,   
Why do you imagine golden birds?   
Do you not see how the blackbird   
Walks around the feet   
Of the women about you?   

I know noble accents   
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;   
But I know, too,   
That the blackbird is involved   
In what I know.   

When the blackbird flew out of sight,   
It marked the edge   
Of one of many circles.   

At the sight of blackbirds   
Flying in a green light,   
Even the bawds of euphony   
Would cry out sharply.   

He rode over Connecticut   
In a glass coach.   
Once, a fear pierced him,   
In that he mistook   
The shadow of his equipage   
For blackbirds.   

The river is moving.   
The blackbird must be flying.   

It was evening all afternoon.   
It was snowing   
And it was going to snow.   
The blackbird sat   
In the cedar-limbs.