MAGI, GOING HOME Go home another way, it told us in a dream. Another way? What would an angel know about ways? We had to sell the camels and the slaves. Another way meant bad roads, no roads. We were not accustomed to walk, but walk we did till we bought a donkey. It was old and lame. We rode in turns. We were not accustomed to taking turns, nor to buying food ourselves. Now and then we begged, and more than once we slept in stables, in the straw— the only lodgings we could find after we were robbed of everything. But that’s another tale.
THE CRUELEST MONTH
Here, it’s March.
The back door was opened.
Now it’s closed.
We don’t know what to wear,
where to turn.
The petals of yesterday’s crocuses
are frightened stiff today.
And Lent, of course,
our season of deprivation.
The less you eat, the longer you live.
The dog has to go out, never mind chill below zero.
On this deserted street, through my muffled head
I hear the nine o’clock bells ringing
from the steeple of the Federated Church.
An old familiar carol.
I stop to listen while the dog sniffs
a plastic tricycle left beside the sidewalk.
“The world in solemn stillness lay” is it?
“To hear the angels sing”? Yes.
A pause, and then “Once in Royal David’s City.”
Through carelessness or a great kindness,
through the misery of March,
Christmas rises triumphant.
Now, through the instability of things,
I need this wild sweet music so much more
than I did in December’s beginning time.
There is a time to sing,
to eat and drink abundance,
a time to remember the return of light,
youth and brilliance, salvation,
the givenness of everything.
There is no one else on the street,
so I begin to sing along:
“with the poor, and mean, and lowly. . .”
The dog looks up at me, puzzling,
and wags her tail.
THE NEXT DAY
The women awakened before it was light
and gathered together some things she’d need.
They found her there, curled on her makeshift bed,
clumsily nursing the child at her breast.
Her husband was still sound asleep.
Surely the men were crazy, all the commotion.
Angels and voices in the sky.
A warrior or a king, or somesuch
come to free them from their lot.
Well that was fine.
But here was the inexperienced mother.
They covered the straw with the cloth they had brought,
and settled the baby more comfortably.
They fed her the potion
to make the blood stop and the milk come down.
A few sparrows stirred awake in the rafters.
No sign of an angel anywhere.
NAME THE PLACE
. . if you can, where a woman in black velvet
wears a hat constructed from balloons.
Before a roaring fire,
people are singing Nowell.
Banjo and fiddle, washtub bass and guitar
echo through the hall.
Now everyone is singing
An aproned man carves turkey.
A woman offers a bowl of potatoes.
Boys and girls run to and fro
bearing pitchers, and plates of cake.
A magician pulls
a rainbow from his mouth
while children shout
words to make it real.
Everyone is there:
a man who recently bought oxen,
the one who took a wife,
a woman from the highway,
a beggar from the hedge.
a man most inappropriately dressed,
Santa Claus, and look!
there’s that maiden, all in blue.
Who can tell about angels?
They pass over sleeping cities scattering death,
make appalling announcements,
play ominous music on brass instruments.
Who can tell?
She beckoned with her tiny index finger,
looked around to see if anyone would hear.
I leaned down so she could whisper in my ear:
Angels. Angels came to visit me in the night.
She’s been here only four years,
what can she know?
“Were they friendly?” I asked.
NO! she shouted, alarmed,
looked around again, whispered again,
They were VERY BIG.
They said “Shhhhh.”
This was told to me many years ago by a priest friend–the “I” in the poem.
Dear Santa Claus,
I learned long ago
that you were really my parents.
Dad built the doll beds
and Mom dressed the dolls.
Often my wishes were not
they had no money.
But I want to thank you anyhow
for the feeling I always had
on Christmas morning
when I woke in the dark
knowing that you had come.
Thank you for the certainty
that it was the light step
of your reindeer on the roof
that I’d heard. Thank you
for bringing me, sometimes,
better things than I’d wanted
even though I hadn’t been
very good: the ballerina
with jointed legs, the microscope
in the wooden box. I still
have them. And thank you
as well for the disappointments.
The cheap Betsy Wetsy knockoff.
The pale blue mohair sweater
comes to mind, too, though
by then, I’d stopped believing.
Life is complicated. Thank
you for teaching me that.
O, Santa, I want you back again.
I want the Christmas tree lighted
when I get up on Christmas morning.
I want an orange in my stocking.
On the table by the rocking chair
I want to find that empty plate and cup.
I want to hear again the faint jangle of bells;
I want a dust of snow on the living room floor.
I wrote this in 1998. Our son came home from a semester in England, and we met him at the airport. I hadn’t yet written my Christmas sermon. This is essentially the poetic version of the sermon that resulted. It was published in The Other Side the following year.
Drove to Boston, four hours in wet snow.
Already tired, late flight coming in,
and I’m preaching Christmas Day:
something about snowgeese, maybe,
the way they change the landscape
even after they’ve flown away–
the way God changed it once,
by making human footprints.
Half the world is here, waiting for planes.
A tall kid in a baseball hat
slouches around, looks at his watch, drinks a coke.
Passengers from France are surfacing.
The kid spots a first class woman in a suit
crisp and red as a poinsettia,
dances on his toes,
hollers, “Here Mom, over here!”
A thin woman from the back of the plane
stands still as the last tree in the lot,
touches one enameled fingertip to a shadowed eyelid,
shoulders a cheap vinyl bag.
Roaring into the crowd
–did he ride his Harley through this snow?–
a man in a motorcycle jacket
who has not forgotten her.
The lights come on all over town.
The plane from Lisbon lands,
the watchers shift and hum.
A tiny black-eyed boy breaks away,
screaming “POPPY! POPPY!”
runs through the NO UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL barrier
as if he’s authorized,
throws himself at an old man carrying an umbrella, a paper sack.
Poppy drops his burdens,
raises up the child.
I see ten thousand white geese.
I see starlight on the snow.
The plane from England touches down, taxies in.
The doors open.
When after all these months I see my son
I know that together we have one face,
the face of God,
of someone being born.
I wrote this back in 2003, (I think) after practicing “Messiah.” The mezzo was Wendy Hoffman-Farrell, and this poem is dedicated to her.
. . . I always used to believe he would,
but lately, with life wandering out of control–
beasts, sharp edges everywhere–
I have not been so sure.
Concentrating on my part–
the crazy alto timing in “He shall purify,”
the slippery bits in “Unto us”–
I was forgetting to listen.
But then her voice.
Not like light–
not clear, star-studded, disturbing,
the dangerous sky of a wild and wakeful night–
but close and warm and dark,
the safe dark when everything that can harm is asleep,
the comforting dark when you have been gathered up
and peek out at the puzzling world
from the folds of his robes,
the happiness of his encircling arms.