A Poem for Post-Christmas

20181224_123008 (1)This year, I spent Christmas in the Dallas Fort Worth metroplex and in all honesty, it was hard. It was sweet that Alex and I finally got to spend our very first Christmas together and it was sweet to have quality time with his family and take part in different traditions. But for the first time in many years, I didn’t get to take a starlight walk through a field and imagine the chorus of angels behind the silence. I didn’t perch atop a hay bale under a barn roof and journal with half-numb fingers about the glorious implications of lesser-known Christmas carols. There are no fields here, of course, and certainly no hay bales. What’s more to the point, there is no space for solitude in nature, and I’m finding more and more that productive reflection and rest is really difficult for me to achieve indoors.

One thing I did do was spend two full afternoons in an upscale shopping mall, hiding out in a bookstore and looking for some soul peace. On Christmas Eve, I was there the whole afternoon, thumbing through poetry books, vaguely looking for something to anchor my anxious heart.

The triviality of the world can be stifling and I think we all feel it at different times and in different ways. I feel it most when I’m in the presence of hopeless materialism, when I’m watching people get bogged down and burdened by the tightening chains of things that are without longevity, purpose or meaning. And of course, there’s nowhere like the mall if you want to get yourself a load of that.

One of the books I explored that afternoon in the bookstore was Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems For Hard Times. In his introductory notes, Keillor explains why he thinks poetry has something to contribute to people who are suffering. “The meaning of poetry,” he says, “is to give courage.” And that stuck with me. Because ah. That is what I chiefly need.

Since I couldn’t find any poems that spoke to what I was feeling, I started scratching out a brand new one, pouring my sadness and frustration into lyrical words. But, as so often happens, hope happened at the end of it.

This poem is meant to push back on the dangerous idea that what we’re up against today is somehow worse or less conquerable than what has been in the past. For a traditional artist like me, whose heart beats faster at the sight of hard-copy letters and old-fashioned style and the texture of paper, who feels a sadness in the pit of my stomach when I see isolation creeping into culture or the price of postage going always up; well, this is vital.

It’s vital that Jesus came into a horrible, horrible, world where nothing made sense and everyone was confused. Where truth was murky and beauty was treacherous and self-preservation was central. These things have always been, taking one form or another. And that’s vital.

It’s vital for post-Christmas, when we’re trying to get ready for the new year, for the sorrows that are inevitable, for the loneliness of being human, for the days when faith doesn’t seem to fit anywhere.

Star Of Bethlehem FlowerThe title of the poem refers to the ornithogalum flower, also known as the “Star of Bethlehem.” I took an interest in it earlier this month when I was working on the January edition of the Letters From the Sea Tower. I wanted to make a little illustration for a striking line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. In his exploration of the mythos of King Arthur, Tennyson employs the phrase, “wearing the white flower of a blameless life,” and I chose the small, unobtrusive, starry ornithogalum to be my model for the white flower. But as I began to write this poem, it came to me that if a white flower is a representation of a blameless life, there is someone who wore it far better than even King Arthur. Here’s to Him.

And without further ado, here’s my little poem. May it bring you some courage to face the shallowness of the world with limitless grace and cheerful defiance. May your life in some kind resemble the humble, white-flower life of Jesus.

STAR OF BETHLEHEM [Ornithogalum]

The world was just this way
 	when
Baby Jesus bloomed in the
 	crisp winter and the frost
 		couldn’t wilt him.
People then as now
 	were lost in the unnavigable maze of the self
little guessing there was
 	around any corner
a turn into a passage fragrant
 	with fresh air
 	 	and the urgent invitations of the gulls.
People then as now
 	were shelling out their small, limitless lives
 	for those briefest of commodities:
		pleasure and applause
when Christ came low and
 	behold
the white flower of paradise opening
 	gently in the carpet
 		of the grass.

			

Kilmurvey House

kilmurvey
I’m not in Ireland today, but the grey sky in West Texas has been pouring steady water for over twenty-four hours. When I went running down the flooded little streets in the drippy dusk earlier, I lingered over my memories of wet days in the Aran Islands back in March.

And I decided to post this little poem that I wrote earlier this week in Dr. Bob Fink’s creative writing workshop. The poem was an attempt to distill the essence of my experience at Kilmurvey House, a lovely historic stone home that serves as a lodging-place for island visitors.

The photo included here is not my own, but it is just how I remember Kilmurvey House. The lighted window on the right side of the picture is the window into the “rose tea-room” mentioned in the poem – a room where my now-fiancé and I read a little book of W.B. Yeats’ poetry on a wet, wet day much like this one.

IMG_0567The poem I most clearly recall reading was “Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?” because we discussed it at some length and questioned whether cynicism is a natural accompaniment for age and, if so, whether it must be?

Yeats famously visited the Aran Islands in 1896 and told J.M. Synge: “Go to the Aran Islands, and find a life that has never been expressed in literature.” Kilmurvey House was standing when Yeats was on the island, but no one in our group was certain whether he ever went there specifically.

When I first set out to write this poem, I wanted to know for sure – I thought it was important to the poem. But as I began to think about it more deeply, I realized that this small fact is immaterial in the scheme of things. What matter is that I was there, reading Yeats and wrestling with what he said and I wanted to give words to that experience. So this is my best attempt.

KILMURVEY HOUSE


No single story would they find
Of an unbroken happy mind,
A finish worthy of the start.
       (W.B. Yeats, Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?
)

I don’t know if Yeats ever came here or not
on a pitching ferry passing
the wild atlantic way the saltgrass air in his nose
the gulls wheeling.

There are always red coals in the rose tea room
the kettle about to bubble
and the little warm milk pods in the bowl on the
ancient piano.

Why should not old men be mad? Even the ocean
is white with rage
throwing beaten egg stones up on the beach
howling in the boulders.

Yet will you sit with me here in the circle
of bodhran thunder and light?
Sometimes the mind breaks and spills
birdlike solos.