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.

			

Furnace Backstory

furnace2
[This week I’ve been covered up with custom calligraphy orders, including one extensive project where I get to do traditional calligraphy and illuminated letters, which makes me excited every time I think about it! I’ll post some pictures a little further on in the process. In the meantime, I thought I’d share a fairly recent poem. This one was awarded the first-place prize in the 2018 Utmost Christian Writers Contest back in April and was first published as part of that contest.]

FURNACE BACKSTORY

Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold.
He set it up on the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon.
Tenderly the king took the bread from the mouths of the children,
tended to his own likeness like a hen broods over
the chicks under her heartbeat.

The king was consumed with his significant self;
he dwelt at the mirror and spun his sonnets there,
and into his circle of devotion he took the whole world.
All the world is pouring out into Dura
like threads of ants to a crisped cricket on the black leaves.

Isn’t a crowd like a large beast looking for something to kneel to?
Their eyes are hungry for divinity, their ears are cups
to catch the fifes, the tubas, and the big kettledrum.
Point but a finger and you fell them:
There in the soft gold is your god!

Once upon a time we believed in a sea-splitter, a bush-flame,
a harvest of water from cliff,
snowflakes of honey flowering in the fields.
The I Am spun out the novas like tops –
who is this housebound heap of mute metal?

The born-abroad boys have their hands up already,
ready to host handcuffs and the looped iron.
Their laughter is like all the bluebells that jubilate the meadows.
They are like three men who met death on a whim
and struck up a downright neighborly acquaintance with her.

Copyright ©2018 Bryana Johnson Beaird

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.

We Should Talk More About The Country

Nasmith
We walk roads that seem endless but we know they’ll be tapering off like a candle with a thread all out of wax. And if you’re on a trail of tears, the finish line might seem like a release. But if this little jaunt has been a party, the fact that it gives way to long strings of funerals sometimes makes everything seem like a pretty expensive waste. I wish we would talk more about the country we’re coming home to – in friend groups speculating about the future and in worship and at work and with the scores of somebodies on the street.

I tried to express this some months ago in a little poem. This week, that poem won a quite special prize over Utmost Christian Writers, and so I thought I would share it with all of you.

Have a glad week, all you born-abroad ambassadors of the Kingdom of Heaven!

WE SHOULD TALK MORE ABOUT THE COUNTRY

I.
The summer had besieged us like armies, like slow wildfire, like cruelty
and when the high sea broke open and bled white water it was high time.
We did not see it like that: with eyes greedy for justice and gaping.
We were growing older, expected less and less, and celebrated everything:
the crinkled white leaves in the wet hearts of beans, bellicose mosquitoes,
gnats like stardust in the fire-wind, charred asparagus needles,
thin tea, and the yellow teeth under the tongues of purple snapdragons.
We were old enough to be thoroughly happy about the pond hosting
black-winged whistler ducks with beaks like bursts of flame, the garden
making a home for rugged white parsnips and the green pebbles of peas;
to relish donuts like spun sugar, trees shedding water like tears,
nightbirds in the moonful sky, and the steady drip of rain through our dreams.

II.
After a time, even drought-break and jubilation begin to taste of sadness.
When we stand in the pool of our contentment, wearing each other’s presence
like a coat of many smiles, we will never stand here again, never with the
water hurtling off of the shingles, and the ants chewing our naked toes,
never with the baby tangling his pink fingers in our hair and our mouths
glad with songs, and our hearts full like hosed cells of celery.

III.
We should talk more of the country we are coming home to, and less
of the land we are living in like unhomed swallows on the waves of the sky,
like beached sailboats straining at the bar, their wings clapping the salty air.
Talk of the houses that are waiting behind yellow curtains to be filled
with laughing and the lilting piano, and puddled crushed citrus spiking the rooms.
Swaying in our rocking-chairs and wrapped in our respective twilights,
we should not speak of our histories as though we stood before the banquet
of delights and were too easy on our dinnerware. We should not speak
of what has been and will never be again. We should talk about what has
never been, though we have been waiting for it all our lives. Talk of the gold
city that shall break on our sight like rain on brittle grass, when we shall go
up from the house of slavery and swing over the threshold of the promised land.

The Little Drummer Boy: A Love Story

StarI learned to love Jesus at Christmas-time. I mean the kind of loving where your heart dances right over some of its beats. Where you become the sort of fool who sings in the grocery store and the parking lot on just ordinary days because you don’t know what to do with all that happiness.

This was three years ago and it wasn’t like beforehand I wasn’t trying. But there’s a difference, says an uncle of mine, between loving Jesus and loving the idea of loving Jesus. And when I heard it, I was a little uneasy, a little afraid that was me. Because in the US of A it’s not hard to spend all your days with a label on your forehead that doesn’t match your labor and your living. It’s not hard to take possession of the form of godliness and forget about the fire altogether.

nativity2011 was the year of weighty drought and the summer that droned into November. Come December, I was low and just getting through my checklist. One grey day I heard a sappy song I’d heard every other year, and suddenly it made me hungry and grieved because “Baby Jesu, says the little drummer boy, “I am a poor boy too.” And,

I have no gift to bring
that’s fit to give a king.

I felt I was hearing a deeper lament than I could comprehend, a cry of deficiency welling up from an encounter with a glory I didn’t know about. I didn’t know what it was to be all wrapped up in this intense need to have something to give. And to be blocked out of this understanding was like being a homeless tramp locked out of a house full of lights and supper-steam and packages. I didn’t know about this kind of love.

Then, a few hours later, I did.

I had a late night writing a column and packing suitcases for the Christmas trip kicking off in the morning. When I fell into bed, it was already tomorrow and only a few sleeping-hours were left – but in those hours, how many things changed!

Because in a dream I was on my knees at the feet of the Desire of Nations, and time was utterly still and I wanted to never move an inch through all the eons ahead of us. Also, there was something else I hadn’t expected – there was this crying need to have something worth offering, to be something worth offering. And I wasn’t.

The words of the prophet seemed suddenly sensible:

Woe is me, for I am undone!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King,
The Lord of hosts
.

You can’t explain this agony of insufficiency to the unacquainted, just as no one could ever explain it to me but my own two eyes. You can’t explain how it’s at one time brilliant and terrifying, woeful and wildly glad, how when you meet the Pearl at the heart of the planet and it’s everything you are not, you’re at once so reassured and so regretful that you can’t be sure if you should laugh or cry.

When I woke out of this moment and was startled into my own humdrum house, the first thing to come was bleak disappointment. “Just lost when I was saved!” says Emily Dickinson of this kind of waking:

Just felt the world go by!
Just girt me for the onset with eternity,
When breath blew back,
And on the other side
I heard recede the disappointed tide!

Little Lamb scan esizeAfterwards, though, something else came – relief that there was time still left, days unwritten that could be sunk into the pursuit of a gift I wouldn’t be ashamed to pull out at the manger.

so to honor him
when we come

This is the hallmark of love – that it changes things because it changes us.

This year, in memory of this awakening of adoration, I put together a little poem, which if you read it I hope will drive you to remember the highest place of homage in your history — and get back to it as fast as you can.

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY

I am a poor boy too, I said
my knuckles are gnawed and split
but the black sky is split with song and I
can’t keep from hearing it.

No, to the keepers of the sheep,
go on your merry way,
if I should see the baby, I
should never know what to say.

If I should see the baby and
his hair should be full of light,
I should go poorer than I came,
back to the ceaseless night.

I should go smitten with poverty,
– I who was never full –
emptied because found empty
in the face of the beautiful.

What if I sit at the cradle and
gnaw on my knuckles and weep?
Weep for the emptiness of my hands,
the hours, the waste and the sleep?

Over the hills and far away,
how can I block out the bells?
They are threading the paths like rivers
and the ribbon of music swells.

Suppose I should creep to the manger,
put my knees in the dirt for awhile,
and suppose the baby should look at me
and suppose the baby should smile