Words about the beginning

by
20 December 2013

Five poets take an imaginative view of the Christmas story

HER MAKER'S MAKER

Michael Symmons Roberts

 

(ii)

From speed of light, to feet

of clay, wings outstretched

 

to slow him - at first I took

that bird for Gabriel come back,

 

but no. It was a great white stork,

a refugee, sweeping over lakes

 

of wheat and barley. On fertile

slopes it broke from flight

 

to pick a viper from the soil,

to dodge its lash and curl,

 

to win the fight in silence.

We took this as a sign for us,

 

its fellow migrants. Days we ride

towards the house of bread,

 

to Bethlehem. The boy I carry twists

and shifts like a fish

 

who has outgrown the ocean.

He grinds against my bones,

 

his feet kick at my ribs so hard

he almost breaks my heart.

 

At night, I wake up in the cold

beneath the open sky. He is still.

 

I lie awake in terror that I've let

him down, lost him in the darkness.

 

I listen to the wolves cry

at the shepherds' distant fires,

 

I wait until at last I feel him move,

my agony, my Lord, my love.

 

 

 

 

(iii)

He is still my flesh and blood,

though he is not my secret.

 

Milk weeps from me when he cries,

he watches me for hours,

 

my quiet witness, wide-eyed

for the first time in his world.

 

I show him all we made of his

creation, colours of injustice:

 

women slaving in the fields to cut

the flax, to steal the ice-blue beauty

 

of its flowers, the oil pressed

from its yellow seeds,

 

strong fibres teased out

of its stalks, so rich high priests

 

and kings can drape in

robes of lustrous purple linen.

 

We took him to the temple

to give thanks. We bought two turtle

 

doves as offerings. No shame:

we cannot afford a lamb.

 

On our journey home, a woman

gave to us a sheet of linen:

 

"New-made for a king", she said,

"a cloak, a net, a sail, a shroud."

 

 

 

MARY

Anthony Wilson

 

At first a fluttering

then a kick,

his fist pummelling my ribcage

when I knelt to pray.

 

They sent me away,

my belly burgeoning

shame on his name,

his eyes looking right through me.

 

Amazed, he took me back.

He muttered

he'd seen him too

but best not mention it in company.

 

I sang then,

hymning prophecies

that were poetry

inventing themselves on my tongue.

 

The riots and the cold

you know about.

The roadblocks.

That donkey.

 

Let me tell you

nothing prepares you

for that O

cracking your pelvis,

 

his fists flailing in air

as if from nowhere,

tarnished wings

of an angel.

 

They say I said nothing

but treasured these things in my

heart.

Pain overruled my throat

and hasn't stopped since.

 

None of us gives birth

in silence.

I was no one's favourite girl

till this.

 

 

 

BETHLEHEM, EASTER, 2002

Pádraig Ó Tuama

 

Arrived, in a dark

pitching, two thousand and

two wintertimes ago.

 

Warmed by animal heat

and the nighttime sweat of

his exhausted mother

 

surrounded by angels,

singing peace and pleasure

to all who follow,

 

while timid shepherds bring

kind gifts - a lamb, a reassurance -

a gentle prophecy for

long years ahead.

 

And now, huddled in

the hidden corners

of nativity's cathedral

 

lie fighting men

and praying men,

warmed by each others' blood

and the nighttime sweat

of tired vigilance.

 

They are surrounded

by the keepers of Zion.

Those seen,

and those unseen.

 

And their harmony together

is found in rounds of fire

and occupation

seeing occupation

and resistance of each other.

 

Today, I saw a white clothed nun

scurry like a frightened animal

past a greek cloaked tank.

Her prayers, I'm sure,

are ones for safety for two troubled

peoples,

for quiet ambles round Monday

morning markets,

for stars of promise to

shine again in Bethlehem.

 

 

 

CHRISTMAS ON THE EDGE

Malcolm Guite

 

Christmas sets the centre on the

edge;

The edge of town, out-buildings of

an inn,

The fringe of empire, far from

privilege

And power, on the edge and outer

spin

Of turning worlds, a margin of small

stars

That edge a galaxy itself light years

From some unguessed-at cosmic

origin.

Christmas sets the centre at the

edge.

 

And from this day our world is re-aligned;

A tiny seed unfolding in the womb

Becomes the source from which we

all unfold

And flower into being. We are

healed,

The End begins, the tomb becomes

a womb,

For now in him all things are

re-aligned.

 

 

 

DESCENT

Malcolm Guite

 

They sought to soar into the skies,

Those classic gods of high renown,

For lofty pride aspires to rise,

But you came down.

 

You dropped down from the mountains sheer,

Forsook the eagle for the dove,

The other Gods demanded fear,

But you gave love.

 

Where chiseled marble seemed to

freeze

Their abstract and perfected form,

Compassion brought you to your knees,

Your blood was warm.

 

They called for blood in sacrifice,

Their victims on an altar bled,

When no one else could pay the

price,

You died instead.

 

They towered above our mortal

plain,

Dismissed this restless flesh with

scorn,

Aloof from birth and death and

pain,

But you were born.

 

Born to these burdens, borne by all

Born with us all 'astride the grave,'

Weak, to be with us when we fall,

And strong to save.

 

 

YEW NATIVITY

Martyn Halsall

 

A farmer, reached for his carving

tools, began

shaping from yew the cast list of

Nativity;

shepherds and three wise men with

gifts,

a donkey, parked camel, and a spare

collie dog

that had wandered out of the night,

and into history.

 

Three became one in the centre of

the shed,

the father in a sort of teaching gown,

Edwardian hairstyle, more of an

Oxford don

than expert with chisels that the

farmer knew.

He shields his wife with downward

arms, before cock-crow.

 

And she's intent; whole world a pool

of a face

just visible in the shielding folds of

her lap,

still part of her. Her face softened

with thought

of whom this child could be, and

where he might

travel and gather others with his

teaching.

Her quiet recognition of his secret.

 

Still visitors come; lords, shepherds

and carpenters,

others who watch to see if the

figures move

or note how varnish enhances the

flow of a cloak,

how a knot forms scab to blemish a

camel's hump,

reminder of the miles, burden and

wear.

Dark mark on a crown, going home

by a different route.

 

Wild grain's disclosed in this typical

churchyard tree,

lunch stop for fieldfares, redwings

flocking together

to the southern side of winter. Planed shoulders are cloaked,

muscles varnished in opened arms

offering a casket;

a wondering face, puckered to a

question mark,

reflects in the teardrop portrait of

the baby.

 

Scene's set in straw, on sacking.

Slatted wall's North,

thin shielding from a January in

Cumbria,

open to the south's thin, winter

light. Brief flames

from candles lit as prayers list from

the draught

yet animate each yew face, reflect

their searching.

Poets in print

The Singing Bowl by Malcolm Guite, Canterbury Press, £10.99 (CT Bookshop £9.90); Martyn Halsall wrote "Yew Tree" as Poet in Residence at Carlisle Cathedral; Sorry for Your Troubles by Pádraig Ó Tuama, Canterbury Press, £9.99 (£9); Drysalter by Michael Symmons Roberts, Jonathan Cape, £12 (£10.80); "Her Maker's Maker" first appeared in a limited-edition pamphlet from Phoenix Press; Riddance by Anthony Wilson, Worple Press, £10.

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