Last December, I put up my poem “Given.” It’s probably my best work, my magnum opus. When I was writing about it, I realized it was based on the chorale from Handel’s Messiah “For Unto Us a Son Is Born,” which is based on Isaiah 9:6.
Here’s the thing: I don’t have another Christmas poem for today. Here’s another thing: My oldest grandson has informed me that poetry is hard and no one likes it. As if I didn’t know. One of my favorite poems is by Marianne Moore, a great American poet. One of her best is called, aptly “Poetry.” And yes I did too read it to my grandson just as I’d read it to freshmen comp students for years. It opens like this: “I, too, dislike it.” Yes, lots of poems are ridiculous, and it’s perfectly understandable not to like them. Others are great.
But my purpose today is not to convert you to poetry. I don’t sit around reading it. I do walk around listening to it, via a podcast called, aptly, “The Daily Poem.” David Kern selects a poem, gives the tiniest background on the poet, reads it aloud, makes the tiniest comments, and reads it again. Nine minutes at most. The poems are great, old or new, not what sometimes passes for modern jibber-jabber poetry, and worth my time. Several weeks ago, he read his very own mother’s poem. Her name is Luci Shaw, and the poem is called “Mary’s Song.” She writes about it here, where we learn that it’s her favorite of her poems and that it’s been set to music (by the Norwegian composer Knut Nysdedt) and that she lives in Bellingham, Washington, home of my son’s in-laws. She attends St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and perhaps my son will go meet her this year. So, small world.
“Mary’s Song” is based on Ecclesiastes 11:5 “As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all.” It wasn’t just any baby born that night. It was He who had organized the earth and all that is in it and the universe, too. Yet, He had never in the flesh visited. I also appreciate that Shaw includes His purpose, our redemption. He came not to live but to die, for us to live. It is an amazing circle.
Read this poem aloud, because that’s how it’s intended. Read slowly. Imagine that night of His coming to begin what had to be finished. When you say “Merry Christmas,” remember what all that entails.
Blue homespun and the bend of my breast
keep warm this small hot naked star
fallen to my arms. (Rest…
you who have had so far to come.)
Now nearness satisfies
the body of God sweetly. Quiet he lies
whose vigor hurled a universe. He sleeps
whose eyelids have not closed before.
His breath (so slight it seems
no breath at all) once ruffled the dark deeps
to sprout a world. Charmed by dove’s voices,
the whisper of straw, he dreams,
hearing no music from his other spheres.
Breath, mouth, ears, eyes
he is curtailed who overflowed all skies,
all years. Older than eternity, now he
is new. Now native to earth as I am, nailed
to my poor planet, caught
that I might be free, blind in my womb
to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth for me to be new-born,
and for him to see me mended
I must see him torn.