A Poem from Christmas past

From my 2009 book Clampdown, this Christmas poem with a pagan title, Modranicht.

Mother Night

Right before the darkness turned around
and began to head in the other direction,
I had a dream that you and I were decorating
the Christmas tree and I asked you,
as we hung the aging trinkets—the crippled
pine-cone elf, the dry construction-paper Santa,
the several odd souvenirs from cultures
both Christian and un-Christian,
bought by my well-meaning parents
in homage to that naïve dream
formerly known as the “family of man”—
“How much goodwill would it take
on this cold mid-winter’s eve
to renew the genuine warmth
we used to feel towards one another?
How many prayers of peace,
or mummer’s carols, how many joyous songs,
with saturnine themes and themes solemn too,
how many earnest petitions?”
After untangling the string of mini-lights
with uncustomary ease, we passed
the neat lasso of green wire around
the sticky sap and slightly prickly needles.
With a confidence not unbecoming,
you looked me in the eyes and said:
“For you I guarantee that, by the end
of the season, sympathy and tender care
will outreach judgment and critique.
Two late-century soldiers will meet
in the desert, lay down their arms and embrace;
Martin Luther, out walking at midnight
will be awestruck by the elegant stars
peeking luminous through the German trees;
holly & ivy will grow up through the snow—
the burning bush, the drops of blood—
and Father Christmas, astride a goat,
Kristkindl, Christ child, abolitionist,
a jovial elf, slender pipe in hand,
will rouse the Union soldiers to their
grim task again; and then, in homage
to these, and other half-reasoned-out rituals,
you and I will go hand in hand,
and hang a sprig of sage-colored mistletoe
on the arc of the new bassinet.”

Delirious I awoke from these words,
got out of bed, and tip-toed to the living room
to sneak a peek at the tree. There was thin silence
and the smell of pine. In the uncanny snowlight
the enchantment of the expectant scene
was no less powerful than when, as a child,
I had been entranced by the magical appearance
of the festive packages under the tree.
“Time of the wheel,” Yuletide,
the old solar tricks and the hopes
of what the New Year might hold in store:
dreams fulfilled and heavenly peace or,
it struck me, as a tractor-trailer passed
and shook the darkened house, perhaps
we’re on the eve of some fortune
less propitious. On this cheerless
point of suspicion, the folk personages
on the Christmas tree, with their frozen smiles
and arthritic postures, seemed, as they bobbed
their heads up and down, to agree with me.

“Mother Night” was written during Christmas of 2002, a few months before the start of the Iraq war. It was first published in Explosive magazine 9 in 2003, and will soon be included in an anthology of that same magazine.

The Darkness Surrounds Us

 

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