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Bethlehem Sonnets

 

“Say Heav’nly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein
Afford a present to the Infant God?
Hast thou no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain
To welcome him to this his new abode?”

John Milton, “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”

 

I

Whenever vagrants come, early or late

in the season, missing all the singing,

too slow for gaudy lights, symbols ringing

skies above the barn, the place smells from great

heaps of damp straw, steaming dung. The sweat

of bodies, human and beast, ripens fresh

and pungent from hours, days of cold, wet

patience, punctured by the noise and hot rush

of birth. Strong men, women crowd close, perhaps

used to attending creatures that can crush

an instep with one quick move. Full lungs gasp

their joy, wake the whole-spent night from its hush.

How the stable earth molds to humble knees,

so tired from working hard to bend and please.

 

2

In the hymns, everyone, in awe, stands still.

In paintings, sculpture, virginity’s gaze

looks as pure and smooth as perfect marble.

Poets mark cold comings and holy days

with sentiment, or doubt, or ignorance.

At the mall, Santa himself kneels to pray

by the Savior’s plastic manger, his hands

cupped on his lighted heart; near lay-away

the wise men carry speakers on their trail,

vibrating with carols. No art form fails

to understand how light and song can make

nativity bearable. See, it takes

all the time in the world to come this far.

We sing, paint, sell our way to where we are.

 

3

I prefer the brightly painted scenes. Child

and mother transfixed in light—winter wild

tamed like sheep, grazing, safe in the distance.

I was not raised to stand the constant stench,

to believe sand and blood and calluses

beautiful as stars. To view this mess as

miracle I will have to come stumbling

over myself, hurting to bend, mumbling

doubts and rising with anything but sense.

Lower my eyes from the sky. Make me wrench

neck and mind. What kind of disappointing

God arrives like an infant, anointing

its slight body with dust and afterbirth?

God’s wild, homeless scent, constant on my skin

from, just once, having knelt at Bethlehem.

 

David Wright lives and writes in Champaign, IL.

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