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”
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.
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.
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.