Poetry “Friday”: Christmas 2013

The prolonged blog outage continues—my apologies to you faithful readers—as we continue to adjust schedules and devote ourselves to the raising of a now slightly-more-than-six-weeks-old daughter.  But I cannot leave December wholly unblogged, nor can I bear to skip my tradition of offering a little poem here as Christmas nears.  I strive, as I always do on these religious holidays that mean something to me but only to some of you, to find a poem that both captures what I love about the holiday and still has (I think) something that would speak to someone who doesn’t experience these days through the lens of my faith.  I am, perhaps understandably, musing this year on the idea of birth, of the arrival of a child, and that combines with my persistent interest in Christmas as a holiday where the earth is somehow nearer another realm—underneath the materialism and commercialism which it is almost cliché to descry, there is a still space where this world is moved by something else.  And I think this year, Edwin Muir captures these feelings for me as well as any poet, with his poem “The Annunciation”:

“The angel and the girl are met.
Earth was the only meeting place.
For the embodied never yet
Travelled beyond the shore of space.
The eternal spirits in freedom go.

See, they have come together, see,
While the destroying minutes flow,
Each reflects the other’s face
Till heaven in hers and earth in his
Shine steady there. He’s come to her
From far beyond the farthest star,
Feathered through time.  Immediacy
of strangest strangeness is the bliss
That from their limbs all movement takes.
Yet the increasing rapture brings
So great a wonder that it makes
Each feather tremble on his wings.

Outside the window footsteps fall
Into the ordinary day
And with the sun along the wall
Pursue their unreturning way.
Sound’s perpetual roundabout
Rolls its numbered octaves out
And hoarsely grinds its battered tune.

But through the endless afternoon
These neither speak nor movement make,
But stare into their deepening trance
As if their gaze would never break.”

I think the poem wins me fast, with that opening line.  A simple declarative statement—no names, as though “the angel” and “the girl” are the only angel and girl we could possibly imagine, as though no other angel or girl could occur to us now.  And the tension and anticipation in the simplicity of “are met”: have we been waiting for this news?  It comes to us as though whispered by the underground resistance—the two are met.  Something is on the move tonight.  The signal has been given.

And then the poem just tears into the idea of time, a recurring fascination here (see my entire series on Eliot’s Four Quartets, for instance)—the “destroying minutes”, the strangeness of an angel being “feathered through time” (what could that mean?), the idea that somehow the impossibility and rapture of the moment call a halt to everything surrounding.  We are looking into a fixed point, like gazing over the edge of a black hole or into a painting, but somehow it is all very real, very alive, almost more alive than we are in its frozen perfection.  Beyond us goes the world in motion, the grinding of sounds like a barrel organ, but something captures us in orbit at the edge here.  The poem does not resolve it for us—it leaves us caught there, observing.  The two never move on, do not so much as speak.  How many lifetimes will pass before the angel’s lips part and say “hail”?  The poem is unconcerned.

I will not try to unpack the implicit theology here (I am grossly unqualified, and anyway I like it better as poem than as theology).  What I think lingers about the verse, and what I think may work for those of you for whom Christmas is merely a day off, or perhaps a nice day with family but no larger implications, is the way it grabs hold of what it might feel like to have a meeting that changes your life.  Despite the poem’s total lack of eros, I think the “love at first sight” experience probably carries some of the same flavor.  I imagine even less “relationshippy” meetings might carry the same weight—what it feels like to be a person confronted with the moment your existence was meant for.  Churchill holding the telegram declaring that France had fallen.  A few brave passengers locking eyes in the back of United 93.  Lincoln, late in the White House evening, considering the South’s final peace offer before the firing on Fort Sumter.  I like the magic that Muir plays with, the feeling of time being stripped off of us and leaving us frozen.

And of course for me and for some of you there is that added layer, that sense of all that had led to that angelic encounter and all that would follow.  The sense that creation might, in fact, pause and give space to that moment because in some ways all of the planet’s existence pivots around it.  I hope to capture a little of that feeling in the few days ahead, and in the long run I hope to share it with my daughter as, each year, I watch her grow past one Christmas after another.