The Day of Gifts
BY paul claudel
TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH BY JONATHAN MONROE GELTNER
It’s not true that Your saints have won everything: they left me with sins enough.
Someday I’ll lie on my deathbed, Lord, ill-shaven and yellow as a lifelong drunk.
And I’ll make a general examination of myself, looking back over all my days,
And I’ll see that I’m rich after all, ripe and rich with evil in its unnumbered paths and ways.
I haven’t lost one single chance, Lord, to make matter for You to pardon.
Now I hearten myself with vice, having long ago sloughed off virtue’s burden.
Each day has its own kind of crime, plain to see, and I count them like some paranoid miser.
If what you need, Lord, are virgins, if what you need are brave men beneath your standard;
If there are people for whom to be Christian words alone would not suffice,
But who know rather that only in stirring themselves to chase after You is there any life,
Well then there’s Dominic and Francis, Saint Lawrence and Saint Cecilia and plenty more!
But if by chance You should have need of a lazy and imbecilic bore,
If a prideful coward could prove useful to You, or perhaps a soiled ingrate,
Or the sort of man whose hard heart shows up in a hard face—
Well, anyway, You didn’t come to save the just but that other type that abounds,
And if, miraculously, You run out of them elsewhere . . . Lord, I’m still around.
And what kind of a man is so crude that he hasn’t held a little something back from You,
Hasn’t in his free time fashioned something special for You,
Hoping that one day the idea will come to You to ask it of him,
And maybe this little that he’s made himself, kept back until then, though horrid and tortuous, will please Your whim.
It would be something that he’d put his whole heart into, something useless and malformed.
Just like that my little daughter once, on my birthday, teetered forward with encumbered arms
And offered me, her heart at once full of timidity and pride,
A magnificent little duck she had made with her own two hands, a pincushion, made of red wool and gold thread.
REFLECTIVE MUSIC: Motets for Christmas by Francis Poulenc
December 24, 1971
BY joseph brodsky
When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.
At the grocers’ all slipping and pushing.
Where a tin of halvah, coffee-flavored,
is the cause of a human assault-wave
by a crowd heavy-laden with parcels:
each one his own king, his own camel.
Nylon bags, carrier bags, paper cones,
caps and neckties all twisted up sideways.
Reek of vodka and resin and cod,
orange mandarins, cinnamon, apples.
Floods of faces, no sign of a pathway
toward Bethlehem, shut off by blizzard.
And the bearers of moderate gifts
leap on buses and jam all the doorways,
disappear into courtyards that gape,
though they know that there’s nothing inside there:
not a beast, not a crib, nor yet her,
round whose head gleams a nimbus of gold.
Emptiness. But the mere thought of that
brings forth lights as if out of nowhere.
Herod reigns but the stronger he is,
the more sure, the more certain the wonder.
In the constancy of this relation
is the basic mechanics of Christmas.
That’s what they celebrate everywhere,
for its coming push tables together.
No demand for a star for a while,
but a sort of good will touched with grace
can be seen in all men from afar,
and the shepherds have kindled their fires.
Snow is falling: not smoking but sounding
chimney pots on the roof, every face like a stain.
Herod drinks. Every wife hides her child.
He who comes is a mystery: features
are not known beforehand, men’s hearts may
not be quick to distinguish the stranger.
But when drafts through the doorway disperse
the thick mist of the hours of darkness
and a shape in a shawl stands revealed,
both a newborn and Spirit that’s Holy
in your self you discover; you stare
skyward, and it’s right there:
REFLECTIVE MUSIC: Christmas Eve by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov
BY brenda shaughnessy
If only you’d been a better mother.
How could I have been a better mother?
I would have needed a better self,
and that is a gift I never received.
So you’re saying it’s someone else’s fault?
The gift of having had a better mother myself,
my own mother having had a better mother herself.
The gift that keeps on not being given.
Who was supposed to give it?
How am I supposed to know?
Well, how am I supposed to live?
I suppose you must live as if you had been
given better to live with. Comb your hair, for instance.
I cut off my hair, to sell for the money
to buy you what you wanted.
I wanted nothing but your happiness.
I can’t give you that!
What would Jesus do?
He had a weird mother too . . .
Use the myrrh, the frankincense, as if
it were given unconditionally, your birthright.
It’s a riddle.
All gifts are a riddle, all lives are
in the middle of mother-lives.
But it’s always winter in this world.
There is no end to ending.
The season of giving, the season
when the bears are never cold,
because they are sleeping.
The bears are never cold, Mama,
but I am one cold, cold bear.
REFLECTIVE MUSIC: Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child
BY brad leithauser
There was a vase
that held the world’s riches, but it wasn’t cheap.
It cost a dime — and this in a time and place
when dimes were sizable, especially for
a girl of eight whose construction-worker father
was unemployed. The old metaphor
was literal in this case and she
counted her pennies till there were ten —
then embarked on a mission of great secrecy,
a purchase whose joys ran so deep,
seventy years later, as she told the tale again,
her face flushed. It was a birthday gift for her mother.
There was a race
of people heretofore glimpsed only on hanging scrolls
in library books. They were on the vase —
the smallest whole figures imaginable,
purposeful and industrious
as they fished or planted rice or hiked a hill
whose spiral trail led to a temple perched upon
a crag between cloud and waterfall.
They were a vision exported from Japan —
a country far as the moon, and far more beautiful,
whose artists grasped an eight-year-old girl’s soul’s
need for the minutely amplitudinous.
There was a place
(Detroit, the thirties) now slipped from sight,
though here and there I’ll catch some holdover trace —
maybe the grille on an old apartment door,
or a slumped block of houses, draped
in torn sheets of rain, apparently posing for
black-and-white photographs. Even the out-
of-a-job, men like my grandfather, donned hats back then
before leaving the house — to circle endlessly about,
as if a lost job were a lost coin that might
yet be found on the street where it had been dropped,
making them whole again.
There was a face,
rucked with care, that would dreamily soften
if talk floated off toward some remote someplace
beyond the seas. My grandmother had a yen for the faraway
(which she imparted to her daughter),
even as her life was tethered between a gray
icy motionless Midwestern city —
stalled like a car with a frozen ignition —
and a Tennessee farm without electricity.
(She did once see Washington — cherry season — and often
spoke of those long pink walkways beside the water
that were Japan’s gift to a grateful nation.)
There is a vase —
a piece of gimcrack that somehow
made its way to a crowded curio case
in a small souvenir shop
in Detroit, seventy-plus years ago —
which today stands atop
the mantel in the apartment in DC
where my fading mother is now living.
When she was eight, in 1933,
she gave it to my grandmother, who
for all her poverty bequeathed her daughter so
rich a bounty, including a taste for giving:
the gift of grace.
It seems a little miracle
almost — that it’s intact, the little vase,
conveying what its makers set out to convey:
an inward island spared by Time,
by the times. These days, she can scarcely say
who she gave it to, or on what occasion.
A — birthday? The pilgrim climbs the winding hill
forever, station by station,
and “Isn’t it beautiful?”
she asks. “You bought it for a dime,”
I tell her. It holds the world’s riches still.
REFLECTIVE MUSIC: Epigraphs antiques by Claude Debussy
To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.
I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.
Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.
Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.
REFLECTIVE MUSIC: (not available)