Saturday, December 20, 2014

Poetry for Christmas: Playlist for December 19, 2014


Messiah (Christmas Portions)

By Mark Doty b. 1953

A little heat caught

in gleaming rags,

in shrouds of veil,

   torn and sun-shot swaddlings: 

   over the Methodist roof,

two clouds propose a Zion

of their own, blazing

   (colors of tarnish on copper

   against the steely close

of a coastal afternoon, December,

while under the steeple

   the Choral Society 

   prepares to perform

Messiah, pouring, in their best

blacks and whites, onto the raked stage.

   Not steep, really,   

   but from here,

the first pew, they’re a looming

cloudbank of familiar angels:

   that neighbor who 

   fights operatically

with her girlfriend, for one,

and the friendly bearded clerk

   from the post office 

   —tenor trapped

in the body of a baritone? Altos

from the A&P, soprano

   from the T-shirt shop: 

   today they’re all poise,

costume and purpose

conveying the right note

   of distance and formality. 

   Silence in the hall,

anticipatory, as if we’re all

about to open a gift we’re not sure

   we’ll like; 

   how could they

compete with sunset’s burnished

oratorio? Thoughts which vanish,

   when the violins begin. 

   Who’d have thought

they’d be so good? Every valley,

proclaims the solo tenor,

   (a sleek blonde  

   I’ve seen somewhere before

—the liquor store?) shall be exalted,

and in his handsome mouth the word

   is lifted and opened 

   into more syllables

than we could count, central ah

dilated in a baroque melisma,

   liquefied; the pour

   of voice seems

to make the unplaned landscape

the text predicts the Lord

   will heighten and tame. 

   This music

demonstrates what it claims:

glory shall be revealed. If art’s

   acceptable evidence, 

   mustn’t what lies

behind the world be at least

as beautiful as the human voice?

   The tenors lack confidence, 

   and the soloists,

half of them anyway, don’t

have the strength to found

   the mighty kingdoms  

   these passages propose

—but the chorus, all together,

equals my burning clouds,

   and seems itself to burn,  

   commingled powers

deeded to a larger, centering claim.

These aren’t anyone we know;

   choiring dissolves 

   familiarity in an up-

pouring rush which will not

rest, will not, for a moment,

   be still. 

   Aren’t we enlarged

by the scale of what we’re able

to desire? Everything,

   the choir insists, 

   might flame;

inside these wrappings

burns another, brighter life,

   quickened, now, 

   by song: hear how

it cascades, in overlapping,

lapidary waves of praise? Still time.

   Still time to change.

REFLECTIVE MUSIC: Every Valley, from Messiah by G.F. Handel

Christmas Night

By Conrad Hilberry b. 1928

Let midnight gather up the wind  

and the cry of tires on bitter snow.  

Let midnight call the cold dogs home,  

sleet in their fur—last one can blow   

the streetlights out.   If children sleep  

after the day’s unfoldings, the wheel  

of gifts and griefs, may their breathing  

ease the strange hollowness we feel.   

Let midnight draw whoever’s left  

to the grate where a burnt-out log unrolls  

low mutterings of smoke until  

a small fire wakes in its crib of coals.

REFLECTIVE MUSIC: Machet die Tore weit by Andreas Hammerschmidt

The Oxen

By Thomas Hardy 1840–1928  

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.

“Now they are all on their knees,”

An elder said as we sat in a flock

By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where

They dwelt in their strawy pen,

Nor did it occur to one of us there

To doubt they were kneeling then. 

So fair a fancy few would weave

In these years! Yet, I feel,

If someone said on Christmas Eve,

“Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb

Our childhood used to know,”

I should go with him in the gloom,

Hoping it might be so.

REFLECTIVE MUSIC: The Nativity Carol by John Rutter

by Henry Vaughan

SO, stick up ivy and the bays,
And then restore the heathen ways.
Green will remind you of the spring,
Though this great day denies the thing ;
And mortifies the earth, and all
But your wild revels, and loose hall.
Could you wear flow'rs, and roses strow
Blushing upon your breasts' warm snow,
That very dress your lightness will
Rebuke, and wither at the ill.
The brightness of this day we owe
Not unto music, masque, nor show,
Nor gallant furniture, nor plate,
But to the manger's mean estate.
His life while here, as well as birth,
Was but a check to pomp and mirth ;
And all man's greatness you may see
Condemned by His humility.

    Then leave your open house and noise,
To welcome Him with holy joys,
And the poor shepherds' watchfulness,
Whom light and hymns from Heav'n did bless.
What you abound with, cast abroad
To those that want, and ease your load.
Who empties thus, will bring more in ;
But riot is both loss and sin.
Dress finely what comes not in sight,
And then you keep your Christmas right.

REFLECTIVE MUSIC: Dies natalis by Gerald Finzi


Moon upon the swarth

cut fresh

and horsemen, thundering silhouettes

not heard, like swarthy ghosts.

Air rippled by their passing,


the play revealed.

Courtiers and courtesans,

mothers and their children, dancing,

firefly lanthorns,

music faint, far distant,

off-stage laughter.

Low-bellied creatures wet with dew

run this way, back,


A meadowlark, out of time,

sings counter to the pantomime. 

The meadowlark in time calls from its post;

"gather up your joy," bids garter'd host. 

Viol, recorder, sackbut, sound their chord;

the players grin, their hands joined in accord:

Our scripts thus done, we have no more to say,

so take our bows, and by your leave--good day. 

Rob Stuart

REFLECTIVE MUSIC: Allemande (16th century), Anonymous.

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