Click on the pictures to see enlarged versions of the images.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Ring Out, Wild Bells

(The Bells by Henri Matisse,
1869-1954, French printmaker,
painter, and sculptor)

We now conclude the poems of December, rejoicing in the season for giving.

Best wishes for a Happy New Year, Dear Readers.


Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out thy mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

~ Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), English poet

Thursday, December 30, 2010

After Christmas

(Christmas Cardinal)

It’s almost the end of December, and we have been rejoicing in the season of giving.

“He who sows sparingly shall also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully shall also reap bountifully. Let each one give according as he has determined in his heart, not grudgingly or from compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” ~ 2 Corinthians 9:6-7


Darkness begins a
retreat: the cold light flows back
over the dead land.

Put the tree out now:
hang nuts on its branches — see feathered
decorations come.

Take down the Christmas
cards: arrowheads in the dust
point to spring cleaning.

Pull down the paper
chains: the room grows tall, the floor
deep in colored snow.

Cold bites deep: warm your
mind at Christmas memories
and look for snowdrops.

~ Michael Richards, English poet

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Day after the Day after Boxing Day

(A detail from Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs, born
1934, English illustrator, writer, and creator of graphic
novels and animated films, including the popular movie
The Snowman)

Today is actually one additional day after the day after the day after Boxing Day described in the poem below. This strangely named public holiday is observed on December 26 in such Commonwealth countries as England, Wales, and Canada. According to records of the early decades of the nineteenth century, on that day people put extra money in little boxes to give out to tradesmen and servants as end-of-the-year gifts.

Now-a-days, there are the usual lame jokes about fisticuffs breaking out all over the countryside. Most people, however, unaware of the old tradition, believe one of two theories about the source of the name: the household habit of discarding the Christmas wrappings and boxes or the widespread phenomenon of crowds rushing to the stores to return unwanted Christmas gifts they haven’t even taken out of their boxes.


On the day after the day after Boxing Day
Santa wakes up, eventually,
puts away his big red suit and wellies,
lets Rudolph and the gang out into the meadow
then shaves his head and beard.
He puts on his new new cool sunglasses,
baggy blue Bermuda shorts (he’s sick of red),
yellow stripy T-shirt that doesn’t quite cover his belly
and lets his toes breathe in flip-flops.

Packing a bucket and spade,
fifteen tubes of Factor Twenty suncream
and seventeen romantic novels,
he fills his Walkman with the latest sounds,
is glad to use a proper suitcase instead of the old sack
and heads off into the Mediterranean sunrise
enjoying the comforts of a Boeing 747
(although he passes on the free drinks).

Six months later,
relaxed, red and a little more than stubbly,
he looks at his watch, adjusts his wide-brimmed sunhat,
mops the sweat from his brow and strokes his chin,
wondering why holidays always seem to go so quickly.

~ Paul Cookson, born 1961, English poet

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Innocent's Song

Learning that the Magi had deceived him, that they would not be reporting back to him where they had found the babe they believed was destined to become the “King of the Jews,” Herod the Great ordered the death of all boys under two years of age in Bethlehem.

(Flight into Egypt by Jean-François Millet, 1814-1875,
French painter)

“Behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and remain there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.’ So he arose and took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt; and remained there until the death of Herod.” ~ Matthew. 2:13-15

(Massacre of the Innocents by Pieter Bruegel the Younger,
1564-1638, landscape painter from the Netherlands, son of
Bruegel the Elder)

“Herod, seeing that he had been tricked by the Magi, was exceedingly angry; and he sent and slew all the boys in Bethlehem and all its neighborhood who were two years old and under, according to the time that he had carefully ascertained from the Magi. Then was fulfilled what was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet: A voice was heard in Rama, weeping and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be comforted, because they are no more.” ~ Matthew 2: 16-18


Who’s that knocking on the window,
Who’s that standing at the door,
What are all those presents
Lying on the kitchen floor?

Who is the smiling stranger
With hair as white as gin,
What is he doing with the children
And who could have let him in?

Why has he rubies on his fingers,
A cold, cold crown on his head,
Why, when he caws his carol,
Does the salty snow run red?

Why does he ferry my fireside
As a spider on a thread,
His fingers made of fuses
And his tongue of gingerbread?

Why does the world before him
Melt in a million suns,
Why do his yellow, yearning eyes
Burn like saffron buns?

Watch where he comes walking
Out of the Christmas flame,
Dancing, double talking:

Herod is his name.

~ Charles Causley (1917-2003), English poet and writer

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Maid-Servant at the Inn

(Detail of The Nativity by Gerard David,
1455?-1523, painter from the Netherlands)


“It’s queer,” she said; “I see the light
As plain as I beheld it then,
All silver-like and calm and bright —
We’ve not had stars like that again!

“And she was such a gentle thing
To birth a baby in the cold.
The barn was dark and frightening —
This new one’s better than the old.

“I mind my eyes were full of tears,
For I was young, and quick distressed
But she was less than me in years
That held a son against her breast.

“I never saw a sweeter child —
The little one, the darling one! —
I mind I told her, when he smiled
You’d know he was his mother’s son.

“It’s queer that I should see them so —
The time they came to Bethlehem
Was more than thirty years ago;
I’ve prayed that all is well with them.”

~ Dorothy Parker (1893-1967), American writer of poems and short stories

Sunday, December 26, 2010

December 26

(A Christmas Story, 1983, starring Peter
Billingsley as Ralphie. It is Christmas
morning and Ralphie is wearing one of
his presents. “Aunt Clara had for years
labored under the delusion that I was
not only perpetually four years old but
also a girl.”)


A BB gun.
A model plane.
A basketball.
A ’lectric train.
A bicycle.
A cowboy hat.
A comic book.
A baseball bat.
A deck of cards.
A science kit.
A racing car.
A catcher’s mitt.
So that’s my list
of everything
that Santa Claus
forgot to bring.

~ Kenn Nesbitt, born 1962, American poet

Saturday, December 25, 2010


(The Holy Family with Angels by Rembrandt
van Rijn, 1606-1669, Dutch painter, printmaker,
and draughtsman)


This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.

This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.

This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.

And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect

Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.

~ U. A. Fanthorpe (1929-2009), English poet

Friday, December 24, 2010

Jesus Ahatonhia!

(First of three stamps issued in 1977, illustrated
by Ronald White, celebrating the Huron Carol
an angel appears in the Northern Lights to three
Huron hunters.)

(The three Indian hunters follow the light.)

(They find the infant Jesus at a Huron lodge.)

Merry Christmas, Dear Readers.

The Huron Carol was composed by Father Jean de Brébeuf in 1643, a French Jesuit missionary who lived and worked among the Huron Indians in what is now Ontario. He wrote it in their language and set it to a sixteenth-century melody, Une Jeunne Pucelle (A Young Maid).

On her album This Endris Night, Canadian singer Heather Dale sings a tri-lingual version of this carol, in Huron, French, and English. The English lyrics she sings are by H. Kierans, a translation closer to the original Huron than the much better-known words, reprinted below, by J. E. Middleton.

To listen to her performance, click on the link (you may have to cut and paste):


’Twas in the moon of wintertime when all the birds had fled,
That Mighty Gitchi Manitou¹ sent angel choirs instead.
Before their light the stars grew dim, and wand’ring hunters heard the hymn:
Jesus, your King, is born;
Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria!

Within a lodge of broken bark the tender Babe was found,
A ragged robe of rabbit skin enwrapped His beauty round.
And as the hunter braves drew nigh, the angels’ song rang loud and high:
Jesus, your King, is born;
Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria!

The earliest moon of winter is not so round and fair
As was the ring of glory on the helpless infant there.
And chiefs from far before Him knelt with gifts of fox and beaver pelt:
Jesus, your King, is born;
Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria!

O children of the forest free, O sons of Manitou,
The Holy Child of earth and heav’n is born today for you.
Come kneel before the radiant Boy, who brings you beauty, peace, and joy:
Jesus, your King, is born;
Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria!

~ Jean de Brébeuf, S.J. (1593-1649)

¹ Gitchi Manitou — “Great Spirit” in Algonquin
² In excelsis gloria! — “Glory in the highest!” in Latin

Thursday, December 23, 2010

25. XII. 1993

(Eskimo Nativity, with Joseph in the back
tending to his team of huskies and the Northern
Lights flashing in the sky, by William Kurelek,
1927-1977, Canadian artist and writer, from his
nativities set in Canada.)

What if Jesus were born now?

25. XII. 1993

For a miracle, take one shepherd’s sheepskin, throw
in a pinch of now, a grain of long ago,
and a handful of tomorrow. Add by eye
a little chunk of space, a piece of sky,

and it will happen. For miracles, gravitating
to earth, know just where people will be waiting,
and eagerly will find the right address
and tenant, even in a wilderness.

Or if you’re leaving home, switch on a new
four-pointed star, then, as you say adieu,
to light a vacant world with steady blaze
and follow you forever with its gaze.

~ Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), Russian-born poet, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987, from his collection Nativity Poems

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Cremation of Sam McGee

It’s time to bring out my favorite Canadian poem. It hearkens back to the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897, in the Yukon, the territory bordering Alaska to the west and British Columbia to the south.

So, heat up the rum toddy, fetch the gingerbread cookies, and gather your loved ones around the fire.

And read this poem out loud.

Once upon a time, long ago, when it was cold, very very cold . . .

(“And that very night, as we lay packed
tight in our robes beneath the snow. . .”
by Ted Harrison, Canadian painter of the
Yukon, born 1934)


There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam ’round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way that he’d “sooner live in hell.”

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;
It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and “Cap,” says he, “I’ll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I’m asking that you won’t refuse my last request.”

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
“It’s the cursed cold, and it’s got right hold till I’m chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet ’tain’t being dead — it’s my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you’ll cremate my last remains.”

A pal’s last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn’t a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: “You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it’s up to you to cremate those last remains.”

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows — O God! how I loathed the thing.

And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I’d often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the “Alice May.”
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then “Here,” said I, with a sudden cry, “is my cre-ma-tor-eum.”

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared — such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Then I made a hike, for I didn’t like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don’t know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: “I’ll just take a peep inside.
I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked”; . . . then the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm —
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

~ Robert Service (1874-1958), English poet who ended up in the Yukon

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Christmas Carol

(Seeing Santa Claus, 1876 by Thomas Nast,
1840-1902, American editorial cartoonist)

Tom Lehrer was a university lecturer in mathematics when he started to compose satirical ditties and perform them at the piano. The recordings of his night club shows in the 1950s and 60s remain popular because the lyrics, with only a few exceptions, are still topical. They could have been written yesterday.

To listen to a tape of Lehrer’s performance of this song, click on the link (you may have to cut and paste):


Christmas time is here, by golly,
Disapproval would be folly,
Deck the halls with hunks of holly,
Fill the cup and don’t say “when.”

Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens,
Mix the punch, drag out the Dickens,
Even though the prospect sickens,
Brother, here we go again.

On Christmas Day you can’t get sore,
Your fellow man you must adore,
There’s time to rob him all the more
The other three hundred and sixty-four.

Relations, sparing no expense’ll
Send some useless old utensil,
Or a matching pen and pencil.
“Just the thing I need! How nice!”

It doesn’t matter how sincere it
Is, nor how heartfelt the spirit,
Sentiment will not endear it,
What's important is the price.

Hark the Herald Tribune sings,
Advertising wondrous things.
God rest ye merry, merchants,
May you make the Yuletide pay.
Angels we have heard on high
Tell us to go out and buy!

So let the raucous sleigh bells jingle,
Hail our dear old friend Kris Kringle,
Driving his reindeer across the sky.
Don’t stand underneath when they fly by.

~ Tom Lehrer, born 1928, American satirist, pianist, and mathematician, from An Evening (Wasted) with Tom Lehrer

Monday, December 20, 2010

Advent: A Carol

(Washington Square by André Kertész,
1894-1985, Hungarian-born photographer)

Jean Vanier, born in 1928, is a Canadian philosopher who founded L’Arche, a worldwide movement of communities where intellectually disabled persons live and work together with those who take care of them. He travels around the globe to plead for the poor, the lonely, and the handicapped.

“Consider the history of man throughout the centuries: man born in poverty, dominated by the forces of nature, evolving into man capable of walking on the moon, of unleashing nuclear energies and of continually discovering more about God’s plan for matter, for man, and for the universe. Man, as I have just said, thirsts for liberty, for freedom to live without external coercion, but above all for that internal freedom in which the forces of love, intelligence, and life can flower.” ~ from
Eruption to Hope


What did you hear?
Said stone to echo:
All that you told me,
Said echo to stone.

Tidings, said echo,
Tidings, said stone,
Tidings of wonder,
Said echo to stone.

Who then shall hear them?
Said stone to echo:
All people on earth,
Said echo to stone.

Turned into one,
Echo and stone,
The word for all coming
Turned into one.

~ Patric Dickinson (1914-1994), English poet and translator

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Beggar

(The Tramp at Christmas by Anna Mary Robertson
“Grandma” Moses, 1860-1961, American painter)

“It will not bother me in the hour of death,” wrote C. S. Lewis in A Letter to an American Lady, “to reflect that I have been ‘had for a sucker’ by any number of impostors; but it would be a torment to know that one had refused even one person in need.”


He begged and shuffled on;
Sometimes he stopped to throw
A bit and benison¹
To sparrows in the snow,
And clap a frozen ear
And curse the bitter cold.
God send the good man cheer
And quittal² hundredfold.

~ Ralph Hodgson (1871-1962), English poet

¹ benison – blessing
² quittal – acquittal, forgiveness

Saturday, December 18, 2010


(Mistletoe, hand-colored engraving from
A Curious Herbal by Elizabeth Blackwell,
1707-1758, English botanical illustrator)

The mistletoe is one of the semi-parasitic plants that attach themselves to shrubs or trees. It is poisonous if ingested.

The exact source of the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe at Yuletide is not clear, but it is known that pre-Christian European cultures like the Celts, Druids, and Norsemen thought it a sacred plant and used it as a fertility symbol.


Sitting under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
One last candle burning low,
All the sleepy dancers gone,
Just one candle burning on,
Shadows lurking everywhere:
Some one came, and kissed me there.

Tired I was; my head would go
Nodding under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
No footsteps came, no voice, but only,
Just as I sat there, sleepy, lonely,
Stooped in the still and shadowy air
Lips unseen — and kissed me there.

~ Walter de la Mare (1873-1956), English writer, most famous for his ghost stories and children’s poetry

Friday, December 17, 2010

little tree

(It’s Christmas Again by Carl Larsson, 1853-1919,
Swedish painter and interior designer)

The Yuletide tradition of bringing a fir tree inside the house and trimming it with candles or lights, shiny baubles, and other Christmas decorations dates back at least to around the sixteenth century in Protestant Northern Europe, including Germany, Estonia, and Latvia.

little tree
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower

who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly

i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and tight
just as your mother would,
only don’t be afraid

look the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,

put up your little arms
and i’ll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy

then when you're quite dressed
you’ll stand in the window for everyone to see
and how they’ll stare!
oh but you’ll be very proud

and my little sister and i will take hands
and looking up at our beautiful tree
we’ll dance and sing
“Noel Noel”

~ e. e. cummings (1894-1962), American poet, painter, and essayist

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Song in the Wood

(Detail of In the Tauern Mountains, woodcut by Josef
Stoitzner, 1884-1951, Austrian artist)

“Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy, ‘Do you hear what I hear?’” ~ Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker, from Do You Hear What I Hear?


This way, this way, come and hear,
You that hold these pleasures dear;
Fill your ears with our sweet sound,
Whilst we melt the frozen ground.
This way come; make haste, O fair!
Let your clear eyes gild the air;
Come, and bless us with your sight;
This way, this way, seek delight.

~ John Fletcher (1579-1625), English playwright, from The Little French Lawyer, a comedy

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Lilies More Than Bread

(Still Life by Francisco de Zurbarán, 1598-1664, Spanish

“But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” ~ Matthew 6:3-4


(for a philanthropist)

Go not empty-hearted
Into the marts of men,
The brightest coin will darken
And lose its luster when
The hand that gives is loveless
And folds in pride again.

There is a spirit-hunger
Sharper than body’s need;
There is an infinite thirsting
For cups of wisdom’s mead;
While on the rim of laughter
A stricken heart may bleed.

With bread and cooling water
The body’s feast is spread;
Not so the straining spirit’s
That will be housed and fed
By love more than a roof-tree,
And lilies more than bread.

~ Thérèse Lentfoehr (1902-1981), American poet, editor, and Thomas Merton scholar

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Christmas Trees

(Zone by Philip Guston, 1913-1980, American Abstract
Expressionist painter)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran minister and theologian, was a pacifist in Nazi Germany. However, after a long and serious examination of his conscience, he decided the regime was so evil that he joined a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler.

Bonhoeffer was arrested in 1943. He spent months in solitary confinement, with no contact with his family and friends. Then, just before Christmas, his last, he was finally allowed by the Nazi SS to write a letter to Maria, his fiancée.

He was hanged in 1945, only weeks before the end of the War in Europe. He was 39 years old.

19 December 1944

My dearest Maria,

I’m so glad to be able to write you a Christmas letter, and to be able, through you, to convey my love to my parents and my brothers and sisters, to thank you all. Our homes will be very quiet at this time. But I have often found that the quieter my surroundings, the more vividly I sense my connection with you all. It’s as if, in solitude, the soul develops organs of which we’re hardly aware in everyday life. So I haven’t for an instant felt lonely and forlorn. You yourself, my parents — all of you including my friends and students on active service — are my constant companions. Your prayers and kind thoughts, passages from the Bible, long-forgotten conversations, pieces of music, books — all are invested with life and reality as never before. I live in a great unseen realm of whose real existence I’m in no doubt. The old children’s song about the angels says “two to cover me, two to wake me,” and today we grownups are no less in need than children of preservation, night and morning, by kindly, unseen powers. So you mustn’t think I’m unhappy. Anyway, what do happiness and unhappiness mean? They depend so little on circumstances and so much more on what goes on inside us. I’m thankful every day to have you — you and all of you — and that makes me cheerful. . . .

I embrace you.




Bonhoeffer in his skylit cell
bleached by the flares’ candescent fall,
pacing out his own citadel,

restores the broken themes of praise,
encourages our borrowed days,
by logic of his sacrifice.

Against wild reasons of the state
his words are quiet but not too quiet.
We hear too late or not too late.

~ Geoffrey Hill, born 1932, English poet

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Computer's First Christmas Card

(Nonsensical Infographic No. 4 by Chad Hagan, born
1970, American artist)



~ Edwin Morgan (1920-2010), Scottish poet and translator

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Juan Diego

(Detail of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on
the cactus mantle or tilma)

Today is the feast day of Nuestra Seňora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe), the patron of Central and South America.

This feast commemorates the apparition of Mary to an Aztec man called Cuauhtlatoatzin or Juan Diego, his Christian name. It happened on the hill of Tepeyac, just north of where Mexico City is now located, in 1531, a mere twelve years after the landing of the Spanish
Conquistador Hernán Cortés.

On December 9, Juan Diego was on his way to Mass when he heard birds singing and then the voice of a beautiful woman calling out to him in Nahuatl, the Aztec language. She instructed him to go to the local bishop and ask him to build a church on that spot, which was the cult-site of the Aztec mother-goddess Tonantzin. Juan Diego hurried to the bishop, who did not believe him.

Mary appeared once again and gave him some fragrant roses (even though it was the middle of winter) to take to the bishop. Juan Diego carried the flowers in his cactus cloak or
tilma. As he presented them to the bishop, the roses fell to the ground and the open tilma revealed a portrait of Mary — dark-skinned, unlike the images of her that were brought from Spain.

The earliest account of this event was recorded by Antonio Valerian, an Indian scholar who knew the men involved. The manuscript, entitled
Nican Mopohua or “Here is told,” was written in the years between 1548 and 1560, in Nahuatl.

The tilma is kept on display in the Basilica that was built later on the original Tepeyac site. Made of cactus fiber, the cloak would normally have lasted no more than twenty years, especially in the country’s heat and humidity. It is still intact, however, almost five centuries later.

The shrine is Mexico’s most famous place of pilgrimage, attracting millions of visitors every year.


An Indian’s brown cheek curved to a dusky rose,
Once long ago upon Tepeyac’s barren hill
When winter roses bloomed
And roses were mere roses in the glowing laughter of the lady’s smile.
“My little son, I love you.” So all Tepeyac’s holy hill
Now sang an Indian lullaby of roses and wild birds.

~ Anne Quinn, American poet

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Good Night Near Christmas

(Winter Scene, linocut from The Bottesfordian, 1951,
Bottesford, England)

“It was always said of [Ebenezer Scrooge], that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!” ~ Charles Dickens (1812-1870), the conclusion of A Christmas Carol


And now good night. Good night to this old house
Whose breathing fires are banked for their night’s rest.
Good night to lighted windows in the west.
Good night to neighbors and to neighbors’ cows

Whose morning milk will be beside my door.
Good night to one star shining in. Good night
To earth, poor earth with its uncertain light,
Our little wandering planet still at war.

Good night to one unstarved and gnawing mouse
Between the inner and the outer wall.
He has a paper nest in which to crawl.
Good night to men who have no bed, no house.

~ Robert Francis (1901-1987), American poet

Friday, December 10, 2010

A Christmas Carol

(A Christmas Carol, 1951, the best film
version of Charles Dickens’ novella, starring
Alastair Sim, in black & white, not colorized)

Why read the book? Just watch the movie or check out this Cliffs Notes summary in poetic form, found in How to Become Ridiculously Well-Read in One Evening, edited by E. O. Parrott.


by Charles Dickens

Ebenezer Scrooge
Was nobody’s stooge;
It drove him into one of his rages
When somebody asked for more wages.

Bob Cratchit
Was especially liable to catch it
For expecting his pay
To cover Christmas Day.

But a series of Christmas specters,
Acting as Scrooge’s spiritual directors,
Asked him, who was the cripple: Tiny Tim?
Or him?

And suddenly he became a hearty
Benefactor at the Cratchits’ Christmas party.
Trade unions may boast,
But the best negotiator is a ghost.

~ Paul Griffin, English poet

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Nativity

(Saint Joseph the Carpenter with the Child
by Georges de la Tour, 1593-1652,
French painter)

This verse was written in 1656. That year, under the reign of Oliver Cromwell, England was in the middle of the Anglo-Spanish War, which began in 1654. Before it ended in 1660, the conflict had pulled in the Caribbean, the Canary Islands, and the Spanish Netherlands.


Peace? and to all the world? sure, One
And He the Prince of Peace, hath none.
He travels to be born, and then
Is born to travel more again.

~ Henry Vaughan (1622-1695), Welsh physician and poet

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Wheel

(Dance with Musicians from a fourteenth-century
illuminated medieval handbook on good health)

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” ~ Ecclesiastes 3:1


At the first strokes of the fiddle bow
the dancers rise from their seats.
The dance begins to shape itself
in the crowd, as couples join,
and couples join couples, their movement
together lightening their feet.
They move in the ancient circle
of the dance. The dance and the song
call each other into being. Soon
they are one — rapt in a single
rapture, so that even the night
has its clarity, and time
is the wheel that brings it round.

In this rapture the dead return.
Sorrow is gone from them.
They are light. They step
into the steps of the living
and turn with them in the dance
in the sweet enclosure
of the song, and timeless
is the wheel that brings it round.

~ Wendell Berry, born 1934, American poet, writer, and farmer

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Christmas Trees Burn in the Forest with Gilded Flames

(1957-D, No. 1 by Clyfford Still, 1904-1980, American
Abstract Expressionist painter)

Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) was a great Russian poet who bore witness to the terrible plight of his country under Stalin. He died in a transit camp in the Gulag Archipelago, as he was beginning to serve a five-year sentence for “counter-revolutionary” activities. “Only in Russia is poetry respected,” he wrote. “It gets people killed.”


Christmas trees burn in the forest with gilded flames,
toy wolves glare from the bushes —

O my prophetic sadness,
O my calm freedom,
and the dead crystal vault of heaven laughing without end!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Saint Nicholas

(Early twentieth-century Dutch card
of Saint Nicholas)

December 6 is the feast day of Saint Nicholas, the kindly bishop of Myra (270-346), in what is now Turkey, who secretly distributed gifts to the poor.

European children, especially in Germany and Holland, leave their shoes out the night before, to find them in the morning filled with chocolates and other sweets as rewards for their good behavior during the preceding year.

Saint Nicholas is also known by other names, including Father Christmas, Grandfather Frost and, of course, Santa Claus.


might I, if you can find it, be given
a chameleon with tail
that curls like a watch spring; and vertical
on the body — including the face — pale
tiger-stripes, about seven;
(the melanin in the skin
having been shaded from the sun by thin
bars; the spinal dome
beaded along the ridge
if it were platinum)?

If you can find no striped chameleon,
might I have a dress or suit —
I guess you have heard of it — of quiviut¹?
and to wear with it, a taslon shirt, the drip-dry fruit
of research second to none;
sewn, I hope, by Excello;
as for buttons to keep down the collar-points, no.
The shirt could be white —
and be “worn before six,”
either in daylight or at night.

But don’t give me, if I can’t have the dress,
a trip to Greenland, or grim
trip to the moon. The moon should come here. Let him
make the trip down, spread on my dark floor some dim
marvel, and if a success
that I stoop to pick up and wear,
I could ask nothing more. A thing yet more rare,
though, and different,
would be this: Hans von Marées’²
St. Hubert³, kneeling with head bent,

erect — in velvet and tense with restraint —
hand hanging down: the horse, free.
Not the original, of course. Give me
a postcard of the scene — huntsman and divinity —
hunt-mad Hubert startled into a saint
by a stag with a Figure entwined.
But why tell you what you must have divined?
Saint Nicholas, O Santa Claus,
would it not be the most
prized gift that ever was?

~ Marianne Moore (1887-1972), American poet

¹ quivuit – (kiv-ee-ute) the down of a musk ox, spun into yarn
² Hans von Marées – German painter (1837-1887)
³ St. Hubert – (655?-727), patron saint of hunters, often depicted standing by his horse in the forest and gazing at a stag; according to legend, as a young man he neglected his duties in favor of the chase until, while out hunting one day, he was converted from his wild ways by the sight of a crucifix between a stag’s antlers

Sunday, December 5, 2010

His Alms

(Shoes by Vincent van Gogh, 1853-1890, Dutch
Post-Impressionist painter)

A gentleman came to our house and he told me, “There is a Hindu family with about eight children who have not eaten for a long time.” So I took some rice quickly and went to their family and I could see real hunger on the small faces of these children and yet the mother had the courage to divide the rice into two and she went out.

When she came back, I asked her, “Where did you go? What did you do?”

And she said, “They are hungry also.”

“Who are they?”

“The Muslim family next door with as many children.”

She knew that they were hungry. What struck me most was that she knew and because she knew she gave until it hurt. This is something so beautiful. This is living love. She gave until it hurt. I did not bring more rice that night because I wanted them to enjoy the joy of giving, of sharing. You should have seen the faces of those little ones. They just understood what their mother did. Their faces were brightened up with smiles. When I came in they looked hungry, they looked so miserable. But the act of their mother taught them what true love was. This is the greatness of our poor.

~ Mother Teresa (1910-1997), Albanian-born Indian Catholic nun, in
Daily Readings with Mother Teresa, edited by Teresa de Bertodano


Here, here I live,
And somewhat give,
Of what I have,
To those, who crave.
Little or much,
My alms is such:
But if my deal
Of oil and meal
Shall fuller grow,
More I’ll bestow:
Meantime be it
E’en but a bit,
Or else a crumb,
The scrip* hath some.

~ Robert Herrick (1591-1674), English poet

* scrip - temporary certificate of money

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Some Say

(O Presépio or Nativity Scene by
Ivan Borges, Brazilian woodcut artist)

It is midnight in Elsinore. The guards are keeping watch on a platform before the Castle.

For the third time now, the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the late King of Denmark, has appeared to the guards. The men try to confront it, to question it, but it disappears.

It faded just when the rooster crowed, says Marcello, one of the officers, and it may be some time before the ghost appears again.

Some say that ever ’gainst that season comes
Wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no plants strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

~ William Shakespeare (1564-1616), from Hamlet, I, i

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Bells

(Winter Scene with Horse and Sleigh, 1855 by Cornelius
Krieghoff, 1815-1872, Dutch-born Canadian landscape painter)

This verse is like many of Edgar Allan Poe’s other poems, pleasing to the ear, even musical, because of his use of figures of speech like onomatopoeia (words imitating sounds) and alliteration (the repeating of consonant sounds), and the many repetitions of certain words.


Hear the sledges with the bells —
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells —
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

~ Edgar Allan Poe (1801-1849), American poet, writer, and father of the detective story

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Light the Festive Candles

(Silver Hanukkah lamp or menorah from the Czech
Republic, 1817)

The first of the eight days of Hanukkah or The Festival of Lights began yesterday, at sundown.

Hanukkah celebrates the victory, in 165 BCE, of the Jews in Judea over their Syrian rules, who had banned all parts of Jewish culture. With their victory under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus, the Jews restored the right to worship in their faith.

The lighting of the candles commemorates the miraculous expansion of one day’s oil to an eight-day supply of light, enough to allow the Jews the time needed to rededicate their Temple.


Light the first of eight tonight —
the farthest candle to the right.

Light the first and second, too,
when tomorrow’s day is through.

Then light three, and then light four —
every dusk one candle more

Till all eight burn bright and high,
honoring a day gone by

When the Temple was restored,
rescued from the Syrian lord,

And an eight-day feast proclaimed —
The Festival of Lights — well named

To celebrate the joyous day
when we regained the right to pray
to our one God in our own way.

~ Aileen Fisher (1906-2002), American poet

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


(Advent calendar with an image of the medieval
German town of Rothenburg, found at Bas Bleu)

(This month we rejoice in the season of giving.)

The custom began in the nineteenth century in Germany, of counting the days until Christmas Eve by opening a window on an Advent calendar every morning. Advent or “the coming” begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas; the calendars begin on December 1.


Open my eyes on the welcome
rosy shock of sunshine.

Open the first little door
of my Advent calendar;

a darling hobby horse
on wheels. Open

the window a crack: and
quickly close it against

a knife-like draft. The day
looks warmer than it is.

~ James Schulyer (1923-1991), American poet