Her poem was born in a workshop.
Where the seed came from was hard to tell,
but she went along with something someone had told her
and it turned out well enough at the start.
Those who saw it fresh from her pen were full of praise.
No-one accused her of cribbing it, although
this could have been justified.
In upstair rooms the professionals,
convened in comfort, warmed to their task;
knew just what they were looking for.
While, in the chill of the workshop below, her poem,
her quintessential one-act play of a poem,
acted out its drama in bleaker surroundings.
The workshop itself was bursting with tools:
she made use of them all. Her hands were sore
from gripping the pen by the time she delivered
the final stanza. The landlord was eager to lock up:
a man of few words, he didn’t want drivel,
shavings and off-cuts all over the bare stone floor.
Yet even he had to smile
when he saw what she’d written.
And the star – or whatever – that guided the three wise men
on the judging panel to laud and magnify her poem
shone so brightly that night that even the weary landlord
suspected something extra-ordinary was going on.
As owner of the premises, he felt a degree of pride
in what the workshop had produced.
After that, she never looked back.
The poem, true to its humble roots, hid its light
under a bushel: factotum, carpenter,
weaver of words – like his mother before him.
Left her lonely at the last,
his hands full of nails.
A tin bath sparingly filled for the toddler,
bare feet blue on scullery stones, she shivers
when the telegram comes:
bleak words typed on slivers of paper
stuck to the page – tragic reminders
of her grandfather staggering home,
mud-caked puttees stuck fast
to his blood-caked shins;
war-torn: a collage of pain.
For this slip of a girl, the slip of paper
fluttering leaf-like from her shaking hands
is make-believe: a slip of the pen.
Can they be sure? – No where or when.
“ … regret to inform you … ” Just another
fallen flag this piteous autumn.
When the child is grown she’ll tell him his father
was true to the family tree: a fledgling soldier
(like those before him) – barely out of the nest.
On peace-filled harvest evenings we see them still:
rising above some Flanders field
like a murmuration of starlings.
On these cold December mornings,
when I wake up warm under the 12-tog duvet –
reluctant (almost unable) to get up
into the chill of a winter bedroom –
I understand why in Jesus’ time they walked about
in dressing-gowns and the men grew beards
and Mary – sat on the donkey – was the first hoodie;
and was it any wonder that newborn babes
were fortunate to survive! She did her best
to hide Him away from the paparazzi – unwilling,
despite her joy, to reveal His naked form
even to kings in their rich warm robes or to shepherds
shivering under sackcloth, carrying lambs
to revive numb hands in the woolly fleece.
Time after time, artists depict the Nativity
with the halo’ed infant proudly exposed to the cold
of the stable. I don’t think she’d have drawn back
the blanket for even a moment, wrapping Him tight
in swaddling clothes, shielding her boy from the night air.
On these crisp pre-Christmas mornings, lying
in my warm safe bed, I empathize.
Because that’s how I like to be:
That star I saw last night is hidden now
behind a bank of ermine; and the moon,
which hovered all day long in winter skies,
pale as a spent reminder of its youth,
cannot illuminate its hiding place.
And yet the sky is beautiful tonight,
this mountain range of cloud a foreign land
where howling nightmares whip their stormy tails
while hawk-owl talons rip at living flesh.
I hear the high-pitched terror of a stoat
and feel the fear that rises in the blood
staining the winter whiteness of its coat
which hangs, with darker pelts, on washing-lines
strung out against the backdrop of the night;
while that same star, unclouded in the east,
shines elsewhere on insurgence and unrest
as nations seek the paths of righteousness
but fail to light upon the way of peace.