Considering Death This Christmas? Read T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”

I’ll never forget the first time I read “The Journey of the Magi” by T.S. Elliot. Think: Passion of the Christ, sub magi. This poem is deep and dark and human, revealing the grit that’s glossed over by art and centuries. All I knew of the magi is they were funny-looking little men-dolls we set up each Christmas, and there they stayed, their gifts outstretched toward baby Jesus for all the month of December.

Enter poetry to save the day. Enter “The Journey of the Magi.”

Turns out there’s much more to their story besides a manger moment and a savvy decision not to tell Herod where Jesus was because they had the sneaking suspicion Herod was a psychopath. They’re not called “wise” for nothing.

Tradition says there were three wise men, but only because there were three gifts. The Bible records it in Matthew chapter 2:

1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 2 “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:

6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,

Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah;

For out of you shall come forth a Ruler

Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.” 9 After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.

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If writing is about creating empathy, Eliot gets you so close you can smell the goat cheese curdling in the travel bags, taste the sand in your mouth, and smell the sweat and camel dander. He clothes with human skin these porcelain men who live one-twelfth of the year on our fireplace mantels. They were complainers, cynics. They lost heart, lost their money, lost sleep over it all. Like us. They found Jesus. And the find was a loss as well. Follow their journey and note the change Jesus wrought in the lives of these wisest of men. The last line of the poem makes a curious statement– the magi would be glad to die. Most people won’t be able to figure out what on earth the man is talking about… can you?

The Journey Of The Magi

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times we regretted

The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky,

And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,

Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,

And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.

But there was no information, and so we continued

And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

by T.S. Elliot

5000 Words Poetry Lesson, 10-13 Year-Olds

img_1589I nearly jump out of my seat when students come up with bold, fresh images that sound like something out of open mic night. A year ago I decided to teach them simile. “A cat is like a kitten,” someone offered. Now I have them churning out similes like: disappointment tastes like rocks. Fourteen tweens gather weekly in my home for writing/literature class. Today we learned how to write a sensory poem and a cinquain, both of which are non-rhyming, formulaic poems. I had to do one (ok, I just wanted to) as an example.

Joy, a tall cup of Starbucks, creamy brown.

Gurgles, burbles, bubbles, “pssst” on the hot plate.

Seared black and oily, cracked beans, smell like possibility.

Bitter, strong, I purse my lips against the steam.

This cup of American optimism and luxury

Feels extravagant in my hands, in my nose, down my throat.

 

For those of you who’d like to try a sensory poem, here’s the “recipe.” If you do, post it to the comments! 🙂

Line 1 – Name an emotion or feeling. Finish the line with a color.

Line 2 – Tell what it sounds like.

Line 3 – Tell what it smells like.

Line 4 – Tell what it tastes like.

Line 5 – Tell what it looks like.

Line 6 – Tell what it feels like.

 

I also wrote a cinquain. I’ll try to post it and some of my student’s writing in an upcoming post.

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              5000 Words Shoes on my Landing

R is for Raveled

 

Raveled

See the kite

assembled, tied, stretched taut

on a bone frame, its colors

a brazen flutter in a blue-white sky.

See the kite

coveted, owned, loved.

New-toy perishable love.

Kites are frustrating.

Without wind,

without a hand on the string

they fall. See that.

Or this: a dropped kite

sliced by leafless branches,

nothing more than worthless ravel,

the kite string

slithers along the ground

wraps mummy-like around

the tree that stopped its flight.

R

 

 

 

 

Q is for Quacks

QQuacks. I wish this were about ducks, but alas– here is my post about funny farms, i.e., nut houses, psych wards, mental institutions, behavioral medicine centers (they sound nice). Funny farm is my mom’s favorite designation. She has introduced me thus: “This is my daughter who put me in the funny farm.”

You could say I’m somewhat of a funny farm connoisseur. I’m not going to name-call or rehash my bad experiences, but I’ll say this– Oakview has trays of fresh-baked cookies sitting all over the place and deli trays… and that’s just the snacking. I’m reasonably certain they treat mostly hobbits there. If you ever decide to go off the deep end, insist on a bed at Oakview in Middleburg Heights.

It was a year after my mom quit drinking that things got crazy in the truest sense of the word. That was when I began a relationship with the Cuyahoga County Board of Mental Health. You see, brains accustomed to decades of pickling and frying don’t always take well to quitting cold-turkey. So it was with mom. She overcame her addictions only to be faced with a complete psychological breakdown. Think The Shining. 

My new friends from the board of health came out to hold my hand, along with the Berea police, who responded to mom’s 911 call.

911, what is your emergency?

My daughter’s trying to have me committed.

Imagine my despair when I was told that the police could offer no assistance in getting mom to the hospital. I had high hopes of them swooping in and taking this problem off my hands. Nor could the officers convince mom to go willingly. Manhandle is the only way to describe how we got her into the car while the police and social workers looked on. My manhandlers were: 1. Bob 2. My sister’s boyfriend (who became her husband in spite of this) and 3. A family friend. These men are my heroes. It’s easy to rescue a damsel in distress when distress looks the way it ought. This was tough love in the extreme. And from that day’s tough love I don’t know if I’ll ever be vindicated. I operated under the delusion that mom wouldn’t remember anything, like in the old drinking days. Au contraire mon frère, said my social worker. She’ll remember it all.

One doesn’t just walk into the funny farm. One must go through the ER. And the ER doesn’t appreciate patients who require a posse of strong male nurses to restrain them as they spew expletives in an uninterrupted torrent that rivals Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in length. The good folks from the board of health advocated for me when the emergency room tried to deny mom treatment. Helen Keller could see mom was having a psychotic episode, and the ER wanted to send her away? That falls under the definition of quack.

You could say quacks were the beginning of mom’s journey to the funny farm. Beginning in her early twenties, beginning most likely when she left the hospital with yours truly, mom suffered from anxiety. Babies, divorce, freeways, the human condition… all of it was too much. Mom sought help where so many people seek it. Her first quack put her on valium.

Next up, valium-like pills, then social drinking, then pills and drinking and where did that tatoo come from? In 1998 I wrote a poem about my  mom’s search for the right pill and it was published by The Comstock Review.* It was my attempt at capturing the lunacy: doctor appointment number gazillion. He was tossing his soup can back and forth and nonverbally screaming his desire to dispatch my mother as quickly as possible to get to that soup. Mom wanted to feel ok and this pill, this time it was going to work. I watched my mom nearly destroy herself by self-medicating against the physiological truth going on insider her. It took a radical breakdown to finally get to that truth: bipolar disorder.

My mom is in good company: Carrie Fisher, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vivian Leigh, and Jean-Claude Van Damme all have bipolar disorder. One can lead a full life with bipolar disorder. One can even learn to make light of it: This is my daughter who put me in the funny farm.

 

*A Vice From Your Doctor

“I shake a lot,” you said,

and he was shaking too,

late-for-lunch-belly

caressing a can of soup,

“This will stop it.”

A slip of paper.

The newest brand, less

addictive, less side effects

(you’ll like it)

you did like it.

And you both stopped shaking.

It’s taken years to collect enough

slips to feed a flame

that, starving, snake-licks up

your pared legs, chokes

you silent, shakes you frozen.

You are a curled brown leaf

unable to dress.

You know now he was right

about soup:

It’s hard to eat

when the spoon shivers.

 

 

I is for Invictus

IThe first words ever to move me were penned by William Earnest Henley just after his leg was amputated. “Invictus” was put on a screen in my 8th grade English classroom for a rhyme scheme lesson. I furiously copied every word, oblivious. Henley’s words challenged my view of myself as a leaf in the wind. It was the first time I coveted strength.
Little did I know “Invictus” also inspired such great men as Nelson Mandela, who leaned upon it during his horrific treatment in various South African jails. Later Morgan Freeman, who portrayed Mandela, would love it enough to memorize the lines.
You can imagine my disappointment when American terrorist Timothy McVeigh declared it his favorite poem too. I wanted to tell McVeigh he couldn’t possibly like my poem, that monsters aren’t allowed to like poems about inner strength and perseverance. Were you the captain of all those other souls too, McVeigh? The ones you stole from the earth? I still remember when he was put to death. I remember thinking McVeigh was about to meet “what Gods may be,” and that he was in for a serious and much-deserved detention.
Truth is, I fell in love with this poem before I fell in love with my Savior, so some of the sentiments don’t exactly apply anymore. I know “whatever gods may be” and He’s the captain of my soul, rightly so and to my joy. “Beyond this place” of mostly blessings, lies more blessing still. The I-won’t-be-crushed-come-what-may attitude still speaks to me and makes me sad for Henley, who thought he was destined for hell after completion of a miserable life. Henley’s words, though a timeless, elegant commiseration and call to courage, betray a misapplied trust (in self), a lack of faith (in God), and a pitiable error (his captainhood). Only by half does this poem speak to my heart, how funny that it once stole it.
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Invictus
Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
      For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
      I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
      My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.

Timothy McVeigh & I Agree on One Thing

DSC00183My favorite poem was basically written by the one-legged pirate, Long John Silver. What’s worse, my favorite poem was also the favorite of Timothy McVeigh, infamous building-bomber-baby-killer, who went so far as to quote it just before leaving this world by lethal injection in June, 2001. I remember thinking that McVeigh was about to meet the true captain of his soul. I remember wishing that “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, the real-life inspiration for Treasure Island’s antagonist, wasn’t my favorite poem. But still, it is.

Don’t go. Stay with me.

I can still picture my 8th grade English classroom, and the balding, feather-haired, doughy teacher who introduced “Invictus” to me. A muted man, I hardly remember a thing about his character, but I do remember the feeling of being broadsided by the power of words. It was the first time I loved words enough to write them on my heart. Perseverance was my only prince back then: the only strength I knew, and “Invictus” was the portrait of my prince.

Henley ascribes his “unconquerable soul” to “whatever gods may be.” This too, was me. I could have written that poem, had I been so gifted. And– agnostic I remained until I was 27, until my own strength failed me for the straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back time, and I dived into a faith that has held me ever since.

Poor Henley. How he inspired 8th-grade-me and so many others. Yet he most likely died, not knowing how strong he could have been.The strongest we can ever be, we can only be after admitting our weakness– at least once. The moment I acknowledge my limit, God pushes it way beyond my wildest imaginings. That’s what Henley never knew, though he had an iron will.

A broken bone heals stronger than the original bone. Henley never broke.

Henley had reason to call this life “a place of wrath and tears.” When he was 12 years old, his father died. As if that weren’t enough, Henley developed tuberculosis and had to have his foot amputated. “Invictus” was written as he lay in the hospital, in the agonizing phantom pain that plagues amputees. His remaining foot was in jeopardy of being amputated as well, but Henley wouldn’t have it.

Just “how charged with punishment [were] the scrolls” for Henley? More than most of us can imagine. I don’t know about you, but I wish, when in my own shallow ruts of despair, that I could be half the person Henley was in that Mariana trench experience of losing a foot and a father.

When Henley speaks of life’s “bludgeons,” he’s not being theoretical.

So that’s it. Henley, in one sense, is my hero. In another, I pity him. I no longer agree with many of the notions in “Invictus.” I don’t think it all resides in me. I know that God is completely in charge of my ever-so-conquerable soul. I still hope to have an unbowed head–if it must be bloody– but a deeply bowed soul in the presence of my Lord and Savior.

Nelson Mandela drew strength from “Invictus” while in jail and passed it on to his fellow inmates. Later, he motivated the South African Rugby team with its empowering lines. I still love “Invictus” for its message of strength, but I now know the name of that strength: Jesus. He is my strength, my shield, my everlasting hope.

I wish Timothy McVeigh didn’t like my favorite poem.

But think about this: Hitler liked tea parties.

Invictus 

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit, from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

 

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeons of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

 

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

 

It matters not how straight the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.

— William Ernest Henley, 1888

 

 

 

Nothing’s More Fun Than Doing The Assignments I Give My Students

The Assignment: A 10 line iambic pentameter conceit poem.

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His Favorite Pair of Jeans

He once compared me to a pair of jeans,

Velveteen-threadbare, torn, and faded jeans.

We were as close as clothing then, denim

Dressed and pressed against each other. Thirteen

Years my best friend. So best he could forget

The holes, the stains, the fraying edges, warm

As skin, smoothed by tears and friction. When I’m

Washed out, blue, thin and barely held together.

When seams give out and fabric tears completely,

I’ll still be his favorite pair of jeans.