by Jeffrey Shotts, HPC member
At the end of the year, at the holidays especially, our language can feel worn by the all-too-familiar words of songs, carols, annual television specials, and the incessancy of commercial chatter. In a year that’s been expensive politically and emotionally, the end of the year comes, it feels one last time, to sell us something; and the hard pitch becomes dangerous as it informs the way we speak with each other, the way we want something from each other.
Poetry—good poetry—can act as a corrective and can hold at bay, if even for just the length of the poem itself, the overused and commercial language of the day. At this time of year, it often comes as exciting to hear or read something we haven’t perhaps already heard a hundred times or more. Here’s a poem by the late Jane Kenyon about a holiday tradition not mentioned in “O Tannenbaum”:
Taking Down the Tree
“Give me some light!” cries Hamlet’s
uncle midway through the murder
of Gonzago. “Light! Light!” cry scattering
courtesans. Here, as in Denmark,
it’s dark at four, and even the moon
shines with only half a heart.
The ornaments go down into the box:
the silver spaniel, My Darling
on its collar, from Mother’s childhood
in Illinois; the balsa jumping jack
my brother and I fought over,
pulling limb from limb. Mother
drew it together again with thread
while I watched, feeling depraved
at the age of ten.
With something more than caution
I handle them, and the lights, with their
tin star-shaped reflectors, brought along
from house to house, their pasteboard
toy suitcase increasingly flimsy.
Tick, tick, the desiccated needles drop.
By suppertime all that remains is the scent
of balsam fir. If it’s darkness
we’re having, let it be extravagant.
Kenyon suffered from depression, and the interplay between playful memory and dark emotion characterizes her best writing. The tree comes up, with its attendant ornamentation and splendor, but also the tree must come down, the season—like her childhood or like the life of her mother—ended, Kenyon reminds us.
Here’s another of her poems, “Winter Lambs,” that complicates the sense we have of our ownership of the earth, its creatures, even our own bodies. I set it here as a poem for New Year’s. Let it be extravagant.
All night snow came upon us
with unwavering intent—
small flakes not meandering
but driving thickly down. We woke
to see the yard, the car and road
The neighbor’s ewes are lambing
in this stormy weather. Three
lambs born yesterday, three more
expected . . .
Felix the ram looked
proprietary in his separate pen
while fatherhood accrued to him.
The panting ewes regarded me
with yellow-green, smallpupiled
I have a friend who is pregnant— plans gone awry—and not altogether pleased. I don’t say she should be pleased. We are creation’s property, its particles, its clay as we fall into this life, agree or disagree.