Watching a Christmas Star

Daystar
Like so many others, I sought out the Great Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in last night’s evening twilight. Less than a degree apart, their shining presence brought to mind a favorite experience from childhood, retold here for a new Christmas season.

Perhaps she noticed my absence. Perhaps she only felt a draft from the partly-opened door and rose to investigate. In either case, drawn onto the porch that cold Christmas night, my grandmother discovered a quilt-wrapped, shivering, and entirely unhappy litle girl huddled on her front steps.

“Good heavens,” she said.”What’s wrong? What are you doing out here?” Surprised by her question, I confessed the truth. “I don’t want to go home.” “Of course you don’t,” she said, lowering herself to sit next to me on the step. “It was a nice Christmas. Did you have fun? Did you like your presents?” Unwilling to meet her gaze, I murmured the complaint voiced by generations of children: “I wish it wasn’t over.”

A front porch in winter is no place for conversation, but my grandmother seemed lost in thought, and reluctant to move. Finally, she said, “But it isn’t over. Not yet. Let’s go in the house and have some cookies.” As she led me through the sea of relatives that had flooded the front room, someone — an aunt or uncle, or perhaps a parent — asked, “What’s going on?” “We’re going to the kitchen,” she said, and that ended the questions. Everyone knew better than to interfere with Grandma when she seemed bent on a mission.

While she brought cookies from the pantry, I filled my glass with milk. We settled in at the table,  and I waited to see which direction the conversation would take. “Did you watch for Santa last night?” she asked. I had. “Did you see him?” I hadn’t, of course, but the heap of presents in the living room provided all the proof I needed to know that he’d stopped by.

“What if I told you there was something to watch for tonight?” I stopped in mid-dunk, milk dripping from the bottom of my cookie. “What?” Busy with her own cookie, Grandma said, “Miss Luksetich says that if you watch in the east every night at midnight until the Feast of The Three Kings, you might see the Star of Bethlehem.”

I’d never known my grandmother to lie, and Christine Luksetich was one of her best friends. It was worth pondering. “Really?” I said. Wisely enough, Grandma sounded a few cautionary notes. “You have to look right at midnight, and not a minute before or after. It could be cloudy, or you could fall asleep. But if you keep looking, you might see it. It’s there.”

Entranced, no longer reluctant to leave Christmas Day behind, I headed to the living room and began picking up my gifts: more than eager to return home, scurry off to my east-facing bedroom, and begin scanning the skies.

I didn’t see the Star of Bethlehem that year. I didn’t see it the next year, for that matter, or the year after that. Given my grandmother’s fondness for Swedish folk tales and her friend Christine’s Croatian heritage, it occurred to me that their reappearing Star of Bethlehem might be a legend akin to tales of animals talking on Christmas Eve, or oxen kneeling in their stalls.

Still, I watched: scrutinizing the skies each year to see if something might appear. And then, it did. One night there were only the usual faint twinkles in the eastern sky above our cherry trees. The next, a brilliant star shone there: pulsating, glimmering — so bright it seemed to light the snow-covered countryside. For as long as I could stay awake, it never moved. The next night, it was gone.

With the deep, pure certainty of childhood, I knew that I’d seen the Star of Bethlehem. I told no one — neither friends, nor parents, nor even my own grandmother — although no one could have convinced me that I didn’t see it. Still, I was reluctant to be ridiculed, or tempted into an argument.

Over time, the memory faded, and my habit of looking eroded. Most years found me otherwise occupied in the days after Christmas — traveling, or visiting, or cleaning up kitchens — and if I remembered at all, I gave the skies no more than a cursory glance.

But one year in Kansas, halfway between Monument Rocks and the Cimarron Grasslands, I stopped to admire some cottonwoods. A brilliant star, created by sunlight shining through leaves, erased the decades. Remembering my vision of the Star of Bethlehem so many years earlier, I thought:

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Star follows us, just as surely as the Wise Men followed the Star?

This year, it was the same sun but a different tree which brought that childhood experience to mind, along with the fanciful, centuries-old legend of kneeling oxen and talking animals.

‘Fanciful,’ of course, is our polite way of describing events we imagine to be impossible. Unwilling to appear naive, stupid, or silly, few adults admit to clinging to such legends. Still, barns continue to beckon on Christmas eve, and hills laid bare beneath winter skies shimmer still, awaiting Bethlehem’s star, and those with eyes to see.

Says a country legend told every year:
Go to the barn on Christmas Eve and see
what the creatures do as that long night tips over.
Down on their knees they will go, the fire
of an old memory whistling through their minds.
I went. Wrapped to my eyes against the cold,
I creaked back the barn door and peered in.
From town the church bells spilled their midnight music,
and the beasts listened –
yet they lay in their stalls like stone.
Oh, the heretics!
Not to remember Bethlehem,
or the star as bright as a sun
or the child born on a bed of straw!
To know only of the dissolving Now!
Still they drowsed on
citizens of the pure, the physical world,
they loomed in the dark: powerful
of body, peaceful of mind,
innocent of history.
Brothers! I whispered. It is Christmas!
And you are no heretics, but a miracle,
immaculate still as when you thundered forth
on the morning of creation!
As for Bethlehem, that blazing star
still sailed the dark, but only looked for me.
Caught in its light, listening again to its story,
I curled against some sleepy beast, who nuzzled
my hair as though I were a child, and warmed me
the best it could all night.
                             “Christmas Poem” ~ Mary Oliver

 

Comments always are welcome.
To read Thomas Hardy’s poem about the legend of the kneeling oxen, please click here.

The Word-Winnower

Winnower in the Pontine Marshes ~  Rudolf Lehmann (1819-1905)

 

Wind 
winnowed, 
winter-tossed, 
slighter stanzas 
surge aloft: a shed 
and swirling chaff sentenced 
now to fly ~ sibilant bits  
mixing with metaphor; rising
in clouds thick with sweet, singing rhythm;
seeking the joy of allitérant skies.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on this Etheree, a syllabic poem that, in its basic form, contains ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click here.
For additional information about Rudolf Lehmann and other examples of his work, click here.

Hiawatha’s Camera

Unidentified field camera, c.1890s
(Click image for more information)

As one of the children who loved to hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, I relished my early immersion into the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 

One of the so-called Fireside poets — a group which included William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell —  Longfellow entranced my classmates and me with his rhythmic and rhyming version of our nation’s history. If he trimmed, re-stitched, and embroidered that history from time to time, the broad outlines were there, together with vivid scenes we never experienced but heard echoing in stories told by parents and grandparents; we enjoyed it all.

Longfellow often wrote especially for children, but he also included them in works written more directly for adults. We envied the school children who populated his poems, wishing we could have experienced such marvelous sights as those recounted in The Village Blacksmith:

And children coming home from school
Look in at the open door;
They love to see the flaming forge
And hear the bellows roar,
And watch the burning sparks that fly
Like chaff from a threshing-floor.

In time, “The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls” gave voice to my fascination with the sea, and, somewhat obliquely, “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie” became responsible for the beginning of my blog.  But in my youth, Longfellow’s most popular and long-enduring poem, “The Song of Hiawatha” seemed to be everywhere.

Shortly after his marriage to Mary Potter in 1831, Longfellow journeyed to Europe and Scandinavia, where he encountered the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala.  Compiled by Elias Lönnrot from an extensive Finnish oral tradition that included ballads, lyrical songs, and incantations, the material was published in two editions; the original 32 cantos (1835) later were enlarged into 50 cantos (1849), and this later edition usually is meant when Finns refer to the Kalevala.

Kalevala, the dwelling place of the epic’s chief characters, is a poetic name for Finland which means ‘land of heroes.’ On the website of the Kalevala Society, a useful note about the nature of the epic is offered as introduction:

The world of the Kalevala is mythical – not historical. Therefore, its stories cannot be connected to actual places or events. Essentially, it lives in the realm of the mind’s eye. Lauri Honko, a Finnish scholar of the Kalevala, writes: ‘Many of the stories and their details become easier to understand if we do not try to force them onto the level of historical time and everyday experiences but try to listen to the voice of myth as it speaks to the man who conceives time as mythical.’

Written in unrhymed octosyllabic trochees and dactyls (known as the Kalevala metre), the epic is characterized by alliteration, parallelism, and repetition. Longfellow found the style congenial, and its use in”The Song of Hiawatha” directly reflects the influence of the Kalevala.

This section, perhaps one of the best known portions of Longfellow’s poem, may have been memorized by thousands of grade-school aged children:

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.

Of course, anyone who grew up in the 1950s — especially in midwestern states — remembers the Hamm’s Beer Company parody of “The Song of Hiawatha.” One of the most famous commercials ever produced, it borrowed its melody from Victor Herbert’s 1911 opera Natoma and paired the music with rhymed couplets similar to those in Longfellow’s poem. 

Once heard, the jingle wasn’t easily forgotten. Even today, the percussive beat of its drumming brings it back in an instant, although many viewers would have been surprised to know the memorable beat of the tom-tom in the commercial wasn’t Native American. Minneapolis advertising legend Ray Mithun, who helped found the Campbell-Mithun agency with $1,500 and three clients, based it on recordings of Haitian voodoo drumming, and beat out the rhythm on an empty carton of Star-Kist tuna cans.

By the time the Hamm’s commercial arrived on the scene, a multitude of Hiawatha parodies had been published, including one written by the Reverend George A. Strong (1832-1912) under the pseudonym of ‘Marc Antony Henderson’ in 1856: one year after the publication of Longfellow’s poem.

Titled “The Song of Milkanwatha: Translated from the Original Feejee” and said to have been published by a company puckishly named ‘Tickell and Grinne,’ the parody imitated Hiawatha chapter by chapter. Over time, variations began to appear.  A much-anthologised, self-contained verse sometimes attributed to Strong and sometimes to ‘Anonymous’ appeared in Mrs. Scott Saxton’sThe Newest Elocution Textbook, published in Denver, Colorado, in 1893. Found in a section titled “Gymnastics in Articulation,” it had been given the title, “Skin Side Inside, or The Modern Hiawatha.”  The version endured at least until I reached second grade; our teacher read us the verse as we dried our snow-caked mittens on the radiators:

He killed the noble Mudjokivis.
Of the skin he made him mittens,
Made them with the fur side inside,
Made them with the skin side outside.
He, to get the warm side inside,
Put the inside skin side outside;
He to get the cold side outside
Put the warm side fur side inside.
That’s why he put the fur side inside,
Why he put the skin side outside,
Why he turned them inside outside.

Never one to allow an opportunity for parody to pass by, Lewis Carroll created his own version of Longfellow’s poem, calling it “Hiawatha’s Photographing.” In his introduction, Carroll begins the fun early; his use of Longfellow’s meter becomes obvious only when the paragraph is restructured:

In an age of imitation,
I can claim no special merit
for this slight attempt at doing
what is known to be so easy.
Any fairly practised writer,
with the slightest ear for rhythm,
could compose, for hours together,
in the easy running metre of “The Song of Hiawatha.”
Having then distinctly stated that I challenge no attention
in the following little poem to its merely verbal jingle,
I must beg the candid reader to confine his criticism
to its treatment of the subject.

In fact, Carroll was quite a camera buff himself, and he filled his parody with amusing details related to cameras, unwilling subjects, the pains of portraiture, and film development — all in a perfect and wonderful imitation of Longfellow’s “Hiawatha.”

From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera of rosewood,
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together.
In its case it lay compactly,
Folded into nearly nothing;
But he opened out the hinges,
Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
In the Second Book of Euclid.
This he perched upon a tripod –
Crouched beneath its dusky cover –
Stretched his hand, enforcing silence –
Said “Be motionless, I beg you!”
Mystic, awful was the process.

The entire, hilarious, improbable version of “Hiawatha’s Photographing” can be found here.  Whether you enjoy 19th century poetry, photography, or the humor of parody, it’s well worth a read — preferably aloud, and preferably with an audience, just as Longfellow and Carroll would have wanted.

The Hamm’s is optional.

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds: Flight

White-faced ibis (Plegadis chihi) ~ Brazoria County, Texas
(Click image for more detail)

Despite his prolific output and the award of a Nobel Prize in 1971, I’ve only recently come to appreciate the work of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Despite decades of acclaim for his poetry, publications in English represent only a small portion of his oeuvre, apparently due in part to the difficulties of translation;  I simply hadn’t come across them until I found them on the internet.

The details of Neruda’s life are fascinating. A committed Communist and political activist, he returned to Chile in 1953, following some years in exile. Eventually, he began producing less ideologically influenced love poetry, as well as nature poetry celebrating every aspect of the world in which we live.

 In their book Earth Tones: The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, Manuel Duran and Margery Safir note that Neruda began trying to speak to everyday people simply and clearly, on a level that anyone could understand.  In his examination of quite common, everyday things, they say, “Neruda gives us time to examine a particular plant, a stone, a flower, a bird, an aspect of modern life, at leisure. We look at the object, handle it, turn it around, all the sides are examined with love, care, attention. This is, in many ways, Neruda at his best.”

In his poem “Bird,” he offers his attention to their flight in a remarkable and wholly memorable way.

It was passed from one bird to another,
the whole gift of the day.
The day went from flute to flute,
went dressed in vegetation,
in flights which opened a tunnel
through which the wind would pass
to where birds were breaking open
the dense blue air –
and there, night came in.
When I returned from so many journeys,
I stayed suspended and green
between sun and geography –
I saw how wings worked,
how perfumes are transmitted
by feathery telegraph,
and from above I saw the path,
the springs and the roof tiles,
the fishermen at their trades,
the trousers of the foam;
I saw it all from my green sky.
I had no more alphabet
than the swallows in their courses,
the tiny, shining water
of the small bird on fire
which dances out of the pollen.

“Caía de un pájaro a otro
todo lo que el día trae,
iba de flauta en flauta el día,
iba vestido de verdura
con vuelos que abrían un túnel,
y por allí pasaba el viento
por donde las aves abrían
el aire compacto y azul:
por allí entraba la noche.
Cuando volví de tantos viajes
me quedé suspendido y verde
entre el sol y la geografía:
vi còmo trabajan las alas,
còmo se transmite el perfume
por un telégrafo emplumado
y desde arriba vi el camino,
los manantiales, las tejas,
los pescadores a pescar,
los pantalones de la espuma,
todo desde mi cielo verde.
No tenía más alfabeto
que el viaje de las golondrinas,
el agua pura y pequeñita
del pequeño pájero ardiendo
que baila saliendo del polen.”

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more biographical details of Neruda’s life and politics, the Wikipedia page is useful.
For a history of his development as a poet and critique of his work, see the entry at The Poetry Foundation website.

 

The Poets’ Birds: Dabblers

Whether Kenneth Grahame meant The Wind in the Willows to be for children or adults has been debated, but the timeless tale of animal friends and their adventures along the Thames, in the Wild Wood, or on the Open Road has enchanted readers since the book’s publication in 1908.

I missed meeting the main characters — Ratty, Mole, Badger, and Mr. Toad of Toad Hall — as a child, but once I began sailing, I discovered one quotation from the book appearing on nearly every boat: embroidered on salon pillows, hanging on bulkheads, incised over companionways, or silk-screened onto tee-shirts. Taken from the first chapter of the book, the saying’s appeal to sailors seemed universal:

There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.

Eventually I read on, and found equally memorable passages to enjoy. After being introduced to the entertaining dabbling ducks at various refuge ponds — the mallards, northern shovelers, teals, and pintails that tip tail as they forage for food — the sight of their antics evoked one of the book’s most charming exchanges, between Ratty and Mole.

“Ratty,” said the Mole suddenly, one bright summer morning, “if you please, I want to ask you a favour.”
The Rat was sitting on the river bank, singing a little song. He had just composed it himself, so he was very taken up with it, and would not pay proper attention to Mole or anything else.
Since early morning he had been swimming in the river, in company with his friends the ducks. And when the ducks stood on their heads suddenly, as ducks will, he would dive down and tickle their necks, just under where their chins would be if ducks had chins, till they were forced to come to the surface again in a hurry, spluttering and angry and shaking their feathers at him, for it is impossible to say quite all you feel when your head is under water.
At last they implored him to go away and attend to his own affairs and leave them to mind theirs. So the Rat went away, and sat on the river bank in the sun, and made up a song about them, which he called “The Ducks’ Ditty”:
All along the backwater,
Through the rushes tall,
Ducks are a-dabbling,
Up tails all!
Ducks’ tails, drakes’ tails,
Yellow feet a-quiver,
Yellow bills all out of sight
Busy in the river!
Slushy green undergrowth
Where the roaches swim–
Here we keep our larder,
Cool and full and dim.
Everyone for what he likes!
We like to be
Heads down, tails up,
Dabbling free!
High in the blue above
Swifts whirl and call–
We are down a-dabbling
Up tails all!
“I don’t know that I think so very much of that little song, Rat,'” observed the Mole cautiously. He was no poet himself and didn’t care who knew it, and he had a candid nature.
“Nor don’t the ducks neither,'” replied the Rat cheerfully. “They say, ‘Why can’t fellows be allowed to do what they like when they like and as they like, instead of other fellows sitting on banks and watching them all the time and making remarks and poetry and things about them? What nonsense it all is!’ That’s what the ducks say.”

However ambivalent the ducks may be about Ratty’s little song, for those of us who enjoy dabbling in poetry — or anything else — the ducks’ ditty is both amusing and instructive: a worthy combination. I’m glad Grahame recorded it.

 

Comments always are welcome.