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A poem for the Nativity

Just before Christmas we had a discussion of Christmas poetry. If I had known the one I give below, I'd have included it. It's by the British poet Sally Read, and since on another thread below it became clear that not everyone likes it as much as I do, I thought I'd give it its own thread.NativityHer labours heat still cloaked her,and on that, the nights cold like a slap.smell of blood and feed brought to mindjellied foals on stick-legs. But what she sawwas this: a blubbery pink umbilical cordtethering God to man, tough as pork-fat.Who cut it? Joseph with a grafting knife,and the baby juddered red, fists clenched,as though falling to the floor.And was she shocked, as all new mothers are,by that fresh distance spread between them:pitch birth eyes appraising her from outsideas if he hadnt guessed the voiceof his nine-month world to be so sadlysmall and human? She could only doas all new mothers do: knit his skinback into hers with warmth, milk and song,breathing out the pain, as with bony gumsand fierce with need, he latched on.Sally Read, Christmas 2011

Nativity
Her labours heat still cloaked her,
and on that, the nights cold like a slap.
smell of blood and feed brought to mind
jellied foals on stick-legs. But what she saw
was this: a blubbery pink umbilical cord
tethering God to man, tough as pork-fat.
Who cut it? Joseph with a grafting knife,
and the baby juddered red, fists clenched,
as though falling to the floor.
And was she shocked, as all new mothers are,
by that fresh distance spread between them:
pitch birth eyes appraising her from outside
as if he hadnt guessed the voice
of his nine-month world to be so sadly
small and human? She could only do
as all new mothers do: knit his skin
back into hers with warmth, milk and song,
breathing out the pain, as with bony gums
and fierce with need, he latched on.
Sally Read, Christmas 2011

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Have you ever seen an umbilical cord? Would tough as pork-fat describe it? Not at all - I have to agree with that. My most recent encounters with umbilical chords were with newborn kittens, and, with scissors, it is the easiest thing in the world to cut those chords (after the difficulty of tying a string into a knot around the slippery chord near the kitten's tummy.)breathing out the pain, as [...] he latched on - That's another description that doesn't quite ring true, at least, not without further explanation. More commonly there is no pain involved. It feels more or less like the inside of one's mouth when spitting out toothpaste after gargling.birth eyes appraising her - Now, that is interesting. What does a brand new newborn think about? That the voice of his nine-month world [is] so sadly small and human? I have no idea.I might like the notion that the umbilical chord represents a (vital? fragile? ephemeral? meant to be severed?) link from God to man, and that the infant Jesus is fierce with need, but I don't care much for the rest of the poem.

Claire --Alison Gopnik is a child psychologist who specializes in the tiny ones. Her Scientist in the Crib and her The Philosophical Baby are utterly fascinating.Among other things they've discovered that within hours a newborn baby knows its mother. By smell, I assume, but don't know.

Not so easy to cut a human umbilical cord -- tough is the word for it. I think the poem is vivid and very moving. Thank you for sharing, Fr. K.

Our foremothers in gathering/hunting days had no trouble biting the cord with their sharp little teeth. A newborn recognizes the familiar voice s/he's been listening to from the inside for many months.As to "birth eyes appraising her from outside"? I don't think newborns are disappointed that Mother is "sadly small and human". I think they're delighted to finally see the source of the songs.Sally Read does not seem to hold women in very high regard. (Or the culture in which Mary and Joseph lived.)

I like the poem, too, whether entirely realistic or not. I think it captures both the miraculous nature of the Incarnation, as well as the utter humanity of the event. The poet gives us a vivid reminder of the first of Christ's two supreme acts of humility, the other being the Passion. As for Mary, who had lived for months with the awesome realization (and confusion?) that she would be giving birth to God, the poet provides at least a hint of what must have been going through Mary's mind as she delivered what to her at that moment was her helpless human child.

Who cut it? Joseph with a grafting knife,and the baby juddered red, fists clenched,as though falling to the floor.------------------ Joseph wouldn't have been present, but a grafting knife would have been a good tool for the women to use.I like "the baby juddered red", although a newborn with his instinctive fear of falling out of the tree does not clench his fists as much as he spreads out his little hands to clutch mother's fur. (A documentary made by physicians against circumcision shows a baby juddering red and screaming in panic and pain when a man in a mask attacks him with a knife.)

The Philosophical Baby? What a great title!

Claire --Gopnik is apparently a highly regarded psychologist, in spite of the fact that she is so wildly in love iwth her little subjects that I have to wonder how objective she is about them. But she obviously knows what questions are important. What I particularly admire about her is that she does not make the assumption that the tiny ones must be just glorified little primates. (Yes, I'm fascinated by the tiniest ones -- the smaller the better :-)As to the poem, I don't see why we need assume that Jesus' birth was in any way a typical one. When the Christmas carol says "Angels we have heard on high/Sweetly singing o'er the plains" I'm quite sue that that is nearer to the poetic truth of that astounding event than any literal accpimt of the Gospels is.

I don't mind it being typical, although I think the angel song is true as well, but why does each image have to be a sharp smack? Whack! blubber. Whack! falling to the floor. Whack! bony gums.

Kathy: Why "whack"? Some of those images are not loud and sharp. Blubber, gums...

Fr. K,It's a matter of shock value, a slap like the night's cold. Why pork-fat? This is a Jewish family. It's one thing to talk about a down-to-earth Incarnation, and another to press the point so hard.

Not just gums, but bony gums...

I admire the earthiness of Read's poem. Poetry need not be "realistic", in fact should not be. Metaphor, employed wisely and creatively is a defining characteristic of poetry. Her work conveys the Incarnation, after all. Not a sanitized, Disney-version of the Messiah's birth, but the sweaty, uncomfortable and bloody reality of birth. Christ entering into life as a human baby, exiting into the world through the birth canal, not just showing up out of nowhere, clean, dry and pristine accompanied by singing angels.

"... fierce with need, he latched on." Interesting, multi-layered image there. Meant to suggest a symbiotic relationship with God? He devours us in his need for our love as we devour him through the Eucharist?There's a lot of blood and flesh, even violence in the images, the cutting, the juddering, the clenching. Certainly, Sally Read knows that encounters with God are not made of angel harps and fluffly clouds. Ask Abraham who led Isaac to the slaughter or Christ on the cross.What's your sister Bernie think about it?

I'm not saying there's nothing interesting here. The tethering, the separation, the noting of the separation, the rejoining, the latching on--all very interesting. I just don't know that the shocking things--"jellied foals" and "pork-fat", the knife and the bones--are helpful to understanding any of it. I guess I can't help remembering that this is a woman who, 2 years ago, wanted to write a book about a vagina. Perhaps these parts of the poem seem like the same kind of fleshy introspection, rather than a meaningful reflection on the Incarnation. I suppose I'd rather see lucidity in religious art, rather than introspection. Not there there is no interplay. Hmm.

I don't find the poem very introspective, far from it. "Fleshy" it is, but so was the en-flesh-ment of the Word. The umbilical cord "tethering God to man" is wonderful. Augustine wondered that the Word was speech-less when born, unable to utter his mother's name, able only to squall.

By "introspective" I mean that the author has put a personal spin on the event. Rather than speaking about the event as it was, she is "reading" the event with a certain striking fleshiness, especially in the first half of the poem, that I doubt was really the major focus of the interior or exterior scene of the virgin birth. It's a matter of degree, almost certainly overshot.

A baby hums the mother's' name while nursing. Mmm mm mmm. A three-note song to mom. (Odd that Augustine never noticed that when his mistress nursed his son. Or that Monica never reminded him of his own days as a nursling.)

Fr. K.,Just a word of thanks for these posts on art, liturgy, and theology. In my line of work I've found two things for sure: a) these things are almost impossible to talk about, and b) making the effort is illuminating. So thank you, and please continue!

I second Kathy's commendation. I've found the discussion of these topics very enlightening.

Kathy: Thank you for the kind words. I do think that your understanding of "introspective" is unusual: would "idiosyncratic" be better? Jean Raber: My sister Bernie's initial reaction was "Wow!" She wants to think about the poem before saying more. She too wondered at the meaning of "judder," which I find the OED traces back only to 1931 and for which it gives the meaning "to shake violently".

I heard a British friend use "judder" in the context of a car engine that started shaking violently when the ignition key was turned, so I assumed the word is British slang, though I have yet to hear it used on "Downton Abbey." ;) (Speaking of which, creator Julian Fellowes, who is Catholic, said recently that he will be introducing a "Catholic theme" into season three of the series.)

William, there will be a season three? Say it ain't so! :-)

William Collier, that's what I thought of, too. Old people like me will perhaps recall the occasional ride in a Model A Ford, or any old heap with a clutch and an attitude.About Downtown Abbey: interesting article in the NYT this morning about the rich American girls who married poor English aristocrats and noblemen, including Lord Grantham's Cora: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/20/books/heiresses-of-whartons-era-in-fas...

As a pediatrician, Im somewhat familiar with human umbilical cords. I cut several as a medical student and used scissors and forceps on many more as a resident in the neonatal intensive care unit, placing umbilical vessel catheters. I dont find the simile too much of a stretch. Perhaps cooked pork fat is more like it, which should direct our attention to Kathys point above: Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are Jews. In the poem, that which tethers God to man is disturbingly non-kosher. I dont read this as an anti-Jewish, law vs. freedom dichotomy, but a blunt reminder that God, forever willing to break Gods own rules, comes to us in most unexpected of ways. The word for non-kosher items in Yiddish is treyf. Mary and Joseph, of course, couldnt speak Yiddish, which didnt yet exist as a language, but the word comes from the Hebrew terefa, carrion, from a root that means torn or ripped. Christians see the Incarnate, crucified and risen Jesus, whose glorified flesh is torn (see John 20:24-29), as the saving and definitive tether between God and humans. In one startling image, Read links the Incarnation back to Jewish cultural history and forward to the Passion and Resurrection. As for Mary breathing out her pain, shes only minutes post-partum ( labours heat still cloaked her ), but Ill leave to those who know from experience if the moment of birth doesnt mean the pains over. From what Ive seen, however, theres still a lot of discomfort, even if the babys pink and well and Moms endorphins are doing their job. Either way, though, arguing over details misses the point. Ms. Read is writing poetry here, of course, but I take her real literary form in this case as midrash, a venerable, fruitful, and very Jewish way of exegeting scripture through narrative. If thats anywhere near the mark (and worrying whether or not Ms. Read thought of midrash while writing this would mean falling for the intentional fallacy), then the earthiness, carnality, and almost offensive imagery is congruent with the theological thrust. This is a profoundly Incarnational poem, which is also to say its anti-gnostic and anti-docetic, and thats a theological mystery we moderns, most of whom are practical Gnostics, need to have our faces rubbed in time and again. Incarnation isnt neat or clean; its messy, inconvenient, and often offensive. I like to imagine that I hear Jesus God Incarnate more clearly than the skeptical Jews in John 6, who were offended at the notion of eating flesh (the verb in 6:56, trogon, mean to gnaw or crunch, so Read, compared to Johns Jesus, is toning it down), but, if Im honest, Im at least as deaf, if not more so. I need to be reminded of what Incarnation really entails, and Ms. Read is offering me a much-needed reminder through her orthodox theological reflection. And I do mean orthodox: I dont know what Gregory Nanzianzen, Tertullian, and Irenaeus would make of the poem, but theyd agree Reads theology is spot on. Thanks, Fr. Komonchak, for this and your many other contributions here. Youve made me want to find more of Reads work, whose poetry is new to me. This poem reminds me of the work of Scott Cairns, for whom midrash is an important poetic tool, as well as B H Fairchilds, The Deposition, and a poem by Andrew Hudgins, Piss Christ, which is certainly not for the faint of heart, but which contemplates Andres Serranos controversial photograph and finds in it a theologically compelling rejection of Gnosticism. I suspect you already know them, but it's my way of repaying the debt I owe you.

Dr. Volck - please, comment here more frequently.

Agreed. However, I think "gnosticism" can stand for a lot of different things, and "incarnation" for a lot of different things, and we would all benefit from a lot more definition.Fr. K., you are right, I was using "introspective" in an idiosyncratic way :) What I mean to say is that Read seems to be reading Christian revelation through a preferred lens.

Yes, those Fr. K threads are very interesting. Aren't they always? Let me say it once now, and then I never need to repeat it again.

@ Jim : Thanks for your kind words. @ Kathy: You're quite right that, as they are used today, the terms are slippery. I should have stuck with "docetic" rather than "gnostic." Please take "Incarnation" in its formal Nicene meaning.

I don't think most moderns are practical docetists. That is not our problem. I don't think the current age has any problem seeing Jesus as a man like us, with all the messy business that entails. I think we have much more of a problem seeing Jesus as the incarnate Word, originating beyond time, and powerfully joining himself to human nature. It's the God side of the Chalcedonian equation that is lost to us, not the bodily aspects.

"I dont think the current age has any problem seeing Jesus as a man like us, with all the messy business that entails. I think we have much more of a problem seeing Jesus as the incarnate Word ... "I understand the concern expressed above, but am not sure how it reflects back on the poem. Does the work reflect our skewed view of Jesus as a man like us by emphasizing the "messy business" of human birth? Does her poem go so far as to contribute to our problem seeing Jesus as the incarnate Word?

Kathy: Youre doing me a favor in forcing me to select my words carefully. In my effort last night to clarify, I chose the readiest answer, since Id already mentioned Docetism in my first post. That should teach me to dash off something during down time at the hospital. I think youre right that the modern tendency is to lop off Christs divinity, turning him into a human with some special insight. We could have an interesting conversation on why this way of denying the hypostatic union is the contemporary default, but not now. My sense, however, is that the modern preference for an exclusively human Jesus and the ancient overemphasis on undefiled divinity (such as in various forms of Gnosticism) are two expressions of the same impulse to keep matter and spirit at a safe distance. There are countless ways I can choose to keep them apart if my desire to solve the mystery of the Incarnation is strong enough. Contemplating mystery is hard work, and most of us, I suspect, prefer choosing a solution that fits our way of seeing things. Its easier to tidy things up on my own terms than remain in uncertainty. Remember that heresy comes from the Greek hairesis, a choice, and ultimately from hairomai, "to personally select." Heresy is so attractive because its not completely false and because its of our own making. Heresy is our way of absolutizing some of the truth and neglecting those parts of the whole we dont think fit. In that sense, I suspect were all heretics, which is a reminder that I should be careful in judging someone elses orthodoxy. I believe Ms. Reads poem works against these personally chosen means of separating spirit and matter, God and humanity. Reasonable Christians and reasonable readers of poetry can debate the merits of her poem, but if the author is pointing us where I think, she has to do so forcefully, even shockingly, because weve grown comfortable with our own choices, however pretty we imagine them. As Andrew Hudgins writes at the end of his poem on the disturbing Serrano photograph, We have grown used to beauty without horror./We have grown used to useless beauty.Or as Flannery OConnor wrote in The Fiction Writer and His Country:When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shockto the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.When it comes to God, Im mostly deaf and nearly blind, but I want to see and hear better. Thats why this I resonate with this poem: I hear its shouts, I see its startling figures.

Jean Raber asked what my sister Bernadette, known from a couple of earlier references to poetry, thinks of Read's poem. Here is what she just sent me: I decided I was not going to read what anyone else has said about the poem until after I had written down my own thoughts. So, here they are. I always think a person's initial reaction to a poem is visceral and accurate. That is, we know if a poem's images evoke sadness, pleasure, anger, loneliness, etc. even if we haven't a clue as to what the poem is about. Even a first reading of this poem bounces you back and forth with its alternating images of the warm and nurturing elements of birth and the violent and all too realistic images of birth (bodily fluids, gelatinous images and even ugly ones, "pork fat." This poem definitely emphasizes the human and universal aspects of birth and gives a vision of the Christ that is far different from the ever-present, beautiful but sanitized, version we see in Raphael or Murillo paintings. From the first lines we feel this clash of imagery: warmth cloaks the Virgin in the first line and a night that is "cold like a slap" also greets her. There are few, but very important, references to the special nativity that this poem is about. The smell of blood and feed and the newly born foal's quavering legs evoke the manger, Joseph is mentioned once and the "umbilical cord tethering God to man" are the only lines that define this as other than any human birth. The humanity of Jesus is emphasized here. Is the poet saying that the child, still in the womb, exists in a kind of Paradise, all its needs attended to, innocent, unaware? I don't know quite what to make of the deliberately negative image of the umbilical cord as tough, blubbery pork fat. The umbilical cord that has sustained the baby in its nine months in the womb, has been a life-giving conduit. But here nothing of that is emphasized. It is something whose function and time are over and that must be severed if the child is to have a separate existence. Is the negative imagery to emphasize this casting off of what attached us to Paradise as a vilent severing and of our human condition as outcasts? There are two questions posed in the poem. Who cut the umbilical cord? is the first. The answer, "Joseph, with a grafting knife." There is no way to avoid the question, "Why a grafting knife?" That has to be important and deliberate rather than accidental or casual. I remember that Dad had a older friend (Mr. Kostner, or something like that) who lived on Strawtown Road in West Nyack who grafted trees so that different types of fruit would grow on the same root stock. Dad took me there one day and Mr. K showed us how he made a slit in a tree with a strong root system and inserted in it a slip or bud of another tree that produced better fruit but wasn't so strong. He then covered the slip and waited for it to be incorporated into the circulatory system of the rooted tree. Then, as it grew, it could produce fruit. The image of the Virgin reknitting "his skin back with hers" has to be related to this expulsion, separation and the search to find Paradise again. I don't ever remember seeing the word "juddering" before (maybe more common in England) but it made me think immediately of "shuddering" and my dictionary gives its etymon as being a combination of jerk and shudder. Anyway, juddering and clenched fists evoke both the reality of the shock of leaving a warm, nuturing womb and the cold slap of air in the manger, but also the combative posture of a new being confronting a hostile world and falling. Again, it's the idea of the Fall, or expulsion from Paradise. I began to think about images of the Christ and aren't there some paintings in which Christ is depicted as a gardener? What is the idea behind those images? And of course, there are references to the Tree of Jesse, the geneology of Jesus, and the tree of life, a universal symbol found in cultures around the world. Grafting seems to fit into those well-known associations. It is necessary to sever the bud from its tree, to insert it into another world and from that, something good can result. Is that too far out? Joseph's act is violent but necessary. The second question is about whether the mother was shocked at the new distance spread between her and her new-born? There is a consciousness of this new individual who appraises her, as she does him, and of his new awareness of a world that is imperfect, "so sadly, small and human" as opposed to the universe of the womb that seemed in its spherical shape and warmth to lack nothing. She breathes out the pain of the birth and he attaches himself to her in a new way, not by way of the now cut-off umbilical cord. The last verses are about how to recover the warmth of the abandoned womb and it is a process of reknitting. Again you have the contrast of positive images, "warmth, milk and song" and strong, intense, even somewhat ugly but very realistic images of "bony gums, fierce with need' and "latched on". The notion we are left with is of a great thirst, for milk, of course, but for what more? Knowledge, awareness? So now, I'll turn to your blog and see what the theologians have to say. It seems to me that the theologians among you will have a field day trying to unwind the enigma of the untethering of God and man, the untethering of the Divine and the Human. Is it our task to reknit Paradise through warmth and song? To reknit the Divine and the Human?

Perhaps a grafting knife has something to do with Romans 11--Joseph perhaps representing Judaism. More likely, though, Joseph's actions, though they separate the tether, are paradoxically making the God-man union permanent.

Kathy --I agree that it is the God side of Jesus that presents more problems these days. That's not at all surprising, given that our general culture has been formed by materialists/scientists whose vision hasn't gone beyond the three dimensional, material world.. Some of the new physics is changing that, however. One theory even has bits of matter existing in two or more places at once. The scientists still call those bits "matter", but in saying they can be in more than one place at once they are assigning them a spiritual property. What they have done is define matter up -- so that it isn't really matter any more, it's spiritual.At any rate, with that idea and with the serious positing of other dimensions by some scientists, maybe the younger folks will start to seriously entertain the idea that maybe there is more to reality than just this poor old cosmos, and that the God who created it is immensely greater than they ever allowed themselves to imagine.

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About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.