Journey of the Magi

Murillo's 'Adortation of the Magi' fragment

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’

Of the many subplots of the Christmas story, I’ve always been most drawn to that of the wise men. The bible doesn’t actually specify that there were three of them, just that they brought with them three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We don’t know for certain how many there were — Eastern Christianity has twelve or more in the caravan — or where they came from, though an Armenian tradition identifies them as Balthazar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia, and Gaspar of India. And there’s no evidence that they were kings, more likely mystics or astrologers who were following a star that ancient prophesy held would signal the birth of the Messiah.

When the magi arrived in Jerusalem, asking where to find “the child who has been born king of the Jews,” King Herod, terrified his reign was about to be overturned, learned from his priests that Bethlehem of Judea had long been prophesied as the birthplace.  Sending the wise men to Bethlehem to find the child and “bring me word that I may worship him also,” Herod instead ordered a massacre of all Jewish boys under the age of two who lived in the vicinity. The wise men, though they found the babe and presented him with their gifts, were alerted in a dream not to report back to Herod and returned to their own countries a different way.  And Joseph, warned by an angel that Herod was searching for the child to kill him, fled with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. Except for the shining star, this is a dark tale, shrouded in mystery and portents.  I think T. S. Eliot’s  poem on the subject — written in the haunting voice of one of the magi decades after the journey — perfectly captures all these cross currents of faith and fear.

The Journey of the Magi

T. S. Eliot

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.

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La Serenissima

Venice has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s a city I know well enough to be able to find my way along its cobbled streets and across its marbled bridges with the aid of memory alone.  There’s the Rialto rising out of the mist. A vaporetto puttering into its stop in front of the Accademia.  We spent many Christmases there —  when darkness fell like a velvet curtain and the lights of old palaces glittered in the inky waters. Though outwardly ostentatious and mercenary, Venice has always been a secretive and mysterious place. Many of its most stunning treasures are tucked away in unexpected places: the Carpaccio paintings in the tiny Scuolo San Giorgio degli Schiavoni; the tesselated marble floor, rich and intricate as an oriental carpet, mostly overlooked by the hordes being herded through the Basilica di San Marco; the mismatched pride of lions that guard the entrance to the Arsenale. At every turn, Venice is a visual feast, an alchemy of stone and light and water. And now, of course, far too much water. Continue reading

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Taking down the trees

They were dead. Or dying. Two crab apples that had been strangled by vines.  A great old dark cherry, standing astride our back woods, that had been riddled by insects and then jackhammered by woodpeckers and sapsuckers for so many years that its insides had been Continue reading

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The Light of September

As the days grow shorter and shadows lengthen, the contours of the newly mown field and the sloping shoulders of the mountain ridge come into focus again. Summer’s exuberant abundance — the drifts of phlox and unruly ranks of wild flowers — has given way to a stricter, more measured order. Change is everywhere, though still as gradual as the shifting sunlight. It’s warm enough for the cosmos to keep blooming, but they’re aging beauties now, their desiccated flower heads nodding on thinning stalks. The morning birdsong — Continue reading

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Japanese eggplant

Sleek, thin-skinned, and mild, Japanese (Ichiban) eggplant is an entirely different animal from its larger, fleshier Italian cousin. Obviously, it’s not an animal, but eggplant is a member of the nightshade family, along with tomatoes and potatoes, and therefore classified botanically as a fruit. I put in half a dozen Japanese eggplants early this summer and have been rewarded with a sweet, succulent, almost seedless harvest ever since. Their leaves are a lovely dark green with purple veins, their stems a sticky dark purple, but it’s Continue reading

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Local peaches

These days you can consume most kinds of fruit any time of the year —apples in May, strawberries in November.  Many are shipped in refrigerated trucks and airplanes from around the world and can pass for fresh and edible. But peaches, the most delicate and succulent of stone fruit, don’t travel well.  It’s true that they can be trucked up from Georgia during July and August, but even then they’ll suddenly turn airy and tasteless as paper towel.  The best peaches are local (ours are coming from Germantown, New York), and we’re in that sweet spot— Continue reading

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Bishop’s weed

Look carefully at the photo to the right and you’ll see, nestled between the proud crimson plumes of the two astilbes and surrounded by the delicate leaves  of epimedium and heuchera, the innocuous-looking face-in- the-crowd that is bishop’s weed. Also known as goutweed and snow-in-the-mountain, bishop’s weed is hiding in plain sight in every shady nook of my garden.  It’s a shape-shifter of a plant, insinuating itself into a gaggle of ladies mantle, hovering in the shade of astrantia fronds, trying to fit in — and almost, but never quite — pulling it off.  But pulling is what you’ll do if bishop’s weed gets a foothold in your garden.  Not only does it spread by seed, but it quickly establishes large underground networks of rhizomes, strong as plastic netting and almost impossible to rout out. Continue reading

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Peonies

It’s that wonderful moment in the garden when everything is possible again. The damp chilly spring meant a slow start to the growing season.  But now the freshly minted grass, dew-laden in the morning, is thick and spongy as a bathroom rug. Even the finicky continus shrubs and rugosa roses are showing signs of life— their rows of hard red bumps erupting into leaf overnight.   The great classical orchestra of perennials is assembling, each starting to keep time to an inner music that a gardener, looking out across the greening world, can almost hear. Continue reading

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Dandelions

I’ve always loved dandelions. As a child, I thought they were named for dandy-looking lions — with those round yellow heads and shaggy ruffs.  Though, in fact, the name apparently derives from the French dent-de-lion or lion’s tooth, referring to their jagged leaves.  That doesn’t take away from their whimsical, almost magical appeal. They can be both food (my father
used to pick them for salads) and drink (dandelion wine and as an ingredient in root beer), and they’ve been used for medicinal purposes by the Chinese for thousands of years. Along with forsythia, witchhazel, and daffodils they play in nature’s proudly loud brass section, blaring the news of spring. Continue reading

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Mud time

Mud time arrives in the Berkshires like a bout of anxiety. The clearly defined whites and blacks of winter give way to a queasy beige.  There are downed branches everywhere, hummocks of gravel spewed up by the snowplow.  Everything seems slightly off kilter in
the unforgiving light that lingers too long into the afternoon. The frozen dirt road with its well-defined runnels turns overnight into a quagmire — more dangerous than ice.  One road over from us a car sank to its bumpers in the muck.  It’s impossible to imagine that the world was ever green  — or will be again. And then the first of the chives, thin as cat whiskers, push through the dried mat of last year’s bounty. Continue reading

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Heart to Heart

It’s neither red
nor sweet.
It doesn’t melt
or turn over,
break or harden,
so it can’t feel
pain,
yearning,
regret.

Continue reading

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Leaden Sieves

I’ve long admired the fearless, even reckless way Emily Dickinson flings metaphors around. “It sifts from Leaden Sieves” is a perfect example. This short poem about snow which never actually mentions the word throws together leaden sieves, alabaster wool, wrinkly roads, unbroken foreheads, and celestial veils —
all within the first three verses. Each metaphor makes sense when taken apart and examined on its own, and the accumulation of them — four or maybe five more follow — piling up one on top of the other, results in a blizzard of symbols that somehow cohere. The poem sounds and moves like a snowfall — the quiet repetition of “it,” the unhurried pace, the echoing rhymes and slant rhymes “face” and “east” and “room” and “them.”  The last two lines are a brilliant sleight of hand, whipping the rug out from under all the poetic artistry that went before and leaving us alone with the hushed beauty of freshly fallen snow. Continue reading

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How to see deer

One recent morning around dawn, I spotted a family of deer picking their way through our back woods. Deer tend to blend into the background this time of year, their coats the same color as the bare trees and fallen leaves. I probably would have missed them in the half light if it hadn’t snowed the night before. They moved slowly and silently, glancing warily up at the house from time to time as if they knew I was watching.  Then they disappeared from view. It wasn’t until an hour or two later when my husband said “look at that!” and pointed to the woods that I realized they’d come back.

Now they were curled up under the trees. There’s been a lot of construction up on the mountain nearby, and I suspect the deer were refugees from some safer and more secluded habitat. I’m not sure why I found their still silhouettes so moving. But I sensed they were exhausted from scavenging for food, and they had no choice but to let us see them at their most vulnerable: asleep, right before our eyes. Continue reading

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Peaceful Transition

Did you manage to scrape together a decent reason why you were grateful on Thanksgiving?  I trotted out, as I probably do most years, some platitudes about poetry, mainly because poetry offers such an effective antidote to the mundane and obvious. Oh, and it can stave off loneliness and transform despair into irony, all while sitting quietly on the printed page.  These Continue reading

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