Although I’m agnostic, as a lover of myth and folklore I can’t help but have a deep attachment to certain bible stories that I was told, as a child, were true – all their wonder and strangeness. Isaac being taken to the place of sacrifice, Jonah in the whale’s belly, a basket made of rushes pushed onto the Nile, perfume poured onto Christ’s feet. And most of all, I think, I’m drawn to the story of the nativity. I like it best in the weirdly Anglicised, Christmas-Card version with snow on the ground that Christina Rossetti wrote of – ‘earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone’ – and then the anxious parents, the baby squirming in hay, bleating armfuls of lambs, a bitter gift.
The poetry world raised an astonishing £20,000 for refugees this month with the Poem-a-Thon organised by my friend Jacqueline Saphra, and I kept seeing the photo of a church sign on social media: CHRISTMAS: THE STORY OF A MIDDLE EASTERN FAMILY SEEKING REFUGE. It is about vulnerability and kindness.
My favourite Christmas poems draw on the nativity too. There is ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ of course, but also Hardy’s yearning ‘The Oxen‘, which always breaks my heart a little with that last line; Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’, with its wonderful details: the camels ‘galled, sore-footed, refractory, / Lying down in the melted snow’; or Brodsky’s ‘Star of the Nativity’ where ‘a child was born in a cave in order to save the world’ to whom ‘all things seemed enormous: His mother’s breast, the steam / out of the ox’s nostrils.’
And this year Gruff has been learning the tale for the first time – he was a sullen sheep in his nursery play, and we have been acting it out with his granny’s nativity set. I am pregnant again and have explained how, like me, Mary has a baby in her tummy, who is born amongst the animals. Following the shepherd’s lead, Gruff gave baby Jesus the gifts of a tiger and a chicken.
My next book is going to be called Incarnation, because it brings together poems about becoming a mother with those that draw on religion, and the nativity is central. I think I need a nativity image for the front cover although I haven’t decided which one yet (if anyone knows of any good modern re-imaginings I’d love your suggestions…)
So here is my Christmas poem from the collection (which was first published in the wonderful Emma Press Anthology of Motherhood a couple of years ago.)
Wishing you all shelter, warmth and family this Christmas.
Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.
– The Coventry Carol
I woke because I thought he was awake,
but he’s not awake now I’m awake
and the street is not awake –
it has been held and shushed by ice.
The frost is breath on a looking-glass;
the pulse of Christmas lights
makes the shadows move
as his eyelids move,
but his shriek gouged like a nail
and he thrashes: something
has injured sleep, something
I won’t let happen is happening.
In the day he is blithe; all light.
Christ was a child, famously.
Poor lamb, how the whole dark world
must have squatted above his crib.
Too absurd to think of God
in a flyspeck beast, oblivious
to itself; his burp and drool;
the wet gold blaze of his raised bum.
Did Jesus have these meat-sleeves,
this snodgy nose, the welts
on the ball-sack, could he really be
so innocent? Poor Mary fled
the darkness her own son uttered,
clutching her swaddled love
through Egypt; cave after cave.
To be blessed is a kind of terror.