December 24th, 2010

God, outcasts

The Annual Christmas Poem

Messiah (Christmas Portions)

by Mark Doty
A little heat caught
in gleaming rags,
in shrouds of veil,
  torn and sun-shot swaddlings:

  over the Methodist roof,
two clouds propose a Zion
of their own, blazing
  (colors of tarnish on copper)

  against the steely close
of a coastal afternoon, December,
while under the steeple
  the Choral Society

  prepares to perform
Messiah, pouring, in their best
blacks and whites, onto the raked stage.
  Not steep, really,

  but from here,
the first pew, they’re a looming
cloudbank of familiar angels:
  that neighbor who

  fights operatically
with her girlfriend, for one,
and the friendly bearded clerk
  from the post office

  —tenor trapped
in the body of a baritone? Altos
from the A&P, soprano
  from the T-shirt shop:

  today they’re all poise,
costume and purpose
conveying the right note
  of distance and formality.

  Silence in the hall,
anticipatory, as if we’re all
about to open a gift we’re not sure
  we’ll like;

  how could they
compete with sunset’s burnished
oratorio? Thoughts which vanish,
  when the violins begin.

  Who’d have thought
they’d be so good? Every valley,
proclaims the solo tenor,
  (a sleek blond

  I’ve seen somewhere before
—the liquor store?) shall be exalted,
and in his handsome mouth the word
  is lifted and opened

  into more syllables
than we could count, central ah
dilated in a baroque melisma,
  liquefied; the pour

  of voice seems
to make the unplaned landscape
the text predicts the Lord
  will heighten and tame.

  This music
demonstrates what it claims:
glory shall be revealed. If art’s
  acceptable evidence,

  mustn’t what lies
behind the world be at least
as beautiful as the human voice?
  The tenors lack confidence,

  and the soloists,
half of them anyway, don’t
have the strength to found
  the mighty kingdoms

  these passages propose
—but the chorus, all together,
equals my burning clouds,
  and seems itself to burn,

  commingled powers
deeded to a larger, centering claim.
These aren’t anyone we know;
  choiring dissolves

  familiarity in an up-
pouring rush which will not
rest, will not, for a moment,
  be still.

  Aren’t we enlarged
by the scale of what we’re able
to desire? Everything,
  the choir insists,

  might flame;
inside these wrappings
burns another, brighter life,
  quickened, now,

  by song: hear how
it cascades, in overlapping,
lapidary waves of praise? Still time.
  Still time to change.

Mark Doty, “Messiah (Christmas Portions),” from Sweet Machine: Poems.
Copyright © 1998 by Mark Doty. Reprinted with the permission of
HarperCollins Publishers.

Source: Sweet Machine: Poems (HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 1998)

2009: The House of Christmas by G. K. Chesterton
2008: selection from "For the Time Being" by W. H. Auden
2007: A Christmas Carol by G. K. Chesterton
2006: The Journey of the Magi by T. S. Eliot
2005: The Stable by Sr. M. Chrysostom, OSB
2004: no poem, but a meditation of my own
2003: The Guest: A Christmas Prayer by Harold Monro
2002: no poem, but a meditation of my own