Christmas Meditation: “Emmanuel”



                                                            From the cave of darkness
                                                               a baby comes to light.
                                                            In the nick of time,
                                                               eternity tonight.
                                                            In a world of error
                                                               a perfect child is birthed.
                                                            In the midst of terror,
                                                               peace arrives on earth.
                                                            In the chill of winter
                                                              dawns this blazing son.
                                                            To a world of sinners
                                                               comes this sinless one.
                                                            In a land of chaos
                                                               speaks this single Word
                                                            whose voice can raise the dead,
                                                               whose promise can be heard.
                                                            Even as he cries
                                                              sleepers stir beneath the sod
                                                            for nothing is impossible
                                                               with God.
Poem by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell was published in Christian Century, Dec 12, 2011.  “Epiphany” image by artist Janet McKenzie,
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What Mary Knew

What Mary Knew 

That he was beautiful,
love’s most holy writ.
That he was the world in small,
and she loved it.
That he had undone death.
That he would be her joy.
That he would grow more beautiful
as he became a boy.
That he was grace in human form
and paradise to hold.
That he smelled like eternity.
That he would not grow old.
That he was heaven’s gift
dressed in flesh and baby clothes.
That he was wholly beautiful.
What every mother knows.

Image by Janet McKenzie & poem by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell  were published in America, December 19, 2011.

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For Shadowment

Today, December 21st, is the Winter Solstice.  Today we in the Eastern Hemisphere are farther from the sun than we shall ever be.  Today, “the darkest day of the year,” light is scarce and slant.  The winter solstice has long been charged with terror and mystery, as we human beings get an inkling of what it might be like to be estranged from our Star.  We value the light we have today all the more more for its rarity..  The poem below celebrates that light even as it  honors the dark place wherein we find ourselves.

For Shadowment: Villanelle for the Solstice

Here, here in the crook of the year,
the crux and fix and flux of the year
light falls long across and dear.

Here in the ruck and dreck of the year
We glean and gather grace and gear,
here, here in the crook of the year.

Here is the neckbone of the year,
its knuckle sharp, its blade sheer,
where light falls long across and dear.

Hear the matins of the year,
the chant of praise and marrow fear,
here, here in the crook of the year.

Cheer the vespers of the year,
the prayers that rise from tongue to ear
as light falls long across and dear.

Clear your mind as night draws near.
Stead your heart and shed no tear.
Here, here in the crook of the year
where light falls long across and dear

(pub. in Christian Century, Dec 12, 2012)

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Pierced by Beauty : On Life & Art

It has been said that poetry is the un-sayable said. But this isn’t true. There are occasions in human experience when even poetry, the most potent form of language we humans have, cannot invent the words necessary to convey the unspeakable truth.

We have witnessed such an occasion in recent days. The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14th stunned us, once again, with an inexplicable act of violence and evil. In the immediate hours afterwards, the most common response I heard in the news and on social media was a paralyzed silence.

“No words,” wrote one of my most eloquent and voluble Facebook friends.

But people wanted to say something, to offer some expression of the terrible loss of life, the terrible violation of the sacrosanct holy land of childhood, the terrible knowledge that evil can pierce us to the quick and leave us wounded, naked, and lost. We wanted to console ourselves, to insist that goodness & love triumphs over malignity & hatred. In the absence of words, people began circulating images—beautiful, powerful images of grief-stricken Madonnas, of weeping Christs, innumerable incarnations of the fragile human form contracted and contorted, tongue-tied in an agony of grief.

A Story

When our son turned five, we decided to give him a pair of hamsters. On his birthday—a cold and snowy day in early January—I picked him up from morning kindergarten, drove slowly home, and led him by the hand into our warm house. Waiting inside were balloons, cake, and a multi-level miniature plastic playground with two hamsters inside. My husband and I stood by, anticipating his response of surprise, wonder, and delight. Instead, our five-year-old child peered inside the cage, burst into hot tears, and began wailing inconsolably, “I want to BE one!”

We were mystified—both in that inexplicable moment and for years afterward.

One day, while I was reading the letters of poet John Keats, I received some small insight into this mystery. The young Keats would invest himself so entirely in the books he was reading (and in the lives he was living) he would become one with the creatures and emotions he encountered. Reading Spenser, he would hunker over and extend his arms in imitation of the “sea-shouldering whales” the master poet wrote of—watching the birds outside his window, he would imagine himself scratching and pecking in the gravel alongside them.

This “negative capability” Keats so prized — the impulse to negate The Self and become The Other, to inhabit a state of being perceived outside oneself—had overwhelmed our small son when he first set eyes on his hamsters, amazing little beings he had never seen before. Pierced by their beauty, his capacity to become them was outstripped by his desire, his five impassioned, puzzling words proclaiming the power and lamenting the limits of his imagination.

Why Haiku?

“It’s like being alive twice.”

This is what Basho, the 17th century haiku master, once said about lyric poetry. He left behind his life as a samurai warrior in order to become a poet, setting aside his sword to take up his pen, abandoning the pursuit of death to pursue life.

In the cicada’s cry
There’s no sign that can foretell
How soon it must die.

To know a state is to know its opposite, and haiku invites poet and reader to experience both in the same instant of time with an intensity telegraphed by its brevity. And so the poem, like the sound of the cicada (most evanescent of creatures), celebrates life and heralds death. Here is the in-between space, the negatively capable niche, where Basho takes up residence and writes from.

Haiku forbids excess. The poet has 17 syllables (or fewer) in which to say, not the un-sayable, but what can be said. There is no room for explanation, only impression. Haiku gives the fleet glimpse instead of exposition, a quick picture in place of a thousand words.

Won’t you come and see
loneliness? Just one leaf
from the kiri tree.

The sparseness of haiku suits its subject—the finding of plenty in the midst of dearth, of presence in the empty fact of absence, of affirmation amid the cry of lamentation.

For a lovely bowl
Let us arrange these flowers
Since there is no rice.

And what are “these flowers” that substitute for food if not words—bright blooms we cannot eat, that won’t sate our human hunger, yet feed the ear and eye? And what are haiku but small bowls of roses offered on the altar of our mortality, momentary flashes of Being that enlarge and amplify our own?

Heron’s cry
Stabs the darkness.

And so Basho wields his pen, a scalpel instead of a sword—his wounding delicate, surgical, survivable. Pierced by beauty, alive once and alive twice, we become more fully ourselves…heron and leaf, hamster and human, grieving mother and grieved-for child.


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