I want to close 2020 on here with a poem I read recently by K.D. Miller in The New Quarterly, which is becoming one of my favourite Canadian Lit magazines.
I am reading an interactive children’s book of the Christmas story to my daughter for Advent. She presses buttons to go along with the reading. One button plays “We Three Kings” and her tiny finger repeatedly presses it and points out the bold yellow star on the page. The detail that has stayed with me from this story since I was a child is how this star was unlike any other star. It was bigger and brighter, otherwise how would the wise men know which one to follow?
But Miller starts her poem saying, “The star looks just like any other”, immediately inverting the familiar story many of us have to come to know through images like the one above. There’s a tone of disillusionment, fatigue, and disappointment.
The speaker (who I’ll call “she”) goes on to say, “The story sounds more absurd each year.” Is it absurd because if it was just a regular star, how could the wise men find it (and thus the implication how could the reader believe it?) Or is the story absurd because the star takes on epic proportions?
Absurd is a good way to describe this year, from pandemic lockdowns and toilet paper shortages to undemocratic democracies, to name a few. But the speaker keeps on, bearing her gift. I love the double meaning of “bear” here—to carry, but also to endure. How many times this year have you felt like you’ve been barely bearing?
Given the poem’s confident title and the lead-up to her gift by the end of the first stanza, I assume the speaker will go on to talk about myrrh, a sap-like substance used throughout history as perfume, incense, or medicine.
myrrh: a yellowish-brown to reddish-brown aromatic gum resin with a bitter slightly pungent taste obtained from a tree (especially Commiphora abyssinica of the family Burseraceae) of eastern Africa and ArabiaMerriam-Webster
But she never names myrrh in the lines that follow. In the second stanza, the speaker self-deprecatingly lists four non-tangible things she brings that, by the end of the stanza, don’t really seem like gifts at all:
She “bring[s] an eye that squints through doors / cracked open.” (fear, scepticism?)
She “bring[s] a step reluctant to be taken.” (wavering commitment?)
She senses death “in every new beginning.” (pessimism/realism?)
She brings “the argument that clouds the clearest word.” (a cantankerous spirit?)
The speaker reminds me of the proverbial kid on a long car ride asking, “Are we there yet?” But unlike a kid, she’s travelled this life road for a while—years actually. So perhaps all the stars are starting to look the same now; perhaps there is less anticipation and more fatigue. She’s ready to call it quits. Ready for this year to be the last. Ready to give up.
“Then doubt, my oldest friend, puts out a hand.”
This last line is not what I expected, and that’s why this poem grips me so much. The speaker indicates a turn or shift with the word “then”, but rather than hope, faith, love, or something of a positive nature putting out a hand, doubt does. DOUBT?! Because of the shift in language, I don’t think she’s being sarcastic. I believe her that doubt is an old friend but how will doubt help her carry on?
She doesn’t say. (An aside: my mark of a good poem is that it leaves me wanting more). All she says is that doubt puts out a hand, with the implication that she takes it. Can one travel with doubt so long that its presence actually comforts? Is the presence of doubt evidence, in fact, that its opposite exists?
I have shared this short video before but I am still drawn to the late Roger Lundin’s words about how doubt is intrinsic to faith—not separate from it, not a precursor to it, but a companion along the way.
Roger Lundin: Modern Literature from Regent College on Vimeo.
I picture the wise men making the journey to the Christ Child, travelling not only with each other, but with doubt—wondering if they’ll ever get there, if the story is true. Miller’s poem leaves room for faith and doubt to walk hand in hand. After reading the ending, I revisit the second stanza and wonder if “an eye that squints through doors / cracked open” is a gift, after all—a gift of choosing to see, to look for that star even through the smallest gaps. And her title “Myrrh is Mine” is a way of claiming this gift; a mantra she needs to repeat again and again to believe it is true.
Speaking of wise men, I would be remiss not to link to T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi“. He and K.D. Miller share the same squinted vision where faith and doubt blur in the wood of the manger/the wood of the cross. Christmas ushers in Easter. Birth and Death.
Compare these two lines from each poet:
“The death I sense in every new beginning.” (Miller)
“…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.” (Eliot)
Boy, we do ever feel death (in universal and particular ways) as we say goodbye to one hell of a year and greet the new one.
So maybe we too, like the speaker in Miller’s poem, are bearing myrrh. Our gifts feel bittersweet this Christmas. We are drawing towards 2021 with squinted sight and half-hearted belief that it will be better. We hope, but who knows? But if a bitter-smelling gift was acceptable to greet the Christ Child so many stars ago, it is surely welcome now. And maybe one day, in the not-so-distant future, our myrrh will transform into mirth, thick and sweet and pouring down our faces.