That’s a Wrap: A Poem for Myrrh Bearers

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?

Image by Jago from Jesus Storybook Bible: A Christmas Collection.

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 Arabia

Merriam-Webster
Myrrh. Image from timelessessentialoils.com

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.

Discovering the Four Quartets

A friend and I lamented the other night how we were only taught T.S. Eliot‘s early poems in undergrad: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1917) and The Waste Land (1922). She came over so we could discuss the suite of four poems Eliot wrote after his conversion to Christianity and what I would claim as his magnum opus: the Four Quartets (1935-1942).

I fell in love with Prufrock as much as the next budding English student swept away by the angst of modernism. This poem and The Waste Land were taught as Eliot’s crowning achievements, as if that was all there was to the man. It wasn’t until this year that I read his entire collected poems and realized if you just stop at his early works, you rob yourself of the bigger, more complete picture of who this famous poet was.

There’s no doubt T.S. Eliot is intimidating to read. He can throw down references to the Baghavad Gita as easily as the Bible, and there is a level of erudition from the reader his poems require. Every word and image matters, and there are so many layers to his work you could be peeling the onion forever.

One of the biggest differences that struck me in comparing his earlier poems to his later poems is the emergence of hope in the latter. Prufrock and The Waste Land are notable for their lack of hope—the despairing landscape they paint after World War I. A recurring theme in Eliot’s work is the failure of words to adequately describe human experience.

We see this in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!

We find a similar sentiment in East Coker, the third poem in the Four Quartets, and yet there’s a twist. I’m including this whole passage because it’s my favourite in the Four Quartets:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres—
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

My friend posited that the early T.S. Eliot would have stopped after “by men whom one cannot hope to emulate”, and I tend to agree. But this T.S. Eliot didn’t. Hope is the difference. You wouldn’t keep trying if you didn’t think it was worth it, after all. There is a significant change in his worldview.

I love this passage not only because it speaks to me as a writer, but also because I sense this is actually Eliot talking, not the speaker. It’s rare to get these vulnerable glimpses of the man behind the poet, and it draws me closer to him, hearing him wonder on the page if he wasted twenty years, if his work matters, if he matters.

T.S. Eliot may be intimidating, but the irony is that he’s so human in his questions and observations. There are passages in the Four Quartets that completely stump me, and others that make me laugh out loud with how in touch he is with human behaviour:

The tolling bell
Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried
Ground swell, a time
Older than the time of chronometers, older
Than time counted by anxious worried women
Lying awake, calculating the future,
Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel
And piece together the past and the future….

Perhaps the biggest joy I had in reading the Four Quartets was discovering he was the author of a phrase I had heard before and cherished, and never knew it was him who had penned it (it’s not the Julian of Norwich reference, but the first four lines). This is the stanza that ends the Four Quartets and which I never would have guessed came from the T.S. Eliot I studied in school. People change, and all his searching, questioning, and exploring led him to a beautiful place.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

The Fear

Wednesday night a friend treated me to a wonderful concert at The Orpheum in downtown Vancouver. Beautiful acoustics in a beautiful space. Even Ben Howard commented on the privilege of playing in such a venue. We were sitting just one row from the back and while Ben Howard himself was only a speck on the stage, the neck of his guitar danced amplified shadows on the ceiling. The music was mesmerizing.

The OrpheumI actually wasn’t familiar with too many of his songs and I liked it this way. I was hearing many of them for the first time live, raw, unedited. Like this one:

 

I’ve been worryin’ that my time is a little unclear
I’ve been worryin’ that I’m losing the ones I hold dear
I’ve been worryin’ that we all live our lives in the confines of fear

I’ve been thinking about time too. Maybe because my mom wrote about time on her blog. Maybe because we attended a funeral today for a guy who was only 26. We’ve known him and his family for many years, having grown up in the same schools and church.

I’ve been thinking that time is a lot unclear. Days like today remind me how fragile and fleeting it is. How full of endings and beginnings, comings and goings that happen at unexpected moments. A mixture of bitter and sweet, like T.S. Eliot starts with in The Waste Land:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

But stories like Justin’s also remind and encourage me of people who don’t live their lives in the confines of fear. A recurring word used to describe his life was “free”. Today we grieved and we celebrated his short but full years, his larger-than-life attitude, and the hope that carried him through the fear.