Poems for Advent 11
Return of the Magi
'And being warned of God in a dream that they should not
return to Herod, they departed into their country another way.'
St. Matthew 2: 11.
Moonless: without maps. An escape
made more difficult with all we had
to leave behind. Riding all night
into countless unknown stars that led us
nowhere - a long cold way from earth. This way
slower, kinder to the camel's feet
but we lose precious weeks - and all of our
approximations suffer. None of us speak about
the birth, only Herod's madness. He will not
silence anything with swords:
only advertise what we saw
out of all proportion with his corporeal reign;
brief hold on things. Our camels climb against
a blind dark ladder of trees. Now not even stars.
A flight back to what? Three aligned
but separate states, destabilized
by the backlog of court intrigues
and machinations. Before we all left -
there were strangers in our palaces who knew
the answers to each question they had asked.
Talk and whisperings that prick our ears
even here through all the camps and castles
we return through. Behind our backs
Herod's wrath finds wings. Waits-
a dark nest tangled in night branches
somewhere along the road. Ah! how our living
now is blighted. Three kings
unseated from all we once held sway.
I have been frank, sought to convince the others
earlier, that we not forget
but put behind us now the business of that night.
There is no profit in any other course.
We get no younger. The story must die yesterday.
We have not found belief but bitter estrangement.
Back to a land and people I no longer love;
surrounded by pimps and boors.
Nevertheless I will find again concessional comfort
in titles, offices, routine, rewards.
I wish that I had never come
this far. Profoundly sad.
The others keep their counsel. No longer easy
with the old delights; diversions.
Sky grows light. Sun like a thunderstorm
against the wind. Camels shift:
an uneasy scraping in the inner sanctum
of the trees. Silent ablutions.
Dreams won't wash: once we spoke
of nothing else - their potency and pattern.
Now I long for the slow and speed of road.
The journey is everything although the route
unknown, now holds few surprises.
There is no enmity between us yet.
Our tongues are stopped on fear and danger:
omens, portents, signs. Only yesterday a crow -
we understood in every language we know.
Death stalks beneath a blade of grass.
I have some smattering of sorcery,
sooth-saying and the like
and I have an inkling - no, more than that,
call it a conviction, what tales will be told
of us and what glorious embellishments
in future times will crown this quest.
Already correspondents, diarists, historians, etc.
have exhausted papyri supplies:
ink still wet will dry into grist for the mill
that all of this was courted in fabulous proportion.
Forgotten: how we three came to a present
that unthroned our past; cowed as children
in a cattle shed; fled a mad suburban despot -
flying without future into a mess of stars.
Sirius rising. The horizon beaten gold.
For millenniums, the watched-for-sign.
There had been rumour, speculation,
something portentous was imminent.
But none of us expected anything like this.
Beside the rising of the Nile - impetuous
we were propelled forward - leaping
from the known world. Falling,
at the end of an age, when things
were always going to be difficult,
into a cosmic dawn we followed starry-eyed;
and return from as blind travellers
to an ancient flooded river - while history
drowns a hapless world as it has always done.
Small biting insects rise from stinging grass.
Air is a fetid soup of camel dung
we laid on the now cold fire. Protecting us
from nothing. We have all had
the stomach cramps and sickness.
I can hold nothing down. We all sleep
in snatches: a brief bed of bad dreams.
We wake into worse.
One of the camels will not go on, dying slowly.
and the youngest - an inexplicable malady.
Melichior talks incessantly of poison. Lost
for three days - we described a circle
perfectly. In these dark cold morning hours,
the nightmare of running on the spot.
The old magus handed the sacred flame
to the boy this morning. Dying:
the ague argues hard with him:
all chills and shivers. He is
the wisest man alive and now takes on
the oldest and his last opponent.
He will not win. Even here beside
the road he keeps the ritual of the fire
alive in us. Between dementia
and fevers he speaks of luminaries
brighter than stars and suns
and dancing tongues of light. This morning
clear, coherent, calm, he drew a new word
in the dust. PENTECOST.
Gathaspa is too young - apprenticed
to our 'arts'. The old magus
suffers him but has been seldom kind.
The boy walks now the camel is gone
although it wasn't his. I have status
only to mediate not change
the old man's mind. Caught between
his youth and Melichior's winter
I know who suffers most. Melichior
is sick and has been deeply shocked.
It was Gathaspa the peasant girl
turned to - offering him her child
gripping his thumb with a tiny fist, flung
him past our knowledge and our time.
Last night I dreamed I met a man in Gaul
called Gislebertus who wanted to work in stone
the likeness of our faces; further that I
had come back here to court and unrecognized
been treated as a stranger. Intimates
and colleagues turned from me as fiend,
impostor or both. Confused I raged about
the city and found at last a vast temple
with our faces carved on walls and tried to
bring the city to the place. No one would come,
and I would wander streets once far beneath
the hem of all my garments - crying out
for anyone to hear. 'I am Bithisarea
and I have seen the King!'