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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!'

Jeff Guess


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