16 December 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/51

The Maid-Servant at the Inn

"It's queer," she said; "I see the light
     As plain as I beheld it then,
All silver-like and calm and bright –
     We've not had stars like that again!

"And she was such a gentle thing
     To birth a baby in the cold.
The barn was dark and frightening –
     This new one's better than the old.

I mind my eyes were full of tears,
     For I was young, and quick distressed,
But she was less than me in years
     That held a son against her breast.

"I never saw a sweeter child –
     The little one, the darling one!
I mind I told her, when he smiled
     You'd know he was his mother's son.

"It's queer that I should see them so –
     The time they came to Bethlehem
Was more than thirty years ago;
     I've prayed that all is well with them."

Dorothy Parker

Here's a charming Christmas poem from what may seem like an unexpected source, but bittersweet is one of Parker's dominant modes. I love that she tells the familiar story through an unfamiliar voice; it's like one of those Brueghel canvases crowded with faces and action and off in one corner is Jesus preaching or walking to Calvary – speaking of which, the "more than thirty years ago" in the penultimate line is particularly poignant; traditionally, Jesus began his public ministry when he was thirty, and was killed three years later, so the ambiguity of time might mean Jesus is already dead, and his mother already grieving, by the time the maid-servant recounts this memory.

If you're attracted by the Christmas aspect of this poem, you can find it in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets collection of Christmas Poems, edited by John Hollander and JD McClatchy; if you are drawn to the Dorothy Parker aspect, you can also find this poem in The Portable Dorothy Parker. The very old copy I have is the one edited by Brendan Gill, so I've linked to that, though I see there's also a new collection edited by Marion Meade, but I'm not sure what's in that one.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I had one of the same thoughts as you. When I read it, I was thinking of a Brueghel type of painting, too. I also thought of The Little Drummer Boy, but what I liked about this poem was how it was pretty much a conversation you could overhear anywhere. It's just one of a set of stories that this maid has from her years on the job, I imagine.
I think I may have had a different reaction than you to the last line. I found it kind of witty and funny, so when I saw that the author was Dorothy Parker, I was more charmed than anything else.