This is a common time of year for Lists. Everyone seems to have one. David Brooks’s Best Essays List ran in today’s New York Times, and almost every other literary publication has reminded us of the histories, biographies, novels and memoirs they love best. It’s simply an excellent time of year for stories. Yet as Christmas Day often affords little time for reading, perhaps a poem is the best option to offer tonight. There are many poems people turn to on around now (from Seuss to Shakespeare), and many of those illustrate journeys. Or snow. Or, in the case of one perfect poem, both.
Here are two poems about journeys–one about snow, something we all want around us this time of year, and one about Wise Men.
First, the story of a trip taken by a solitary snowflake. It is called “Blizzard of One,” and the poet is Mark Strand. It is not new, but it’s so perfect it’s worth remembering–in snows, on holidays, for no particular reason at all. Now.
Blizzard of One
From the shadow of domes in the city of domes,
A snowflake, a blizzard of one, weightless, entered your room
And made its way to the arm of the chair where you, looking up
From your book, saw it the moment it landed.
That’s all There was to it. No more than a solemn waking
To brevity, to the lifting and falling away of attention, swiftly,
A time between times, a flowerless funeral. No more than that
Except for the feeling that this piece of the storm,
Which turned into nothing before your eyes, would come back,
That someone years hence, sitting as you are now, might say:
“It’s time. The air is ready. The sky has an opening.”
And here is another not new, but so close to perfect (and spot on perfectly provocative for this day) poem: the story of the Three Wise Men, as told by T. S. Eliot.
Journey of the Magi
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: 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.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Happy, Merry, Joy.