Arts & Culture · Poetry

Poetry Sunday: "Advent," by Mary Jo Salter

At first blush today’s poem seems to tell a conventional Christmas story—a mother and daughter inside a warm house on a cold night, assembling a gingerbread house on the Sunday four weeks before December 25. But a few key elements are missing. Most notably, there is no father or husband in the poem. Also missing are visual cues we associate with the holidays, like seasonal music, candles, decorations, presents, a wreath, or a tree. Instead appear some decidedly rogue elements: a storm so violent it rips a shutter off an upstairs window, a sense that making the cookie house is more a matter of serious work than play, and a scrambled nativity scene that substitutes the three magi for the Christ child in the manger. What is really going on here? To some extent we see the working out of an idea from what Salter, in an interview, called one of her favorite quotations about her art: “Poetry is not magic. In so far as poetry, or any other of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate.” [W.H. Auden, quoted in poetryarchive.org.]
So, this is not your conventional holiday poem, full of glad tidings and cheer. The only traditional indicia of the season are a (broken) gingerbread house and an advent calendar whose terrifying scripture about infanticide and the Flight-from-Egypt scene recalls Passover more than it does Hanukkah. Instead of holiday warmth and security, we have structures (cookie and real house, Dorothy’s house, the homes of the Jews in Egypt) inadequate to the forces that threaten them. The poem is not, however, entirely devoid of hope. Advent comes from the Latin words for “to” (ad) and come (venire) and means “arrival” or “approach,” in Christian theology the arrival of Christ through human birth and a time of hope and renewal. One advent calendar scene in the poem, a Madonna and child “cradle[ed]” within “apses, niches, [and] archways,” offers a positive image that later returns to describe the speaker and her daughter. That image, along with the return of the shutter at the poem’s end, make a ring construction that closes a protective circle around the poem. The poem’s only other repeated phrase, “she half-expects to” reinforces the core unpredictability of existence, but it also implies the possibility of not finding or reading these things. The future is uncertain, but as we all know, a half-empty glass is better at least than one that is bone-dry. Finally, as mentioned above, the torn-off shutter itself becomes a “blank” page on which a future can be written.
Until the poem’s end, the “she” helping the speaker build the gingerbread house could be anyone—a friend, sister, niece, even an aunt or mother. The lines about the advent calendar suggest “she” is a child, but it is not until the last lines that we know her to be the speaker’s daughter. No interaction is offered, nor dialogue. Details about the two characters are likewise sparse, but we know a few things. The speaker/mother is a reassuring figure, resourceful (makes the split wall into a casement door), practical (thinks to bring the shutter inside where it cannot be further damaged), and strong (lugs the heavy shutter without assistance). The daughter is more enigmatic, but we sense anxiety and a great sense of responsibility in the way she so-very-carefully opens the advent shutters so as not to tear them and in the way she “works to tile” that roof.
Like her daughter, the speaker is “stunned” by the sound of the shutter banging over the house, but she waits for a good stopping point in the gingerbread house project before getting up to wash her hands and go outside to fetch the it in, and to me this makes her feel steady and steadying. Bringing the shutter indoors is surprising—why not just put it in a protected spot somewhere outside? I read it as an action that shows tenderness and concern for what the shutter later comes to represent: the mother’s and child’s collective future. The mother-daughter relationship is cemented and given positive connation in the repetition of that phrase “mother and her child” and their silence in the poem feels familiar and companionable rather than alienated or hostile. What we know about each of these two characters is communicated, in the best storytelling tradition, by their actions. Startled by the shutter being ripped from the house and blown over the roof, the mother breaks the gingerbread wall she’s holding. Equal to the situation, she converts it into a door. Although an open door is normally a positive image, the onset of freezing winter makes it an ominous one because doors that “cannot be closed” leave the inside vulnerable and exposed to the elements. And the elements do wreak havoc, like the manger scene with “three magi in a manger” instead of the baby we expect (27-28). Salter’s poem relocates readers back to the origin of the Christmas Story, a drafty, three-walled stable where it may have been possible to feel joy, but certainly not security, and we are reminded that for some, the holidays only exacerbate the hardships that define the rest of the year.
“Advent” gives us a wonderful gift: the holiday experience in a decidedly un-Hallmark context of a home that is not intact and perfect. Homes can be broken a number of ways: physically, as by storms or war, and emotionally, as by divorce and diaspora. The poem seems to ask us to consider what the holidays mean in such settings, i.e., in real life. We saw earlier that the title, “Advent,” derives from “arrival” or “to come.” What is the thing whose arrival is anticipated in this poem? On the surface, it is Christmas four weeks hence. On a deeper level, what’s approaching is more ominous: violence, chaos, destruction, and exile. “Winter is coming,” as they say on “Game of Thrones,” and it’s not good. Viewed another way, though, a house with a door that was once a wall can be a positive thing. You may shiver in such a house, but you cannot be trapped in it. There’s also Mizuta Masahide’s’s idea that destruction clears the way to a new vision: “Barn’s burnt down / now I can see the moon.” Finally, what’s also coming is the chance to turn over a new leaf, to construct one’s own narrative on a fresh and “blank” page.
For some of us, the November election tore the shutter off a house that formerly seemed at least somewhat safe. Now, worried about what will happen after January 20, we feel the wind. For others, winter has always been coming. I’ve no doubt things will get colder and scarier for us all before they get better. But sometime in the future Aleppo will heal, the next president’s tenure will end, and we’ll start again. A split wall can become a door. The absence of a barn offers a new view of the moon. A shutter can be tacked back up or become a symbol of the future, a tabula rasa on which to construct a new narrative. Our stories are flimsy bulwarks against chaos, temporary at best, but better than nothing We write them on what we can salvage from our personal histories. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” T.S. Eliot said of poetry. But we build our stories of the wreckage of our own lives, and the ruins are also the place where the fragments are found.
HAPPY HOLIDAYS, readers, and HAPPY 2017!]]>

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