Dec. 23, 2013

Christmas Sparrow

by Billy Collins

The first thing I heard this morning
was a rapid flapping sound, soft, insistent—

wings against glass as it turned out
downstairs when I saw the small bird
rioting in the frame of a high window,
trying to hurl itself through
the enigma of glass into the spacious light.

Then a noise in the throat of the cat
who was hunkered on the rug
told me how the bird had gotten inside,
carried in the cold night
through the flap of a basement door,
and later released from the soft grip of teeth.

On a chair, I trapped its pulsations
in a shirt and got it to the door,
so weightless it seemed
to have vanished into the nest of cloth.

But outside, when I uncupped my hands,
it burst into its element,
dipping over the dormant garden
in a spasm of wingbeats
then disappeared over a row of tall hemlocks.

For the rest of the day,
I could feel its wild thrumming
against my palms as I wondered about
the hours it must have spent
pent in the shadows of that room,
hidden in the spiky branches
of our decorated tree, breathing there
among the metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn,
its eyes open, like mine as I lie in bed tonight
picturing this rare, lucky sparrow
tucked into a holly bush now,
a light snow tumbling through the windless dark.

"Christmas Sparrow" by Billy Collins, from Aimless Love. © Random House 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Tonight in Oaxaca, Mexico, folks will be celebrating the Noche de Rábanos, the Night of the Radishes, and the zócalo (public square) will become the scene of a huge exhibition of figures carved from radishes. These are not the familiar little round vegetables that are eaten in salads — these are heavy, long, contorted roots that grow up to two feet in length and can weigh as much as 10 pounds. For three days, artists will have been transforming their freshly dug radishes into religious tableaux and village scenes, historical events and mythical tales. There will be animals and saints and conquistadors, the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus, and even the revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata.

The origin of this festival is unknown, although historians have noted that vendors in the Christmas Eve markets in Oaxaca would decorate their stands with radish figures embellished with other vegetables and that housewives would seek out the most interesting to buy for their Christmas tables. In 1897, the mayor of Oaxaca inaugurated the first official Night of the Radishes, and it has since become a unique and important part of Christmas in that city.

On this day in 1823, a poem entitled "A Visit from St. Nicholas" was published anonymously in the Troy Sentinel, an upstate New York newspaper. The unsigned poem began, "'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house / Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse."

For a long time, "A Visit from St. Nicholas" was attributed to New York seminary professor and poet Clement Clarke Moore, who was said to have written it as a Christmas gift for his children. But in recent years, it has been argued that Major Henry Livingston Jr. was the true author. The poem is largely responsible for the conception of Santa Claus as a tubby, bearded man in a red suit who travels in a package-laden sleigh pulled by eight flying reindeer.

It's the birthday of poet Robert Bly (books by this author), born in Lac qui Parle County, Minnesota, in 1926. He came from a Norwegian family, and he spent a year at St. Olaf College, where his English professor read the first piece he turned in and told him to quit freshman English and join an upper-level creative writing class. There he met a fellow classmate who wrote poetry. He said: "I fell in love with her, and I wrote a poem to her. I had the strangest sensation. I felt something in the poem I hadn't intended to put there. It was as if 'someone else was with me.'" He went on to Harvard, where he met fellow poets like John Ashbery and Donald Hall. He published his first collection of poems, Silence in the Snowy Fields, in 1962.

It is the birthday of one of the great champions of poetry, Harriet Monroe, founder of Poetry magazine, born in Chicago (1860). She said, "The people must grant a hearing to the best poets they have, else they will never have better." In 2002, Ruth Lilly, the pharmaceutical heiress, gave Poetry magazine a gift of stock worth more than $100 million. Lilly had sent poems in to the magazine for years without getting published. But she kept no hard feelings, and she gave the gift because she wanted to make sure that magazine could continue well into the future.

It's the birthday of author Norman Maclean (books by this author), born in Clarinda, Iowa (1902). He grew up in Montana. He taught English at the University of Chicago for many years and built a cabin in Montana, near the Big Blackfoot River, and he spent every summer there.

After he retired from teaching, at the age of 70, he wrote his famous autobiographical novella, A River Runs Through It, which was published in 1976 by the University of Chicago Press. It was the first work of fiction the press ever published, and it was a huge best-seller and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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