This week’s guest blogger is Joe Weil, an old and dear friend whom I met at Barron Arts Center in 1981. Winner of the 2013 Working People’s Poetry Competition (Partisan Press), Joe is the author of several full-length books of poetry and chapbooks. Widely published and a noted performer, he appeared in Bill Moyer’s PBS documentary, “Fooling With Words” and has been featured in the New York Times and in notable quotes for the New Yorker. He is currently a lecturer at Binghamton University. Husband, father, poet, musician, composer, performer, and teacher, Joe and his wife, the poet Emily Vogel, live in upstate New York with their children Clare and Gabriel (Gabriel, whose birthday is December 9th, is my godson). Joe's most recent poetry collection is A Night in Duluth.
Joe’s faith, which has always been an integral part of his poetry, is eloquently expressed in this Advent reflection that brings art and spirituality together in prose and poetry that speak to this very special time of year.
I first posted this reflection a few years ago, and thought this Advent (which begins tomorrow)
would be a nice time to revisit it. Thank you, Joe, for sharing with us!
From Joe Weil
An Advent Reflection
In one of my poems I called it “that dark season where poverty is blessed.” Or something like that. It is literally the season of early darkness, of least hours of light, though the sun is closer now, and if, like me, you are a watcher, you will note it is a purer light on those days when it is cold and the air is clean and clear. The leaves have all fallen. We can see decay and smell the mulch everywhere. The rocks on my way through the Delaware water gap are my favorite grey. I always joke with Emily that I can close my eyes and hear the black bears snoring in their dens of fallen oaks or small caves and crevices. As we drive through the Gap to go to one of our readings, I say: “There’s bear up there.”
The bears have gone to sleep—not a true hibernation, but a modified shutting down of vital signs. On days of false spring they may even wake for a few hours. They are like us in this respect: dozing, depressed in the sense of low energy. The message of Advent is: Shemah! Listen. Hear the weak pulse of life flowing where the water is too swift to freeze. Observe the pin oaks that do not relinquish all their leaves, and the pines, and the boughs trembling because a squirrel has just leapt from shade into shade. Christ is coming. Christ does not come in the obvious place or the obvious light. He is not in Jerusalem in mid summer. He is in the midst of darkness and poverty. He comes to say: there is nowhere, not even in all this seeming death that I do not abide—and abide more richly with my grace. Or as I think my poem on Advent says: “Despair more deeply into joy.”
Because of my faith, my life is still tied to the seasons. This wintering cannot mean less to me. I am awake each night to the stars, and to the rocks. I know what it means to be alone, even in the midst of my family, and to feel the full madness and beauty of the song “Oh Come, Oh Come Emanuel.” They don’t sing it very often in my church anymore because we have become this manically cheerlessly “cheerful” country that treats any deep and beautiful sadness as if it had cooties. They sing these inferior songs that have none of the truth of Advent. It is a dark season. Our hearts are broken. We hunker down and long for something that will console us in our exile from joy. “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the son of God appears. Rejoice! Rejoice! Oh Israel. To thee shall come Emanuel.”
Rejoice does not mean cheer up. It means to hear the trickle of water still rushing in the stream. It means to be the thrush in Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush:” Joy unlimited (a joy of which Hardy is unaware). It means to intuit Bethlehem—that nowhere town—and to believe in the deep cave of one’s being that something good, something to redeem us can abide there—in the dark, not in spite of it. To see Bethlehem and know its worth is the whole of Advent: this little place of poverty, this nothing town in the shadow of Jerusalem. If we were going to quote Williams: “this star that shines alone in the sunrise towards which it lends no part.” It is the light lit from within that the world can not teach us to see. Grace is there. It is what Whitman meant when he said he preferred the air to its perfumed distillation:
“The atmosphere is not a perfume ... it has no taste of the distillation.... it is odorless. it is for my mouth forever... I am in love with it,/ I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked./ I am mad for it to be in contact with me.”
This is a great poet defining his own Bethlehem—the little place where poverty, where the not distilled and free air of the naked and visible is blessed.
So, for me, Advent is a season of being ambushed by grace. I stay watchful and yet am ambushed. I am alert yet am taken unaware. God shows me my blindness. God grants me the dark I need to know what light I have dismissed. Today my wife is getting the lights and I am hanging them. When I was little, I loved the way the cold air gave the lights a halo. I was made for it as Walt suggests. I am still mad for it. My poem “Christmas 1977” was written when my mom had been dead almost a year, and we all thought it was going to be a terrible Christmas, but our love and mutual grief made it one of the best Christmas Eves I ever had:
By Joe Weil
Here, where it is always Bethlehem
grimy and grieved—a slum lord’s kind of town,
I watch old Mrs. Suarez string her lights
against the common vespers of despair.
I watch her nimbly snub the cold night’s air,
thwarting a fall into the snow ball bush
beside which Mary calmly stomps the skull
of Satan. Look! Her lights are coming on.
Blue with white specks where the paint has chipped
and yellow, green, all rising to full glow
big gumdrop lights draped from post to post,
haloed where their heat meets the cold.
And something in me tears or has been torn
a long, long time though I have read Rimbaud,
and have been known to chew on my own spleen
and spend an evening jesting at such a God.
Something in me tears and will not mend.
Take up this broken hymn and sing it there
for Mrs. Suarez wobbly and infirm,
who, soon, will be too old to climb her chair.
For her I hang this broken Christmas hymn—
here, where it is always Bethlehem.
This Week's Prompt
For your prompt this week, write a poem (using Joe's poem as inspiration) about a particular Christmas or any other winter holiday that holds a particular place in your memory. If you observe the Advent season, try writing about this time of year.
Note: Below is one of Joe’s best-loved Christmas-season poems, the title poem from his book Painting the Christmas Trees (Texas Review Press, Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved).
Painting The Christmas Trees
By Joe Weil
In my odyssey of dead end jobs,
cursed by whatever gods
do not console,
I end up
at a place that makes
fake Christmas trees:
some pink, some blue,
one that revolves ever so slowly
to the strains of Silent Night.
Sometimes, out of sheer despair,
I rev up its RPMs
and send it spinning
wildly through space—
disguised as a Balsam fir.
I run a machine
that spits paint
onto wire boughs,
each length of bough a different shade—
color coded—so that America will know
which end fits where.
This is spray paint of which I speak—
no ventilation, no safety masks,
lots of poor folk speaking various broken tongues,
a guy from Poland with a ruptured disk
lifting fifty pound boxes of
so damaged by police “interrogation”
he flinches when you
raise your arm too suddenly near,
and all of us hating the job,
knowing it’s meaningless,
yet singing, cursing, telling jokes,
unentitled to anything but joy,
the lurid, unreasonable joy
that sometimes overwhelms you even in a hole like this.
It’s a joy rulers
mistake for proof of “The Human Spirit.”
I tell you it is Kali,
the great destroyer,
her voice singing amidst butchery and hate.
It is Rachel the inconsolable
weeping for her children.
It goes both over and under
“The Human Spirit.”
It is my father
crying in his sleep
because he works
twelve hour shifts six days a week
and can’t make rent.
It is one hundred and ten degrees
in the land of fake Christmas trees.
It is Blanca Ramirez keeling over pregnant
sans green card.
It is a nation that has
not knowing how many lost
to the greater good of retail. It is Marta the packer
rubbing her crippled hands with
Lourdes water and hot chilies.
It is bad pay and worse diet and
the minds of our children
turned on the wheel of sorrow—
no language to leech it from the blood,
no words to draw it out—
a fake Christmas tree spinning wildly in the brain,
and who can stop it, who
unless grief grows a hand
and writes the poem?