“The time of Advent … returns us to the horizon of hope,
a hope that
does not disappoint because it is founded on the Word of God.
A hope that does
not disappoint, simply because the Lord never disappoints!
He is faithful!”
Francis, December 1, 2013)
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, co-editor of the online poetry magazine Maggy, and fiction editor of Ragazine. 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, who was born last Monday, December 9th, is my godson).
Of his most recently published The Great Grandmother Light: New and
Selected Poems (New York Quarterly Books), Joe says, “I am a Catholic
writer, I believe in Eucharistic reality ... in beauty and truth hidden under
the signs of what is broken and appears to be discounted.” Weil agrees with
George Bernanos: “...all is grace. But this grace is difficult, sometimes
impossible to quarry.” His poems are about the difficulty of quarrying grace in
places from which no one expects anything to come. “I expect to be ambushed by
grace at any given moment,” he says. “This,” Joe says, “is the great
grandmother light, present at all times and in all places.”
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.
Thank you, Joe, for sharing with us!
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 illimited (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 cannot 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
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:
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.
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
Painting The Christmas Trees
In my odyssey of dead end jobs,
one that revolves ever so slowly
to the strains of Silent Night.
Sometimes, out of sheer despair,
disguised as a Balsam fir.
each length of bough a different shade—
color coded—so that America will know
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”
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.
mistake for proof of “The Human Spirit.”
her voice singing amidst butchery and hate.
It is Rachel the inconsolable
weeping for her children.
It goes both over and under
twelve hour shifts six days a week
It is one hundred and ten degrees
in the land of fake Christmas trees.
It is Blanca Ramirez keeling over pregnant
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,
a fake Christmas tree spinning wildly in the brain,
unless grief grows a hand