Catherine Savage Brosman’s “Plums”: An Analysis

Published by Louisiana State University Press in 2007, Range of Light is a collection of poetry by Catherine Savage Brosman that is largely dedicated to the art of landscape, casting the American Southwest as a land both treacherous and awe-inspiring. This makes “Plums” something of an outlier in the book. While it deals with a variety of fruit popular in the American Southwest, the poem is not a landscape but a still life. At just twelve lines, it’s also easily the shortest poem in the book. And yet, perhaps because of how much it sticks out in Range of Light, it’s my favorite piece in the collection, and the one I’d like to talk about.

Brosman begins the poem with a mimetic description of Santa Rosa plums, and what immediately pops out to me is just how lush her description is. Read through the first stanza, and take note of all the modifiers that Brosman uses:

They’re Santa Rosas, crimson, touched by blue,
with slightly mottled skin and amber flesh,
transparently proposing by their hue
the splendor of an August morning, fresh

Catherine Savage Brosman, “Plums,” lines 1-4 (emphasis added)

Even excluding the adjectives that function more like subject complements than modifiers (e.g., “crimson,” “fresh”), that’s five modifiers in the span of four lines, one of which (“slightly”) modifies another modifier. This is perhaps surprising to see from an accomplished poet. When we first start writing poetry, we are taught to write with nouns and verbs, to use adjectives and adverbs sparingly lest we allow our verse to be wordy and imprecise. Why say someone “ran quickly,” we are told, when saying they “sprinted” is both more concise and more evocative?

Yet Brosman’s heavy use of modifiers seems appropriate for her subject. First, the speaker draws attention to the multifaceted nature of the plums’ appearance. They are, as Gerard Manley Hopkins might call them, “dappled things”: bright “amber flesh” beneath dark “crimson” skin, which itself is “mottled” and “touched by blue.” The interplay of colors defies a compressed description. The closest Brosman comes to that ideal is by likening the plums to “the splendor of an August morning,” and it is true that the colors listed would be found in a summer sunrise. But importantly, the plums call to mind the splendor of that scene, not just the scene itself. They promise decadence, and the poem delivers on it.

Brosman’s language is not the only decadent element of the poem. Formally, “Plums” is written in heroic quatrains: four-line stanzas of iambic pentameter rhyming ABAB. The form has a stately rhythm to it, and it tends to suit grand and grave subjects. We see it used, for example, in John Dryden’s “Annus Mirabilis” and in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” The form is a little rich when describing plums, but then again, so is likening their appearance to the great expanse. One senses that the speaker wishes to capture the subjective experience of these plums: that they’re brilliant, and probably delicious.

However, things are not always as they seem, and in the second stanza the picture of these plums gets more complicated. That initial “but” in line 5 carries a lot of weight here. True, Brosman has given the plums contrasting qualities prior to this point, but those qualities have been in harmony rather than conflict: both the dark skin and bright flesh are necessary to suggest an August morning. Here, though, we’re told the plums are “fresh // but ruddy, ripening toward fall” (4-5). Now they’re described as having incongruous elements, as though freshness and ruddiness shouldn’t go together, and the season shifts from summer to autumn. Where there was once clarity, now there is doubt.

As it happens, line 5 also suggests uncertainty in how it wavers from the poem’s metrical contract. Whereas the first stanza is written in strict iambic pentameter—no weak endings, no substitutions—line 5 does not scan so easily. The only ways to read the line as five iambs are 1) to pronounce “toward” as two syllables, with an unnatural stress on the first syllable, or 2) to pronounce “ripening” as three syllables and argue that “ing” should be stressed instead of “toward,” neither of which is appealing. A better way to scan the line is with a double iamb (a pyrrhic–spondee combination: u u | / /): “but rud | dy, ripe | ning to | ward fall.— | “So sweet“. Even scanned this way, the line is unusual for a poem in iambic pentameter; more often one sees a double iamb at the beginning of a line rather than the middle. The effect of this line’s rhythm is to put a sour taste in the reader’s mouth, even as it ends on the word “sweet”.

But of course, that’s the point: despite appearances, the plums are not sweet. When the speaker bites into one, she discovers that it’s “tart” (6). She says that the plum has a “sunny glow perfected in deceit” (7), with the rhyme reinforcing the false promise of a sweet treat. To the speaker, it’s as if the plum’s objective is to trick people into eating it, and so she finds a new appearance within it: the “emulation of a cunning heart” (8). This bitterness is a far cry from the painterly calm of that first stanza.

I find the reference in the second stanza to William Carlos Williams’s poem “This Is Just To Say” rather fitting. “This Is Just To Say” is a deceptively simple poem in which the speaker apologizes for eating the plums that the addressee has been saving. Specifically, Brosman quotes from the poem’s final stanza:

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

William Carlos Williams, “This Is Just To Say,” lines 9-12

One could read this final stanza as the speaker simply explaining why he ate the plums: they were just so hard to resist. But more than that, I get the sense that the speaker is rubbing his transgression in the addressee’s face, reminding them of just how wonderful those plums would have been—”so cold,” indeed. (This is one of the reasons why “This Is Just To Say” has endured as parody fodder. It became a popular meme on Twitter in 2017, and Kenneth Koch’s “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams” spoofed the concept all the way back in 1962.)

If that second reading is correct, that the speaker of “This Is Just To Say” is teasing the addressee instead of apologizing, then it seems that the poor soul who lived with Williams isn’t his only victim. The speaker in Brosman’s poem is aware of Williams’s work, of how he presents plums as these irresistibly refreshing snacks. “This Is Just To Say” isn’t even the only famous poem where Williams sings the praises of plums; he does much the same in “To a Poor Old Woman.” But to the speaker in Brosman’s poem, Williams has not been fully honest, as this Santa Rosa plum has been anything but refreshing.

To recap thus far: “Plums” begins as an ode to the beauty of Santa Rosa plums, a celebration of their complex appearance, but the second stanza reveals that this particular plum does not taste nearly as good as it looks. We may well expect the poem to end there, and I think a lesser writer would do just that. In this hypothetical version of “Plums,” the meaning could be reduced to a variation on “all that glisters is not gold.” That’s hardly a novel sentiment, but if presented in a skilled fashion even clichés still have value.

But the speaker literally refuses to stop there. “I eat it anyway,” she says, “until the pit / alone remains, with scattered drops of juice” (9-10). She neither succumbs to disappointment nor denies it. Instead, she acknowledges the tartness and powers through it. That willingness to proceed despite the sour taste allows her to uncover a more nuanced truth than “appearances deceive,” for the remnants of the plum are “such sour trophies proving nature’s wit: / appearances and real in fragile truce” (11-12). According to this last line, it’s not the case that the tartness is the plum’s true nature, and that the beautiful appearance is a falsehood. Rather, the two coexist, not in pure harmony or pure contrast, but as two parties in “fragile truce.”

In a sense, then, “Plums” is a poem whose ending circles right back to its beginning. The plums really are dappled things—just in a way that’s trickier to unpack.


Thanks for reading! If this analysis has piqued your interest in Brosman’s poetry, then you should check out Range of Light, which is available through the LSU Press website or through Amazon. If, on the other hand, this made you want to read more about William Carlos Williams, then you should check out my analysis of “[The crowd at the ball game].”

Recent Publication: Third Coast

I happy to announce that I have a poem in the most recent issue of Third Coast, the literary magazine housed at Western Michigan University. It’s called “Retaliation,” and it’s a poem that I’ve been particularly excited about, because of how it channels a whole bunch of my personal obsessions into a single work. Perhaps you’ll indulge me if I elaborate for a little bit. (That, and since the poem is in print I feel bad about not having anything to link to.)

First, there’s the subject matter. “Retaliation” is addressed to Todd Bertuzzi, a former hockey player who was the assailant in one of the most brazen instances of in-game violence that I can remember. On March 8, 2004, in the third period of lopsided game between the Vancouver Canucks and the Colorado Avalanche, Bertuzzi grabbed Colorado center Steve Moore from behind, punched him in the back of the head, and drove him head-first onto the ice, breaking several of Moore’s neck vertebrae. Moore would never play hockey again, and Bertuzzi faced criminal charges for his actions.

The incident has stuck with ever since, largely because I saw a lot of replays of Bertuzzi’s sucker punch while watching SportsCenter; the footage became by version of the Zapruder film. But I was also haunted by the reactions of the broadcasters and the crowd. If you watch the footage of the incident, the moment that Bertuzzi punches Moore you’ll hear the play-by-play announcer’s voice perk up excitedly and the crowd begin to cheer. It takes good while for everyone involved to realize the extent of Moore’s injuries, and then the mood shifts drastically; the whole game, as it were, crashes into a wall.

That brings me to the thematic content of the poem, which revolves around the concept of the magic circle. “Magic circle” is a term appropriated from Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture to describe the constructed world in which a game takes place, where the rules of the everyday world are set aside and in-game actions are, by and large, metaphorical. While this notion of the magic circle goes back to the work of game designers Eric Zimmerman, Frank Lantz, and Katie Salen, I first became aware of it from an episode of the YouTube series Errant Signal discussing a video game called, appropriately, The Magic Circle.

Now, everyone agrees that, if games exist within a magic circle, the boundary between the game world and the everyday world is very porous. But Bertuzzi’s actions did not merely represent a crossing of that boundary; it came close to erasing that boundary completely. All play came to a halt, spectators became eyewitnesses, and both men would enter a years-long legal process as a direct result. This was no longer a game; it was a current event and a moral crisis.

Lastly, we come to the form. I’d had this basic idea for a poem—tying the Bertuzzi incident to the magic circle concept—stuck in my head for a good while, but I could never get it down on paper in a way that remotely satisfied me. That is, until I decided to show my students “Lake Sonnet” by Anne Marie Rooney (which you can read here) as an example of how poets play with the sonnet form. In this poem, and several other by Rooney, she follows a Petrarchan rhyme scheme but only uses “identical rhymes” (i.e., rhyming words with themselves or with homophones). It works especially well in “Lake Sonnet,” as the repetition of end words highlights the speaker’s monotonous sexual encounters: “I,” “men,” “our,” “breaks”.

I had personally done imitation exercises based on Rooney’s poems in the past, but it was only after teaching it that I realized that this structure—an identically rhymed sonnet—might be a good fit for the poem I’d been trying to write. Hearing the same words over and over again could be used to trap the poem in a particular moment, and there’s something wonderfully “circular” about all this repetition. A few hours later I had a draft; a few months worth of tweaks later and I had the poem in its current shape.

At time of writing there is no link to purchase the latest issue of Third Coast, but hopefully that will change in the near future. In the meantime, you can purchase back issues of Third Coast via their website.

Recent Publication: Cumberland River Review

I’m very happy to have another poem in Cumberland River Review! Their current issue features my piece entitled “On a Small Farm in Waterbury, VT,” which is inspired by a photograph by Sasha Arutyunova that was featured in The National, the Amtrak in-train magazine. The photograph was part of a larger series documenting the Vermonter route between New York City and Waterbury, all of which are worth checking out. (Surprisingly, The National is a really good magazine; give it a read if you’re ever on Amtrak.)

Thanks again to the editorial staff at CRR for selecting my work for inclusion!

You can read “On a Small Farm in Waterbury, VT” by clicking here, and you can read my previous poem in CRR, “Overland Express Arriving at Helena, Mont.,” by clicking here. If you would like to see Arutyunova’s series of photographs that I mentioned above, you find them on her website (the one that inspired my poem is the 12th in the series).

Recent Publication: The McNeese Review

I’m very pleased to announce that two poems of mine have been published in the most recent issue of The McNeese Review: “Men Who Stand Still Are Broken” and “Luis Martinetti”. The former poem was inspired by a line someone had written on a column in the 42nd Street–Port Authority Bus Terminal subway station, and I think it’s the only poem I’ve written where the organizing principle is having a fixed number of words per line. The latter is another installment in my series of ekphrastic poems about the Edison Studios catalog of short films (which I have mentioned here and here). In this case, it’s inspired by some footage of an acrobat going through his routine. I’m rather proud of both these pieces, so I guess finding a market for them helps validate my taste in my own work.

This publication is very exciting for a couple of reasons. First, it turns out that I’m in the same issue with Jim Daniels, a faculty member at my alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University. (I never had a class with him, but I did get to speak with him a handful of times.) Second, this is the first publication that I’m actually getting paid for, so I can finally cross that goal off my list.

You can order a copy of this issue of The McNeese Review through the magazine’s website. If you’d like to see the film that inspired “Luis Martinetti” (i.e., the film Luis Martinetti), you can watch it below:

Recent Publication: Cumberland River Review

I’m happy to announce that one of my poems, “Overland Express Arriving at Helena, Mont.,” has just been published in Issue 8-1 of the Cumberland River Review, the literary magazine affiliated with Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tennessee.

This poem is part of loose series that I’ve been writing in response to the films of Edison Studios, or at least the ones that you can find on the Library of Congress’s YouTube channel. Overland Express Arriving at Helena, Mont. depicts exactly what its title suggests: a train pulling into a station in Big Sky Country. I was especially drawn to the film’s intense contrast in values, with the pure white sky looming over, and then giving way to, the dark commotion of the platform below.

You can read my poem about this film at the link above.

If you are curious about the other poems in this series, I have had a poem inspired by The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots published in Tar River Poetry (under the title “Edison Studios”) and have another one, based on Luis Martinetti, forthcoming in The McNeese Review.

Special thanks to Graham Hillard and the rest of the team at CRR for including my work in their magazine. I have another poem, unrelated to all these Edison Studios pieces, forthcoming in CRR later this year.

Marianne Moore’s “No Swan So Fine”: An Analysis

Marianne Moore wasn’t my favorite poet who I studied as part of my MFA, but she was one of my favorite characters. The way that Elizabeth Bishop describes in particular is just so charming: an almost comically old-fashioned woman who happened to have an experimental flair for poetry, an erudite thinker with popular appeal. I admired her in concept without loving her in fact. At least, that is, until I really stopped to analyze today’s poem, “No Swan So Fine.”

The poem, which you can read over at the Poetry Foundation website, is in many ways the perfect poem to start off the new year with. After all, a new year is a time of transition, a time to reflect upon the past and confront the uncertainty of the present moment. I’m hard-pressed to think of poems that quite capture that anxious attitude toward time like this one does.

We might as well begin with the quote that opens the poem: “No water so still as the / dead fountains of Versailles” (lines 1-2). If you’re not familiar with Marianne Moore’s style, your first question entering the poem may concern who is speaking there, and why we never hear from that person again. As it happens, the opening quote is not dialogue at all, but rather a line that Moore came across while reading the New York Times Magazine. This is one of Moore’s many trademark moves: incorporating material from mundane, non-poetic sources into her own work. If you’ve ever read her most famous piece, “Poetry,” you’ll recall that she did not think it “valid / to discriminate against ‘business documents and // school books’; all these phenomena are important” (17-19). For Moore, profound and fruitful material could be found everywhere.

In this case, the opening quote comes from an article that Percy Phillip wrote for the New York Times Magazine about the restoration of the Palace of Versailles, the grand home of the Bourbon dynasty for the century prior to the French Revolution. As the tone of the quoted material indicates, Phillip found that the restoration still left that symbol of the Ancien Régime feeling sterile, yet because the statement is framed as an absolute, there’s still a sort of grandeur to the setting. Little wonder, then, that Moore found the line inspiring, for it’s the exact sort of language that she extols in “Poetry.”

Where Moore places the line within the poem, however, is somewhat unusual for her work. Generally, these quotes from brochures and technical manuals and whatnot happen in the middle of her poems, occurring almost casually within the verse. In the case of “No Swan So Fine,” though, Moore uses the quote to open the poem, where it blurs the line between text and paratext; were it not for the visual presentation, one might mistake it for an epigraph. In fact, the line more or less functions as one, because the quote directly inspires the speaker’s reflections that comprise the poem.

From that line in the New York Times Magazine, the speaker makes an associative leap to an ornamental swan “[l]odged in the Louis Fifteenth / candelabrum-tree” (8-9). As Grace Shulman writes in Marianne Moore: The Poetry of Engagement (excerpt available on the University of Illinois website), the real-life piece Moore had in mind was a candelabra owned by former British Prime Minister Lord Balfour, which had recently been auctioned off. Both the palace and the swan are antiques of a declining aristocracy, pieces of history whose auras have faded through time.

The speaker’s feeling toward the swan seems ambivalent, to judge by the language used to describe it. To get a sense that ambivalence, let’s look at that first stanza in full:

"No water so still as the
    dead fountains of Versailles." No swan,
with swart blind look askance
and ambidextrous legs, so fine
    as the chintz china one with fawn-
brown-eyes and toothed gold
    collar on to show whose bird it was. (1-7)

On the one hand, there is a regal quality to the verse here, which comes through strongly in the stanza form. As with many of Moore’s early poem, “No Swan So Fine” is built on what Lewis Turco would call quantitative syllabics: repeated stanzas with the same arbitrary pattern in the number of syllables per line. In this case, the stanza form is 7-8-6-8-8-5-9. (Granted, this requires one to use the archaic one-syllable pronunciation of “flowers” in line 14, but such archaisms are not exactly unwelcome given the subject.) Compared with other Moore poems in quantitative syllabics, which often juxtapose Whitman-esque line-lengths with Williams-esque ones, the line lengths of “No Swan So Fine” are relatively regular, with only the last two lines of each stanza differing all that much from the mean.

Further, Moore had a predilection for so-called light rhymes, which are so soft that read aloud they hardly register; one needs to read “The Fish” on the page, for instance, to realize that it rhymes “an” with “fan” and “the” with “sea.” There are no such light rhymes in “No Swan So Fine.” This first stanza’s sole rhyme, “swan” and “fawn,” hits so strongly, despite “fawn” coming as part of a hyphenated compound, that I’m tempted to call this poem Moore’s version of heroic couplets: composed, self-contained, and befitting high subject matter.

While the form of “No Swan So Fine” looks like how a modernist would mourn the decline of aristocratic society, the diction of the poem tends to knock down such nostalgia. While there is something majestic about this statue’s “swart blind look askance,” the speaker mentioning its “ambidextrous legs” only calls attention to the statue’s fundamental inability to move; at any rate, “ambidextrous” is far too functional and clinical a term to “properly” elevate its subject. (Moore would perhaps disagree, but imagine Dryden praising a bird in this fashion.) Or consider the “chintz china” material. While “chintz” can describe a floral pattern originally used in fabric, it also calls to mind the word “chintzy,” meaning gaudy or cheap. Add on that “toothed gold / collar,” and you can envision a statue that is really a grotesque parody of old-money opulence.

Yet just when the reader may start suspecting that Moore looks at the swan sculpture the way Phillip looks at Versailles, the second stanza pulls back on that “look askance,” as it were. Whereas the first stanza focuses on the man-made, artificial elements of the sculpture, the second stanza highlights the natural objects that the sculpture has replicated. The candelabrum is a mixture of “coxcomb- / tinted buttons, dahlias, / sea urchins and everlastings” (9-11), things whose mere mention brings to mind more vibrancy than anything described previously; it’s an almost excessive blooming of life, enough to overcome the knowledge that these, too, are as motionless and inert as the swan itself.

It’s at this point that “No Swan So Fine” appears as though it’s building to a revelatory climax, as though it’s about to uncover something previously unappreciated in the swan sculpture. Closing the above list with “everlastings” carries the suggestion of immortality, and then the speaker has the swan takes its proverbial throne: “it perches on the branching foam / of polished sculptured / flowers—at ease and tall” (12-14). These lines, with that archaic pronunciation of “flowers” I mentioned earlier, have a perfect iambic rhythm, in addition to the quantitative syllabic rhythm the poem is built around. The “polished sculptured / flowers” are the dignified counterpart to the “chintz china” of the first stanza. After that dash, the swan’s poise, how it perches “at ease and tall,” may as well promise a royal rebirth, a restoration.

And then, the punch: “The king is dead.” Four words, then full-stop.

This last sentence is so final, so sudden, that its impact—at least on me—takes a bit to fully sink in. First off, the line recalls those “dead fountains of Versailles” that inspired the poem in the first place, and why those fountains are now full of still water (namely, the execution of Louis XVI). But even stronger, Moore chooses to end the poem before the phrase is complete. After all, the saying goes, “The king is dead, love live the king!” There’s the promise, the guarantee, of continuity in the line of succession, a promise that the world of the poem cannot keep.

When that last line is taken as whole, we’re left with a very uneasy sentiment: the stability of “at ease and tall” vs. the earth-shattering “The king is dead.” There is no obvious way to resolve this tension; rather, it is best to accept is as an essential element of the poem. Schulman sees a “dialectical progress of the mind” in Moore’s poem, in how it oscillates between the two moods we’ve discussed, and if you ask me, no moment embodies that tendency more than this last line.

No poem less certain than the jewel crafted by Marianne Moore.


But I’ve gone on for long enough. What are your thoughts on “No Swan So Fine”? Are there any poems that you think capture a similar feeling to this one. Let me know in the comments!

And as always, thanks for reading.

Joseph Brodsky’s “December 24, 1971”: An Analysis

In my last post, I mentioned that I’ve been working my way through a lot of large, sprawling books of late. But I neglected to mention the one that I’ve been reading for the longest time: Joseph Brodsky’s Collected Poems in English, 1972-1999. Brodsky, a Soviet-born poet who later settled in the United States and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987, is a poet with a dazzling command of the formal aspects of verse; his use of slant rhyme is particularly admired, and in my mind rivals that of Sylvia Plath’s in terms of its inventiveness.

But rather than dwelling on the poet’s technical mastery, which I am wont to do in these close readings, I’d instead like to look at Brodsky’s handling of subject matter. Brodsky wrote a number of Christmas poems during his career, and seeing that it’s December and all, I thought now would be a good time to look at one of them: “December 24, 1971,” which you can read over at the Poetry Foundation website.

The poem begins with a rather bold assertion: “When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.” As a universal claim, it’s an inherently arresting statement, but it’s also one that demands proof, and also clarification. What does it even mean to say that people are magi at Christmas? Certainly we’d want some sense of what the speaker is getting at before we sign onto their argument.

First of all, for anyone unfamiliar with Christian tradition: “the Magi” refers to a group of a nebulous figures who appear in the Gospel of Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. I say “nebulous” because there isn’t an agreed upon translation of the word magi: the King James Version refers to them as “wise men,” some more recent translations call them “astrologers,” and in more colloquial contexts they’re often described as “kings” (e.g., the popular carol “We Three Kings”). Whoever they are, in the Biblical story the magi, after following a star signaling the birth of a new king, bestow their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh upon the infant Christ.

From this story, we can draw out several connotations of the word “magi” that the speaker would likely wish to evoke. First, the magi are dignified people, either learned or regal (or possibly both). Second, the magi are gift-givers, and lavish ones at that: all three of their gifts were expensive commodities two thousand years ago. And third, the magi are travelers, leaving their homelands in pursuit of the wondrous and the miraculous. So: to what extent do we see those connotations in Brodsky’s poem?

Well, the gift-giving aspect is the easiest to see in those first few stanzas. The beginning of “December 24, 1971” is positively littered with material goods. Given the poem’s title, it’s not surprising to see the whole city seems caught up in last-minute Christmas shopping. People “[a]t the grocers’ [are] all slipping and pushing,” while elsewhere the crowds are “heavy-laden with parcels” (lines 2 and 5). Foodstuffs appear to be the most common purchases, as the air is filled with their various scents: “Reek of vodka and resin and cod, / orange mandarins, cinnamon, apples” (9-10). Perhaps vodka and cinnamon are the modern frankincense and myrrh. But despite all this commerce, one aspect of gift-giving doesn’t come up in the poem: the recipients. For all of us to be magi in the sense of gift-givers, we in fact need someone to bestow gifts upon. They are plenty people in the city, but as it it seems, few relationships: “[E]ach one [is] his own king, his own camel” (6).

The people of this poem don’t appear especially dignified, either. One gets the impression that this city’s streets are always on the verge of chaos. The speaker succinctly captures the mood of unchecked consumption when they say that “a tin of halvah, coffee-flavored, / is the cause of a human assault-wave” (3-4). Instead of refined, composed attire, they see “caps and neckties all twisted up sideways”(8). Even “the bearers of moderate gifts,” the people who one might think to be above the fray, “leap onto buses and jam all the doorways” (13-14). Christmastime in the city is no regal pilgrimage, but a struggle for survival.

In trying to figure out why Brodsky evokes the magi, by process of elimination, we’ve left ourselves with just the journey towards a new hope. So that’s the solution, right? Except the people of the city seem to be journeying without any purpose. The “[f]loods of faces” the speaker describes leave “no sign of a pathway / towards Bethlehem” (11-12). And even if that holy place of purpose were within sight, the people wouldn’t expect to find anything. When they get off the buses and enter the courtyards of their apartment buildings, “they know that there’s nothing inside there: / not a beast, not a crib, nor yet her, / round whose head gleams a nimbus of gold” (16-18). The whole Nativity is out of reach. There is little hope, but rather, as the fourth stanza begins with, “[e]mptiness” (19).

Thus far, “December 24, 1971” has read like a remarkably somber Christmas poem, but that is perhaps to be expected. Brodsky wrote this poem during a period of great uncertainty in his life. As both an individualistic poet and a Jewish man, Brodsky had been persecuted by the Soviet authorities for almost a decade; he’d been sentenced to hard labor in the Arctic, institutionalized for fraudulently-diagnosed mental illness, and barred from traveling freely in his own country. By Christmas Eve in 1971, Brodsky was a candidate for exile from the Soviet Union. If the “magi” of his poem seem to wander aimlessly, it is only because Brodsky himself could not be sure where he’d be going, either.

Yet there was hope for Brodsky in 1972: his situation drew the sympathy of the Western literary establishment, and the poet W. H. Auden in particular helped to settle Brodsky in the United States. At the time of composition, the prospect of safety and security may have seemed distant. But the mere possibility of escape is a powerful hope, and it’s that hope which ultimately turns the poem:

Emptiness. But the mere thought of that
brings forth lights as if out of nowhere.
Herod reigns but the stronger he is,
the more sure, the more certain the wonder.
In the constancy of this relation
is the basic mechanics of Christmas. (19-24)

Particularly significant is the reference to Herod, the ruler in Matthew who, in response to the birth of Jesus, orders the execution of all male infants in Bethlehem. He is a tyrant, one whose authority must be fled. Mary and Joseph escape to Egypt with their child ahead of the massacre, and the magi, “being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod…departed into their own country another way” (Matthew 2:12, King James Version). Even the magi must flee. When it’s Christmas we’re all of us refugees—but ones who know the new king has come.

Perhaps that is not much hope to cling onto, but in a world so hectic, so somber as the one presented in Brodsky’s poem, it’s more than enough to justify the festivities:

That's why they celebrate everywhere,
for its coming push tables together.
No demand for a star for a while,
but a sort of good will touched with grace,
can be seen in all men from afar,
and the shepherds have kindled their fires. (25-30)

According to the speaker, those celebrating Christmas don’t “demand…for a while” some ostentatious miracle à la the Star of Bethlehem, but instead seek—and more importantly, find—”a sort of good will touched with grace… / in all men”. That universal kindness and acceptance may in fact be crucial for the Christmas miracle, as the speaker later makes clear: “He who comes is a mystery: features / are not known beforehand, men’s hearts may / not be quick to distinguish the stranger” (34-36). Again, one can’t help but see the parallels to Brodsky’s own situation at the time.

I’ll close this analysis with a note on the weather. I haven’t mentioned it up to this point, but as the speaker comes closer to consolation, the weather becomes more wintry. “Snow is falling” during the sixth stanza (31), and in the final stanza the “drafts through the doorway disperse / the thick mist of the hours of darkness” (37-38). Normally, we might expect this turn in the weather to signal a darkening mood, but that’s not what we get. Instead, it signals a personal transformation, a closing epiphany:

...a shape in a shawl stands revealed,
both a newborn and Spirit that's Holy
in your self you discover; you stare
skyward, and it's right there:
                                                           a star. (39-43)

It’s a wonderfully unexpected way to set up the final sentiment, linking the Holy Spirit to the cold air blowing through a house. There is something terrifying about the Nativity story, with messages from otherworldly beings and the threat of state-sanctioned murder, and Brodsky, perhaps because he can approach the subject from a non-Christian perspective, is able to capture that reality so well. The fact that he can apply that story to his own state in life makes it all the more startling.


Thanks for reading! If you have a favorite poem for the holiday season, or want to shere your thoughts on Brodsky’s piece, then let me know in the comments. And if you liked this piece, then you may be happy to learn that I write a new close reading of a poem every month. You can start catching up on them with my previous installment in this series, on Emily Dickinson’s “[The Poets light but Lamps – ].”