The Annunciation and The Integrity of Existence

In the timidly lit gift shoppe, five days before Christmas,
Short drafts from the opening and closing door inspire a glass mobile to strike
   intermittently the winter minutes.
Under the little icy notes, just arrived from eternity, behind the counter
   receiving customers, a young girl shines.
In a line of foreigners, waiting my turn to pay for my purchases,
   I wonder on her loveliness.
The fugitive color of her hair and her rare complexion obscure her descent.
Who were her ancestors surviving famine and siege and pestilence
   to work her safe passage through the loins?
She is a gift, but the ungrateful years will exchange her for a grey resemblance
   that uses her name.
Who will love her then where she has withdrawn, and where must one travel
   to find her there?
The tired line moves.
The second clerk, her older companion, rings up three articles
I have singled out from the world’s confusion for my kin.
I shove by the entering wind and exit onto the snow of the street.
In five days the world will dance for the birth of the bridegroom.

–August 3, 1995

(“The Annunciation” appeared in Volume 27 of The Amherst Review, Amherst MA.)

Commentary

Most of the time we’re not conscious of how vulnerable to transformation—even the part of it made of “durable” steel and stone–the local physical environment is from which we give ourselves the illusion that this strange world is familiar to us. Recently I was standing at the west end of the King of Prussia Mall. I was distant in time but not in space from a store which has long since gone out of business but which in the early 1970s was the site of a few moments so intensely lovely that in my feelings they approached the supernatural. Years later I captured this experience in the enclosed poem entitled “The Annunciation.” Walking in that mall today, one can’t find even the faintest resemblance to the real-life setting of this poem. The shop, its corridor, the entire building it was in—all have been completely obliterated, and for one who remembers their existence in the past, the present edifice, built on top of where the other once stood, feels usurping and strange, almost sinister and frightening, and the consumers crowding there, like sight-seers at a shrine shuffling about on holy ground, seem vaguely presumptuous. The sense of architectural change, a matter of spatial transformation, was intensified by the chronological fact that when I was standing nearby only a few weeks ago it was early May but the event of the poem occurred in middle December of a year far back.

The little biographical background I’ve just given for “The Annunciation” is appropriate for a poem which is about a more subtle kind of transformation: that of aging. This theme of the sadness of aging, however, is worked into a second theme: that of the hope for a world no longer subject to the loss of its own loveliness. The title of the poem, which interprets figuratively the poem’s event, refers to the archangel Gabriel’s announcement to the Virgin Mary of the forthcoming birth of the Messiah, whom the end of the poem identifies, according to New Testament tradition, as the bridegroom come to claim the redeemed world as his bride. In the real-life incident out of which the poem rose, the loveliness of the girl seemed to me a prefiguration—and hence an annunciation—of the magical loveliness of Christmas as itself a kind of prefiguration of what the world would look like after its redemption from degeneration. There are many in my religion—and perhaps even in other religions–who would find me profane and even carnal for linking spiritual matters with sexual beauty. What I’d say to them I put once in a little rhyming lyric I wrote in 1978:

THE INTEGRITY OF EXISTENCE

O God, I thank you for willing no break
Between body and spirit, below and above.
The elders, forgive them: they tried to make
Your loveliness different from what I love.

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Published on October 11, 2006 at 2:18 pm  Leave a Comment  

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