Carol for the Brokenhearted

by Brenda Levy Tate
First Place, March 2008
Judged by Fleda Brown

Can you hear the whole sky ringing?
I watch you stumble under its alleluia bell.
Your bare feet string a dozen prints
like pearls across the December grass.

These soles are your only stars, girl.
Hours, days, years – every last wound
you’ll ever endure – catch in the silty net
you drag behind, sans mermaids, moths

or seraphs’ teeth. Your uncombed dreams
pour down your face, white as salt.
Listen, the sea is shifting in sleep.
It’s Christmas, and you are unparented

again. We both wait in this empty inn-yard;
a few stray gods quarrel behind their curtain.
Since they have been replaced, no doubt
they can discount one more failed prayer,

one more gloria in excelsis. A feather zags
its way to earth. This is only an owl’s trick,
girl. If you pick it up, you will be lost.
Can’t you feel the darkness gathering itself?

Midnight snaps shut, a padlock against hope.
Tomorrow is ordinary, as you must surely
expect by this time. Come into the pub-light
where a solitary barman offers decent ale

and music for all the bruised people. We are
among them, we whose homes and lovers
have blown like scarves over the world’s edge.
Here’s to absent friends, someone says.

I lift a mug; foam spatters my right hand.
A nearby church peals one o’clock and I
almost believe in something. Then I look down
at the tabletop reflecting your face. Its eyes

turn to knotholes, beaten into the wood.
Its mouth is the crack under a door.
You’ve damned me, girl, with a feather
saved from dirt. Now you wear it in your hair.

I could almost choose this poem for its one line, "we whose homes and lovers have blown like scarves over the world's edge," but there is much more to like, here. The poem is beautifully controlled by its four-stress lines--it is a carol, after all--but within the lines, many wonderfully strange turns. The tension of the darkness of the two people's lives set against the ringing alleluias of the season does not include one maudlin line or image. "Midnight snaps shut, a padlock against hope." Metaphor is smart in this poem. This poem is smart and polished. --Fleda Brown