Live Nativity

by Ken Ashworth
The Waters
Second Place, January 2021
Judged by Nicole Greaves

The babe is backlit by a 20 watt
bulb in his head signifying holiness,

tethered by the old umbilicus
of a fifty foot yellow drop cord.

The shepherds huddle, stamp their feet
against the cold, pass cigars

the way men do as if they were
the ones sixteen hours in labor.

Mary could use a drink about now.
Her upstretched arms beckon

mildly to oncoming traffic with
an overpowering urge to go pee.

One of the most fantastical aspects of poetry and one sometimes overlooked is humor, especially humor that humbles us. We see this a lot in Charles Simic’s work, a kind of absurdity that we find in everyday life that both engages us with an incredulous gasp, makes us laugh, and reminds us of our limits. We are ordinary. We are biological. We are full of vices. We hunger for immortality. “Live Nativity” is a magical little poem that captures all these things. The poet consciously addresses the audience in this absurdity, the “babe” illuminated by a weak bulb “signifying holiness.” The word “signifying” reinforces the artifice here. It’s as if the speaker is talking to us, saying, “Get it?!” Then there is the image of the baby tied to an “old umbilicus,” a “drop cord,” which in this poor makeshift manger humbles and shames us for trying to recreate such a moment as it also reinforces abandonment of this Christ child, who represents all neglected children in our modern world. Shepherds “huddle” like feral cats and try to keep warm. They “pass” around “cigars / the way men do as if they were” the ones having the baby, which humanizes them so distinctly and humbles them. We then see the “Mary” who’s playing the part, who “could use a drink by now,” after having spent so long frozen in the cold. When her need to “pee” comes on the reader can feel it, that need that comes because the cold makes us more conscious of our biology. Our needs possess us no matter how much we try to transcend them. But we never give up. Mary keeps her graces by “mildly” stopping traffic. This little poem just does so much. --Nicole Greaves