Poetry Friday: Mark Doty – "Messiah (Christmas Portions)"


The Poetry Friday roundup is  @ Buffy’s Blog

I love the music of the Christmas season – even though I can’t sing to save my life.  Every other member of my family sings beautifully, however.  Ally three of my children sang their way through the kids’ choirs from kindergarten all the way through high school, and then in their various colleges.  And my husband, through whom they  inherited their talent, continues to sing in the adult church choir. Listening to their conversations over the years, I would have to say that Linus is right:
Church choirs are all voluntary; some of those  who volunteer are gifted with lovely voices…and some try very hard.  A choir director must often make do, I imagine. I think this is a bit of what Mark Doty was getting at in the following poem:

Messiah (Christmas Portions)

BY MARK DOTY

A little heat caught
in gleaming rags,
in shrouds of veil,
   torn and sun-shot swaddlings:

   over the Methodist roof,
two clouds propose a Zion
of their own, blazing
   (colors of tarnish on copper)

   against the steely close
of a coastal afternoon, December,
while under the steeple
   the Choral Society

   prepares to perform
Messiah, pouring, in their best
blacks and whites, onto the raked stage.
   Not steep, really,

   but from here,
the first pew, they’re a looming
cloudbank of familiar angels:
   that neighbor who

   fights operatically
with her girlfriend, for one,
and the friendly bearded clerk
   from the post office

   —tenor trapped
in the body of a baritone? Altos
from the A&P, soprano
   from the T-shirt shop:

   today they’re all poise,
costume and purpose
conveying the right note
   of distance and formality.

   Silence in the hall,
anticipatory, as if we’re all
about to open a gift we’re not sure
   we’ll like;

   how could they
compete with sunset’s burnished
oratorio? Thoughts which vanish,
   when the violins begin.

   Who’d have thought
they’d be so good? Every valley,
proclaims the solo tenor,
   (a sleek blonde

   I’ve seen somewhere before
—the liquor store?) shall be exalted,
and in his handsome mouth the word
   is lifted and opened

   into more syllables
than we could count, central ah
dilated in a baroque melisma,
   liquefied; the pour

   of voice seems
to make the unplaned landscape
the text predicts the Lord
   will heighten and tame.

   This music
demonstrates what it claims:
glory shall be revealed. If art’s
   acceptable evidence,

   mustn’t what lies
behind the world be at least
as beautiful as the human voice?
   The tenors lack confidence,

   and the soloists,
half of them anyway, don’t
have the strength to found
   the mighty kingdoms

   these passages propose
—but the chorus, all together,
equals my burning clouds,
   and seems itself to burn,

   commingled powers
deeded to a larger, centering claim.
These aren’t anyone we know;
   choiring dissolves

   familiarity in an up-
pouring rush which will not
rest, will not, for a moment,
   be still.
(you can read the rest of the poem here.)
Happy holidays, my Poetry Friday friends!!
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10 thoughts on “Poetry Friday: Mark Doty – "Messiah (Christmas Portions)"

  1. My brother is the choir director at his church; he will love this, & it makes me remember my choir days, wondering what the director really was thinking. Lovely poem, Tara, exalting each who tries to sing. Love "inside these wrappings/burns another, brighter life,/quickened, now,/ by song. Thank you!

  2. Tara, I sing in my church choir. We are called the Heavenly choir because we sing from a loft. (It was built for the slaves to sit in.) I love Mark Doty. He has a sarcasm that is both funny and real. Thanks for this poem today. I'm going to share it with my director.

  3. Oh this is beautiful, Tara. Thanks for sharing it. As you might know, my daughter has been part of a choir since young, so this resonated with me a great deal. 🙂 My husband and I also used to be part of a choir when we were younger, so this post brought back a lot of lovely memories. 🙂

  4. My husband played in a community orchestra's Messiah concert for several years and it was the same sort of thing, only with instruments. But they never failed to produce awe and wonder. Love this line: "If art’s acceptable evidence, mustn’t what liesbehind the world be at leastas beautiful as the human voice?"

  5. I loved this, being myself a choir person for many years. More than one line made me smile, like these:"in his handsome mouth the word is lifted and opened into more syllablesthan we could count,"Indeed!

  6. Thank you for bringing back many years' worth of memories, first of my parent's performing the Messiah in the church choir… and then my own performance years later. I was quite pregnant with my first and had a very high solo. I remember being up on stage, out in front, singing high and giving it my all, and my baby inside was kicking away like Jackie Chan! I'm not sure he was at all happy that I woke him up in that manner.

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