This one, Lullaby, is by a Canadian poet, Amanda Jernigan. It shares with Aleksandr Kushner’s poem (see the post just below this one) an attempt to comfort the cold mortal self as it suffers the briefest and darkest and deadest days of the year, which inevitably means that it suffers a reckoning with its own deadly fate.
These are late December, everything winding down, poems. Winter solstice poems.
From its title (Lullaby) on, Jernigan’s poem makes explicit its aim to console. It’s a curious little poem, a tightly rhymed, iambic pentameter, song addressed either to one’s self or to one’s child, and most of its lines are very bleak indeed (even bleaker than Kushners’), very morbid, as the poet describes a life of darkness visible.
My little lack-of-light, my swaddled soul,
December baby. Hush, for it is dark,
and will grow darker still.
Born in darkness, then right away swaddled into more darkness (William Blake: ‘Struggling in my fathers hands: /Striving against my swaddling bands: / Bound and weary I thought best / To sulk upon my mothers breast.’), we shut up our souls and our children (Hush) because life is dangerously dark and will only get darker, and we are afraid. The event of the winter solstice expresses the truth of life as it slows and narrows and darkens over time.
We must embark
directly. Bring an orange as the toll
for Charon: he will be our gondolier.
Bring a brilliant sunny emblem of the lost world of light to the underworld’s ferryman who sits just across the river (both poems feature ritual gathering at a river) waiting to escort us to the end of life. Many of the world’s winter solstice celebrations involve offerings of fruit.
Upon the shore, the season pans for light,
and solstice fish, their eyes gone milky white,
come bearing riches for the dying year:
Pans is beautiful – a delicate, frail, one-syllable word painting the weak sun as searching for gold in the shallow water. “Solstice” fish, their pale eyes dead from weak sunlight, are tokens of the kingdom of unmoving darkness.
It is yours, the mime
of branches and the drift of snow. With shaking
hands, Persephone, the winter’s wife,
will tender you a gift.
The poet again directly addresses her child, or her own soul, and with rueful irony bestows on her/it the gift of a dead world (the mere “mime” of branches).
On her way back to the underworld, its queen pauses with freezing hands to offer a different gift to the poet, the poet’s soul, the poet’s child. What has she bestowed upon the artist?
Born in a time
of darkness, you will learn the trick of making.
You shall make your consolation all your life.
In Kushner’s poem, he’s standing outside freezing, but
I cannot live until
I’ve learnt how this trick is done.
He’s going to keep standing out there until he can figure out a way – poetically – to thaw, reanimate, and ultimately comfort the world. He’s going to learn the poet’s art – the magic trick of bringing the dead back to life. He’s going to learn how to keep us, as Ursula Le Guin says, from dissolving into our surroundings. And Jernigan has the same trick in mind: The poet learns the trick of making. She learns how the imagination can transform, enliven, and console.
Indeed that word – consolation – though it has nothing etymologically to do with the sun, has sol in it — for that matter, has soul in it… Which suggests that the poet’s gift, trick, art, is to pan for, to gather, to consolidate, what little sunlight remains, and transmute it to real gold.