Virginal: The Nativity Pageant
    Jim Schley

Refugees, townsfolk, penitents and thieves
shuffle in orbit around the fulcrum
of an invisible cradle.

No firmament above. No celestial harmonies,
but cowbells, rattle of snares,
tuneless sighs on clay ocarinas
while an antiquated eight-year-old
stoops past with pole and birdcage,
as burlapped twins haul a hamper,
and one young woman light on her feet
lifts a reed-woven fan for shade.

With brief greetings they cross
shoulder to shoulder, hand on hand:
their common currency
a certain dread.


Every head of household
must return with wife and offspring
to his place of birth
to be counted and taxed.

Their understanding
no consequence. They have
no idea
what arises in time.

But the brightest image imaginable-
illuminated face
of a child madonna-
her cloak cerulean, her grange
a lean-to rigged in canvas and twine,
knobbed saplings with straw underneath.

The flock is a set of wooly bags that swing
like marionettes from the shepherds' fists,
our daughter among them,
and several donkeys and calves,
swathed broomsticks with bobbing heads.


Cosmos wide
as a wing-spanned mind
yet thin as the hymnal's page.
In a basin appears the swaddled Christ.

Unstained glass in the congregational panes,
unprismed glare as a late-day sun
streams sideways
through winter's brittle grains.

Devoid of faith, yet I hear
glazed feathers layered on little racks,
skirted gowns lifted by tiny hands
when angels climb steps to the altar-side

where firs spread shadowed boughs
below a candelabra,
my wife's piano playing tonics
with counter-pointed bells

like buoys on a tide
to greet the dark clarinets
of three stilted kings
striding up the center aisle.

Whatever has occurred, intangibly-
what lyrical commencing toward
what gruesome end-

with what certainty?
The young proclaimer has a voice
that could be heard
at the steeple's height:

O season of Light

For the children, an ever-enlarging grace;
but for the woman and man
who know what penance is due?
Massacre of the innocents:

Herod's ghastly promenade
is a horn-crowned, spear-flanked teenaged boy
proceeding across the floorboards
with yards of crimson silk

pooling from each ankle,
glistening hallucination
lit by floodlamps.


Refused protection in any city or town.
Reviled as outcasts from beyond.
One family more,
three mouths to feed.

Who's heard word of freedom land,
across the river's shore?
These players have glimpsed their Canaan.

Though dark is pressing down
see what lasts,
the even-handed decency of daylight.

Jim Schleyis the author of collection of poems, One Another (Chapiteau Press), and an editor at Chalsea Green Publishing Company.


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