The Ox and Lamb Kept Time
Little Drummer Boy
And so it came to pass in those days
that the animals were musical.
Their cloven hooves, caked hard in mud and waste,
could thump a hollow sound at a steady pace
on the barn floor, muted in straw.
They never rushed, never dragged
against the steady progress of their beat,
which was music to the heavens.
It was only human
that the animals’ minders and tenders
–shepherds, stable boys—
thought they themselves played the principle instruments,
whether pipes in the field, or the drum of a child
in a song taken to be true.
For the humans in those times, as now,
saw themselves at the celestial center,
a kingdom that rules the kingdom of beasts.
Angels bearing gifts on harps and strings,
may or may not have been present in the scene
depending on your level of belief.
But the lambs and the oxen? They are unquestionable,
beyond symbol, beyond faith.
It was a barn; we know they were there,
keeping time steady, inalterable,
out of reach of human hands
that shaped and misshaped the very planet
to which all children are born, holy or not,
on that night, or any other.
The carols are wrong. It is the flocks
that kept watch by night,
who by instinct maybe felt a pulse we cannot feel,
and by their presence tell us
we are not the masters.
Security Question: What Was the Make of Your First Vehicle?
When I was 24, my father insisted it was time I finally owned a car. He gave me his sky blue Ford LTD, the car my mother had driven to work to be greeted each morning by a young colleague who hailed, “Look, here she comes in the Queen Mary.” Now, nine years of miles under its frayed belts, its old hoses were spilling their essence on expressways miles from home, leaving me at the mercy of small town mechanics with big dreams.
With a travelling job, it was time I owned a used car I’d bought myself. I carshopped with Dad, who knew the ropes, and we ended up at a dealer, an uncle of a man my father knew slightly at work. And there it was: a Ford LTD, the next year’s model from the one he’d given me, or maybe the year after that. Different color–Executive Tan–but same white vinyl top. They’d changed the chrome, Dad pointed out.
The next day I drove home by myself in a used Toyota Corolla, forest green, five on the floor. Its engine hummed like a happy aircraft. I drove it past the years, until I saw road beneath the floorboard, and then more.
But that day I drove it off the lot, to my father’s home now, my father said nothing. No Jap jokes, no “less car more money,” no worry about the scant availability of parts. That was wisdom, perhaps love.
So how should this poem end?
With the paragraph preceding?
Or with another leading
down another road,
the world changed again
in color, size, and pace
and I am that man standing old,
bemused, unminded in the driveway,
without sons or their complications
to temper my regret? My dismay
at watching all the different models race
to their different, newer destinations?
Oh heart, if I passed you on the street you would not stop
and neither would I. I would
note your bruised clothes, the slow
movements pulsing from your chin and hairline,
your failing red. But I would not
offer alms or a warm hand. Is this
cowardice? Fear of getting involved? Perhaps
I would meet your glance only at the moment we passed
–to profess my small music, which is sympathy.
But I would speak only to myself: there but by grace
goes some organ or appendage more necessary,
like the stomach or the tired feet.
Long live red pick-up trucks and fancy dancing,
hot tips, barbecued ribs, 1950s sci-fi flicks,
bobble head afternoons and out of the box bantering.
Here’s to the top of the batting order,
drinking from the bottle, losing battles,
getting better. You can’t win
if you don’t enter!
But then you can’t win anyway, so enter-
tain the idea of going up and up and up,
trees taking measure of your hips then your heels
like a peasant flying through Chagal,
his sky turning from village blue
to the color of the winning ticket
in the lottery of love (which is love).
Here’s to all of the above. You can’t have
everything, but if you don’t need anything
you’re part way there. Nothing
will suffice, as one poet said,
and if your idea of luxury is on the level
of northern Wisconsin
you can smile
till the cows come home.
Bid them welcome,
they always do.