The Christmas Journey by Martin Willitts Jr.

The Christmas Journey

The Massacre of the Innocents by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and his son Pieter Brueghel the Younger, 1565-67. Based on the Dutch Revolt against Spanish rule (the Eighty Years’ War) and Matthew 2:16-18.

During war, innocence is the first to die.
It could be any country enforcing harsh rules,
casting out immigrants, the unwanted,
even this small Flemish town during a severe winter,
snow-obliterating any and all hope,
icicles hanging like daggers, an iced cover pond.

During war, violence marches and hearts drumbeat.
There is a clamp-down, strictness rules.
A mounted soldier guards a bridge with a lance.
No one will enter or exit. A man hides a child,
but solders are everywhere, checking for immigrants.
One soldier urinates on a wall of a sanctuary house.
Another soldier yanks the last surviving child
from a mother and will kill the child while she watches.
Another soldier forces some women into a house,
and they will never be seen again.
A chorus of four mourners wail about injustice,
and their cries are unheard by us.

A lone woman stands grieving over her dead baby
lying on blood spilled snow. Another couple pleas
to take their daughter, not their son, but bribes fail.
A soldier guards a dead baby making certain
no one can gather the body as a part of the purge.
People try to stop a father from attacking a soldier
killing his son. A seated woman grieves for a dead baby
in her lap. Babies are stabbed. These images will be erased
by government censors. In war and time, truth vanishes.

One soldier has an axe while another has a battering ram,
three are climbing through an open window
while leaders have a meeting. This feels familiar.

Let our lives be a living testimony to who we truly are.

The Census at Bethlehem (also known as The Numbering at Bethlehem), an oil-on-panel by the Flemish Renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566, based on Luke 2, 1-5.

It could be Bethlehem or Kiev or a southern border
or a Flemish village during winter at sundown.
All stories are really only a handful of stories.

People are gathered to read the warnings
under the Habsburg double-headed eagle.
There are not always warnings.

A man leads a donkey past the notice
indicating immigrants are not welcome.
He knows he needs to keep moving.

A pregnant woman rides on a slow donkey.
She will give birth soon, and on the run
is dangerous for delivering a baby. Can’t stay.

No one notices. The troops are searching.
People are too busy to notice the couple.
An empty barn is the closest shelter.

A man in a small hut rings a bell
to warn about leprosy or smallpox
or influenza or Covid. It doesn’t matter.

The world is going crazy. Troops are nearby.
A woman gives birth in this bitter situation.
Let our lives be a living testimony to who we truly are.

by Martin Willitts Jr.

Martin on Facebook

Editor’s Note: This brilliant ekphrastic poem draws on multiple histories, paintings, and literature in order to remind us that madness is always happening everywhere all at once.

From the archives – Christmas Passing — Patricia Wallace Jones

Christmas Passing

Dressed in green and arriving by creek
instead of the path, I startle the dogs.
They circle me to protect a man
I assume is a drifter, the bearded one
who built a fire, slept on the beach
on Christmas Eve.

He calls them in, offers me coffee
from a stainless cup, looks to the bluff
and thanks me for the light-strung tree.

We talk a bit, throw sticks to the dogs
until taken by a rise of sea-bound gulls,
flashes of white on a winter front,
we lapse into silence
to let the season pass between us.

I climb home, look over my shoulder,
see only the great heron
closer to me than he’s ever been.

by Patricia Wallace Jones

from Autumn Sky Poetry DAILY, January 10, 2018

Photo by Christine Klocek-Lim

Saturday book feature – Camaraderie of the Marvelous— Dianna Mackinnon Henning

Because He Cannot Be Human, and She Cannot Be Donkey

His name is Jacob, his fur an unruly thatch.
My sister is in love with him, fetches him carrots,
apples and such. He lives in a field down the road from her
in Starksboro, Vermont. They are neighbors.

I wonder if he dreams about her at night,
if he’d like to snuggle with her at the old Mill House
on cold evenings. He reaches so far into his barreled chest
for a voice to greet her that it must take years

for such braying as his, a voice filled with such sadness
that only momentarily they will meet like this; two
reaching across the fence to hold, to stay held, to be
steadied by what fierce yearning as brings opposites together.

by Dianna Mackinnon Henning, from Camaraderie of the Marvelous, Kelsay Books

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The Moon by Howard Nelson

The Moon

I don’t always pay attention to it,
but I do notice it from time to time—
when it is especially large and bright over the lake,
or a cold crescent through the bare trees in winter,
or when I come home late and get out of the car
and it occurs to me that the driveway
is bathed in a glow, all the way up to the door,
and I look up and see the moon
white and silent. How strange
that among the immensities of space and infinity
our planet should happen to have
a single round rock circling it,
catching the sunlight, always cool,
slipping the darkness on and off so calmly,
slicing time and timelessness
into months, such a human span, always
swinging its oval around us.
As is someone had said, those human beings,
they’d like to have a luminous orb
in the darkness of the night,
and while we’re at it, let’s have it change shape,
slowly, but not too slowly,
so they can count out their lives with it,
as well as look up now and then
and feel a wash of beauty
and what a mysterious place this is.

by Howard Nelson, first appeared in The Nap by the Waterfall (Timberline Press, 2009)

Editor’s Note: This poem’s imagery is both clear and bright, welcoming the reader into the wonder that we must all have felt at one time or another.

From the archives – Monet to his Wife, While Winding the Sheets — Kristin Roedell

Monet to his Wife, While Winding the Sheets
—after Claude Monet’s “Camille on Her Deathbed.” 1879. Oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

I’ve seen life leaving small things:
a tabby cat,
a red winged bird;
once I held a dog I loved
as breath grew shallow and rare.
But you, Camille, are a complicated thing.

I think of clocks, of coils and gears
and springs and hands;
I think of time and ticking
and how your fingers
were light, precise, and small.

This morning you lay veiled and absent.
I painted you a final time;
Camille, you fled
and took with you every hue.

What remains is as simple
as a broken bird,
as a clock run down.
What remains
are these dark and
flightless hours.

by Kristin Roedell

from Autumn Sky Poetry Number 19, October 2010

Another Day by Agnieszka Filipek

Another Day

You’re nowhere I look.
I hope you’re satisfied.
I’m dressed uncomfortably
in ironed shirt and clean pants.

The kettle’s whistling some popular
song. I’ll drink tea like an Englishman
and eat a Polish sweet roll. My mother
brought it yesterday, slightly burned.

The baker gaped at the legs of his
new one, just learning to spread,
royal icing, and buttercream too,
so everyone is getting it for free.

Streets are annoyingly busy
and Christmas is coming soon.
You’re everywhere I look.
I hope you’re happy now.

by Agnieszka Filipek, first published in Capsule Stories Winter Edition: ‘Sugar and Spice’.

Editor’s note: This poem uses the clear imagery of ordinary things to document the difficult emotional grief of breaking up.

Ode to Katniss by Julie Moore

Ode to Katniss
—with a line from Charles Dickens

She is everything her name invokes,
and none of it at all, this Golden Lab
hopping onto my lap, leaning
her plush ears and wet nose
into my face, then sniffing my lips
as though something meaty or sweet
lies there for her to lick. Bred for service,
named for the heroine you already know,
incarnating yes, both hunger and games,
she is a fabulous flunky, they say,
one who didn’t make the cut
but beloved all the same. So here she sits,
as the tree, adorned with ornaments
from my previous life, drizzles
nostalgia over the room with its light.
And the ceramic church nearby,
once wound, tinkles its bells to the tune
of Come to the Church by the Wildwood,
reminding me of my aunt who made it
long before Alzheimer’s struck.
What if, I wonder, Katniss harbors
within her fur her own kind of advent,
akin to adoration’s glow and the tawny
joy of her simple, animal name—dog,
etymology a great mystery of English,
trinity of letters, half-palindrome
at play like she is with her favorite toys?
She rises from the foot of the bed, after all,
when my dreams grow into screams,
then sends ripples of peace across my face
as she lathers it with love.
I realize it sounds impossible,
but what if at Christmas, just as its mighty
Founder was a child himself, this dog
sheds hope everywhere she goes?

by Julie Moore, first appeared in the Journal of Mennonite Writing

Twitter: @JulieLMoore18
Instagram: @julielmoore19

Editor’s note: During the holiday season, with years of stories and songs and a sometimes complicated history, our canine companions remind us that joy can be right here if only we allow it in.

At the Museum by Megan Turner

At the Museum

Sometimes I still think of that squirrel,
caught in Susan’s metal trap
above the open rafters,
neatly laid tables and fresh cut bouquets.
It wanted just a taste of something,
and we’d laid out muffins, tea.

Did you change your mind later,
think it a mistake to take him
into the woodshed,
muting his cries with a woolen blanket?

“It only takes a day,” you said,
carrying him out gingerly,
work gloves on.
And I didn’t stop you.

“You don’t have medical,”
you reminded me.
We were two grad students—
I just out of school.
I thought you understood
what I did not.
The squirrel might have rabies, parasites,
We were just following orders
while Susan visited her mother.

Still, I sometimes imagine I saved
that squirrel—
that I was brave, the way I dreamed
myself to be.

“Come friend,” I said, driving him deep
into the woods, opening the metal trap.
“Don’t come back now,” I told him.
“Not even for a crumb.”

The squirrel, being gracious,
nodded. “Understood,”
he said and scurried off
into the forest to meet his friends.

“Nearly starved,” he told them.
“Do you have an acorn, some berries
to spare?”
It was an exaggeration. That squirrel
was always making up stories.
Although I knew it wasn’t—

because it didn’t happen that way.
Instead, we waited until dark
when the muffled cries stopped.
You emptied the cage from the shed.
I never saw the squirrel’s face—
how stiff its body must have been
when you pulled it from the cage,
a claw tangled in between
one of the wires.

After it was done, the trap
returned to the back veranda,
you shrugged.
You’d tell Susan later
you caught one of her pesky squirrels.
“Well done,” she’d say.
“One of my better docents,”
she’d nod at you later.

We went about our business,
washing dishes and drying,
careful with the porcelain,
while I remembered
running chairs with you
across the sunken garden,
our feet soaked.
Things would inevitably change
between us, you told me that day,
once summer ended.
And I said nothing—
just as I always do.

by Megan Turner

Editor’s Note: This narrative poem leads the reader on an adventure, but it isn’t until the last few lines that one realizes the story is more emotional quandary than memory.

Forgetting by Alan Walowitz


The poet who died the other month,
or perhaps a different year?
I heard him beat a drum and chant,
or make some other holy noise;
the same place Lincoln spoke, quite nice, downtown,
though I can’t remember where.
I was convinced I liked him well enough
as I waited for the meet-and-greet,
to buy a book, hoped to get it signed—long hall
of women I thought I’d like to know.

I went back home, alone, stopped for a bite,
greasy takeout in a paper bag.
Then thought, he had a voice like God—
you know, the guy who played Mandela once?
Or, who’s the queen got her head cut off
at Henry 8th’s behest?
They say he sounded like a naked hiss.
I forget and this just a recent list
of what’s so hard to recall.

Suddenly, I remember, and don’t quite know why:
Cooper-Union, Morgan Freeman, Anne Boleyn, Robert Bly—
Everything will come to you, my fortune-cookie promised,
fetched from the bottom of the bag.
I’d hoped for more by now—a book of poems, to be rich,
a name on everyone’s tongue.
But it’s getting late to wait for will,
which seems to never come.

by Alan Walowitz

Editor’s Note: This poem describes aging and forgetting and remembering with images jumbled throughout the stanzas, but it is only at the end that the reader realizes that these words are a mirror to reality.

From the archives – Walt Whitman’s Boys — Jen Karetnick

Walt Whitman’s Boys

are bathing near the Moonlight Lounge, intermittent replicas, digging troughs with the glorious shovels of their arms. The sea has slept well in the night and allows the intrusions instead of attempting to throw them out as it does when the moon is a pared fingernail, as it does when the moon is the bottom of a glass, as it does when there is no moon and the papaya trees rustle with fruit rats and wind. The water is so warm that their legs dissolve like salt tablets in the mouths of sprinters, one up to the knees, the next to the thighs, though the boys do not miss their limbs any more than the sky misses clouds when they are absent, and if you poured honey on them they would surely, like eels, become electric.

by Jen Karetnick

from Autumn Sky Poetry Number 23, October 2011

Art by Jamie Ferreyros