A Saving Grace

Last year as I hunted for a “Christmas poem” I was surprised by the dearth of such poems in my rather extensive collection of poetry. Of course, right after Christmas I was reading Galway Kinnell’s Selected Poems and was immediately struck by the following poem, which, to me, seemed to reflect man’s condition here on earth:

To Christ Our Lord

The legs of the elk punctured the snow’s crust
And wolves floated lightfooted on the land
Hunting Christmas elk living and frozen;
Inside snow melted in a basin, and a woman basted
A bird spread over coals by its wings and head.

Snow had sealed the windows; candles lit
The Christmas meal. The Christmas grace chilled
The cooked bird, being long-winded and the room cold.
During the words a boy thought, is it fitting
To eat this creature killed on the wing?

He had killed it himself, climbing out
Alone on snowshoes in the Christmas dawn,
The fallen snow swirling and the snowfall gone,
Heard its throat scream as the gunshot scattered,
Watched it drop, and fished from the snow the dead.

He had not wanted to shoot. The sound
Of wings beating into the hushed air
Had stirred his love, and his fingers
Froze in his gloves, and he wondered,
Famishing, could he fire? Then he fired.

Now the grace praised his wicked act. At its end
The bird on the plate
Stared at his stricken appetite.
There had been nothing to do but surrender,
To kill and to eat; he ate as he had killed, with wonder.

At night on snowshoes on the drifting field
He wondered again, for whom had love stirred?
The stars glittered on the snow and nothing answered.
Then the Swan spread her wings, cross of the cold north,
The pattern and mirror of the acts of earth.

While I don’t necessarily consider myself a “Christian,” I certainly empathize with the dilemma of the poet caught between the desire for a sacred world and an imperfect world where man is forced to kill to survive.

The opening stanza presents a chilling image of a world where only the fittest survive and where death haunts the earth. In such a world killing is a necessary part of the celebration of life itself.

And the boy, being the one who had killed the bird that provides the feast for the Christmas dinner, wonders whether the act of killing in and of itself negates the “grace” prayed for before the meal, “the grace [that] praised his wicked act.”

The boy’s only hope is that his “wonder” at having “to kill and to eat” somehow transcends the very act of killing. Like the Indians who believed that one had to satisfy the soul of the animals they had killed, the boy seems to be asking for the bird’s forgiveness.

Perhaps in this imperfect world all that we can hope for is that our prayers for forgiveness and for more perfect selves, our celebration of the love that is our only hope for redemption, can somehow redeem us.