Messiah (Christmas Portions)

Original Text: 
© Mark Doty, Sweet Machine: Poems (HarperFlamingo, 1998): 29-32. PS 3554 O798S9 1998 Robarts Library
2in gleaming rags,
3in shrouds of veil,
4  torn and sun-shot swaddlings:
7of their own, blazing
8  (colors of tarnish on copper)
9  against the steely close
10of a coastal afternoon, December,
11while under the steeple
12  the Choral Society
13  prepares to perform
14Messiah, pouring, in their best
15blacks and whites, onto the raked stage.
16  Not steep, really,
17  but from here,
18the first pew, they're a looming
19cloudbank of familiar angels:
20  that neighbor who
21  fights operatically
22with her girlfriend, for one,
23and the friendly bearded clerk
24  from the post office
25  -- tenor trapped
26in the body of a baritone? Altos
28  from the T-shirt shop:
29  today they're all poise,
30costume and purpose
31conveying the right note
32  of distance and formality.
33  Silence in the hall,
34anticipatory, as if we're all
35about to open a gift we're not sure
36  we'll like;
37  how could they
38compete with sunset's burnished
39oratorio? Thoughts which vanish,
40  when the violins begin.
41  Who'd have thought
43proclaims the solo tenor,
44  (a sleek blonde
45  I've seen somewhere before
46-- the liquor store?) shall be exalted,
47and in his handsome mouth the word
48  is lifted and opened
49  into more syllables
50than we could count, central ah
51dilated in a baroque melisma,
52  liquefied; the pour
53  of voice seems
54to make the unplaned landscape
55the text predicts the Lord
56  will heighten and tame.
57  This music
58demonstrates what it claims:
59glory shall be revealed. If art's
60  acceptable evidence,
61  mustn't what lies
62behind the world be at least
63as beautiful as the human voice?
64  The tenors lack confidence,
65  and the soloists,
66half of them anyway, don't
67have the strength to found
68  the mighty kingdoms
69  these passages propose
70-- but the chorus, all together,
71equals my burning clouds,
72  and seems itself to burn,
73  commingled powers
74deeded to a larger, centering claim.
75These aren't anyone we know;
76  choiring dissolves
77  familiarity in an up-
78pouring rush which will not
79rest, will not, for a moment,
80  be still.
81  Aren't we enlarged
82by the scale of what we're able
83to desire? Everything,
84  the choir insists,
85  might flame;
86inside these wrappings
87burns another, brighter life,
88  quickened, now,
89  by song: hear how
90it cascades, in overlapping,
91lapidary waves of praise? Still time.
Copyright 1998 Mark Doty, Sweet Machine: Poems HarperFlamingo

Notes

1] George Frederick Handel's oratorio, Messiah," first sung in Dublin in 1741, may be the most popular, most performed choral work in English. It forms a staple of pre-Christmas concerts by choirs of all kinds, from local church to symphonic. Back to Line
5] Methodist: an evangelical church sect derived from John and Charles Wesley in the 18th century and emerging as a separate entity in 1932 in the United Kingdom. Back to Line
6] Zion: heaven. Back to Line
27] A&P: a grocery store chain in North America. Back to Line
42] Handel's second recitative in Messiah, "Every valley shall be exalted" (Isaiah 40.4): "Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain." Back to Line
92] Handel's recitatives, (1) "Behold I tell you a mystery" (1 Corinthians 15: 51-52), "Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed", and (2) "The Trumpet shall Sound" (1 Corinthians 15.52-54), "In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptable must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory." Back to Line
Publication Notes: 
Boulevard
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
RPO 2000.
Rhyme: 
Form: 
Special Copyright: 

This poem cannot be published anywhere without the written consent of Mark Doty.