Three poems for the season by Angela Graham: ‘Balthazar’, ‘Melchior’ and ‘Caspar’.
When the roads turned into streets
and the streets to lanes
and the lanes to alleys
I became suspicious.
I suspected …
… something we had not prepared for.
Our retinue had fallen more and more behind
as I stepped into a passageway between high walls
— like a certain defile in the mountainous lands
where even an army is funnelled down
to a chain of individual men,
each painfully aware
of his life as a single flame,
fluttering in the lantern of his body
and carried forward only as his flesh and blood allows.
Instinctively, each one looks up,
to check the sky’s still there;
that he hasn’t been shut inside
that long and narrow tomb.
I did the same.
There was the star,
framed in the gap above me,
majestically insistent we press on.
An animal tang grew stronger
and lantern light somewhere ahead
and Caspar and Melchior stooped to the left
and vanished through a shabby stable door, and I –
I was made to feel ashamed
of my gift − ostentatious,
my crown − ludicrous,
my glittering clothes.
And I did not – could not – kneel with the others,
their faces tender and self-forgetful.
We sought kingship and were given this.
How could such a child acquire what a king must have:
authority, and power to sway all to his will?
But for years from then
I studied those who served me.
Who served me best?
Those who feared me
or those who loved?
We see significance.
We know enough to know there’s something to be known.
The three of us on a balcony at night,
looking away from ourselves
to the vast otherness of the skies,
looked to a presence – signalled by the placement of those lights,
their shifts (like pieces swept across a board),
their seasonal predictabilities –
to a presence which insisted on a meaning
that would be plain to us
if we were pure enough.
I was the first to point to that particular star.
I’d dreamt about a torch, pushing the darkness back
towards the west,
towards a meeting of some portentous kind
and we agreed that this was a star of voyage
and arrival, of revelation at the journey’s end.
When we reached that humble place Caspar was rapt
and Balthazar indignant; both
feeling too much to see what I saw suddenly, next day,
that every birth brings blood and we,
dazzled by our heady search, had failed to see
that there can never be two kings on an earthly throne.
Pawns in King Herod’s hand, we were,
path-finders for his murderous intent.
There was no time to reason
so I lied. A mighty dream, I claimed, had let me see
we must go back by another route.
At once. In secret.
What else would have torn them away?
Then, chaos and hugger-mugger; resentment
among the caravan; retreat, humiliation, waste
and shame. For we escaped. But that mother, father, baby?
How I’ve prayed the young husband dreamt, that night,
of flight, of refuge sought, of sanctuary.
I am too old now to keep a vigil from anywhere but my bed.
I watch the constellations roll with infinite slowness
past my un-shuttered window. I raise my face
to the cold radiance of the late spring sky and ask to be forgiven.
“My friends,” I say to Balthazar and Melchior. And I say nothing more.
They are dead. I am still watching. What else would any of us do?
We made a very great mistake. Despite our learning,
our capacity to read the subtle dispositions overhead,
despite being each of us a king, we failed to allow for the way
a king’s mind works. We must have expected praise, and Herod, that fox,
lavished his astonishment that we had tracked on the humble earth
the pathway of a star. We told him we thought only of the search
but each (to himself) pictured the fame awaiting
men so clever they found the whole world’s turning point.
Fools would have kept their counsel − and the child −
then judged who to tell and when. We came awake to that
the morning after our success. We, guilty men, escaped,
while the co-ordinates we gave up so naively
fuelled the lethal search for that infant king.
Tonight, three decades later, why is his star
suddenly brilliant in the east, as though
our faults have not disrupted the equation, as though
they have been aligned with his ascendant, as though
he has come into his kingdom…? As though
mercy is the hand turning that wheel.
The first photo is of the Autun Capital (photographer unknown). The photo of The Adoration of the Kings (artist unknown, Netherlands, circa 1520) is from the Gemaldergalerie, Berlin and taken by the author.
Read Angela Graham’s introduction to her trio of poems The Magi Remember here.