The Magi Remember / Angela Graham

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 voices

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.

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.