The Breath of Bethlehem
Midnight Mass, 1992
You see it like a never-ending feud,
Somali gunmen taking children’s food;
and Britain’s homes expelling sons and daughters
onto the street; and caught between the borders
in No-Man’s-Land bunched Palestinians freeze,
while Israel, Lebanon say “After you, please.”
Over and over the old hurts are awoken:
in Sarajevo Europe’s arm lies broken;
in China power snores; at India’s shrine
to Ram an earth-fault slips. “Never combine
if combat finds you first,” the dictum runs.
Another word was said in Bethlehem once.
And now again, as in a church I see
a baby sleeping. Unimaginably
upon the floor it lies, wrapped round, a fact
clearer than carols, readings, than the act
of Christmas morning. How will I protect him?
My disbelief, my jeers have all but wrecked him
in my own life. The service ends. He’s gone.
It is a piece of floor I look upon.
He’s hustled out, he’s lost: the busy day
of food and cliché takes the time away
when I could see a sign, and know it stood for
whatever in the world my life is good for.
The double conscience I would understand
by which the world is governed in every land:
the public good, that’s not the same as private,
and which no state can ever quite arrive at;
the inner world, that dream of everyman,
that comes no nearer than one person can.
Who would not have a world of hope, of fineness,
of peace and warmth for all? without the blindness
of custom, honour, language, and that sense
that warns us always to be on defence.
O who would not embrace a new beginning?
And who knows not our natural state is sinning.
Therefore I travel; therefore too I scorn
to worship what the land where I was born
affects to worship. Therefore I will speak
new words, and go new ways, and in a week
or month, or year or two, travel to more.
And it may be that there’s an under-law
to custom, honour, language, that’s not blind
and in some scraps of poetry may find
a passing note. A sense of something right,
of now, before, beyond. Therefore I write.
And I like what the world has got to give
an unluxurious taste. Therefore I live.
All Christmas Day he’s treasured in my mind.
I shall not let him go. All the year’s grind,
as politics spins round its old crank-handle,
I hold the lightest flame of a light candle.
I disbelieve, I mock and I blaspheme:
it makes no difference to this dearest dream,
that love will leap across, that Man may mend,
and that the never-ending feud can end.
I see no Purpose, no Divine Intent:
I know my vision was an accident.
The world’s slow pains are all. It must feel them.
But it has felt the breath of Bethlehem.
Yes we are sinners. Yes we should have done better.
In terms of life we should feel more the debtor,
less the debaucher. Less of rich and poor
and more of sharing. Less the money war
that turns bright skulls to skeletons. Far less pride,
far more to learn. Less guiding and more guide.
Europe creaks to itself, and stops. The States
carefully tailor the repayment rates
of their slave countries. As the news comes in
I go to the back of the church. I can’t begin
to oust my hard-won views – for I am them.
But I have felt the breath of Bethlehem.