In Tents #75 How Infancy Narratives Behave Rhetorically, Part 4

Birth is a universal experience. All living things have received or given birth, or planted seed, or witnessed birth, or helped. So if you want to write about a birth what details will you include, besides things like name, height, weight, date and time? What details will make this birth worth reading about?

To My Blossom‑Headed Boy

Andrew Jeremy née Clark
Born December 22, 1984, 9:16 a.m.
7 lbs 9 1/2 oz  20 1/4″

“One deft stroke and the head appeared,” I’d written of your birth.
“How’s that?”  I asked her.
“It’s three a.m.,” she said,
“And it’s not true; I had to push like hell
before it came.”

So, these three things about your birth, as undeft
as the nighttime burps you hold an hour
or more, sleeping on your mother’s shoulder:

after nine months of your pressing
on, moving back and forth
on, and finally stomping
on your mother’s bladder,
every neighboring muscle was primed
to push you
Out.  And the nurses said, “Not
yet, Theresa.”
Then, (scarcely
a minute later)
“She’s complete!”
“They think you don’t”
(face)
“know anything,”
(straining)
“about
the way your own body

Works.”

Your head, in a ten‑centimeter ring of flesh,
I do not recognize as a head,
and wonder
worry what it is,
convoluted and bloody as a brain:
not like the crown I will see in the crook
of your mother’s arm at three a.m.
as you suck life and sleep
from her.

“Now! Push hard, Theresa,” the doctor says.
“I can’t,” she says in a voice this side
of fading
away.
“If I make a cut,” the doctor weight his opt‑‑
“Do it!”

One deft stroke gives your head some room
but I do not remember your brother’s head
looking like this.
What am I seeing?
Top, or back?
What part of a head looks
like this?
But when your mother pushes,
pushes, pushes
again,
your head
begins to e‑
merge, opening like a bud as
plates move outward to form a
skull, stretching skin, unfold‑
ing flattening the convolu‑
tions of your head, as
the middle plate rises
to fill, round out
your head of
surprising
brown hair!

The blossom‑face remains for hours.
In your first photograph
(“compliments of the volunteers”)
your cheeks still show the flush of
passage around bone,
between muscle . . .
“The swaddling clothes were rough,
or they washed them in detergent,”
your mother says.
“A blossom‑face is more dramatic
than that,”
I reply.  Abraded
red fades to yellow
which clears as you learn
to unburden your mother’s swollen breasts
each three a.m.;
“The careful, pain‑
ful conjunction of baby and breast,”
she says, writing you down.

 

There were many other details I could have included, water breaking the night before as we were heading out to see the Christmas lights, my dream in the waiting room (“get some sleep–it’s going to take a few hours even though the water broke”) that the birth had proceeded without me–dreamed twice (oddly prescient, considering later events in that family). I struggled to find the right details to organize the poem around, then came across the word blossom-face, a word more beautiful than what it describes.

My parents lived in Los Angeles the first four years of their marriage while my father worked as a draftsman at Lockheed during the War. My mother told me a few times of being downtown at Hollywood and Vine and seeing W.C. Fields, “the ugliest man I ever saw.” With his swollen red nose Fields had a blossom-face.

But I could use the word for beauty, and it allowed me to describe what I has seen better than an inflating balloon would. So, why does Luke choose the details he includes in recording the birth of Jesus?

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

Luke 2:7

But first, what does swaddling mean? As a child I imagined it to mean brightly shining, as if a rearrangement of dazzling. Surely that had to do with all the manger scenes with haloed baby and angels bending down. It was an exotic word. I could imagine Yosemite Sam saying, “Why, I’ll be hornswaddled!” I was an adult, perhaps a father, before I found out the word meant tightly bound.  This changed the meaning of the phrase. So when the angel says in verse 12, “And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger,” it doesn’t mean the child will look remarkable, though lying in a manger may mean the child is remarkably poor.

Thinking about the sequence in the verse this morning I recalled Robert Alter’s comment in The Five Books of Moses about the sequence in Genesis 26:8

And it came to pass, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out at a window, and saw, and, behold, Isaac was sporting with Rebekah his wife.

Alter talks about the importance of word order in a sentence, that the author presents words in a particular order to create a particular effect. In this case the author is recording the sequence of Abimelech’s perceptions. Abimelech looks out the window and sees, what? Isaac sporting (loveplay) with, Rebekah? Ah, his wife–why did he say otherwise? (e.e. cummings  goes through a similar exercise in perception with
r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r .”)

So the sequence in Luke 2:7 begins normally with birth and swaddling, then something unusual. Because we call representations of that event manger scenes, we think of manger as a synonym for stable–synonym rather than synecdoche because we don’t think of the manger as a smaller part of a stable that can represent the whole. But it is a small part of a stable–the feeding trough, and not necessarily something straw-lined. Because the story is so familiar to us we don’t think about how unusual it is to give human birth in a stable. But Luke’s audience would have, so he gives us an explanation–the couple can’t get any other lodging.

In The Four Witnesses Robin Griffith-Jones suggests another reason for mentioning the swaddling clothes, quoting Wisdom of Solomon 7:3-5:

3And when I was born, I drew in the common air, and fell upon the earth, which is of like nature, and the first voice which I uttered was crying, as all others do.
4I was nursed in swaddling clothes, and that with cares.
5For there is no king that had any other beginning of birth.

And quoting from Isaiah 1 Griffith-Jones suggests why the word manger is there:

 Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the Lord hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me.

The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass the manger of its lord: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.

(The bolded text represents the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation Luke would have been familiar with. The Masoretic text, from which the KJV is drawn, reads “his master’s crib.”) So Luke begins Jesus’s connection with Isaiah long before 4:16-21  where Jesus reads in the synagogue, announcing himself  as the fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 61. If Jesus starts his ministry where Isaiah leaves off, he starts his life embodying the opening words of Isaiah.

That’s the advantage of seeing the world in terms of types and shadows, of earlier events foreshadowing later, and later events typifying earlier–you can recognize the continuities between past and present. Of course someone who doesn’t take a typological view may simply see you as shaping your narrative to reflect historical types: the details are there to fit the story to the type rather than reflecting what actually happened.

But what if our lives happen typologically and we perceive typologically? Here’s another poem. It originally appeared on Wilderness Interface Zone, where Patricia Karamesines graced it with a picture of Bastet.

Angel

Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels
— Colossians 2:18

She thinks I am praying to her
Kneeling before her
Extending my hands to her

Her Egyptian ancestors earned their worship
Guarding food from mice, fighting cobras
Giving shape to perfume and ointment jars

Instead she beguiles her reward of me
Butting my hand with her head
Working her head under my palm
Waiting for my stroke along neck, back and tail
A nip on hand or arm if I don’t start over

When I stand she jumps off the bed
Sleeks the cat-lengths to the kitchen door
Leading me, pointing me, to her food
She does not worry that a full bowl may stale
She wants to see my hand go into the bag
To know there’s extra to cover the toy mice who live in her bowl

II

See thou do it not
–Revelation 22:9

“Angel’s gotten into a bag of feathers under the bed”
Soft as down, but not down
Scattered down the floor
Clumps of tortoise shell instead
Too late in the year to shed
No, she’s pulling hair from any place she can groom

No fleas in Utah, vet says, giving allergy shot
Clumps still scatter the floor
Cats can be OCD, Internet says, they don’t like change
She didn’t pull her hair for the rabbits
(Since killed by neighboring dogs)
Just snubbed Matthew for a time, times, half a time

A shot of progesterone helps OCD, vet says, but fur still downs the floor
Even “Listen Missy Moo, what do you think you’re doing?”
Doesn’t clean the floor
Her lower half shifts from tortoise shell to pink
When she sits her haunches, front legs holding her in a half stand
She looks less like Egyptian-mice-fattened Bastet
Than a scraggly, starving stray

Seeking my hand on her head
She looks more like one to pray for than to

 

Colin Douglas titled his December column “Let’s Do Some Practical Criticism.”  So in that spirit, here’s a question. This poem draws on Christian scripture and Egyptian mythology; which one is most important to the author, and how do you know? That is, how much of the poem reflects a belief in ancient Egyptian practices, and how much reflects Christian beliefs, and how do you know?

Wouldn’t a dialogue between Joseph Smith and another worthy murdered in prison, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, make an interesting AML presentation? So reading Victor Watts translation of The Consolation of Philosophy I came across this sentence in his Preface, and noted it for this column:

This absence of tension between pagan and Christian tradition was able to foster a milieu in which the concept of a twofold approach to truth, one via the exercise of the reason, one via revelation, was natural and easy to maintain (viii).

I like this idea that a culture can recognize and foster different ways of approaching truth, and I like the idea that the culture being described is 1500 years closer to biblical time than is our culture, but still has the same task we do of moving between different cultures and approaches to truth. Yesterday I came across this quote in the Playwright’s Note for Mahonri Stewart’s The Emperor Wolf: A Post-Apocalyptic Fairy Tale, the last play in Evening Eucalyptus and Other Enchanted Plays that makes a similar point(The link in the quote is mine.)

I am a religious man. The theology, ritual and meaning making of my people is very important to me, so if you want to read with that lens in mind you’ll find much to mine in this play about who I am religiously. But I am also a mythical man. I believe there is a rich spirituality in myths to be discovered even for the irreligious. Even when a myth is non-literal it does not make it any less true. This is the world I find myself continuously drawn into and where my spirituality continues to flourish and change in unexpected ways as I’ve opened myself up to stories from many cultures that are not my own–but have become a part of me, nonetheless (365).

One thing I like about both quotes  is that they describe cultures where the work of reason and revelation can go on side-by-side. I contrast that with the idea I’ve been responding to in this series, that if a story has mythic or legendary elements it must therefore be mythical, must not have been intended to be taken literally.

In the past few years Reza Aslan, John Shelby Spong, and John Dominic Crossan have all told Doug Fabrizio, host of KUER’s RadioWest, that the stories in the Gospels were never intended to be taken literally, that they were written as metaphors, parables, illustrations of divine love, and we do them a disservice when we insist on taking them as historical accounts. But none has provided any evidence, at least not on the air.

If I say ancient Greek playwrights believed plays should take place in one day, follow one main plot with few subplots, and in one place, and you ask me, “How do you know that?” I can point you to Aristotle’s  Poetics, and then we can argue about whether Greek playwrights all believed that, or whether Aristotle was arguing for a particular definition of tragedy that other philosophers and playwrights whose work hasn’t survived would disagree with. That is, we can debate a text contemporary with the playwrights, which comments on their poetics.

Where is a text contemporary with the Gospels commenting on how we should read them? Aslan, Spong, and Crossan are all claiming that the Gospels, and scripture generally, behave rhetorically in a particular way, but where’s the documentary evidence, the evidence from documents contemporary with Jesus’ time that lay out a Jewish hermeneutic? This is not a rhetorical question. Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t cite such a document. I haven’t read the other two books, so they may.

I take some guidance from the Book of Mormon which has extensive commentary on prophetic writings and makes a clear distinction between forms like historical records and allegory, from questions in the Doctrine & Covenants about how to interpret texts, and from some passages in Acts and the epistles. None of those sources, at least as I read them, has much support for the idea that we have to choose between the figurative and literal meaning of scripture.

Consider that intriguing passage in D&C 77 where the beasts are represented in verse 2 as figurative, and in verse 3 as individual beasts representing “the glory of the classes of beings in their destined order or sphere of creation, in the enjoyment of their eternal felicity.”

I’ll end with another poem, another exercise in practical criticism. How is this poem different from the other two? Does it make different assumptions about how you’ll read it? Does it make different truth claims? How do you know?

Swaddling Cloths
I

Zechariah Speaks

The ceremony, as you know, starts with a cord to pull me out
Generations of priests have wrapped the ankle cord
In pure ceremony, as it has been generations
Since the Divine Presence appeared, making it needful to drag out the dead priest
When I saw the light–brighter than noonday–start to fill this chamber
I got ready to drop, but you didn’t end my life, only my speech
You didn’t mute Sarah for laughing
Only said, “You laughed”

Yohanan? Why not Yitzhak?
I see a head, eyes closed, hair matted
No neck
A silver platter instead
A plump woman pointing a dainty fork at his lips

The cord yanks my leg, I yank back–alive
But my joy, my joy will not come with me from this holy place
When you unseal my tongue I will not tell of it
It is a fearful thing
To see through the eyes of the living God

II

Feed Trough

Fra Angelico, You didn’t paint him swaddled
He lies on his back in a bed of straw
Arms and legs reaching toward starlight
Or toward the monks and nuns adoring

He is not wrapped tightly, lying in the feed trough
Like a trussed Christmas goose
      Take, eat,this is my body
Not tightly wrapped like a gift on the altar
     Thy son, Isaac, thine only son

What did the cattle see in their feed trough?
Food? A new calf?
Did they lick clean your newborn blood?
Did Mary think they would bite you
Like the pigs bit my baby father when his father took him out in a bucket
Hung the bucket on a fence post while feeding the pigs
Turned a few minutes later, baby on the ground, pigs munching?
Decades later, Florence Soderborg, asked her new son about his forehead scar
“Why do you eat them, then?”
“I’ve got to get even somehow”

Do the cattle graze this olive mount by day?
Are they close enough to smell the blood?
Would they cleanse him with tongues of fire?
Would he take their licking?
Have they, too, forsaken him?
Is it too much for them to see
The will of the Son swaddled up in the will of the Father?

3 Thoughts on “In Tents #75 How Infancy Narratives Behave Rhetorically, Part 4

  1. Jonathan Langford on March 8, 2017 at 1:42 pm said:

    I like the multiple changes you ring on the theme of “swaddling.” I had never thought before about the implications of that single word in the account of Jesus’ birth. There’s room for another poem there, taking the connection of swaddled to bound to swallowed, and connections to Chronos…

  2. Harlow Clark on March 8, 2017 at 4:01 pm said:

    Great comment, Jonathan! I could work that into my conversation between Joseph and Boece. Maybe all the poets reading this post will take up the challenge, and create an interesting group of poems and/or prose.

    I’ve been scratching my head over the last stanza, wondering what I meant by “Do the cattle graze this vineyard by day?” Then realized that the last stanza shifts to Gethsemane (It’s been 4 years since I wrote the first couple of drafts), so I changed the line just now to read “Do the cattle graze this olive mount by day?”

  3. Harlow Clark on March 20, 2017 at 12:50 pm said:

    I went in to correct a typo and add tags. I added some words I had left out of the second sentence, and added a few words for clarity in the paragraph beginning “So the sequence in Luke 2:7 begins normally. . . “

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