For Epiphany (January 6th): Martha Royea’s Refreshing Poetic Take on T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”

Canadian Poet Martha Royea (1941 – )

The Return Journey
— After T.S. Eliot, The Journey of the Magi

“They’re coming! They’re coming back!” I went shouting,
skirts flying and my hair not combed; I ran to the barns
to tell father, and then to the cookhouse, and then to shoo the gambling men
from the doorway again, and light the lamps, for it was almost dark.
And, there being still time, I pushed my hair up into a pretty cap and
put on a clean apron before going out to the road to greet them,
for they had complained on the way through of cold reception
and mean lodgings everywhere on their travels.

But when they were near I saw that they rode like defeated soldiers instead of kings.
They’d left here wearing fine embroidered robes,
crowns and jeweled bands and – oh, it was splendid
to see the three of them, tall and straight atop the swaying camels,
snow and mud splashing out behind them and all their men
and beasts of burden following in the slush.
“We go as kings to greet a king,” the dark one said to his grumpy camel man,
and I thought King Herod of course, knowing of no other,
but father, who travels often into the towns, spat on the ground, “Pah! Herod is but
Ceasar’s ass. A rumoured true King of Jews is what they’re looking for. Idiocy!”

And so, when they came back this way all draggled and slumped,
I knew my father was right and they had not found their king.
But they had found something; it made their faces grim,
and they were silent over their food and retired early
and the next morning they were away at dawn.
I watched them moving slowly up the long hill eastward
into the sun just rising in a sky as red as blood.

Martha Royea, unpublished, 2009

I first featured this stunning poem by B.C.-based Canadian poet Martha Royea in a blog posted December 30th, 2019. Since today is Epiphany, the day in the Christian calendar that celebrates the coming of the Wise Men I thought it would be appropriate to feature it again. It deserves the attention. I have known Martha for many years, having met her first at a Patrick Lane poetry retreat at Hollyhock, the retreat center on Cortes Island, up the coast from Vancouver. I consider her a wise amd wonderful dear friend! Now, the poem! My comments from two years ago!

“The confidence of Martha’s poetic voice is so apparent in Martha’s 2009 poem above. How she captures the voice of that young woman awaiting the return of the three Wise Men. And not only does she capture that voice she takes on the challenge of writing a poem after one of T.S. Eliot’s most celebrated poems and nails it. Makes it new. I have attached Eliot’s poem below so you too might see how Martha’s poem stands so wonderfully on its own terms! How she animates so wonderfully the young girl narrator. Tells an old story made new through those eyes. And a sadness here. A sadness of a realization that adds years to that child. That makes her realize somehow, her father, that discouraging adult voice, had been right but not for the reasons he thought.

Martha demonstrates her poetic chops so many ways in this poem. How she constructs it. How in the first four lines she creates a breathless anticipation. No period for four lines. The language creates the sense of pell mell haste. Then the  thud of the “k” in dark that slams this introduction shut.  And the premonition created by “dark”. The dark of the coming slaughter of young babies by Herod, the so-called innocents and the coming death of baby Jesus years later. Also the coming of the dark into the young narrators innocence. And how this poem of hers is another way of lighting a lamp. Bringing new light into an old story.

A few more craft observations out of many more I could make. The long line that begins the second stanza pulls me up every time. Another Martha trademark. Use use of line and also her use  of a seemingly simple statement and description to say volumes. ….they rode like defeated soldiers instead of kings. A wham of a description. And also how in this stanza she shifts and time travels back to when the girl first saw them in their glory. And in the third stanza the assonance of the “i” in king and grim. The grim undertones of this story. A King (Herod) who will kill babies because of the Wise men and a King (Jesus) who will be killed. The grimness of the death implied in this birth. And this subtle echo in Martha’s poem back to Eliot’s poem: this Birth was/ Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

And here now the T.S. Eliot poem:

Journey of the Magi (1927)

“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

T.S. Eliot from T.S. Eliot Collected Poems 1909-1962, The Franklin Library, 1976″

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