In “A Christmas Story,” Robert Cording evokes Aleksander Wat (1900-1967), a Polish poet that converted from Judaism to Christianity while imprisoned in the Soviet Union. During a brief moment out of prison walls, the poem explains that Wat was awestruck by a simple street scene: a beautiful women in a green dress, the “bell of a bicycle,” blue sky. “It was all thrilling, achingly alive, a feast / happening right there on the street between / the prison and the government office/ nothing else mattering.” Interestingly, the Christmas story in this poem is, in fact, the retelling of this moment at a dinner party to a know-it-all, “young professor whose field of expertise / seemed to be ironic distance.” While the weight of Wat’s revelation is amusingly lost on the guest, as a reader we are reminded to stay open to surprise. During this season of expectant waiting, I always seem to experience objects and sensations more intensely. The pearly, full moon rising, frost laden branches, the smell of wood smoke, trumpeter swans flapping overhead. For me, Advent ushers in a new kind of awareness that is both felt and known, surprising and familiar. Similar to Wat’s experience, the practice for the season is to be awake and grateful enough to receive.
Sure, I’d had too much wine and not enough
of the Advent hope that candles are lit for;
and I’ll confess up front, I was without charity
for our guest who, glassed in behind those black,
small, rectangular frames, reminded me
of those poems that coldly arrange a puzzle
of non sequiturs to prove again how language
is defective and life leads to nothing more
than dead ends. So, after a night of wondering
if our never-more-than-hardly-surprised guest,
a young professor whose field of expertise
seemed to be ironic distance, would give
a moment’s thought, as he took apart everyone’s
unexamined stances, to how and why his own
might be constructed, I blurted out a story
over our Christmas dinner dessert, about
Aleksander Wat, how the Polish poet,
taken one day from his Soviet prison
to see a local magistrate, stood in the sun,
reveling in its warmth on his face and arms
and hands; as he took in the beauty
of a woman in a light green dress, he knew
he would soon be back in his prison cell.
He never forgot, he said, the irony of
his freedom, and yet he felt, standing there,
something like a revelation, the autumn day
surging in those silly puffiest white clouds,
and a hardly bearable blue sky, and the bell
of a bicycle ringing, and some people
laughing in a nearby café, and that woman,
her bare languid shoulders turning in the sun—
it was all thrilling, achingly alive, a feast
happening right there on the street between
the prison and a government office, nothing else
mattering, not even the moment he knew
was coming, and arrived, right on schedule,
when he stood woodenly before the magistrate.
And when I had finished, my face flushed,
my guest looked at me with astonishment,
unable to process where so much emotion
had come from, and then asked, calmly as ever,
what I meant when I’d used the word, revelation.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Robert Cording
Robert Cording teaches English and creative writing at Holy Cross College. He is the author of six poetry collections, most recently including Against Consolation, Common Life, and Walking with Ruskin (all from CavanKerry). He has received fellowships from the NEA and Bread Loaf. His poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Kenyon Review, Poetry, Orion, and Paris Review.