All Hail the Glorious Night and Other Christmas Poems
ALL HAIL THE GLORIOUS NIGHT AND OTHER CHRISTMAS POEMS
The Complete Christmas Poetry of Kevin Carey
Kevin Carey‘Our Alleluias in a minor key/Speak of our sorrow in our frailty’ writes Kevin Carey in How Shall We Be Joyful? Voicing a sentiment more typical of this collection than the line from one of his few major-key celebrations of Christmas chosen as title. In this extraordinarily lengthy forensic examination of the topic, a tour de force of over 230 works divided into five sections, there are less than joyful echoes of Betjeman’s attempts to reconcile superficial secularity with intimations of the holy, Causley’s graphic depictions of modern hostility and indifference to the incarnation, and the meditative unease of Eliot’s wrongfooted Magi. However, in frank prefaces, Carey defends ‘taking on something of a sombre tone’ because of his confrontation of ‘the projection of the events in Bethlehem towards Calvary.’ In his ongoing, apparently obsessive, struggle to encapsulate in poetic form the theology of the incarnation, with reference to events from the fall to the resurrection, sombreness arises from a pervasive sense of the sin that makes Christ’s suffering necessary: ‘a nail in the manger and/thorns in/the hay.’ Occasionally, a simpler joy emerges when Carey’s restless soul-searching is overcome by surrender to wonder, as in the concluding lines of Old Austrian Hymn: ‘This child exceeds all mystery/All creeds and all theology:/The logos in an infant’s face.’ His poems referencing the opening of St John’s Gospel, such as IX. John I, from the carol service sequence The Infant King, are uniformly strong.
Carey’s poetic enterprise is to provide new lyrics for contemporary composers so that carol singing, and Christmas itself, which he believes ‘Christians are in danger of losing . . . In the wake of the loss of Easter’ can survive. His best short poems find formal ways of unifying different aspects of the Christmas message while demonstrating mastery of the poetic forms typical of carols, metrical accomplishment and competent rhyming. Carey explores the incarnation from every conceivable perspective, repeatedly revisiting the perspectives of Mary, the shepherds and the wise men, yet, more originally, voicing entities such as the stars in the heavens and the manger. He reimagines Christmas with contemporary references to the Middle East conflict, the refugee crisis, urban poverty, global warming, journalism and technology: in Cloud, the Angel Gabriel appeals: ‘Make Jesus viral! Now!’
While the poems in each section of the volume are broadly sequenced to reflect the order of the biblical events they refer to, there is no thematic index, which will make finding a poem for an occasion like a carol service time consuming. Carey advises us that his poetry is taking a new direction in longer poems: the discursive expansiveness of Winters is informed by an exciting breadth of reference, sweeping across cultures, time and space. Freedom from the constraint of writing with an eye and ear to the conventions of the carol has given Carey licence to explore the multiple meanings of Christmas he has long sought to condense with new energy and authenticity.
Reviewed by John Moss
Reflection / Meditation / Spirituality