When my brother, my sister, and I were growing up in Burlington, Vermont, our mother was a nurse for some years at the Mary Fletcher Hospital, the main medical center for the city and the state. This accounts for the background and some of the details of “Changing of the Guard.” My having spent most of my adult life in Los Angeles accounts for “Toward the Winter Solstice.” The poem happened one evening when I was putting up outdoor holiday lights and realized that the Los Angeles Basin actually has features closer to those of the original Holy Land Christmas than those depicted in Currier and Ives prints or Leroy Anderson and Mitchell Parish’s “Sleigh Ride.”
Changing of the Guard
Prior to sunrise, as it’s growing light,
Nocturnal birds relay
The burden of their vocal arts
To their diurnal counterparts.
An owl hoots as a coda to the night;
A finch chirps as a prelude to the day.
It is as if the birds, wings notwithstanding,
Are passing a baton.
They make me think, as they converse,
Of when my mother was a nurse:
Each morning, as the night shift was disbanding,
The day shift at her hospital came on.
Our breakfasts fit whichever shift she drew.
By an unspoken rule,
Leaving for work or coming from it
She held a little family summit.
(We kids, the instant she excused us, flew
Out of the kitchen to prepare for school.)
I liked the way the shifts aligned, the flow
And order they created.
While the white dress all nurses wore
Expressed their brisk esprit de corps,
Their caps had different designs to show
The colleges from which they’d graduated.
Listening to the birds, I can’t infer
Which schools they went to. Still,
Like sensitively trained musicians,
They’re good at managing transitions,
Just as my mother and her colleagues were
In looking after the infirm and ill.
So, though it is a signal to a mate
Most birds send through the air--
Or else a claim to territory--
Their chorus seems to tell a story
Of former mornings and to correlate
The continuities of song and care.
Toward the Winter Solstice
Although the roof is just a story high,
It dizzies me a little to look down.
I lariat-twirl the cord of Christmas lights
And cast it to the weeping birch’s crown;
A dowel into which I’ve screwed a hook
Enables me to reach, lift, drape, and twine
The cord among the boughs so that the bulbs
Will accent the tree’s elegant design.
Friends, passing home from work or shopping, pause
And call up commendations or critiques.
I make adjustments. Though a potpourri
Of Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and Sikhs,
We all are conscious of the time of year;
We all enjoy its colorful displays
And keep some festival that mitigates
The dwindling warmth and compass of the days.
Some say that L.A. doesn’t suit the Yule,
But UPS vans now like magi make
Their present-laden rounds, while fallen leaves
Are gaily resurrected in their wake;
The desert lifts a full moon from the east
And issues a dry Santa Ana breeze,
And valets at chic restaurants will soon
Be tending flocks of cars and SUVs.
And as the neighborhoods sink into dusk
The fan palms scattered all across town stand
More calmly prominent, and this place seems
A vast oasis in the Holy Land.
This house might be a caravansary,
The tree a kind of cordial fountainhead
Of welcome, looped and decked with necklaces
And ceintures of green, yellow, blue, and red.
Some wonder if the star of Bethlehem
Occurred when Jupiter and Saturn crossed;
It’s comforting to look up from this roof
And feel that, while all changes, nothing’s lost,
To recollect that in antiquity
The winter solstice fell in Capricorn
And that, in the Orion Nebula,
From swirling gas, new stars are being born.
“Changing of the Guard” first appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of The Yale Review. “Toward the Winter Solstice” is reprinted from Toward the Winter Solstice by Timothy Steele (Swallow Press/ Ohio University Press, 2006).
©2015 Timothy Steele