Set down this: Making peace with the Magi

If you’re looking for a way to get me riled up, hide one of my favorite books. Two nights ago I couldn’t find my edition of T. S. Eliot. It was Epiphany and I wanted to read “Journey of the Magi”. I had done a ferocious cleaning before I left for the holidays and was terrified I had thrown the book away. I was preparing to dump everything in my apartment onto the floor when I found Selected Poems on a shelf.

Like a good girl I read Journey of the Magi, which to be honest has never been among my favorites. The opening sections on their journey and arrival in Judea are richly descriptive, beginning with the hook that has always reeled me in: A cold coming we had of it. The end of the poem is where the language takes my breath away – the repetition of words and phrases, the stark expression of the Magi’s harsh and bitter agony. As enamored as I am of the language in that section, I always end my reading dissatisfied, wondering “what the hell do they have to be so distressed about?”

In the same pile as my poetry and journals I keep a small photo album that was a Christmas gift years ago. My brother made me the album in grade-school art class, writing my name on the front in puffy paint. Before I returned to Boston that year I filled the album with photos of my family over the years. My toddler self looks up at my father in one of the photos as he makes a face back at me. There are group photos of cousins, my mom yelling at my uncles, my dad hiding behind a cereal box while my brother displays the half chewed contents of his breakfast in an open mouth.

I looked over those photos on Epiphany because they had surfaced in the scramble to find the poems. I wished I had those whiny wise men in front of me so I could shake them, point to a 20+ year-old photo of myself and my grandmother and say “Look, this is the Incarnation! Look how good it is!” Still pretty irked at the wise men, I took a day to think about it. Since I first read Journey of the Magi I have been haunted by that last stanza. I am moved by the beauty of the text but could never get behind the dark conclusion to the adventure of the Magi. What about their journey could make them feel so…Prufrockian?

And then, appropriately, an epiphany.

We returned to our places, those kingdoms, but no longer at ease here. The Magi followed their guts, their instincts, that star, having an adventure, exploring a mystery. And then they went home, having played their part in salvation history.

“Every great getaway has a moment when you want to pack it up and stay. That’s how I ended up with a timeshare in Port Arthur, Texas.” (Jack Donaghy) Our lives take certain tracks from which significant deviations are not always possible. These tracks are valorous, beneficial. We live in webs of relationships, alliances and dependencies, and when we glimpse another good life that is not ours, we can’t rip ourselves from the fabric into which we are knit. The lives we return to are tainted once we’ve tasted something else. Like the Magi we may be a little less at ease, and perhaps a little less attached to the lives to which we are bound.

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1 Response to Set down this: Making peace with the Magi

  1. Pingback: 7 Quick Takes, volume 24 | Felice mi fa

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