May You Hear Ancestors Singing

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Those who came before us
cried salt tears, loved and lost,
wondered what was yet to come,
worried they weren’t good enough . . .

Steered by who knows what, they carried
on through wars, disease, and infant deaths
whose frequency made no difference
to the grief they suffered. Year after
year, women brought new lives
into the world, and sometimes gave their own
in the bringing.

Those who remained kept on singing
through the turning of the seasons,
planting, harvest,
sacraments of every kind,
singing while they worked,
singing while they worshipped,
singing after supper with the darkness
huddled round them.

We are here in spite of,
we are here because they persevered,
because their laughter and their music
kept them going,
because their faith kept rising
from the ashes
and drove them on toward us.

It is our turn now
to keep the faith
to sing the song
to gaze at stars and wonder why,
to love our children,
build our dreams,
to laugh, to cry,
and know the humble satisfaction
of having done our part.

In this winter season
may you hear ancestors singing.
Leave them a portion of your holiday feast,
take a moment to thank them
for their sorrows and their songs,
and may you be blessed enough
to feel the joy that sustained them,
to be sustained, yourself,
and to pass the joy along to
those who follow.

—1999

Christmas Poem 2011

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Years ago I began sending out poems at Christmas time, in lieu of cards. Here’s one of the first I sent.

The View from an Attic Window

BY HOWARD NEMEROV from New Poems (1960)
for Francis and Barbara

1
Among the high-branching, leafless boughs
Above the roof-peaks of the town,
Snowflakes unnumberably come down.

I watched out of the attic window
The laced sway of family trees,
Intricate genealogies

Whose strict, reserved gentility,
Trembling, impossible to bow,
Received the appalling fall of snow.

All during Sunday afternoon,
Not storming, but befittingly,
Out of a still, grey, devout sky,

The snowflakes fell, until all shapes
Went under, and thickening, drunken lines
Cobwebbed the sleep of solemn pines.

Up in the attic, among many things
Inherited and out of style,
I cried, then fell asleep awhile,

Waking at night now, as the snow-
flakes from darkness to darkness go
Past yellow lights in the street below.

2
I cried because life is hopeless and beautiful.
And like a child I cried myself to sleep
High in the head of the house, feeling the hull
Beneath me pitch and roll among the steep
Mountains and valleys of the many years
That brought me to tears.

Down in the cellar, furnace and washing machine,
Pump, fuse-box, water heater, work their hearts
Out at my life, which narrowly runs between
Them and this cemetery of spare parts
For discontinued men, whose hats and canes
Are my rich remains.

And women, their portraits and wedding gowns
Stacked in the corners, brooding in wooden trunks;
And children’s rattles, books about lions and clowns;
And headless, hanging dresses swayed like drunks
Whenever a living footstep shakes the floor;
I mention no more;

But what I thought today, that made me cry,
Is this, that we live in two kinds of thing:
The powerful trees, thrusting into the sky
Their black patience, are one, and that branching
Relation teaches how we endure and grow;
The other is the snow,

Falling in a white chaos from the sky,
As many as the sands of all the seas,
As all the men who died or who will die,
As stars in heaven, as leaves of all the trees;
As Abraham was promised of his seed;
Generations bleed,

Till I, high in the tower of my time
Among familiar ruins, began to cry
For accident, sickness, justice, war and crime,
Because all died, because I had to die.
The snow fell, the trees stood, the promise kept,
And a child I slept.