“What marvels in a Christmas-cake!”

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a funny little English poem by the assuredly serious Helen Maria Williams about the pleasures of home and friendship — condensed in a traditional Christmas cake. I like it because it reminds me that objects’ significance resides in their relations to people and ideas important to us, and because I’ll be missing my Cleveland family this year at Christmas. And because my best friend always sends out Christmas cookies as an expression of her love.

To Mrs. K—-, On Her Sending Me an English Christmas Plum-Cake at Paris

What crowding thoughts around me wake,
What marvels in a Christmas-cake!
Ah say, what strange enchantment dwells
Enclosed within its odorous cells?
Is there no small magician bound
Encrusted in its snowy round?
For magic surely lurks in this,
A cake that tells of vanished bliss;
A cake that conjures up to view
The early scenes, when life was new;
When memory knew no sorrows past,
And hope believed in joys that last! —
Mysterious cake, whose folds contain
Life’s calendar of bliss and pain;
That speaks of friends for ever fled,
And wakes the tears I love to shed.
Oft shall I breathe her cherished name
From whose fair hand the offering came:
For she recalls the artless smile
Of nymphs that deck my native isle;
Of beauty that we love to trace,
Allied with tender, modest grace;
Of those who, while abroad they roam,
Retain each charm that gladdens home,
And whose dear friendships can impart
A Christmas banquet for the heart!

Recommended Reading: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

If I hadn’t read the jacket copy, I would have assumed A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is the work of an accomplished, many-times-published novelist. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

But it’s Anthony Marra’s first novel, and when you read it, you’re going to weep, not just because there’s no way that should be possible, but because the story is so moving and so perfectly told, a gut-wrenching exploration of two Chechen wars, history, family, and the significance of place.

Eight-year-old Havaa’s father, Dokka, is disappeared by Russian forces in the middle of the night. Their neighbor Akhmed (like Dokka and Havaa, an ethnic Chechen) finds Havaa in the woods the next morning, and (rightly) fearing for her safety, takes her to the last doctor in the only hospital in the neighboring city, an ethnic Russian named Sonja. Sonja is processing her own trauma — the disappearance of her sister, Natasha. Over the course of the novel, the threads connecting all the principal characters — Dokka, Havaa, Akhmed, Sonja, Natasha, and Dokka’s betrayer and the betrayer’s father — slowly reveal themselves, forming a web more complicated and more harrowing than any of the characters understand.

The narrative jumps back and forward over a period of ten years, but the tendrils of connection reach back into Soviet Russia and forward into a future that’s not yet known. Tangential sequences that reveal information about secondary characters were masterful; the level of detail, the attentiveness to the minutiae of human survival, are impeccable.

I could write about this book for pages and pages, but I don’t want to ruin anyone else’s sense of discovery. It’s a December book, in that it will make you feel grateful for whatever and whomever you have to wrap around you.

*Be forewarned: there are torture scenes that made me physically ill, and I have a strong stomach.

“Sweet love, renew thy force”

After the awful and exhausting events of last week, I felt drained just contemplating the search for this week’s poem. Then I realized that today is the Bard’s birthday, and my dear Aunt Rita’s, and the choice was clear.

A sonnet!

Who doesn’t love fourteen lines of love poetry? I’ve taught the sonnets whenever I could, and students are always amazed at just how much meaning Will packs into those lines (and that the first cycle is addressed to a man — that’s mind-blowing to them, and perhaps unsurprising, since some editions “regularize” the pronouns in the earlier poem. Don’t get me started.).

My favorite is 116, which we asked a friend to read at our wedding, and which is probably one of the five most famous. I remember hearing it (or rather, part of it) first in Sense and Sensibility (adapted by Emma Thompson, bless her, and directed by Ang Lee), and that’s one of my favorite literary combinations.

But that’s not the first time I heard a sonnet. I can precisely date my first memory of one of the poems: my tenth birthday. At the time, my father was working out of state, but he and my uncle (my mother’s brother) took the time to sit in my uncle’s kitchen and record a tape (yes, I’m that old) of songs and poems for me. I treasure it; it’s on my desk as we speak. My uncle played the guitar and my dad attempted the drums, and they both sang and read. Simon and Garfunkel, Gordon Lightfoot, Robert Frost, Shakespeare, and even a few originals made it on to the tape. I listen to it every year on my birthday, but it’s been so long that I can hear clips of the tape in my mind if I choose to.  The banter and the squeaky chair are hilarious.

My father is an excellent reader (more on that some other time), and so I’m choosing to memorize the sonnet he read for me, “Sonnet 6–Number 56,” as he corrected himself.

William Shakespeare

Sonnet 56

Sweet love, renew thy force, be it not said
Thy edge should blunter be than appetite,
Which but to-day by feeding is allay’d,
To-morrow sharp’ned in his former might:
So, love, be thou: although to-day thou fill
Thy hungry eyes even till they wink with fullness,
To-morrow see again, and do not kill
The spirit of love with a perpetual dullness:
Let this sad int’rim like the ocean be
Which parts the shore, where two contracted new
Come daily to the banks, that, when they see
Return of love, more blest may be the view;
As call it winter, which being full of care
Makes summer’s welcome thrice more wish’d, more rare.


Happy birthday Shakespeare!