“Like unto us in all things, sin only excepted,” as the New Testament declares, Jesus was born speechless and remained so until he spoke his first word, probably eema, Aramaic for “Mommy.” Because God seems so implacably silent in our own day, the silence of the divine infant has provoked some of the best late examples in the long canon of Christmas poetry. Just as divine nakedness lies at the focal point of so many Renaissance paintings of the Nativity, so in these modern poems divine silence is the still point amid the whirl of wondering adults and caroling angels.
Some years ago, I came across a wonderful poem— Joseph Brodsky’s“Flight Into Egypt (II)”—that ends on just this note. Its final stanza, in Seamus Heaney’s translation, reads:
The star looked in across the threshold.
The only one of them who could
Know the meaning of that look
Was the infant. But He did not speak.
Last year, that stanza turned up on a Christmas card from my German publisher, Hanser Verlag. Even those who don’t read German can tell that the Hanser translation is more strongly rhymed and metered than Heaney’s:
Ein Stern hat über die Schwelle geschaut.
Doch keiner von ihnen war vertraut
mit der tieferen Ursache des Lichts.
Bis auf das Kind—und das sagte nichts.
I liked this translation so much that, for all my unbounded admiration for Seamus Heaney, I decided to try something similar in English and came up with:
A star across the threshold shone,
Its light a gaze whose import none
Of them but one alone could tell:
The baby knew, but he kept still.
Dramatic power accrues to any character who can hold center stage in silence or near silence while others gush language. A touching example of this is 8-year-old Rory Culkin’s performance as Rudy in Kenneth Lonergan’s 2000 film You Can Count on Me. Rudy’s divorced mother and his scapegrace uncle have a troubled but painfully close relationship, the closer because the two of them were orphaned at an early age. Lonergan’s script wisely gives Rudy rather little to say. Yet when the camera finds Rory Culkin, silent and downcast as the regrets and recriminations fly back and forth between Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, the boy’s silence speaks more movingly than words could.
A blind boy of about 2 is an even more inarticulate and poignant figure in Bahman Ghobadi’s emotionally devastating Turtles Can Fly, the first film made in Iraq since the war began. Henkov and his sister Agrin, about 17 and 15, respectively, are orphaned Kurds living as refugees in a tent camp near the heavily mined Turkish border. For arms, Henkov has stumps that end above the elbow. The camp thinks Agrin is the 2-year-old boy’s sister; in fact she is his mother. Saddam’s soldiers raped her during the same savage raid that cost Henkov his arms. By giving us the aftermath first, Ghobadi is able to make the raid itself—in a scene that lasts barely two minutes—almost unbearably traumatic.
Agrin would willingly let her son, the proof of her shame, wander off in the night, as is his alarming habit, and blow himself up in a minefield. But Henkov, maimed as he is, desperately loves his little nephew. In the privacy of their tent, as sister and brother discuss the secret dilemma created by her violation, its result, her son, lies between them in innocent incomprehension.
Such stuff may seem remote from “Silent Night, Holy Night,” but it is not so for me, and it seems not to have been so for the authors of the Gospel “infancy narratives” either. Those accounts, in Matthew and Luke, are heavy with intimations of the Crucifixion, intimations that echo in later art showing the infant Jesus playing with spikes or stretching his soft, small hand toward a black thorn bush. Does he sense what lies ahead? Henkov fears that his nephew guesses more than Agrin thinks he does. Agrin fears the guesses of their fellow refugees. Dark suspicions were voiced about the paternity of the infant Jesus as well. When, if ever, did he learn about these rumors? A poem from the Maronite (Lebanese Catholic) Christmas liturgy includes the line: “O hidden mystery, you were seen in human form while your secret thoughts were not revealed to those who saw.” This is the archetypal power of infant innocence—and helplessness—joined to infant silence.
In “A Prayer for My Son,” William Butler Yeats stands at the bedside of his sleeping son, Michael, and asks God to protect him in a world of murderous Herods, for
Though You can fashion everything
From nothing every day, and teach
The morning stars to sing,
You have lacked articulate speech
To tell Your simplest want, and known
Wailing upon a woman’s knee,
All of that worst ignominy
Of flesh and bone …
In the madness of the holiday season, the Christmas story is, for me, like a toddler lost in the roar of a shopping mall, its meaning like a penny in the toddler’s pocket. If and when I slow down to remember the old story, what it wakens in me, every year, is an awareness of the mortal danger that surrounds so many millions of the world’s children and a helpless hunger to protect them.
Childish of me, I suppose, or, worse, adolescent. But then, after all, it’s only a story.