Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Evening Without Angels

This past weekend we brought a cut tree into our living room, put multicolored lights on it, and hung ornaments from it, a process always regarded with intense wonder by our cats, who thinks it's odd and exciting. On the top of the tree, we put a star.

When I was growing up, we were only allowed to put birds and pears on our tree, with an angel at the top. In reaction to that, I've always hung anything and everything on my own trees, including bits of baked and painted clay or bells twisted up with pipe cleaners that my kids brought home from preschool. I hang ornaments people have given me as gifts, including a number of very pretty angels.

Looking at the lighted tree this morning, when we all had to get up before dawn, made me think of the poem, "Evening Without Angels," by Wallace Stevens. Like most Stevens poems, it's not one that I feel like I completely "get," but I like the way the words make me feel. It's not a poem I think you need to try to understand; it's enough to try to absorb the images as they go by:

Why seraphim like lutanists arranged
Above the trees? And why the poet as
Eternal chef d'orchestre?

Air is air.
Its vacancy glitters around us everywhere.
Its sounds are not angelic syllables
But our unfashioned spirits realized
More sharply in more furious selves.

And light
That fosters seraphim and is to them
Coiffeur of haloes, fecund jeweler--
Was the sun concoct for angels or for men?
Sad men made angels of the sun, and of
The moon they made their own attendant ghosts,
Which led them back to angels, after death.

Let this be clear that we are men of sun
And men of day and never of pointed night,
Men that repeat antiquest sounds of air
In an accord of repetitions. Yet,
If we repeat, it is because the wind
Encircling us, speaks always with our speech.

Light, too, encrusts us making visible
The motions of the mind and giving form
To moodiest nothings, as, desire for day
Accomplished in the immensely flashing East,
Desire for rest, in that descending sea
Of dark, which in its very darkening
Is rest and silence spreading into sleep.

...Evening, when the measure skips a beat
And then another, one by one, and all
To a seething minor swiftly modulate.
Bare night is best. Bare earth is best. Bare, bare,
Except for our own houses, huddled low
Beneath the arches and their spangled air,
Beneath the rhapsodies of fire and fire,
Where the voice that is in us makes a true response,
Where the voice that is great within us rises up,
As we stand gazing at the rounded moon.

This is a time of year when a lot of us feel like our most "furious selves," isn't it? And we're approaching the longest night of the year. Despite the pronoun, I feel the lines "we are men of sun/And men of day and never of pointed night" because even during this magical time of year, with Christmas lights and trees and angels all around, dawn comes to me as a relief and dusk as something to ward off with lamps and candles, "huddled" in the house.

What is (or will be) on top of your Christmas tree?


FreshHell said...

We haven't gotten ours yet but it's usually a big silver star. I also put anything and everything on mine. I like a lush, full tree with multi-colored lights. I need something fun and beautiful to gaze at at this time of year. I think a lit tree in the darkness is my favorite thing about winter.

FreshHell said...
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Jeanne said...

FreshHell, you and me both, sister! And the lights must be multi-colored. None of those "tasteful" white lights at my house!

FreshHell said...

Exactly. I hate the "tastefulness" of just white lights. It's the middle of the worst part of the year. I need color and drama! I need to see "tacky" yards full of everything - blow-up Santas and Grinches, lights out the wahzoo! The whole works. Gimme everything you got. Especially out in the country where they stand out much more against the blackness night. I love Xmas lights.

Lass said...

Because I come from a family of smart-asses, the tree-topper of choice for the past ten years or so has been a plastic Taco Bell chihuahua, festooned with a halo. (The provenance of this is probably funny only to my family, so I won't clog up your comments with it.)

Anonymous said...

We have a large and rather squashed pink bow, which came on a package for N after she was born. (Our tree is pretty eclectic, too. I sort of admire those trees that are only red balls with plaid bows or only white doves and silver balls, but I would never ever ever be able to have one myself.)

Florinda said...

We have a star, but it must be heavier than it looks. It makes the top of the tree bend sideways. Our ornaments are mostly a collection of those I collect as souvenirs from our travels - five new ones this year from our East Coast trip! - and some received as gifts.

Between the random ornaments, the garlands that the kids just toss anywhere on the tree, and the tipsy topper, our tree looks like it was decorated by drunk monkeys, but we like it.

Jeanne said...

Here's Cecilia Ahern's sort-of-answer to my question:

Jeanne said...

Lass, what a lovely image. The halo is a particularly nice touch.

ReadersGuide, we have a few bows kind of like your pink one. I also have a bunch of transparent snowflakes with photos of the kids on Santa's lap in various years. I much prefer eclectic decorations to those themed ones.

Florinda, yours is a powerful image too--drunk monkeys! Ha!

PAJ said...

We are definitely in the "tacky" and "drunk monkey" camps at our house. Spouse and I have been collecting ornaments for 27 years; 16 years ago, Kid began adding hand-made doodads. It all goes on the tree with strands of multicolored lights (programmable to 7 different dizzying flash settings). Usually the top boasts a large star festooned with lights and tinsel and purchased (no kidding) from Kmart. This year's tree is too tall, so there's a relatively tasteful angel gazing down from on high. She looks a bit embarrassed.
Wallace Stevens frustrates me when I try to read for meaning. Still, I find myself picking up a book of his works a couple of times a year, just to "feel" the poems.

Jeanne said...

PAJ, that's because you and I had a teacher who loved Stevens. I feel particularly proud of my contribution to your tree this year; we got ourselves one just like it--because everyone needs a Christmas flamingo.

Lenore said...

We haven't gotten a tree, but I want one. Daniel thinks the cats might tear it down!

Jenny said...

I'm really sad I won't be decorating my family tree this year. We have zillions and zillions of ornaments, and I love it every year unwrapping all my favorite ornaments. My daddy does the best multicolored Christmas tree lights. :)

Harriet M. Welsch said...

Mr. Spy aspires to class and insists on white lights, but we put every ornament on the tree, including all the crazy preschool creations AJ came home with, including the creepy ugly Santa that my dad gave me when I was 9. We have a lot of ornaments, some classy, some tacky. It's a democratic arrangement. On top of our tree is an angel made of a clothespin and dressed in satin. She has crumpled paper wings and a beatific expression on her face. I bought her on the day after Christmas the year before I got married. We'd been engaged for two months but hadn't done anything about it. Siren dragged me to the day after Christmas sale at Marshall Fields -- one of her Christmas traditions. I found the angel in one of the sale bins. She is always the last ornament on the tree when we decorate it and always the last one off when we take it down.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

We do the same thing with ornaments on our tree. We have a lot of nice ones, but also plenty of Popsicle sticks and painted acorns and other homemade ones. I think it makes the tree eclectic :)

kittiesx3 said...

When we had a tree (pre Wally and Eddie who destroy all ornaments, climb the tree and also eat it), we had boring white lights. I love them because it reminds me of how trees used to be lit--with candles.

Maybe someday we'll have a tree again.

Jeanne said...

Lenore, that is a very real possibility. A friend of mine with kittens did have to take hers down--I saw a photo of one kitten halfway up, and the other at the bottom. Also there's this cartoon:

Jeanne said...

Jenny, It's little consolation now, but I think the Christmases you improvise a tree as a young adult add to your pleasure in establishing your own family traditions later. My first tree away from home was made of wrapping paper taped to the wall. It was in a room with a red carpet, which looked delightfully Christmasy.

Harriet, your tree sounds like a delightful mix of class and kitsch. I have some ornaments like your expensive department store sale find that came from stores we couldn't usually afford in the D.C. area, and they're still some of our favorites.

Kim, painted acorns is one I haven't heard of before! Our housemate in Maryland used to make "peanut people" bringing ornaments, which is evidently a midwestern tradition.

Elizabeth, sometimes you do have to give up lesser pleasures in order to live with cats. Make sure you watch the Simon's Cat cartoon I refer Lenore to, above!

I'll try to think of candles next time I see a tree lit only in white.