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Christmas Through a New Lens
A poetry book review by Violet Nesdoly

Duet for Wings and Earth
by Barbara Colebrook Peace
Sono-Nis Press, 2008, Paperback 6x9, 64 pages, $14.95
ISBN-10: 155039164X
ISBN-13: 978-1550391640

Duet for Wings and Earth is not your average collection of Christmas concert acrostics or carol-derived rhymes. In fact this fresh collection of advent poems by Barbara Colebrook Peace may permanently change the lens through which you view the Christmas season.

Begun in 2001 as a contribution to the annual “Walk to Bethlehem” program in Victoria BC, the final collection of 21 poems was published in 2008. It explores Christmas from viewpoints as various as God’s, the donkey’s, the moon’s, Bethlehem’s, and more. Using poetic styles that include free verse, pantoum and glosa, Peace gives us much to ponder.

In the first of three seven-poem sections—Dreaming Yourself Human—she explores the timeless past and invites us to imagine what was going on in the mind of God before the incarnation, indeed, even before creation. This is mind-bending stuff—picturing effects before causes, day and night before there was a sun to mark them. “Song of God: The night before you were born” illustrates the cosmological thread that goes through many of these poems:

All things were before me:

       my own necessary death
determined my design for sunlight. (p. 11)

Also in this section we’re invited into the minds and hearts of Joseph and Mary. Through them we come to appreciate Jesus’ rich Jewish heritage, as evidenced in “The Song of Mary: At the Festival of Sukkoth.” In it Mary’s prayer dedicating the temporary shelter the Jews lived in during the Festival of Booths readily becomes a symbol of herself and her dedication as the temporary dwelling of Jesus:

take this temporary shelter
and trace on it the deep slope and whorls, the finger
patterns of heaven…  (p. 14)

The second section—I am Bethlehem—deals with the events just prior to Jesus’ birth. We hear from a variety of characters—Joseph, the donkey, the sheep, and the innkeeper. In “The Song of the Inn,” the innkeeper’s glib apology is perfect as a pantoum with its repeating lines:

I’m sorry, we don’t accept any Samaritans…

I’m sorry. You’ll have to find a room somewhere else…

I’m sorry, no room at the present time…

I’m sorry: we don’t accept any Samaritans. (p. 31,32)

This section ends with “The Song of God: When I first celebrated Christmas”—a reflective piece that begins,

I looked back to the time before time was,
remembering how I’d taken seeds of light
and scattered them throughout the dark abyss. (p. 35)

Poems in the third section—Because You Are Precious In My Sight—muse on the meaning of Christ’s birth. Especially poignant is the poem “Song of God: For Judas Not Born.” Using Job 38:14,15 as a glosa (the four lines quoted at the beginning of the poem—the glosa—repeat in turn as the final line of each of the four stanzas), God talks  about the relationship Judas will have with Jesus. The poem ends:

Will you remember this, will it be enough to keep you from
despair when you greet me with a kiss as the men come
bearing torches,
                             and the last word I speak to you on earth is
and the stars of the Navigator’s Line go out one by one?

(p. 53)

However, the last poem in the book, “Song of Mary: Light Falls in Parables,” is its tour de force. These lines are a perfect sum-up:

It was always like that, and the song
I’ve been singing all my life
is a song about stretching

to enlarge my idea of you, and even
my idea of me… (p. 57)

That’s what these soothing yet stimulating, accessible yet deep, simple yet complex poems do. They tell the familiar story in a fresh way—a way that charms with whimsy while it deepens meaning, and woos the reader into a richer experience of Christmas and Jesus, who is the focus of it all.

The physical book is a thing of beauty too, with its angel painting in vivid reds to gold on the cover against a background of navy-black. However, something that puzzled me about the book’s layout is the way individual poems extend over several pages. It’s not that the pages are full, but rather, the page break functions almost like a tactile stanza break. (For example, in the case of “Song of Mary: You ask me how you got your name,”  the first page of the poem contains only eight lines—fills the top third of the page. The poem continues overleaf for two more pages which are both only half filled.) I found that this layout did momentarily distract from smooth reading. Several times I thought I had come to the end of a poem, then turned the page and realized the poem I thought was complete continued on.

Barbara Colebrook Peace’s poems have been published in various literary journals including the Malahat Review and Fiddlehead. This is her second book of poems (she published Kyrie in 2001). She also works as an editor and reviewer. More about poet Barbara Colebrook Peace.

In June 2009, Duet for Wings and Earth won The Word Guild 2009 Award for Books—Special Category (tied with D. S. Martin’s book Poiema). The poems in this book have been used in various Christmas presentations. They would make wonderful readings to enrich Christmas for individuals and groups.