Carole Goldberg wrote in the Hartford Courant, 14 December 2002: "You may be familiar with Advent calendars, which count down the December days until Christmas with little windows or doors that open to reveal a religious or holiday image. Rennie McQuilkin has created a book in which each page opens a different aspect of Christmas."
McQuilkin, an award-winning poet and former director of the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, thinks of "Counting to Christmas" as a gift to friends, both known and unknown, at Christmas time. Though many of the book's poems have appeared in publications such as The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, The Christian Science Monitor, and Yankee, they were originally written as Christmas cards over a period of 25 years; and McQuilkin hopes they will carry some of their original intent.
The contents of the book are arranged in a sequential pattern, beginning early in December and progressing to Christmas Day. The poems may be read much as an Advent calendar is opened -- one a day during the pre-Christmas season. Printed on heavy, textured stock, this gift book is a work of art and contains a number of poems based on works of art. The collection is marked by both wit and lyricism, and is secular in tone -- one poem depicts a Zuni solstice ceremony and many others focus on the natural world, although a good number of the poems present traditional Christmas motifs.
Read some sample poems from the book.
A dozen apples in December
shrink and wrinkle, go from dark
to darker, hang by threads
no thicker than our own.
And yet how like to ornaments
a dozen apples in December
and how the sparrows, reeling,
wassail on the earth-gold wine
a dozen apples, aging, brew
beneath a low and southern sun.
after an early work by Mack Burns, age 4
He crayoned his first cr¸che in three parts.
All’s well at the top—the Firmament is
solid: heavenly blue. But the sky is trouble.
It’s full of what—stars or angels
swarming like a plague of leggy spiders.
Just above the manger is a star burst
of yellow from something like a Scud
incoming. Part Three has the Baby Jesus
the size of his parents, his feet and head
protruding from a purple perambulator.
A lush brown, black-haired Mary,
her arms and one leg colored jaggedly,
leans forward as if to wheel the giant baby,
hissing to the blueblood blob of Joseph
“Let’s get out of here!”
The space around the shed is fire-orange
except for a—camel? Brown as Mary
and humped high as the ridgepole,
it’s kicking a hole in the siding. To knock
sense into Joseph’s head? Or show it’s
raring to go? Maybe left by a Wise Man
after he informed on the king. But—
shouldn’t it be a donkey? A minor mistake.
Thank God for its headstrong headful
of a stall somewhere Herod never heard of.
NOELING IN THE HOOSEGOW
for Gladys Egdahl
When the church burned down
that December, town hall had to serve.
Rose pumped an old foot-organ so hard
she pounded the floor
above the heads of the drunks
in the lock-up below.
She meant it, was fiercely in favor
but not of how
when God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
ended, it didn’t
in the underworld,
accompanied by banging and jangling
of bars, slurring
into Away In A Manger off key
softly, until Rose played along.
This time she did her pumping gently.
I said it was wise men. No one said no.
THE REVEREND ROBERT WALKER
on Duddingston Loch at sunset
in black—black top hat and frock coat,
britches, garters, stockings, skating shoes
black. Except for pink laces
and the flush on his face, slightly deeper
at the ears,
he is black as his Advent sermon.
Oh yes, his scarf is white. And if I say the ice
is black, I mean it’s not, is in fact
a window for fish.
The Reverend has turned his back on the sky
between the hills, which is the color of his ears.
His right leg is raised, extends behind him
like the long tail feathers of some exotic bird.
He is leaning into the wind,
leading with the sharpened blade of his nose,
arms wrapped one inside the other.
Or so Sir Henry Raeburn, R.A., did him
in oils, c. 1794.
Those fine cross-hatchings on the Loch
are not from all the Reverend’s parishioners
celebrating after service, skating up a storm,
for the hills and the sky seem no less
It’s Time. As surely as ice, oils crack.
Nor is the clerical top hat what it was. Look
closely. You’ll find the ghost of its earlier brim,
painted out imperfectly, is aimed low
as if a moment ago the vicar was searching
for a flashy trout.
He has, it appears, raised his sights
to the deepening blue of night, or something
more distant. He dedicates a miracle
to it, no major miracle, mind you, but still
he makes his turn (notice the sliver of ice
kicked up by the heel of his skate),
has all but completed the figure 6
he means to raise
to an 8.