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Bethlehem: a Christmas poem, By Carol Ann Duffy: Book review

The Nativity is sensuously captured by the Poet Laureate

All sorts of authors feel drawn to write poems for Christmas – even the most unlikely. Who, for instance, imagined a maid-servant at an inn as she looked back 30 years to a poor travelling couple, the woman almost due, dumped in the "barn" outside? "I mind my eyes were full of tears,/ For I was young, and quick distressed,/ But she was less than me in years/ That held a son against her breast"? The answer, improbably enough, is Dorothy Parker: witty, cynical, ribald, irreverent. But not here.

It's notable, nonetheless, that Christmas lyrics by modern poets tend to embody the hope for a miracle of incarnation rather than the faith that it has happened. Even TS Eliot, a sort of devotional poet, has his bemused wise men in "Journey of the Magi" reflect that they had "evidence and no doubt" about a Birth but still suffer doubt and dread because it feels "like Death, our death". More overtly agnostic, Thomas Hardy ends "The Oxen" with a summons to see the cattle bowing to the saviour answered, merely "Hoping it might be so". Like a cracked bell, the refrain "And is it true? And is it true?" runs through John Betjeman's "Christmas".

The current Poet Laureate has written seasonal lyrics before as the texts for touchingly illustrated little gift books, most recently The Christmas Truce. In Bethlehem, she more or less follows the Gospel accounts (or rather, the passages in Luke and Matthew that have merged into the "traditional" Christmas story). As always, and aided by Alice Stevenson's delightful visuals, Carol Ann Duffy relishes the sensual texture of the settings with the beasts "jostling for hay in the fusty gloom" of the stable and the raucous hubbub of the no-vacancies inn, as "travellers boozed, bawled, bragged, swapping their caravan tales".

The moment of the nativity, however, fragments into rumours and reports, as "some swore, on their lives" that "the moon stooped low to gape at the world". Beyond these possibly supernatural portents, we reach "what's certain" about the disputed events: "animals, goatherd, shepherds, innkeeper, wife… then the small, raw cry of a new life". Bowing to a literary tradition of her own, Duffy lets us see that interpretations differ, but that the birth-cry is true: "one wept at a miracle; another was hoping it might be so". Believers, doubters – and hopers – will all enjoy this gift.

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