What Child

December 19, 2022

The car door clatters open
with rushing tunnel sounds
and before it can close, he’s begun,
the subway violin Greensleeves man.

He starts the same as every year,
arcs his way up those first four notes
sweetly enough, sweeps the trapped
passengers to his purpose: What child is this—

but, as always, he holds that this,
a menacing fermata: it sours
in ragged crescendo before the flip
as he drives back down the scale

and up again, too fast, the same minor-key
coaster he rides amid these tight-scarved,
buttoned-up commuters each December. We
all have noticed him now: hair greased back,

tattooed bulges wrap lean arms and rags
enfold his punk-rock angled limbs
as he sways, incessant, hard, wincing,
meeting no one’s gaze. A light pouch dangles

by its drawstrings from his slashing bow’s frog;
each downward jab defies donation
until he finishes. One year I dropped him a dollar:
his grimace and “thanks” dripped acid.

He does play well, I’ve thought, as he traces
that resinous darkness, descended of Tudor
plaster and candlelight, with tonal warmth reset
to his own manic pace. Again, he holds

on whom angels greet—and knows
no angels ride this train. Seraphs
shield their eyes. It’s unclear
why he does this, curdling a yuletide

tune each year, then marching down
the train, car doors clattering
and mothers exhaling in his wake,
asking us, what child is this,

what star have we missed, what
stable birth, what cattle’s low, and who
will greet, in a midnight sky’s bright stillness,
with peace, goodwill, to him?

 

This poem is part of a liturgical poetry cycle he wrote while serving as poet in residence at Trinity Lower East Side Lutheran Parish.