Associations with December: too many. I will economize on my reflections. My birthday is in December, as is that of my good friend, writer and elementary school teacher Elizabeth Cullen, as well as historical and hysterical compadre José Sinatra. In all our cases, it may be one of those birthdays one wishes ignored, unacknowledged — certainly when someone tosses an innocent “Happy Birthday” in your direction or sends you a gag card about erectile dysfunction. In that case, the temptation to test your right hook is fought down with a constipated grin and a good-natured chuck on your amigo’s arm, which will inevitably (unintentionally, of course) fall too harshly on your riotous buddy.
Oddly, one of my first thoughts concerning this month gravitates toward Robert Frost. Cornball, if you like, but to avoid him in the pantheon of poets would be a grievous error. I am chagrined to say that I have no work of his at hand from which to quote (in storage, surely it must be there), but I recall something he wrote: “A poem must be like a cake of ice on a stove, riding on its own melting.” This, to me, is the essence of December, a celebratory time but subject to pool into the muck of January.
Ah, Ms. Cullen just called with the quote from Frost I was thinking of. Familiar, no doubt, it reads, “Whose woods these are I think I know.… He will not see me stopping here. To watch his woods fill up with snow.”
Why this passage is so closely associated in my mind with December is a simple matter, but I cannot identify it any more than I can identify why I associate Miles Davis with other planets.
To T.S. Elliott, April was and is the cruelest month. I know what he meant, but his words — maybe minus the second line (I am no gardener and have no knowledge of lilacs other than the ones that blossomed outside my grandmother’s window — in winter, too, as I recall. Maybe not.) Tom Elliott wrote that, “April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.”
I do have Elliott, Richard Hugo, Robinson Jeffers, and Stephen Dobyns; but as I leaf through the works of these poets, I find myself distracted and discover that 45 minutes have gone by before I again focus on the work at hand. But there it is: one undeniable association with December and Christmas gifts. I come from a large family, and many of my siblings have their birthdays this month, so I combine birthday gifts with Christmas. Historically, with books. Books were easy — I worked in bookstores and I received a 40 percent discount. It took me years to learn that the books I had sent home were unread and gathering dust, spines uncracked. Poetry went over like the gift of a brand new Catholic school garment, a bow tie, or a Chia Pet.
Between Thanksgiving, birthdays, Christmas, and New Year’s, one can become a hopeless sentimentalist, a bitter cynic, or a career alcoholic. Which brings to mind another line from another poet (you may argue this), a line neither profound nor astounding in any way, in fact, supremely mundane: “Gotta get through January, Gotta get through February.…” It is from the song “Fire in the Belly,” from Van Morrison’s Healing Game album. Those words have resonated with me for almost 15 years. They replay, recur, reprise like a mantra starting about this time of year. I would like to say that December is a poetic month for me in the same way that many people compare the “Merry, merry month of May” to walking in the park, optimism, and joy. But I’d be lying.