Christmas Cards, Ellen Jeanne Archer

Marilyn Higginson, Corn Stubble, Oil on Wrapped Canvas, 30 X 40

Christmas Cards


The smell of gingerbread and Christmas tree was everywhere.
I lay writing happy cards, Hallmark thoughts to oblivious friends.
Your body rigid next to mine, knees almost at your chest.
I wished I could appease you, please you, shout you back to kindness.

Surely that love was still there somewhere. I tried to slide the card from
underneath your toes.
Did this trigger your explosion?
Or was it the echo of some fleeting impulse, a shattered shell we held between us.

Berating me for all I’d done or not done.
I made it to the door outside our bedroom.
You were as close as love. Or maybe hate is closer.
Forcing the door open, your hand came at me,

a flash of gold and onyx, the ring I’d given you,
the cold edge caught my eye.
     And then: gone, the front door slamming, my daughter’s feet approaching me.
Appalled by my broken face, her tears like the lights on the tree
I lay still on the parquet floor, inhaled her scent of soap and powder.
I lied the lie that came to dominate our lives.
And she believed me, of course she did.

The pile of cards scattered on the floor.
The guilty card from under you shone up at me:

deep blue sky, a sled of laughing children, joyfully
leaving a dark house behind, greeting the moonlit snow.

Ellen Jeanne Archer

Review by Michael T. Young

This poem is complex in its emotions and interesting in its music. The pain is almost distracting from the subtlety of its internal rhymes and assonance. The long O’s that move through toes/explosion/echo or the slant internal rhymes that move through berating/made/hate. Though, I would say, the musical subtlety plays up the multiple layers of how we lie to each other and ourselves when in an abusive relationship. It resonates with my childhood experience when my stepfather cheated on my mother. I remember the lies my mother told herself and I wanted to believe with her. This poem powerfully and masterfully conjures that through the artificiality of the Hallmark cards we send on holidays, those “happy thoughts” to “oblivious friends.” Though that obliviousness infects both self and other, as the mother’s relationship with her daughter too is taken in by it, “I lied the lie that came to dominate our lives./And she believed me, of course she did.”

That “of course she did,” is brilliant. It’s ambiguous in a perfect way because it could be read as a self-awareness that undercuts the whole. This allows us to see there is an effort in the self-deception, like the irony in Bishop’s “One Art.” The cognitive dissonance is present and so the belief must be enforced. And the irony of the ending, the image promising the possibility of “leaving a dark house behind,” and the context of the lie wrapping the whole and making it all a Hallmark fantasy. We want so much to believe in the goodness of those we come to love in spite of ourselves and of them. And we want to believe we can leave those dark places behind, but many times we are trapped in a fantasy of denial. This is such a powerful poem.

Review by Thomas Piekarski

“All you need is love” sang the Beatles. “Love changes everything” wrote Andrew Lloyd Weber. “Love makes the world go round” a timeless expression. But how true are these statements? Does love do as much harm as good? Certainly love is akin to divinity. The Christian God, the Islamic God and others are adulated and prayed to as givers of love and thereby meaning in life.

Love can’t be manufactured. It can’t be disposed of like a used soup can. It comes and goes like the wind. It can be liberating, lifting the human spirit to dizzying heights. But it also carries an awesome burden. It can go seriously wrong and yet maintain magnetic power. It can cause as much pain and suffering as it does pleasure. Ellen Jeanne Archer’s “Christmas Card” exemplifies this tragic consequence.

Christmas is a time of year when the proliferation of love is like a shot heard round the world. It is a time of joy. And yet, in Archer’s case the opposite effect is in play. Her love is in a flux. She wants to feel it in her heart, but instead feels only “Your rigid body next to mine, knees almost at your chest.” She attempts to slide a Christmas card from beneath her husband’s feet and experiences an explosion, a spontaneous outburst of vitriol and loathing. This awful juxtaposition of season cheer and violent hatred is utterly shocking.

And then he beats her, leaves her bruised. She lay on the floor, mortified, as her daughter cries at the sight. Archer observes “I lied the lie that came to dominate our lives.” The husband leaves the house, while she and her daughter remain amid the Christmas tree, cards and broken dreams, victim’s of love’s dark side, the side that can ensnare and smash the human spirit to bits.

We have all known betrayal at varying times and to various degrees. But when it is expressed with such poignancy as Archer does in this poem, we recognize the authority that art has to lift us to a higher understanding. The adverse consequences of love are here laid bare, raw, for readers to witness, observe, deeply feel.

Review by Jared Pearce

What strikes me here is the move from the cliched sense of Christmasness—with its gingerbread, trees, and cards to the oblivious friends—that snaps into violence, loneliness, and devastation. It’s that contrast that makes this poem wonderful, even if that wonderfulness is, as Yeats says, a terrible beauty. And while I do think there’s a risk in outlaying too much of that general Christmas glibness early on, by the time I get to the line, “I lied the lid that came to dominate our lives,” I’m totally pulled into the poem’s world. The sounds and scene in that line, the total devastation of the speaker and the ramifications of the speaker’s, daughter’s, and husband’s choices and actions all hit in that line that punches so meaningfully the tangle our lives can become as we move between real-life loneliness and kitschy holidays.


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