The Beasts of Bethlehem by Joseph Charles Kennedy

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The American poet Joseph C. Kennedy adopted the pseudonym X. J. Kennedy to separate himself from from the family of Kennedys active in politics in his native Massachusetts. He has written nearly three dozen books of poetry for adults and children, published essays and novels, and compiled anthologies of verse for children as well as college literature textbooks.

The Beasts of Bethlehem comprises nineteen poems spoken by mammals, birds, and insects that Kennedy places in the stable on the night of Jesus’ birth. In keeping with the folktale that holds that the animals could speak on the night Christ was born, each creature voices its individual reaction to the birth. This enables children to engage in the story of the Nativity through the eyes and voices of the creatures who were there. Some of the creatures are benign or even prey, and others are predators who stop their killing for just this night. All are given the opportunity to ponder the mystery of Jesus’ birth and to apply it in some way to their own lives, thus mirroring the experience of Christians.

Kennedy maintains that poetry for children should be intellectually challenging, use language in vivid and memorable ways, and present a means through which children can grasp the relationship of form to meaning. He favors iambic meter, rhyme, and stanzaic variety: twelve poems are rhymed couplets, one is rhyming quatrains, one is unrhymed, and the remainder are cinquains (five lines) or sestets (six lines) with no consistent rhyming patterns. The shortness of the verses with their rhyme and meter or wordplay permit easy memorization, another attribute Kennedy asserts should be present in poetry for younger readers.

Kennedy, who feels that teachers and poets often downplay children’s ability to understand complexities, uses irony, puns, and paradox to emphasize the magnitude of God becoming a person. For example, in “The Bat,” the bat speculates that its part in the stable is to eat the mosquitoes that might bite the infant Jesus. In “The Mosquito,” the insect counters with the epigram: “Who but a blind bat swaddled in his wings/ Could dream that I might bite the King of Kings?” Here Kennedy plays off the idiom “blind as a bat” to challenge the bat’s sense that the mosquito is only out to harm and has no judgment or sense of right and wrong.

The first speaker in the book is the cow, which, like the donkey who is the last to speak, is said to have warmed the baby with his breath. Other beasts not usually considered in the Nativity story but given voice here are the snail, the hawk, the ant, the goat, the worm, and the beetle. These other animals help complete the portrait that all creation was present at the moment of Jesus’ birth and also encourage the reader to think beyond the limits of the Gospel narratives when it comes to the inhabitants of the stable.

A central theme in each beast’s poem is the paradox that the birth of Christ presents. The cow, for instance, contemplates how small the baby is compared with the size of his mission on Earth. The owl, accustomed to praise for its proverbial wisdom, wonders why this child is the one that people and animals will revere. The horse, though given the chance to speak, is dumbstruck with awe. The camel’s poem, divided into a sestet and a quatrain, tells how he and his rider, Gaspar, one of the three kings, followed the star to the stable, and the camel ponders how this infant will bring an end to Christian longing. The camel’s sentiments reappear in the words of the ant and the hummingbird. The sheep, which warms people with its wool, humbly asks, “Who cares/ What sheep think of the Lamb of God?” Like the disciples, the sheep promises to watch over the baby faithfully and says that it will be happy knowing that Jesus will know of its love for him, even if no one else does. Similarly, the snail and the hen offer their gifts of comfort, despite the opinions of people about their relative worth.

With the...

(The entire section is 1,160 words.)