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Poetry Moment: 'The Road to Bethlehem', by Mia Grogan

This is poetry moment on WPSU – a weekly program featuring the work of contemporary Pennsylvania poets. Your host is poet Marjorie Maddox, a 2023 Monson Arts Fellow, author of 20 books, and professor of English and creative writing at the Lock Haven campus of Commonwealth University.

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“O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Away in a Manager,” and “Joy to the World.” More likely than not, you’ve heard these hopeful Christmas carols as soon as you finished Thanksgiving leftovers. But what about Joseph’s and the pregnant Mary’s long census journey of nearly 100 miles to the same small town? Not as many songs about that. In today’s poem, “The Road to Bethlehem,” Mia Schilling Grogan draws connections between landscape, uncertainty, and ancient and contemporary worlds.
Mia Schilling Grogan teaches English at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, the city she has called home since 1997. Her poems have appeared in journals including America and Presence.  In 2023, she won third place in the Catholic Literary Arts Sacred Poetry Contest, a Laureate’s Choice award in the Maria Faust Sonnet Contest, and an Honorable Mention in the Fare Forward Poetry Competition.

On this Christmas day, amidst global turmoil, the poet comments, “The road to Bethlehem seems long this year.” Today’s poem was inspired by German artist Fritz von Uhde’s 1890 painting Hard Road or The Transition to Bethlehem. Grogan uses the poetic form of the villanelle—with its repeating lines—to underscore our desire to be consoled in a world scarred by loss. Explains Grogan, “I link this road to Bethlehem with its “nightmare version”... images coming out of the Ukraine. . . similar rural roads destroyed by war.” This includes, she adds, the besieged towns of Bucha and Bakhmut.

Here’s “The Road to Bethlehem” by Mia Schilling Grogan

The road to Bethlehem seems long this year,
so damp and muddy, the air wet and cold.
In any time, the way ahead’s unclear

but these days mist hangs in the trees, austere
and ghostly, signifying death. We’re told
the road to Bethlehem seems long this year

because the planet’s changing. Yes, severe
weather slows us. And worry for the world,
in any time, weighs heavily. That’s clear

today when war is fought in landscapes we’re
familiar with – the trees, the light unspooled
on a road in Bucha, looking just this year

like von Uhde’s village road -- the nightmare
version. Walking towards some yearned for threshold
in our time, the way ahead unclear,

takes courage. We lean on each other, peer
at distant light, and choose to be consoled.
The road to Bethlehem seems long this year,
but in any time, the way ahead’s unclear.


That was “The Road to Bethlehem” by Mia Schilling Grogan.

Listen for Poetry Moment with Marjorie Maddox Mondays during Morning Edition and All Things Considered on WPSU. You can more episodes at moment.

Our theme music is by Eric Ian Farmer.

Marjorie Maddox is the host of WPSU's Poetry Moment for the 2023-24 season. She has been a professor of English and creative writing since 1990 at the Lock Haven campus of Commonwealth University.