1. Before the Beginning

Here, the men in the temple fail to see
as the angel sails shepherdwise, heading
for the childless disgrace that is Joachim.

Driven away by fathers, he’s wandered
into the wilderness of animals,
has prepared himself for sacrifice. Then

sudden rapture strikes the pair, a message
pointed toward its being—is before now—
in two panels: a conception. God in

the house, God in the field, Mary lying—
perfect fledgling—already underneath
the brown wings of Anna’s robes as she waits

at the door of the city wall for his
arrival. Bent a bit, squinting in sun,
she’s feeling her age. Face blank as the walls

where centuries of repair have altered
some figures, dropped full panels clean away,
expunged chapter and verse, whole histories,

she lingers on that threshold, above her
an arch retracing the drapery of her
hood. They will hardly be remembered, though

the touch of their hands at Joachim’s return
marks the miraculous start: the fine lines
of text beneath their reunion scene might

have recorded that in the beginning
redemption cost shame. And look, here they fade,
their forms crumbling in the clay-colored smear

of water damage in the corner scene,
the frame in which they release the prized child
to a temple priest, who reaches for her,

the little body tight as a coffin,
her parents backstory for the girl, who
lifts her arms, in flight to her commencement.

2. Joseph in Purple

Here, an anvil replaces his blooming
rod and carpenter’s saw, and he pounds out
the head of an adze for timber framing

on that block while Mary instructs her son
on the other side of a wall. How does
he fit into this? Outside the border

of that couple—forever Madonna
and child—even before the birth, a few
scenes back, after he guides her to their home,

knowing what she houses. Her angel knelt
to whisper doves into her perfect ear,
but his dives at him from behind when he

dares to appear in her rooms. How could he
enter, break through that immaculate frame?
Always a space is between them, the gap

into which her body will grow, her blood
shaping divine to human. Yet even
here an aura circles him, intact, who

has thrown back his purple sleeves—the royal
lineage is his—to fashion the tools that
connect wooden beams. Doorways and uprights.

Tenon and mortise. What the Romans do.
It will be his last gift, to make that cross-
piece hold fast to hold the body, father

him into that death as he has fathered
his own into their lives. And here, in his
final appearance, he joins with her to

admonish the boy they thought lost, their hands
framing the child who looks up in wonder
at Mary’s face. Unseen, Joseph cradles

the thin elbows while he bends toward his wife,
their haloes crossing for the first time as
they bow to speak, almost becoming one.

3. Mary Wearing Stars

Here, she stops before she enters their home,
hands stretched out, either pushing or pulling,
it’s hard to say: she’s telling her parents

goodbye. Her new husband waits, leaning hard
on his staff, but she flutters. A town is
piled up in the distance. In judgment, she

thinks. A crowd could be coming to throw stones,
if Joseph were not standing here, taking
her part, despite the whispers about her.

He is much too old for her, really, old
enough to be her father, but who else
would marry a woman who clearly shows

the child she carries? And so she will go
in, where she kneels in perfect solitude
while a fierce little angel preys on poor

Joseph, who flees. The sliver of her dress,
a streak of light beneath the heavy pleats
of her ever-blue robe, reveals its faint

pattern of scattered stars: she’s marked, even
now, for the skies. But her face is faded,
and there’s no telling what direction she’s

looking: her family in the panel
toward which she gazes, her decorative frame,
the man in the other room, who’s being

hounded out the door? He’ll return to help
with her son, for a while, but he’s under
erasure already, and so she seems

to brood—to see some trace of world beyond
word—on those scenes of her listening, younger
self, to defer for another moment

the next step, birth, the mortal wound, a lull
between acts, that will finally wing her
into the silent space of that dark vault.