February 22, 2017KR OnlinePoetry

Six Sundays toward a Seventh (21 February-3 April, 1988)

From the Kenyon Review, New Series, Autumn, 1989, Vol. XI, No. 4

If during meditation our thoughts move to persons
who are near to us or to those we are concerned about, then let them
linger there.
     —Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Meditating on the Word

1.
Do not trust in these deceptive words:

‘This is the temple of the Lord,
The temple of the Lord . . .’

First Lenten Sunday, and the Jeremiad

Reduces us to heretics,
Quite properly: the temple draws us inward
Yet again. “Quebec Express”

—The wind along our glacial reach of river—
Penetrates through nailholes, sockets.
The fellowship, however, gathers.

Till service starts, we throw clichss at winter,
Chatting to unlock it,
Warm ourselves. The litany assures,

Its scope so narrow:
Oh yes, we say and pray, they’ll all be here.
Jonquils; jobs; the chanting thrush; the sparrow . . .

Blooms and babies, issues of the town.
How spring will nap the lawns.
Someone’s good news to celebrate—

Remission. Calm. Some novel revenue
To keep the school afloat:
“Revenue,” says Blaise: “The coming back.”

It’s not such puns nor platitudes that soothe
But how they do come back.
Not peace, we’re warned. A sword.

Not, thus, to trust in children, flowers, birds?
Nor mist all raiment soft on open water?
And not these words, nor pungency of lumber

That fell, before last fall, before the blade?
It isn’t them we trust in any case
But their return, as sure as ours.

The season’s myth declines to death,
And yet again, again, we park our cars
And move inside to speak our faith.

—Jeremiah 7:4
—Matthew 10:34

 

2
February—winter! lightning! thunder!

Blotched with passion, his girlish fingers
Clenched the wood on the back of the bench before him:
Flood made us late. We straggled in and saw him.

Stranger than Sunday’s storm, this praying stranger
Who, when at last he straightened, turned to observe us,
It grew more rude than odd, his manner:

Jane, who bakes for Communion Service,
He reckoned over-dressed. He looked askance.
But he wrinkled his nose as well at the threadbare suit

Of Harley, everyone’s friend, and his callused hands.
He scowled at Vernon the deacon, storekeeper, farmer,
Huge in gumboots—feisty, hirsute,

With a voice to front this freakish thunder.
Lightning galloped, insistent; untimely, rain
Smote the clerestory’s stained memorial panes

For Ed—our late and moderate moderator.
God love us, a person might think, if this were The Christ,
Returned as it says he means to return.

The hymn begun, the voice of the guest
Had doubtless heft. (It soared in fact over Vernon’s.)
Ended, polite, we asked him to make himself known.

He named no name. He said, instead: “I present you
The text of the morning: Even the dust of your town
That clings to our feet we wipe off against you
. . .”

And “I saw Satan fall like lightning
From heaven
.” The wanderer rose with that, departed.
        “And we let the bastard preach, by God Almighty!”

So Vernon swears, as we talk on Monday about it,
Though surely he knows that ours is a common anger.
In fury, he flings his goods on the shelves:

He can’t think surely that I will differ
In wrath at such an intruder—troublemaker!—
On us who love our neighbors, as much as ourselves.

—Luke: 10:11
— ____ 10:17
— ____ 10:28

 

3
In cold what we see are the parson’s wraithy breaths:

There are some standing here who will not taste death
Before they see His kingdom come with power.
            . . . Jesus took with him Peter

And James and John and led them up a mountain
—Where is the heat?—and he was transfigured before them.
            I think of John my brother,

Distorting Scripture. We all should huddle together.
The frozen organ flats as a spirit might do.
            I mumble: “I took with me two . . .,”

Blaspheming. One was John, and Blaise the other.
We three crossed a mountain and down to a river.
            In that photograph of Montana:

Around my John, transforming him, an aura.
The light is low, it’s near the fall, it’s evening.
            Upstream he stands, feasting

On trout from an iron skillet, head and all.
That inchoate pattern on the scarp’s bronze wall—
            A handful of geese inscribing

Its mene, mene, tekel and parsin. Departing.
So many, the things of this world. I took up the camera.
            The river ceaselessly yammered.

We heard coyotes at gossip, and bugling elk.
And there was something else that Blaise and I felt
            More than we saw, as John,

With his fish and some wine, profane in the dying sun,
Feasted and drank and gloried in gold and silver,
            Standing there upriver.

World: bronze, iron, wood and stone.
Blaise, and I, and all of these, and John,
            And the heat of the breath that was coming,

As we shivered together there, and a greater something.
A bear coughed, sudden, near, unseen overhead.
And we shivered, standing there, with awe, undead.

—Mark 9:1-2
—Daniel 5:23-26

 

4
Locked though we were in our own sick, aching flesh,

All night we tended our newborn as she squalled.
My eyes open hot. The whited chains of drool
Fasten her milk-blistered pout to my wife’s left breast.

I see no Madonna and Child but woman with daughter,
Bound—or is it released?—in consciouslessness.
I make my hobbling, pedestrian rounds to the others:

Each child, however the mean dark’s trials were protracted,
Is set in peace in the body now, it appears.
I could if I would fix all in a picture, and call it

Free and Serene. I teeter in front of a chair,
Inclined as I am at once to surrender and fight,
Blessing and cursing lame joints, simooms of breath.

In a cupboard, caffeine—a drug precisely right
Or wrong. My thick-boned hand is a quake on the shelf.
Inside, outside, upward, downward, death.

A Redpoll, one of the daily many misguided,
Has struck a pane. The twitch of its remnant talons:
Sad as spastic’s dancing. There beside it,

A blood-mustachio’d cat now contemplates,
Lion-lazy and -lordly, tenantless space.
What can it see in such air, as dim as dungeons’?

False spring’s ice has flayed our Flowering Crab.
Daniel asserts: He rescues and delivers.
So, at the service this morning, it will be read;

Well, let them read, how his God works signs and wonders,
On heaven and earth
. At home I rest unassured,
And side with that side of Paul the Letter-Writer,

Late out of prison, which claims he would depart,
Claims he would be with Christ, for that is far better. . . .
Shut in self-pity, I’d disregard how he added,

To be in the flesh is more needful on your account;
Or how Jesus chided a lame one, Take up your pallet,
Breaking the Sabbath, commending our worldly rounds.

—Daniel 6:27
—Philippians 1:23-24

 

5
Guy and Robert do it the older way:

Single pails, draft horse and sleigh.
No garish plastic tubing. No four-wheel drive.
Fifth Lenten Sabbath—a sugaring day.

By your endurance you will gain your lives.
Last night’s chill moon, blue stars and blasts of aurora
Seemed wonders in darkness, powers.

But we’re not yet there. The morning’s fair.
Robert and Guy, with Joli, their great blond gelding,
Slave in the damp corned snow.

Slave.” That shouldn’t be the word,
Since lo, these generations ago,

Uprose the maple trade against manumission—
Brute harvests of cane
By blacks on steaming southern plantations.

How might so white a March be further from that?
(Oh yes, there’s the steam,
In plumes above the infernal sugar shack,

And shimmering over the frames of the men and Joli.)
No one should live like a beast . . .
A new dawn’s breaking, and we’re enjoined to be ready,

Lest that day come upon you suddenly.
I think of the trees,
Of acid winging in on rain from the west,

Coming in a cloud. Can it be a sign?
The maples persist in sweetness,
And Guy and Robert in archaic business,

And there will be signs in stars and sun and moon.
Saint Paul ponders the doom of those
With minds set on earthly things,

And our pastor recites the warnings of Luke 21.
What is the part of these laborers in snow?
The Day may be coming soon, but until then . . .

—Luke 21
—Philippians 3:19

 

6
The shroud of white is leaching from

The village common. The ragged humble return
To aim their Geiger counters over mud.
What has frost thrown up?

Keys to no door, bent coins, drained cans
And foil—aluminum:
Bright as angels, devoid of value,

History-less. Still Jim and Mickey wave.
Their women smoke in a relic GMC . . .
At church now Harley reads

The proper Scripture, smoothing out the page:
You’ll always have them with you,
The poor, deluded Mickeys, Jims,

The whey-faced wives . . . who might be better off,
I’ve thought, if they could sit among us here.
Alone in awkward prayer

—In which I name whatever haunts me Love—
Can I invite them in:
The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

The Palms of welcome lie on the spotless altar,
Limp. Ride On, Ride On, In Majesty;
Let this cup pass from me

In mind, the song and Gospel swim together
As silly clicks and beeps
Outside suggest some other find,

Unblessed. Three times I’ve passed these common seekers:
Once, as I rode down to buy the Times,
Again on my way home,

And last arriving here, a week from Easter—
Passed them as if blind
In study of corrupted masks of snow.

I will strike the shepherd, the sheep will be scattered
.
So was it prophesied.
And as he spoke the cock began to crow.

—Matthew 26

 

7
Still dark when we filed like children out on the turf.

Our hymn is For the Beauty of the Earth.
Irony scourges. Is that how grown-ups atone?
The apostate, Jack, is back with us. It’s cancer.

We gathered, we few others, by the river
For other reasons, whatever. Wherever’s the sun?
Sunrise Service. Easter. Ice on the waters.

In the flow, among black limbs, a jug bobs past us,
Empty, thrown perhaps by a drunken angler
Who’d waited through last fall but never caught him,

The fish he’d prayed for, childlike—unseeable, awesome.
We here know life is hard but for some promise.
We murmur For the Love which from our birth. . . .

Debris, relentless, eddies down from north.
I imagine the fisherman, grown more doubtful than Thomas:
One dusk he flung away the jug, the dream.

Over and around us lies, we sing.
Is that a Christmas present, still in its carton?
We have mouthed the store-bought dough, the bitter wine.

They are real enough, the wounds we’ve seen.
Last Wednesday, shocked, we buried redoubtable Vernon.
We’d all feel different, maybe, in different weather.

It would seem somehow less willed, this banding together.
We have left undone the things we ought to have done,
And the other way round. Jane’s at the clinic. Neurosis.

Harley’s halt again. Accursed phlebitis.
Flotsam—fragmented story—drifts and spins.
What was it that the Samaritan woman said?

A man who told me all I ever did.
The pastor opened by reading about her from John.
Lazarus too. And the blind man’s pool at Siloam.

As a fish-eye sun slides open over the mountain,
Our children strain to break from us and play.
We end with This our hymn of grateful praise.

—John 4:29
—_____ 20:25
—_____ 11
—_____ 9

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Sydney Lea , founder and longtime editor of New England Review, was Vermont poet laureate from 2011-2015. A former Pulitzer finalist, he has published twelve volumes of poetry, most recently No Doubt the Nameless. Lea is also author of the novel A Place in Mind and four nonfiction titles, most recently What's the Story? Reflections on a Life Grown Long. He recently chaired a successful campaign to conserve 400,000 acres of land in Maine.