Self-portrait as a Southern Baptist prayer altar
A poem about religion
I’m plain wood, nothing ornate,
these planks could have come from apple carts,
these nails from your father’s tool box,
left from that summer he planned to restore
the deck, but didn’t get around to it.
I’m a place for tears to splash,
collecting in pools with snot
and rabid prayer slobber
on my glossy brown paint,
left from children or grown fools,
desperate to stay out of Hell,
their clasped hands now knotted ropes
tied to an anchor of nothingness.
I’m there, like a well without water
that begs the dehydrated to drink.
I’ll convince you that the voice in your head
is the voice of God, that intuition
or fear is a spirit that moves across your heart
like an undulating beam from a lighthouse.
Come to me. Can’t you feel the flames
licking the soles of your feet?
Can’t you feel the burden of accountability
engulfing your ribcage tabernacle
like a star destined for collapse?
Place that weight on these slender boards,
this meager skeleton has held lifetimes,
is the acorn continually nourished
into not becoming a tree,
while the clouds feel reborn after rain.
My grandfather never needed me.
He found God on the dirt floor of a barn,
pushed to his knees by the voices
of the boll weevils, the chants of the pill bugs,
the mutterings of the pigeons and the doves
in the loft, where the light filled with dust
and the sounds of their wings beating their bodies
was like a congregation of angels
trapped on Earth, where the sun was small
enough to be obscured by a thumb.
How many times I heard him ask forgiveness,
his hands trembling like they did
when I would watch him bait a hook,
how they must have trembled when lifted
from the dirty ground of that barn,
his voice a piece of foil shaking like a leaf
on a winter limb, rocking on his feet
as if he could fall, but finding endless reserves
of strength. This man, whom I had seen
sacrifice his best years to the thrum
of wheels on pitted highways,
who wore plain leather work shoes
every day except Sunday, whom I had seen
sweat his shirt through mowing that ridiculous yard,
tilling the garden, who put his hat on my head
and offered me chewing tobacco with a grin,
this man begged the forgiveness of his church,
of his family, said he had failed them,
had failed in the sight of the Lord.
I’ve lived in this house since before you were born.
Before the mortar was dry between the bricks,
I’ve sat here listening for the voice of the Lord.
The carpet beneath my feet has settled into permanence.
I’ve heard spiders walking in the corners of the pews.
I’ve listened to the leaves wrestling the gusty ghost of a storm.
The wasps in the windows pluck at the metal screen like a harp.
It’s music, but it is not the voice of the Lord.
Birds and squirrels jump from the gutters, scamper across the roof.
I’ve heard the little pads of lizard feet tickling the cracks
of the foundation. On Sunday, the children laugh outside,
and they cry inside, hushed by motherly scorn.
There’s singing. Always singing. Someone blows a note
on a pitch pipe. The songs bring chills, Amazing Grace,
but they are not the voice of the Lord.
The minister reads from his book, I can hear him thumb
through the pages, the papery whisk of page upon page.
He shouts down from the pulpit, lets his spittle fly,
slaps his palm on the cover of his Bible,
stomps his feet like Elvis with a tome instead of a microphone,
the audience shifts and squeaks in their hard wooden seats.
But they do not hear the voice of the Lord.
There are prayers and Amens. A weeping confession or two.
Someone blows a note through their nose.
Footsteps shuffle as the collection plate is passed,
I hear the change rattle loosely in the brass-plated tin,
the crisp friction as the bills unfold,
and then another song, more footsteps, and the door is closed.
Where was the voice of the Lord?
I’ve heard the rain blown like pebbles against the glass,
the thunder crashing like a sky torn apart.
I’ve heard the quiet sifting of snow through the branches,
the creak of cold wood, thumps of accumulation dropping
from the eaves. I’ve heard the breeze whistling through a keyhole.
I’ve heard the loneliest starling crying from her empty nest.
I’ve heard a husband kiss his bride for the first time and the last,
heard a mother weep for the loss of her first born.
But I still have yet to hear the voice of the Lord.
Every living thing is reincarnated as an inanimate object.
I never thought I’d see myself as something other
than a hollow amplifier for whimpering,
a dark respite for faces hidden in cradled arms.
Yet, here I am, swelling in the sun,
watching some children play,
kicking their feet into the sky.
Here I am, a place for lovers to hold hands,
to rest in the hypnotic wake
of sunlight’s ripples on the water.
There’s a man here every Tuesday.
He brings a book of poetry.
When he reads out loud, to himself,
I think I’ve found the voice inside myself,
the voice I lost to the listening,
that part of the multitudes’ humming
one perfect note beneath the surface.
First appeared in Snapping Twig.