No God in Us but Song

Ruffs are optional for trebles in Anglican church choirs.
— Wikipedia

Bored in the balcony reading your novel
hoping it will keep me awake — 
religion was always a blind spot — 
with my Sunday headache waiting for the service
to finish so I can retrieve my little chorister,
no god in us but song, while

pale important teenage Sophia
in blue head chorister ribbon,
face dumpy as a Flemish burgomaster,
bosses littler kids and loves

leading them expressionless
in paired rows from the choir stalls,
holding the processional cross high,
shushing and huffily eyeing them
for babyish disregard of cleanly neatness,

my own chorister dripping orts of tissues
she stows in her sleeves for sniffles,
in the choir room struggles
out of her ruff ringed dark brown inside
from years of child chorister sweat, hair oil, dead skin.

Me: Your other ruff was white and clean!
Her: Sophia said it was too big.
She gave me this one instead. I showed her
it was dirty and tight. She said "deal with it."
I think Sophia changed since she went to high school.

Service over, ruffs and black robes
dangling awry from a clutter of hangers,
restored to bright colors the kids bang
out swinging doors to shout among gravestones,
delicate stems of ruffless necks
bare to autumn sun, leaves hurrying out of trees,

leaving Sophia alone striving with their robes,
sighing out her burdens in a way
she could only have learned from a mom.

I sang twice in church when I was a kid.
First time with Katrina and Dona — 
Dona and I white, Katrina black — we
called ourselves the Albanettes, mostly sang
strident show-tune medleys, jingled-up folk songs — 

one day were messing out carol harmonies
at Xmas in a nursing home, the inmates
nodding, tapping, sleeping in their chairs
when Katrina said come to my church,
they never heard singing like this.

At Katrina's storefront
the praying, swaying and testifying rose up
as we opened our mouths to twine
our voices so they burred and shone together like silver spoons

then guitar, drums, keyboard shimmerchords
surrounded and supported our Gloria,
Echoing our joyous strains, Glo-o-o-o-oria
the first time I felt sex in my sweat,
the congregation clapped rhythm and counterpoint
R&B-ish shivers and thrills.

Dona's single mom came along
to drop us off but stayed the whole service,
amazed and beside herself
dabbing fingertips into her hair cried
thank you thank you for your hospitality
I have never been so ... so ...
the same smell in her sweat,
embarrassing us, squeezed in at the end of the pew.

The second time, the Albanettes and whole community choir
sang Messiah at the Catholic cathedral from beginning to end;
while the solo basso rolled out Thus saith the lord
sounding like Paul Robeson doing Ol' Man River
and snow came down outside

and I will shake all nations
Dona, Katrina and I couldn't, could not
stop giggling, was it the little girl
down front with her mouth wide open
gawping lustless love at the basso,

we giggled harder, was it the river pouring from his mouth,
hard to stay soundless as he rumbled, our giggles
birthing new giggles till we sweated and wept
our mirth, our noses gushed, our bodies shook
... whom ye delight in; behold, He shall come ...

Sophia's mom stops me exiting to say
You're doing the right thing
bringing up your child in the church.

I cough into a tissue.
We have not loved You with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves,
I think the communal confession goes,
not that I was listening.

The morning's scripture lesson:
raising the citywide minimum wage.
Not that I was listening. Though I agree.

If I kept singing maybe I could keep you here.
The phrase has dark in front of it,
darkness after it, dark riddled through it
like whatever isn't sparks in a bad connection.

Do you mind I put your death in the poem.
You can put the wife from hell in your stories.
All the women in my stories are the wife from hell.
If I kept singing I could keep you here.

We're atheist, in it for the music education
I don't explain to Sophia's mom,
my Sunday headache lifting, my book closed on my finger,
my particular chorister running the graveyard outside the church
among stones of colonists — low humps
crumbling to soil — climbing the cenotaph
dedicated 1971 to Wabash, Piankeshaw
and six other chieftains who gathered, 1793, in the city,
to negotiate against George Washington's land-stealing treaty,

whereupon, dying of smallpox — some people think the chiefs
were only invited because the white men knew
they were likely to die of white man disease — were interred
unknown places in our churchyard, graven
image of their frilly headdresses
signaling tribal-spiritual affiliation.

Me, to my husband, 30 years older:
I'm afraid I'll lose you, to death or divorce.
Him: You'd rather I divorce you? or die?
Me: Divorce of course, we could still
talk to each other, and laugh.

Comfort ye, my people ...    
my chorister daughter pretending a basso, chin shoved
way down into her neck to manage it, up on the graveyard wall on the far side,
and lonely Sophia in the shadowy indoors, unsnapping
the ruff of a straggling treble chorister,
stroking it neat, gently folding it away
as her tired mother nags hurry, hurry up please.

by Daisy Fried

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