Moved and confused by church in a tent


Poem after Sunday morning church service in a tent

In a huge hotel where the concierge told me there had been count them
Three weddings the day before, which is why they erected the epic tent.
I got there early and watched people file in. The tall guitar player asked
Me if I was the minister. The minister turned out to be a lady who once
She got started talking never really stopped except for the music. When
The songs started everyone except me stood and held hands and swayed.
I am a Catholic man and we only hold hands with children and we don't
Sway. I tried for a while to figure out what species of church service this
Was but you just could not tell. There was the swaying, which seemed to
Be Baptist, and discussion of sacrifice and fasts, which seemed Calvinist,
And there was talk of the Spirit and the One and suchlike, which seemed
Unitarian to me, but then I heard the name Christos ... Greek Orthodox?
For a minute there I wondered if there would be snake-handling or maybe
A sudden burst from the Koran, or a pause while we discussed the Torah,
But the service stayed determinedly undeterminable. In the opening salvo
Of this service I was amused, thinking that it might be something offered
By the hotel for its guests, an attractant, some expensive consultant's idea
For adding value to your stay at the hotel, and I marvelled at the marketing
Brilliance of it — welcoming everyone, offending no one, proffering ritual
Without a trademark, adding bonus usage to the rent of the tent, as well as
Excellent community relations. But soon I stopped being amused and was
Moved, despite the endless blather of the minister. People had come to be
Moved. They had come to hold hands and sing. There were bright ribbons
On the folding chairs by the aisle to signal the bride's or the groom's side.
There was a man's green tie knotted to a tent stake. There were tiny babies
In their mothers' arms. There was a man hunched in a wheelchair. Why do
We ever bother to argue about religion? All religions are the same glorious
Wine, susceptible to going bad but capable of quiet joyous gentle elevation.
They're all useful and useless, mesmerised and ruined by power but always
Pregnant with the possibility of humility. They are so easy to ignore. You'd
Be wise to sneer, with every reason imaginable for the curl of your knowing
Lip. Yet here I am, on Sunday morning, in the wedding reception tent, agog;
Not so much at the earnest idiot of a minister, but at everyone, sweetly, else.



A name is a sound. A name is a written or vocalised marker or label
For things that are complex. We use names as terse codes, primarily
To save time in reference or conversation. Names are not the things.
We know this but we forget. A sparrowhawk, for example, is a verb
Of incredibly complicated proportions. As is a huckleberry bush, an
Essayist, your teacher, god. The marker god is from a Hebrew word
Meaning to invade or overcome. No one owns the word or the labels
We variously use for the ideas we variously like, detest, or flee from,
Or all of the above, depending on the week, and who is sick or dead.
We know this but we forget. We begin to think names have meaning.
They have no meaning. They have no weight. They are not the thing.
No matter how loud you shout the name it does not indicate wisdom
Or possession or ownership or insight or a preferred customer status.
Names can be lyrical and loaded with ancient aura and amazing tales
But they remain labels, markers, sweet sounds we use for shorthand;
We know this but we forget. So it is that every time I think I am sure
About anything having to do with the idea, the blind energetic breath
For which we use the word God, I remind myself to go find a kestrel,
And watch it for a while, and remember that while I can say it caught
A mouse, or that it teetered for a remarkable seven minutes on a wire
In the wind without ever being blown over into a hilarious spin cycle,
Or that it holds in the air against the wind like nothing else I ever saw,
I cannot say that I know kestrelness in any but the smallest ways. We
Know this but we forget. Maybe the best way to pray is with your eye.



One time years ago I was standing by a field on a hill high over Sydney
Harbour, watching a troop of small boys play football. They wore jerseys
Of every conceivable color, this being apparently a loose practice sprint,
And while they seemed generally to be split into two sides, there was no
Grim intensity about the tilt, that I noticed; and while the quality of play
Was surpassing fine, considering their youth, there was a remarkable lot
Of laughter, which was one of the things that had drawn me to the fence.
A lovely day, scudding clouds across the bluest sky you ever saw. Many
Years ago this hill was called Mocoboula by the first people who played
Here — two waters, as you can see the harbor on either side. In their time
It was thick with bloodwood and ironbark and stringybark and eucalypts,
But now the biggest trees are the gums which crowd the field like gangly
Spectators, nodding sagely at the deft passing. The kicking, though, isn't
At the same level, and there's a moment when a boy lines up a shot from
Fifteen yards or so, and he tests the wind, and gauges his steps, and looks
For all the world like a young professional even though I bet he is eleven
Years old max, and he unleashes a tremendous kick ... off the side of his
Foot, a total shank, which sails majestically away into the immense trees,
So far that I lost track of the ball even though it was bright yellow. There
Was a pause of about half a second and then the most amazing wondrous
Thing happened: the boy fell down laughing, and everyone else burst out
Laughing too, including people passing by with their dogs. It was a grace
Beyond my articulation. I suppose I expected a cutting remark, or a quiet
Curse, or a snarling coach, or at least some acknowledgement of the scale
Of the misplay, some reference to how epic the miskick, but there wasn't
Even a gentle silent pat on the shoulder from an understanding teammate.
Everyone just lost it laughing for a few seconds, and then things trundled
Along again same as usual, but I find that I hold those few seconds in my
Pocket, even all these years later, for moments when I need them. We get
Flashes of pure stuff like that once in a while and I don't know about you
But sometimes I thirst for them desperately. It's hard to talk clearly about
This sort of thing, but you know what I mean. It would've been so normal
For that boy to be angry, or to be razzed, but instead an artless sweet wild
Laughter swept over the field like a tide or a song or a gift. The things like
That — those are the moments that keep us going, right? The tiny that isn't.



Brian Doyle line drawingBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the essay collection Grace Notes.

Tent image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Brian Doyle, poetry, religion, America



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Existing comments

"flashes of pure stuff" I find in some of Brian's poetry. I only know it is meant to be poetry because the first compilation of words is headed: Poem after Sunday morning church service in a tent. So I suppose it satisfies Wordsworth's description: Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings;it takes its origin in powerful emotion recollected in tranquillity. I can't figure why Brian bothers to write in that shape. It adds nothing to the experience but there are, I must admit, "flashes of pure stuff".

Uncle Pat | 09 July 2013  

@ Uncle Pat: Les Murray gives us some fine words about poetry in "The Instrument" (caution: school playground word herein): Who reads poetry? Not our intellectuals;/they want to control it. Not lovers, not the combative,/not examinees. They too skim it for bouquets/and magic trump cards. Not poor schoolkids/furtively farting as they get immunized against it./Poetry is read by the lovers of poetry

Pam | 09 July 2013  

Thanks Pam. I shoot my comments like arrows into the air and I rarely find out if they hit any target(s). If they did it would be pure chance. However whenever I am presented with a poem, a piece of writing so designated by the writer thereof, I always recall the definition of poety given by my English Literature teacher in 1950. Poetry is what poets write. He went on to say he wasn't sure what poetasters wrote. I suppose it's a bit like singing. Some people are born tone deaf and will never be able to hold a tune: others can sing the scales but can't sing a song; yet others can sing in a choir or under the shower; very few have the talent of Dame Joan or Placido Domingo.

Uncle Pat | 09 July 2013  

Brian, I am always engaged by the effortless dreamlike flow of word after word that you write. I suspect you might have made that church service in that tent a more memorable experience for everyone had you taken the guitar player's hint and claimed to be the minister.

Kim Miller | 09 July 2013  

Hi Pat -- I suppose what I am after is the music of daily speech. I dislike Artsy Poetry that is elusive and allusive and often agonizingly about the poet; I shoot for Auden's target: Poetry is “memorable speech…about birth, death, the Beatific Vision…the awards and miseries of desire, the unjust walking the earth and the just scratching miserably for food like hens, triumphs, earthquakes, deserts…the gratifications and terrors of childhood, the impact of nature…the despairs and wisdoms of the mature…the mark on the wall, the joke at luncheon, word games…the dance of a stoat…the raven’s gamble…”

Brian Doyle | 10 July 2013  

Hi Brian! I was being mischievious. So much of modern poetry, especially vers libre, is just prose broken up. When a writer describes one of his writings as a poem, I expect more than what could be achieved by writing the same words in prose form. I admire the skill of the versifier and the rhythmic talent of the song writer but all they have done, usually, is give form to some pretty mundane thoughts. Auden's goal is admirable. Dickens' prose achieved that in paragraph after paragraph in his (prose) novels.

Uncle Pat | 12 July 2013  

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