Friday, December 23, 2016

The Parsonage

© 2016 Steve King
All rights reserved

I found my way back to the ancient copse,
upon a path that I had onetime known,
to seek a shelter from the sun.
A breeze enlivened the tall grass,
hissing through a course of nodding heads.
That easy walk, so long ago my own,
threaded the old meadow, summer flowers
conjuring what seemed an easy mood.
But as I went, I saw a fainter trail
lead from my path into a veil of shades,
winding through a guard of ancient trees,
their heavy arms inviting,
that I should not miss the way,
upon a track so seeming in disuse.

I followed, nothing of my own but time at risk,
and left behind all things that spoke of summer:
cloud-decked skies, the waning sun itself,
transfigured to a faint accent
that hovered far above the thicket way,
its light only an occasional sign,
slight leavening to gathered darkness,
no longer a gauge of time or course,

At some distance I could see
the glimmer of another source,
a gleam that trembled,
as I thought at first,
a thing not in itself,
but as a passing charm at play
within my startled seeing.
The vision winked as though extinguished,
then returned to claim the pitch
from where it first had shone.
I ventured closer to the source,
and saw emerge the shape of brick and stone,
of walls and windows and a broken gate,
chimney stones now strewn upon the ground,
the figure of a roof that would not hold
another winter’s wearing weight.

The door swung slowly to my touch,
and as I crossed I heard the smallest sound—
a chant, a lyric, a voice pure but spare,
as though to yield only enough
to fill the limits of some confined space.
There was the man,
a shape among the other shades,
bent upon a table, his candle faint
with what seemed must be its last gleam.

The fragile music eased.
His gaze kept to the light,
and I viewed the profile
of a face grown lean upon its time,
its eye sunk in a pool of shadow,
skin stretched tight across old bones. 
His knotted hands were folded in that certain way,
the ancient collar loose upon his neck.

The thin lip curled.

‘I should thank you for this presence,
even though it is an errant thing.
I hold few hopes of late.
I see you have not brought one to the door.
Old wantings will die hard,
those born of hope hardest,
when hope is only memory,
a cryptic thing abjuring its context,
untethered from all past and future,
dwelling in a present void,
or never more at all.’

‘Just a man,’ he said. 
‘I thought you were that other, come at last.
But that shall wait its due, I see.’

He paused.

‘All things are out of phase.
I’ve lost some precious touch.
But the Bishop has been kind.
He lets me stay without my church.
Though every soul is flown afar,
by his leave I stay and tend to graves.
Now there are only graves.

‘I took it as a sign,
the lightning and the fire and the death,
damnation come to spend its afternoon.
Do you think a church should pass that way?
A sign, it must have been.
I thought my church was more than tinder,
more than carven block
and the empty corners they embraced.
But now all things once hallowed
are just as afterthoughts,
no more a vessel for their orisons,
devoid of passions I did once absolve,
sacraments that I divined
with these same hands.  These hands.
The ragged remnant here remains
a scar upon the land,
and here no light does penetrate.
A desolation so complete and true
that prayer would melt into the ruin,
waiting for some grace note in return.

‘Yet I survive and know not why.
If there must be atonement,
if indeed it was the sign,
then there must be an understanding, too,
some note of great regret,
some wickedness that clings to me alone.
All this I thought, and still must think…

‘But all I know is, I have lost my touch.’

He rose from his makeshift,
gathered all the light his candle threw.
‘Come follow me,’ he said.
‘Behold my judgement.
I shall preach a mystery for you.’

He bore his candle to the limit of a frail arm.
and led beneath a sagging arch,
that would not hold its door.
We stood upon the dooryard
and saw the wreckage of what once had been—
the shambled cast of stone and beams,
crumbled mortar and the charred remains
that played a wicked parody
upon the sanctuary ground.

We passed upon a weedy aisle,
he nodding once in an obeisance
to absent relics.
The wreckage soon assumed another form,
yielding to the firmer pattern
of a fieldstone wall and then, beyond,
row by row, the kirkyard,
neatly set to mark the mirror
of negation and eternity,
a final fulcrum to a great complex.
He led between the rows,
fingers reaching out to grasp
some flown fancy now cast hard in stone.

‘This congregation shall remain,
outlasting every buried dream,
their hopes now so long brought to ground.
These are not times for holy men.
If there exists that place of paradise,
then surely some have hastened there;
if not, these share inviolable peace,
at last secured from weary ritual
and every toll of judgement.’

He wandered to the fence’s edge,
the candle flameless in his hand.
He did not venture far against
the deep indifferent dark.

‘And even yet, here in the wake
of all unwinding fates—
I am.
I may not now presume to know that peace,
nor if the days, compiling in their mute sequence,
may trace the way to any fabled shore.
I know that nights do lengthen
and that every shadow falls,
and all but one that was may know their sleep.
My own is just escape
from every waking dream,
a silent emptiness that stays to grace
the flight of expectation and desire.
But never peace again, I fear.
No more.’

He beckoned me with arms outstretched.
‘Will you take this blessing as it is?
I can say no more.  With these hands I leave to you
that peace which only you may grant yourself,
but bid you open wide your heart to me.
Not to my words, which can no longer
bear the weight of any great intent;
but rather in the scene
of some inventive memory,
any you might choose to make,
though unknown in your life through any fact.

‘Imagine one who once had been
a caretaker of some good things,
and know he ceded all his will
in hope for what tomorrows bring;
and cherish in a generous heart
the shapes of visions he has seen,
and goodly things that he had felt,
and every simple grace that he bestowed.’

I did not answer, nor did he insist.
But in his eyes,
the darkness that they bore,
I saw an instant flare,
as if, despite his grave lament,
some awful triumph had been visioned there.
He moved as if to lead me out,
and laid his hand upon my arm.

‘One might not always keep to faith;
but worse, one cannot soon forget.
This unsought nature I have come to know,
cannot replace the things I have let go;
dead faith leaves regions empty in the heart,
to swallow all that freedom might bestow.’

He led back through the Parsonage
and placed his candle where it first had been.
I reached to light it once again,
but felt his hand upon my arm.
‘No more,’ he said.  ‘No more.
Nor can I let you more remain.
You must abandon me to me alone.
The shadows are swift, and the moment gone.
Return to where your path veered here,
and find your way back into light,
and tell to someone what you’ve seen,
and what you know of judgement times:
how all bright days shall end in night.
That is enough.  It stands the best of me’

I quickly turned to find the way,
and made a hurried distance out,
then paused to see the Parsonage again.
The shadows guarded every ruin,
no candle shone as rule and guide,
no pathway pointed back to where I’d been.

A cold wind rose to shake the trees,
and pelt the air with sheared and broken leaves.
Its low howl sang across the darkness
and was gone.  I heard its long retreat,
echoing along the hills,
its keening measure, calling faint and pure,
gone somewhere far beyond a common bound.
All things returned to stillness,
and emptiness, and at the last,
I felt a place of momentary peace.

I was surprised to find so soon my meadow,
and the copse that stood aside
the darker forest I had left behind.
The sun was nearly gone.
I longed to hear some other’s voice,
to bask in ready light,
and in the pleasure of casual words;
yes, anything that might supplant
the visions I had just incurred.

And yet…
It would remain for me
to squander or fulfill
those moments I had lingered
amid the fearful season of his soul,
the legacy of what he last had willed.

His words were fixed upon my tongue,
and at his touch I’d felt the press
of every weight his ready conscience bore.
Though shorn of faith and every grace,
and cast so distant from the fabled shore,
he’d labored only as he could,
and tried to honor what he once held true.

Of mysteries and judgement days,
atonements that are flown askew—
I held his life, if not his ways.
I would remain the last repose
of every care he did outlast,
of every penance that he knew;
of prayers that never could come true.

And with such knowing I would be
among the very least of men
were I content to seek my ease,
if I ignored what had ensued—
recalling every harrowed thought,
imagining his words anew.

My vicar, though no gods remained,
his blessings only what the winds ordained.

 A new poem for The Imaginary Garden


  1. Hi Steve--this has a wonderful feel of the 19th century--in part because there seems to have been a kind of trust then and openness to such kind of "happened" companionship--your Rime of the Ancient Mariner encountered in a church yard. It has a really beautiful cadence, and narrative rhythm--they work in such a lovely way and fit the longing, regret, passing of torch. This would be wonderful read aloud. Take care, k.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to see it through to the end, Karin. Happy hectic holidays to you and yours.

  2. This a wonderful and unsettling narrative that to me have a feeling of an ancient tale, yet maybe even more a post-modern touch... having caught up with Borges a bit, I can almost imagine it was written by him. For me it could just as well be the narrator that sees himself...

  3. I especially like these sections:

    "I saw a fainter trail
    lead from my path into a veil of shades"

    "The vision winked as though extinguished"

    The fragile music eased.
    His gaze kept to the light,
    and I viewed the profile
    of a face grown lean upon its time"

    "Old wantings will die hard"

    "He bore his candle to the limit of a frail arm."

    "I’d felt the press
    of every weight his ready conscience bore"

  4. The lyricism of the poem puts me in mind of the Romantic poets, especially Wordsworth, whose rambles gave rise to introspection. Such thoughts on the value of religion are particularly relevant now as ever.

  5. Yes, yes, the Wordsworth comparison... the rhymes here so subtle, and such a gentle tone. I love it.

  6. Great stuff, Steve, the narration finely balanced with some well-crafted, sonorous lines. ("A desolation so complete and true / that prayer would melt into the ruin /waiting for some grace note in return"). Maybe this is an encounter with Wordsworth, with one's old faith in God and the power of "Tintern Abbey," but this old priest was also the Ancient Mariner of poetry, keepin' on keepin' on long after the world fled past. And maybe there's no difference between the two -- anyway, a fine journey into and out of the woods.

  7. he’d labored only as he could,
    and tried to honor what he once held true.

    As a Christian, somewhat dismayed with the church and questioning religion, I can relate to this poem. God, not religion or denomination, is what I cling to knowing I can never understand the Other but feel the Presence. For me, this is the meaning of life.

  8. I agree with Karin and Kerry - your poem reminds me of the Romantic poets, faintly reminiscent of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, when the narrator comes upon the wedding guest, and most definitely Wordsworth. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

  9. "‘One might not always keep to faith;
    but worse, one cannot soon forget.
    This unsought nature I have come to know,
    cannot replace the things I have let go;
    dead faith leaves regions empty in the heart,
    to swallow all that freedom might bestow.’"

    As always, your words speak with depth and eloquence, captured with that Shakespearean lyricism as only you can write. You ponder and question things that I too have pondered, but in context of a darkened tale that you have woven so well. May we indeed "imagine" the words anew. Always a fan of your wonderful writing, my friend. Happy new year to you!