Mennonite Poetry Home | Larry Nightingale



                        Tent Meeting Photograph, 1950s

How long here, the grey aluminium fold-up
your uncomfortable, un-trustworthy pew.
Under the great white canvas billow

a half century perhaps

un-noticed, unrecognized, listing a little to a side,
front row, your burden, dearest, your soot-black guilt

sleeves pulled long, arms stubbornly folded,
staring down to pungent hellfire-yellow dust

sawdust, grass clumps, wilted lilies, imagination at your feet,
little chest and fingered curl-twists tightening
(the world is tinted, just every shade of grey)

on rows of fold-ups next you and behind, long dead,
blazing hearts lost young, once freckle-faced and flushed

like little cousin Irwin in the aisle,
strapped down in wheelchair, mute screaming to leap out, speak

but, mysteriously, the river flows.
Where some were baptized—some were drowned.


Rows back, solemn ghost staring straight out past
his soul's photographer, and he from among those
comrades dressed in black

those of the scripture-tongued elders
stabled in old smalltown,
(yet even he like our taciturn grandfathers silent that day)

and nameless wives
with hats obligatory--white flying-saucer hats, hovering
(like Pentecost) on shades of ladies of some lost hot holy summer
latter 1950s,

under that tent none of us smiling
except the truly wicked, and none anyway nearer Heaven

here, under this shining canvas, pitched
in the dark green pastures, on the bank of that river
a world away

all up the long sawdust aisle, countless souls
in dim parade—ghosts of time—pour forward, past you, drowning

in refrains

verse after verse after verse


perhaps as near Heaven as in any
still-shot acts of everyday bliss and blindness

(head usher photographed as a boy hugging neck of
sprightly Jersey calf believed sired by woodland stag,
old green pastures-parking attendant as young family man
on tractor, unheralded, invisible, pulling
his best ever grade-A berries to cannery from farm,
crusade pianist as teen-ager in curlers and fuzzy slippers,
Saturday night, after dishes, an ear only for the gospel
according to Elvis, saintly offering me her half bottle of Crush,
and choir soloist—the stout Mrs.—truly as herself,
modeling her handmade girdles for the Ladies Circles... amen)

just as near as this

anywhere love is


Back of pulpit—off camera (not of this congregation)
the travelling flanks, the grey-suits and their kin,
with token young local—seminarian to be ordained

Revivalists rode north cross border
to set everyone square, everything true.
The mass approach, the grip and hold

but time and mercy queered the picture
to pitch the sky's blue holy secret a-new every day

light dazzled through, some days the clouds
rolled in, ink-dark thunderhead, hurled into starless vaults
and the void. Any night, any day. Over you,
still trembling here on this flimsy fold-up

this un-trustworthy pew.

Love held on. Love let go.
Sometimes it's all you can do.

Let the congregation rise,
and the stiff-necked and stiff-legged, cartwheeling boys again
lead up the everlasting train. Where hats spin off, hearts burst
and bright spirit enfolds bright spirit

when the deadened soul cries out
past haunted acres—these browning aisles

from the burning itch—the sliver in the soul.

© Larry Nightingale




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