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“Go, some summer evening, to that hallowed place, where your
thoughts so readily run back over the past, and so willingly
entertain the hopes of the future, and the stillness of the spirit.”
–from “The Days of Old,” a historical sermon preached
by the Reverend S.L. Bates September 29, 1889

I prayed for a poem. A worthy poem was expected. I was
Unworthy, unstill of spirit. Thus I went on a summer evening,
From this church to the burial ground, where lie our members and townsfolk
Of old and of the sometimes painful recent past.
I thought, Two centuries and a half: how can that stretch
Be summoned and memorialized within the bounds
Of one man’s breath, an aging man at that, a man
Whose own plot’s now reserved and paid for? I concluded
That it couldn’t. I wouldn’t try. I didn’t seek, I didn’t
think my hearers sought, mere sentimental words.

Not on the other hand that I should batten on
This side of truth alone. Ours is a broken haven,
The same as it ever was, and we the ones to break it.
The dust and bones of neighbors that lie in the ground
Above the river are earthly remnants of men and women
–mostly men, to be sure– who, given their fallen nature,
too often found their motives in resentment, envy,
jealousy or spite. The same as we do. Yes,
a broken haven.
On the other hand, we have endured

as they did in their span, thanks to the Lord who pledged
that neighbor’s love of neighbor, even hated neighbor,
would in the end prevail. It is our better selves
we strive for, sometimes even against our very wills.
The pastor, well past midnight, working out the sermon
Even as bed or quieting glass of wine stand by.
The congregant, with things to do that are far more pleasant,
Still scrapes her frosted windshield, starts her balky car,
And heads off to bring succor in the form of supper,
Or simply small talk, to another man or woman.

She knows how need looks, never mind her charity
Directs itself at someone whom the world at large
May logically conclude deserves no charity.
Such help’s not a matter of logic, any more than the toil
Of the church trustee, whose working day has been demanding
Enough as it was, who –no matter all that– still sees
To the frozen pipe, the rotting sash, the icy walk,
or just the dreary paying of the church’s dreary bills.
Deacons with children to tend to, or perhaps with invitations
they must decline to jolly parties: they convene

For what they consider the greater good, like our music directors
who have no doubt experienced similar enticements–
a movie or play, or just a good home meal– and still
have rehearsed the Sunday hymns on organ and piano
or altered a faltering alto, bass, soprano in
the dauntless choir’s rendition, each singer also bound
to his or her own version of the greater good.
We, the wounded, seek to heal the wound, the way
Our savior sought. We, unquiet spirits, seek to quiet
The spirit. The love of person for person, as Jesus insisted,

Is the love of Him. And today’s importance does not lie with me
Or with any florid utterance I may dream.
And praise the Lord for that. I’m back from the graveyard, back
from the small white church I love. I sit here humbled by
The brokenness I see in myself, by my own want
Of adequate breath, or –why not say it? adequate breadth
To draw conclusions worthy of a decent sermon,
Let alone to moralize, for who am I
to know the hearts that beat two centuries ago
or even that beat here yesterday, that beat today?

I’m blessed at last to see that, in the end, it is
The simple prayers that count: God help me and Dear God,
Accept my thanks. Just so, the sentiments that matter
Are ones we voice here every season, every Sunday,
Singing to one another and to our predecessors
And to all who will succeed us, God be with you
till we meet again, by His counsel guide, uphold you,
with His sheep securely fold you, God be with you
till we meet again.
Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen.

Photo by Grant Durr on Unsplash

Sydney Lea

Sydney Lea was Poet Laureate of Vermont from 2011-2015. In 2021, He received Vermont’s highest artistic distinction, The Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. (See Interviews and Trailers.) In 2022, he published Seen from all Sides: Lyric and Everyday Life, a collection of newspaper columns on poetry, composed during Lea’s laureate tenure. He is the author of 16 collections of poetry and in early 2024, his collection of personal essays, Such Dancing as I Can, will appear, and later in the year, his second novel, Now Look.

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