When the young man thought about the history of poetry
it seemed to him he had walked into a crowded room
in which everyone was speaking at once. There was,
he decided, no order to it. And this troubled him
because he had grown used to the idea that one poetry
emerged from another,
that the history of literature
might be read backwards
as each dominant worldview
shrank into a radical poetic sensibility
into the great maw
of the previous generation’s
forever and ever amen.
When the social worker found her,
the old woman had been locked in her apartment for four days.
Where is my daughter? she asked, Where is my daughter?
—but her pregnant daughter had run off to Atlantic City
with a man she barely knew
and was just then recovering from a car accident
in a strange hospital room, alone.
When the night nurse knocked on the door,
her daughter asked if someone
could please check on her mother.
The young man wanted poetry to be like
a congregation in a church
awaiting the moment
when the pastor says,
says, now we will sing,
and the church is full of song.
The pastor, in this metaphor, stands for the poet.
The congregation is language. The church is history.
The hymnals they are holding are what?
Where did the hymnals come from? He didn’t know
what to make of the hymnals!
Thus are poems enculturated,
thus are they written by enormous invisible forces
across the great page of humanity,
the congregation singing from identical hymnals
gloriously unto god
until the metaphor fails completely.
It was supposed to be a one-night trip,
she told the officer who stood beside her hospital bed,
how could she predict a car wreck?
And her drunk boyfriend couldn’t exactly stick around—
Her mother was senile and mean,
so now and then she locked her in her apartment
and took a personal day—
She’d left plenty of food,
the old woman was probably
but if you could send someone to check,
it’s been four days,
I’d be very grateful—
Because all the hymnals were the same,
and tucked away,
because the pastor was alone in the sacristy
talking to himself
to keep from crying—
And on the ceiling
someone had painted the night sky
and even in darkness, the church windows seemed to glow.
Earlier that day, he’d buried his mother,
and then he’d come to the hushed church
Poetry was maybe the sound of the pastor,
who thought he was alone,
crying to himself in his church,
recollected years later
by the young man who’d overheard him
and sat now, lost in thought before his newspaper.
And when the social worker
unlocked the apartment door,
she found the old woman
asleep in a square of light
on the floor beneath the window.
She’d been reading her Bible,
the crumpled pages of which lay beside her as if
she’d torn them out one by one.
Where, she asked,
is my daughter? Where
is my daughter,
even after she’d
been moved to a temporary shelter,
at the state’s expense—
which is how the young man came to read about her case
in the newspaper—
so hard to be old and abandoned
a pregnant daughter
recovering in Atlantic City,
all the measureless churches—
he tried to conceive of them, like silhouettes
through which real people have moved
and keep moving,
a poem in the mind.
KEVIN PRUFER‘s sixth book is Churches (Four Way Books, 2014). His seventh, How He Loved Them, is forthcoming, also from Four Way Books. Other poems from that collection can be found in The Paris Review, Poetry, A Public Space, The Southern Review, The Literary Review, Field, and the 2016 Pushcart Prize Anthology. With Martha Collins and Martin Rock, he recently edited Catherine Breese Davis: on the Life & Work of an American Master for the Unsung Masters Series, which he co-curates.