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Published: Wed Apr 15 1981
Art by Jin Suk
Fire in the Choir Loft

I stand to one side in the old choir loft among
these schoolchildren, listless and shifting,
fidgeting in stiff, ill-fitting dress and jacket,
while the huge complacent organ chuffs, hums, heaves
into a rousing chorus of Open Up Your Heart,

and stare down into the central nave of the church,
a dull grey light filtering with mute largesse over
alter, aisle, pew and column. At eye level now,
these disembodied plaster cherub heads peek out
from between mock acanthus leaves, each face

exactly like the others, bland as liver. Veni
Creator Spiritus! Instead: a smouldering, the
smell of charred wainscotting up the ruined steps
in he mind’s eye. The Czech-made stained glass
window with its unearthly Maytime blues blown

out by the violence of trapped heat, cracked and molten.
Accidie at forty for the sixth grade CCD teacher
of these choral voices blaring forth as one.
A trumpeting of victory! So the second coming
comes to this: nor light nor dark but tepid grey,

unroused by organ, air or cherub music storming
heaven out of Turners Falls. Under the upturned
ecstatic gaze of the Woman, the pure elect,
sporting Pius Tenth medallions, conduct the children
safely through the perilous waves of sound.

In triptych fashion, Jerome and Ambrose, Thomas
and Augustine, to right, to left, staring upwards
in ascetic ecstasy: the learned ones in pregnant
silence about the Mother of the Word, her blue robes
swirling like cirrocumulus, as she ascends alighting

into Heaven, a locus somewhere above the choir loft itself.
From this vantage point, one can peer down like
an angel on a world writ small, make notes on the
devout procession filing out, First communion over.
Even Napoleon, they say, always remembered the joy of this

special blanched white day, more special to him even
than his fevered victories in the smoking streets
of Paris or up against europe’s resplendent gold-domed
kings. Poor deluded lightbearer, flickering finally
out in exile, unable at the last to keep even his

private parts intact. Call it a wave effect, the
necessary seasons of the soul. Ups and downs
spinning about the grim lifeline like flies
until at the last the beast’s heart gives out.
And then the surprising transformation in extremis

into light or dark or nothing. Pray
for a Pentecostal fire in this choir loft,
for just a spark, a warm current of what these
children float so easy in: for air and more air, melody
and air, a clear consuming blaze and not this smouldering.

See what's inside AGNI 14

Paul Mariani is completing a biography of William Carlos Williams, to be published by Oxford University Press. His first book of poetry, Timing Devices, will be out this spring from Godine. (updated 1979)

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