Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, WHITE SPIRITUAL, by WILLIAM BERRY



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WHITE SPIRITUAL, by            
First Line: In the dim old church
Last Line: And the greasy candles burning.
Subject(s): Public Worship; Church Attendance


In the dim old church
There were tall candles burning,
Tall candles burning for the burning souls;
On the altar stairs
There were fat priests chanting,
Fat priests were chanting for the burning souls;
Incense rose to the clouded dome,
Turned and crawled like soft, white foam,
And the golden bells
And the silver bells
Sang beautifully for the burning souls.

In the dim old church
There were people kneeling,
Wooden people with blank, white faces,
Men and women with identical faces;
People sitting and standing and kneeling --
One -- two -- three, one -- two -- three --
Striking their breasts mechanically.
Over and over and over again,
One -- two -- three --
Up and down stupidly,
Stupidly and endlessly.
While the sing-song chant rose higher and higher
And all the windows seemed on fire!

I left them all and came to God.

I was lifted up through the stained glass windows
By a cheap, wheezy organ
And a five-and-ten cent store tremolo baritone.
I leaned back and closed my eyes.
Great, loud sounds burst against my ears,
Pounded in my veins,
Entered into my belly --
Ave Maria! Ave Maria!
I let myself go,
I let the sudden music fondle me;
It pulled at my ribs,
And beat against my heart,
And throbbed in my head --
Ave Maria! Ave Maria!
And all the ivory candles crumpled up,
Faces blurred into nothing,
Priest and altar, bell and book faded and faded;
Columns of stone,
Spires of marble
Melted away --
And O the music beat in my ears,
Invaded my body,
Stabbed at my heart,
And there was a wild, sweet tumult in me.
The red and yellow saints in the stained glass windows
With long white beards and sandalled feet
Held out thin arms and smiled;
And the young blond saints laughed gloriously.
A thousand little wings
Rustled in the air --
Sancta Maria! Sancta Maria!
Straight, bright paths shot out
Into the mystical meadows
Beyond the windows;
Sancta Maria! Mater Dei!
The queer, suffocating music shouted to me --
Sancta Maria! Mater Dei!
Alone, with my hot body vaguely aching,
I hung between the music
And the lovely, lovely windows.

Then I came close to God.

The red heart in me
Leaped up to meet Him;
And He was nothing my eyes could see,
And He was nothing my mind could know --
For terribly blind was the mind in me --
But my fingers reached out convulsively,
And my body knew Him, O my body felt Him,
And all the love in me,
Like quick, eager flames,
Rose on the music confidently.
It lifted me up and up,
Through the colored windows,
Past the arms of the old men,
Into the white sky,
Up over the other side of the sky,
Close to God.

And huddled in the dim church,
Where I had left them,
Were the white faces
And the tired bodies
And the greasy candles burning.





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