Poetry Sunday: Gathering at the River

For Daylight Atheism’s second installment of Poetry Sunday, I’d like to reprint a beautiful composition by the distinguished Philip Appleman, who’s written a rich vein of atheist and freethought poetry in his career. Many religious traditions imagine that when we die, our souls stand before a river that is the gateway to the next life. In this poem, Prof. Appleman provides a freethinker’s twist on this hoary religious cliche, and offers us a glimpse of a dynamic, harmonious world unlike the static afterlives of the monotheist tradition, which pin souls in a changeless eternity as if in frozen amber.

Professor Appleman is the Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the Department of English at Indiana State University, the author of seven volumes of poetry and numerous fiction and nonfiction books, including the widely used Norton Critical Edition, Darwin. His poetry has won many awards, including a fellowship in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Friend of Darwin Award from the National Center for Science Education, and the Humanist Arts Award of the American Humanist Association. His work has been published in Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, The New Republic, The New York Times, and elsewhere. His latest book is New and Selected Poems, 1956-1996, from which I take today’s poem. It is reprinted here by permission.

Gathering at the River

Is it
crossing over Jordan
to a city of light, archangels
ceaselessly trumpeting over
the heavenly choirs: perpetual Vivaldi,
jasper and endless topaz and amethyst,
the Sistine ceiling seven days a week,
the everlasting smirk
of perfection?

Is it
the river Styx,
darkness made visible, fire
that never stops: endless murder
too merciless to kill,
massacres on an endless loop,
the same old victims always
coming back for more?

Or is it the silky muck
of Wabash and Maumee, the skirr
and skim of blackbirds,
fields of Queen Anne’s lace
and bumblebees? Well,
go out once more, and feel
the crumble of dry loam,
fingers and soil slowly becoming
the same truth: there in the hand
is our kinship with oak, our bloodline
to cattle. Imagine,
not eons of boredom or pain,
but honest earth-to-earth;
and when our bodies rise again,
they will be wildflowers, then rabbits,
then wolves, singing a perfect love
to the beautiful, meaningless moon.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Lovely. Particularly “the beautiful, meaningless moon” — I love that word “meaningless” chucked in there with defiant carelessness!

  • http://sites.google.com/site/skepticalpoetry/ Ian Mason

    This is really good poetry. Next stop: buying the book.
    I don’t know who said it first but “dicovering a new author is like making a new friend”. I agree.