Memories can make good material for poetry. In “The Spirit of Promise,” Daniel Donaghy is remembering his Catholic childhood in the particular church that he’s now re-visiting. At first the poet’s memories are negative: “my grade-school nuns shaking // their heads at me”; the priest “putting down his Chesterfield / to tell me how many decades // of the rosary I’d need to say.” Then he recalls his parents in church: a softer memory, which however ends in their deaths from smoking. The remainder of the poem turns to his interlocutor, who had asked “what church was.” I love the poet’s multifaceted answer. “Church is a building, // or a service, or a group of Christians.” But then it’s even more: “something / you can give, so I’ll give it here”—and this something is “a blessing.” To think of “church” as a “blessing” is very moving to me. And the blessing given carries out the “Spirit of Promise” of the poem’s title: it’s “a blessing to a young woman / at the start of something or, / like you, the start of everything.”
Amazing how the prayers come back,
———the cues to stand and kneel and sit,
the hymns rising after so many years
into the air of this small old church.
———We lean together in summer
sunlight as the priest wafts past
in an incense cloud and the small choir
———sings off-key in corner light.
Yesterday you asked what church was
and who lives there, and for a while
———I felt so bad I could see
all my grade-school nuns shaking
their heads at me, Father Flatley
———putting down his Chesterfield
to tell me how many decades
———to be absolved,
but most clearly I could see my parents,
who left me little but this God
———they went to their graves
believing in and asking for forgiveness.
I want to tell you how good it feels
———to be back, that I can see them
beside me in the pews, dressed perfectly
in the clothes my sister and I
———would bury them in. I want
to tell you more about them,
about their many years of nights
———slumped in our kitchen,
the only light glowing from the tips
of cigarettes that would kill them.
———But that’s for me to carry.
Some words fit best underground.
There may come a time for them.
———Until then, since you
brought it up, church is a building,
or a service, or a group of Christians.
———It’s also something
you can give, so I’ll give it here:
a blessing to a young woman
———at the start of something or,
like you, the start of everything.
Daniel Donaghy’s first collection of poems, Streetfighting (BkMk), was named a finalist for the 2006 Paterson Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, New Letters, The Southern Review, Poet Lore, Cimarron Review, and the Texas Review. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, he is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Connecticut State University.
Above image by Richard P.J. Lambert, used with permission under a Creative Commons License.