I love it when poems speak to each other and expand on a shared theme. The epigraph here references the well-known poem “Church Going” by Phillip Larkin. Both poems describe churches, their architecture and unique interiors. However, they also explore more universal questions about the role and relevance of organized religion. Brown doesn’t mince words. “I’m seeing the church/ I grew up with, shadowed like this to let/the glitter in. Dignity’s what held me/then and almost makes a Christian of me/now, again.” Detailed, physical images of this esteemed cathedral are interwoven with bold, personal reflections that carry forward the tone and scope of Larkin’s poignant poem. Interestingly, despite her skepticism Brown is moved to pray at the end of her poem. “A prayer, I think, is the least/ I can do: I pray to Larkin’s poem, to gargoyle/ waterspouts, to all the things that jut,/that disagree, disrupt.” Both poems share a reverence for the questions themselves inspired in what Larkin calls “serious houses” and that may very well be a certain kind of prayer too.
“Notre Dame,” by Fleda Brown
A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure.
—Philip Larkin, “Church Going”
In spite of fundamentalists, it keeps on being
true, what Larkin said. I’m walking through
with my Jewish daughter and her three boys,
the stone and glass saying not a word to make
any of us believe, but I’m seeing the church
I grew up with, shadowed like this to let
the glitter in. Dignity’s what held me
then and almost makes a Christian of me
now, again: God multiplying as he
enters through the glass, amusing himself.
We trace the transept, nave, and choir, walking
the sign of the cross, even the boys, who don’t know
what it means. We lift our eyes to the clerestory
a hundred thousand workers gave their backs
to put there, to feed their families, and only
slightly, if at all, I’d guess, to honor God.
The stones went up. The wheel that pulled each one
to greater heights was raised again, and left
up there at last, too high to bring it down,
the mind that glorious in its space, mathematical
in its hopes. It’s brought us here. The five of us
walk plaque to plaque, to each candle-lit niche
for each dead saint. A prayer, I think, is the least
I can do: I pray to Larkin’s poem, to gargoyle
waterspouts, to all the things that jut,
that disagree, disrupt. I pray to buttresses
that launch off wildly from the side and land.
May they brace everything up. And to these boys,
puzzling at the frieze of all the damned in hell.
Fleda Brown’s new book is Driving With Dvorak, released in March by the University of Nebraska Press. Her most recent collection of poems, Reunion (University of Wisconsin Press, 2007), won the Felix Pollak Prize. The author of five previous collections of poems, she has won numerous prizes, among them a Pushcart Prize, the Philip Levine Prize, the Great Lakes Colleges New Writer’s Award, and her work has been a finalist for the National Poetry Series. She is professor emerita at the University of Delaware, where she taught for 27 years and directed the Poets in the Schools program. She was poet laureate of Delaware from 2001-07. She now lives in Traverse City, Michigan, and is on the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program in Tacoma, Washington.