It has been a long time since I have posted a poem and it feels like I have been working to revise this one forever. Originally published in 1979, I have been working on it off and on ever since. Anyway here it is.
If it helps to know a member of my family had been a pastor in the Tennessee Conference of the various incarnations of the Wesleyan tradition in Middle Tennessee since my great-great grandfather, Mark Gray, was ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church in Columbia, Tennessee in 1836.
The Circuit Rider
After all the waves are waved
The hands are clasped
The blessing said
And proof of the appreciation
Women great with child chase off to bed
Shuck stuffing sounds creep from
To slip like the outside night mist
Across the floor unnoticed.
The wood inside fired bright to chase the evening chill
From ancient bones
The grandfather stands outlined by the door-formed light
Sees before his clouded eyes
The union of the rider
And the night.
The broad-shouldered black coat bowed
Against the angry angel of early springtime chill,
The dooryard misty, still, and dark once more
(By the latch string door and light closed off)
Is united with the rider and the night.
“Brother Night, the word spoken in the forest
Falls upon the stump-seats in a hundred dooryards
In quieted tavern-stores and cellar-jails
Falls upon the stump-heads of hunters
The stump-ears of farmers,
And like the hardened grease and gravy leavings
On the plate is thrown out,
Left dripping off the porch in back.”
This promised land once dreamt of
Now forces the dreamer back across the threshold
Into darkness. This promised land
Now fertilized by native bones and blood
Brings forth a thorny tree. This promised land
Now flows with clabbered milk and sour wine
Woe to them.
“What gain ye pioneer
If ye gain the riches of a new-found world
But lose thy immortal soul?”
Woe to them that devise iniquity upon their beds
The inheritors, now, dispossessed can only die.
The circuit rider passes
Unrestrained by light-colored daytime
Not required in the cool evening time by anyone.
The dimming sun, slows down heated daytime thoughts.
The night’s fresh wet time
Caresses the rider’s stubbled cheek and chin.
The rider moves like smoke—drifting, suspended—
Into some rude, brooding breeze.
The evening quiet leaves time enough
For the unsaid words, the unspoken thoughts the journey long.
In the wilderness
Night leans sleepily against the sky
Entwined by spindly-fingered oaken sentries
Thoughts gripped deep within the broadcloth covered belly, arise.
Thoughts of ancient fathers, men of God,
Creep up the cold chest
Vested and coated against winter’s rude
Intrusion into spring.
The fathers tempted at the sight
of the virtuous Suzanna.
Be still and know
The vineyard, darkened now,
The yoke is set aside
The ride relieves
The visitation of the angry angel
Of the night’s mist and chill.
The words sleep, resting for the next day’s labor.
The rider remains awake, month-long bridegroom longing,
Lies in the shuck bed half-sleep of the mind.
Only the dark angel, night, and rider remain awake.
How beautiful are thy feet
“Watcher, work your magic
Though rough shod, covered poorly,
My own fair tower waits. It is late
And two more days of riding left me
Until I reach the union of dream and flesh,
Flesh and dream.”
The moonlight draws night madness
From inside the riders veins
Brings visions from the darkened brain.
Cunning night brings forth the goblet and the jewels,
Displays before seeking, sleepless eyes
The pools of Heshbon.
The ivory tower stands burning;
The night angel only watching
The rider climbs the spiced mountain.
How beautiful are they feet with shoes, pioneer daughter
The gingham covered tower, ivory in the rider’s mind,
Conjured by the stone-covered vintage of muscadine
Or hot corn essence cut with water from the creek.
The night scent thickens, and so the blood
Grows hot as summer noontime.
How beautiful are thy feet
The watcher stands, wings folded,
The tower, afire in the shadow
Of the moon.
Solomon on his mountain.
explor, Spring, 1979