In a Church
No, no time for this
the outside clamours to be heard,
the books, you see,
In here it’s dark, the sun
has slid away.
There are necessities.
The cars are travelling at speed, without me, fast;
the days, my days, must be pinned down
accounted for and coloured in,
I need to go,
I need to go my way.
To which the soul said, stay.
Kathryn Simmonds, from The Visitations (Seren, 2013)
I was texting a friend the other day to say I hadn’t read any poetry in ages. Five minutes later I sent him a message with photos of Kathryn Simmonds’s poems In a Church and Forgiveness attached, accompanied by the words Wow and The Real Thing. I’ve been having one of my periodic bouts of Poetry Exhaustion, where, no matter how hard I try, or many books I buy, I am left feeling washed out and enervated by the whole business. It is the fault of no one in particular, not even me. Even though I try to practise acceptance of, it always comes as a slight shock.
I first came across In a Church a couple of years ago in the local library. They had just finished an amazing new refurbishment, one which had taken several years, and I wanted to go in and show my support by actually using it. Having eventually found the much shrunken poetry section, I chanced upon Kathryn’s book The Visitations which you already know I am going to tell you to go out and buy immediately. I loved the poem so much I even went out and photocopied it. Life being what it is I also went out and forgot about it until quite recently I found myself in the same bit of the library sheltering from the cold and spending an enjoyable half-hour reacquainting myself with the ambition and the brokenness at the heart of The Visitations.
What went through me then and goes through me now is recognition of a kind of religious experience that is hard to give a name to, let alone find in much contemporary poetry. First of all, it ends on the word ‘soul’, an abstraction even Heaney went in fear of for years before finally caving and giving himself permission to use in The Spirit Level. Like the speaker of Marie Howe’s Prayer, the voice here is torn between staying and those unnamed ‘outside clamours’ and ‘necessities’: there is, literally, ‘no time for this’. The advantages of staying are never stated, while the ‘necessities’ that need attending to are much more loudly ‘accounted for and coloured in’. Yet the final imperative to ‘stay’ carries a sense of mystery and promise that ‘the books’ and ‘cars travelling at speed’ cannot match. To a person of faith, like me, who struggles in a church setting with public depictions of ‘victory’ and ‘strength’, this poem captures perfectly the sense I have of always being on the tentative approach towards something rather than having reached a glorious conclusion. It also validates that barely articulated space where faith resides, for me at least, in the ‘shyest, pre-social parts of [my] nature’ (Heaney). I am not certain of much, but I am certain of this.
With thanks to Kathryn Simmonds