Rural Churches

John Koethe

You could stop on your bicycle, remove your cycle-clips
And go inside, after making sure no one’s there;
Or you could drive past in your SUV, which is what I do---
Wondering, in either case, if much still happens there

Inside those churches that must have been assembled from kits
An indeterminate number of years ago.  Perched on a hill
On Haney Ridge Road against a resonant blue sky,
On a curve on Highway S, on the road to Mt. Sterling,

They’re always surrounded by small graveyards
Supporting occasional ghosts, fences and a few flowers.
I read Wisconsin Death Trip when I moved here forty years ago:
The death beneath the beauty, behind “the vast obscurity

Beyond the city . . .”  I reread Gatsby every year,
Basking in its clarity, finding in the balance of its sentences
What I imagine people used to find in rural churches
Once upon a time, when there was still time.

Last week I imagined stopping at one.  There would have been 
A padlock on the door, but through a window on the side
It would have looked much as another looked to Philip Larkin
When he stopped at it in England sixty years ago:

A tiny altar, matting, seats and hymnals; but no stone,
No organ, the glass in the paned windows clear instead of stained.
Perhaps I’ll actually stop at one next time, though I doubt it:
It’s not a matter of curiosity, or wanting to go home again,

Though I was brought up in religion.  It’s the lack of point:
Whatever Sunday morning used to say about salvation,
Art about eternity, poems about ordinary happiness, they’re merely
Quaint now, parts of the scenery like abandoned buildings---

As though those preoccupations had become obsolete,
Little chapels of sound, beautiful in their ways,
But tethered to their times.  What’s left is simply literal:
The blue sky, the flowers, the dead lying round.