Tuesday, October 18, 2011

After searching fruitlessly (saxophone poem)


i don’t know who invented this
reflexive question mark of an instrument

but i think it was a good thing

for it’s great to look at,
with fat keys like frog eyes
and a big bell like royal jelly
you could keep flowers in there if you wanted to,
extra socks
or even a clock

Snakes kink too
and this sound is snakey
purply mauve as the deepest bruise
and raunchy
as a man in love

smoked as some cat of the night
disappearing over a fence
it makes leaps
(but only because it has to)

There is no
morning saxophone

this is a sound that
pulls the shades down

a hangover

fading to twilight

or the blackmost
belly button
of the night

Few can wrap their lips around
this gooseneck
without some harm coming to them
for this is an instrument
with a long history of
hollowing out
all but the most hardy

Bird flew into a pane
of glass and was

we don’t know why it does this to people
(maybe it was mad at him
for taking it all to such extremes)

but how could you blow this thing

i ask you

how could you rear back
in some great pained whiplash of the spine
without a sense of
terrible commitment

i never much cared for
saxophones myself

until i heard one blown correctly at last
jazz is a genre i will never understand
but perhaps that’s good
for like the priesthood, one must enter into it

without question
or doubt

Death of a church

It's not always sad when something dies: in fact, doesn't everyone, doesn't everything die in its own time?  But the death of a once-vital community is sometimes pretty sad to watch.

When I stumbled on this video while looking for something else, I felt a jolt from the past: this was Park Street United Church in Chatham, Ontario, the church I attended from birth to age 16. It's typical of the sort of edifice you saw back then, a huge brick building in traditional style, with stained glass windows, a gigantic pipe organ, varnishy-smelling pews, dusty red carpet, and cavernous echoing acoustics.

Well, maybe not. As a kid I don't remember that echo. That's because the sanctuary would be full most Sundays. I have heard that at one point this church had something like 1000 members and adherents. It also attracted a firebrand, one of the most controversial ministers in Canadian history, a man who was eventually defrocked and even jailed for his pains.

I've written about him before: Rev. Russell Horsburgh, self-nicknamed "The Rev". He burned into the skin of my consciousness like a brand, so much so that I felt compelled to weave him into the narrative of my second novel, Mallory. This was the early '60s, and the Rev hit the ground running, implementing so many controversial social programs that many people wondered just what the hell they had signed on for.

I won't go into the whole story here, though I will provide a link to two excellent articles written about him, telling me things that my six-to-ten-year-old self never knew. But I did know some things: that people were buzzing and whispering, that the air was crackling with suspicion and accusations of teenagers drinking and even having sex in the church basement. Those who supported Horsburgh - and believe me, I know from subsequent experience that ANY mininster, no matter how corrupt, will split a congregation and siphon off a band of supporters - claimed it was a witch hunt. There were stories on national TV, newspaper articles, even a book (or two). 

I will quote (below) a postscript I wrote to the original articles, including some personal memories of Horsburgh, whom I remember as an abrasive, belligerent man. As he was increasingly opposed, he became paranoid and sometimes frightening. It was possible to see him as a martyr, but I personally don't doubt those rumors about the young people's group because I saw things going on that dumbfounded me. I  just didn't understand how all this could be happening in the church I was baptized in.

Postscript. Though the Gilberts have a right to their opinion based on what they were able to piece together about Horsburgh, the fact remains that they were not there when it happened. Public opinion eventually swung back in Horsburgh's favor, but my own view is that it swung too far.

I was ten years old when Horsburgh was removed from Park Street United Church. I remember a belligerent, browbeating figure literally pounding the pulpit as he harangued his astonished congregation about their unforgiveable rigidity and ignorance.

I remember three very drunken teenage boys hanging around outside the church late one evening, guffawing and slurring, "Hey, where's the Rev?"

I remember my father's best friend saying, "he's a psychopath," though at the time I didn't know what that meant.

I remember my mother, the least-gossipy person I knew, whispering to someone, "You know, they found empty liquor bottles in the church basement. And worse."

I remember a church bulletin that had an entire page bizarrely x-ed out. When my older brother held it up to the light, he saw that it contained a fulminating rant aimed directly at the ignorant fools of Park Street United, ending with a famous quote: “You ungrateful people should be ashamed of yourselves. . . . I am sorry I ever freed you from the tyrants and the papists. You ungrateful beasts, you are not worthy of the treasure of the gospel. If you don’t improve, I will stop preaching rather than cast pearls before swine.”

It was signed:

Martin Luther
Russell Horsburgh

The meltdown of a church is agonizing. I've been through it in recent years. I don't think things are ever the same after that, though everyone claims to have experienced rebirth and resurrection. When I watched the video I posted today, I began to see why Park Street United eventually closed its doors. Shot by a professional company, the video is an exercise in awkwardness. It's like the funeral of a very old, very unpleasant man who didn't have too many friends. There are half-empty pews everywhere, and a good many more that are completely vacant. It's as if those members who survived felt obligated to come. The sanctuary echoes eerily, and the service itself is dreary and interminable, without one single spark of passion, enthusiasm or joy.

In this video I see the United Church's demise played out in all its tattered glory. A few years ago the church hired a PR person and set up a web site called Wondercafe (no mention of church anywhere!), which strains so hard to be hip that it's embarrassing. This includes bobblehead Christs and the E-Z Answer Squirrel, which randomly gives yes or no answers to deep spiritual questions.

The fact that the United Church is burying its old identity under this squirm-inducing nonsense reveals a shocking truth: they're even afraid to say who they are! Afraid to align themselves with wheezy pipe organs and elderly congregants who attend because that's what they've always done.

Where is the passion? The only passion I have experienced in a church came from a man who in retrospect seems to have been half-crazy. He was brought down for his pains, and maybe he had to be. But when the church goes on and on and on about revitalization and finally paying off its debts, I see a sinking ship, and people trying to bail it out with a thimble.

Unfortunately (for me), the only churches I see with any real spirit are fundamentalist. The music is rollicking, the messages proclaimed like great good news. And I can't be any part of it. They don't need me because they're burgeoning already: a great many people seem to want to be told what to believe.

Meantime, we're left with E-Z answers and a strained attempt to appear "relevant". But watch this video, and you'll see it all laid bare, the demise of an institution that is slowly but surely heading towards oblivion.




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