Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Mike Schneider: Salem Hill Hymn Sing

“The Angel of Death is abroad in the land,
only you can’t always hear the flutter of its wings.”
— Winston Churchill, 1944

A screaming comes across the sky
like a low-flying jumbo. Crescendo.
Decrescendo. Same old thunder
& I can’t remember why
the old books are all about revenge
but they are. And the congregation sings
What a Friend We Have in Jesus
no wise cracks, not a derisive twitch
in the room. I remember Gaylord Heckman
across the street from my cousin Danny’s,
how he sat with a hand-drill, digging out
the center of a broomstick, tacked on
tobacco-tin fins, packed in black
powder to make a rocket. Keith
is telling me about when his beloved uncle
died & they jimmied the lid on his attic trunk.
Not even his wife knew he was grand wizard
of the local Klan, white sheets, pointy hoods
carefully folded. Now they’re singing
On a Hill Far Away, The Old Rugged Cross
& in the kitchen with a beer, Tom
brays about that time he beat the holy crap
out of some queer. Half-crazy, redneck
Tom, who everybody laughs with & loves
because, well, he’s Tom. And the cops
told him, Yeah man, we know
where you’re comin’ from but there’s laws
now to protect those people.

Then Lorraine, brave heart
chiming like a temple bell: For two men
to exchange vows, she says calmly, is sanctified
union. She turns & walks away. And all the way
home, Tom’s behind us on his Harley
in a white hood, flaming cross
on his handlebars like a branding iron. God’s
truth screaming in the night, crescendo,
like a low-flying jumbo, down
Cresson mountain, where neon white light
beams ridge-to-ridge that JESUS IS ALIVE.
And I’m trying to explain to everyone
not listening, not even in the room anymore,
that those crossed spars on a hilltop far away
from this distance at sunset give a mythic red
glow of suffering that we love
too much, or is it — casual tolerance
of intolerance — simply fear? The old God
holy books clamor for revenge & do not save us
from anything. But still I love that raggedy
piano & to hear them sing, Come to The Church
in the Wildwood, Little Brown Church in the Vale.

Copyright 2015 Mike Schneider. An earlier version of this poem appeared in An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind: Poets on 9/11 (Oakland, CA: Regent Press, 2002).

ca. 1987, Near Twin Falls, Idaho, USA --- Members of the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations gather outside Twin Falls, Idaho for a cross burning. --- Image by © Matthew Mcvay/CORBIS

ca. 1987, Near Twin Falls, Idaho, USA — Members of the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations gather outside Twin Falls, Idaho for a cross burning. — Image by © Matthew Mcvay/CORBIS

2 comments on “Mike Schneider: Salem Hill Hymn Sing

  1. Mike Schneider
    August 3, 2015

    Thanks Charlie & thanks again for calling my attention back to this poem, which I originally published in the context of response to 9/11. For me the poem has many personal connections. My mother was still alive then, at an assisted living center where other residents sometimes on Sunday gathered in the social room around a standup piano to play & sing old hymns, many I’d heard & sung around my grandma’s piano when I was a kid.

    The man identified as “Tom” was a high-school best friend of my brother. They enlisted in the Army together & served in Vietnam. My brother’s patriotism/gung-ho-ness has softened very much since then — not so much his old friend, who married the sister of a high-school friend of mine & is renowned locally for running his Harley up to 140 mph.

    The Churchill quote was from the time of the V1 & V2 rockets raining on London. First line of the poem — “A screaming comes across the sky” — is a borrowing from Thomas Pynchon, first sentence of Gravity’s Rainbow, set in the historical moment of the rocket attacks on London.

    Thanks Michael! I appreciate that people read & discuss the poem. Mike


  2. Charlie Brice
    August 3, 2015

    This is a beautifully written poem about our great American tragedy. The poet’s framing this poem within the roar of jumbo jets and motorcycles especially portrays the power and violence of religious fundamentalism in this country. The carefully chosen word “spar” also makes this religious fanaticism emerge, “the suffering we love too much.” Bravo!


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This entry was posted on August 3, 2015 by in Poetry, Social Justice and tagged , , , , , .

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