- A Tentative, Green Church
One afternoon last fall I was looking up in the woods on the hillside in front of our house in Kentucky. The trees are dense, but I could see green tunnels and oblong pockets in the canopy, forms made from the empty space left where branches don't quite meet or part of a tree is missing or oddly shaped. I have lately taken note of the forms we see in the natural world, even if such form is a glob of air surrounded by leaves. We have the familiar forms—the valley, the cliff, the hollow, the bottomland, and we know the trusty, older terms for the land, such as dell, swale, meadow, pasture. Of course I love all forms of the land and love the language of those forms, but I also like the lesser forms—the wash or the gulley, the sink, the draw, the rise. And I'm drawn to a particular intermittent stream in the hillside across from our house. We need a pretty good rain before the form of the stream becomes visible; it's just a little wrinkle in the hillside. I like knowing it's there even in dry weather. These little forms are subtle. The green tunnels I observed in the trees last fall are also subtle.
When I peered up through one of the green tunnels I could see it was crooked and tilted up the hill. I decided it looked like a steeple reaching into the green and then thought if it belonged to a church, then the church was turned on its side, and the steeple wouldn't be pointing to heaven, but only vaguely up the hill. This is my kind of church. My response to attending this church is to marvel and then to study it and then to become outwitted, to realize there is eventually something to be found in Nature that cannot be described or grasped or represented by anything other than itself. Nature is actual and symbolic at once; it has what I call two inseparable significances, physical and metaphysical, and Nature is analogous only to itself.
It is fitting that I would turn to poetry to express my faith in this green and living church. Poetry requires form and subtlety, too; it can be dense or plain, it attempts to say more than it actually says. I also think there is something tentative in poetry, in the sense of being provisional. A poem is what can be said at a given moment; it cannot hold the moment or prevent it from changing. In a poem I wrote last fall I said of the green tunnel: [End Page 239]
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When I first saw it I said, it's likea church turned on its side and the steepleis pointing not to heaven but onlya little farther up the hill,or to some unknown location aroundthe green bend in the wooded air,and besides the steeple isn't straight.
This poem, which I called "Evangelism," is merely an attempt. It's an attempt to say something about an empty space among the trees, which I concluded was a vision of some sort of "sad joy—I wasn't sure/ if it was happening or if/ a moment before I looked it had happened." Even these words are an attempt to say what defies words, what cannot be expressed in words. The tentativeness does not doubt the significance of the vision, however; it simply acknowledges the vision is indefinable. [End Page 240]
I have found, too, that learning to be tentative takes time, a good many years, whether one is considering religious faith or poetry. Certainty and absolutism usually don't work in poetry; they probably don't work well in religion either. More recently I've been meditating on a Robert Penn Warren poem from later in his writing life. The poem is called "Boy Wandering in Simms' Valley" and revisits a boy walking through the woods to find this remote valley named for a family that lived there years ago. Legend has...