One of my current projects is finding some stuff I’ve written in the past and either deleting it or reworking it to see if I can make it worth showing to anyone else. I have Five Scottsbluff Poems (Scottsbluff, Nebraska, where I grew up). One of them contains the line “the singing came first.” It’s perhaps about how music came to me. Here it is.
Abimelech, son of Gideon, my father said, sinned.
He killed his brothers, seventy in all
(“for Gideon had many wives”), except one.
The kings of Judah and The Northern Kingdom
lived in imagination on Wednesday evenings at our church.
Jehoshaphat. Ahaz. Jeroboam. Nadab.
Mrs. Winslow sat at the end of the row of folding chairs,
larger than any other woman I knew—
not fat but big boned, tall and big bosomed,
her abundance balanced somehow
on thin, almost girlish legs in high heels,
her wool suit black against the Nebraska cold—and ugly
(protruding jaw, cavernous mouth, lopsided nose).
Was fearing her a sin? I stared at her as she prayed.
The dead fox around her neck stared back,
the poor creature’s head suspended over her breast,
chained to itself under its chin,
the gold stretched across her bosom to grasp its tail,
the fox’s unflinching glass eyes followed mine wherever I looked.
Abimelech. Abimelech. Abimelech.
The singing came first, before the Bible study, before the praying.
Mother played the piano,
hymns from the old black American Hymnal, 1933.
Bringing in the Sheaves.
Or number one seventy-three, Let the Lower Lights Be Burning.
Always hymns before the praying.
Number two twenty-five, Just as I Am, Without One Plea.
Her hands hovered over the keyboard,
her slender, deft, high-spirited fingers playing flawlessly.
The hymns were her joy. Or songs from before they married.
(Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life at Last I’ve Found You.
I Wandered Today to the Hills, Maggie.)
She never played a wrong note.
Number three fifty-three, I Was Sinking Deep in Sin.
I always played wrong notes, made mistakes.
Midweek Prayer Meeting was about Sin.
Was playing wrong notes a sin?
Let us pray.
“Lord of all mercies…”
“Dear heavenly Father…”
Each one, the grown-ups who prayed,
had a different name for God,
but the singing came first.
Jesus, Lover of my Soul, number one thirty-one,
“let me to thy bosom fly while the nearer waters roll—”
the first hymn I played at Midweek Prayer Meeting,
only one black key, two lines of music repeated
for four lines of words—I could play it without a wrong note.
“False and full of sin I am, thou art full of truth and grace.”
Abimelech died for his sin.
Father preached, Mother played.