Choir by John Burnside

I think, if I tried, I could go back an sing again
no worse than I did at twelve, when my voice broke too soon
and I moved to the back of th choir on practise days,
mouthing the words and hoping that no one would hear
the missing soprano.
I stayed for the sudden dark at the stained glass window,
the sense of a vigil it gave me, like waiting for snow
at the presbytery door, a shape stealing in from the cold
to claim me for some lost kingdom; I stayed for the candles
and, off the side of the altar, the theatre of absence
that made more sense, to me,
than our Sunday School God.

Close to retirement, the choirmaster hammered away
at the upright piano,
not for a moment
deceived, so much
in tune with us, he knew each voice by name,
the way a herdsman knows his animals:
the Cunningham twins, their faces so alike
that no one could tell them apart, untl they sang;
the polish boy Marek; the grammar school beauty who smelled
like cinnamon after the rain
– he knew us all by heart, each voice he heard
combining with every child he had taught to sing
through a lifetime of choir, so thoroughly rehearsed
he swore he would pick us out
on Judgement Day.

I turned up every week for six months more;
and all that time he kept
my secret, each of us
pretending not to know the other knew.
I mouthed the words; he played; nobody guessed,
or everyone did; it dosen’t matter now.
Later I switched to blues an the Rolling Stones,
Mandies and cider, Benzedrine, Lebanese;
so, though I wanted to, I couldn’t
make it to Our Lady’s on the day
they buried him net to hier wife, in the steeltown rain,
to prepare for the Second Coming; and anyway,
despite the years of Kyries and hymns,
I never quite saw the point
of the life to come; back than it seemed
that, like as not, most everything runs on
as choir: all one; the living and the dead:
first catch, than canon; all one breath.

aus: John Burnside, Anweisung für eine Himmelsbestattung, Carl Hanser Verlag,München 2016, aus dem Englischen übersetzt von Iain Galbraith

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