In Church

By Peter Balakian b. 1951 Peter Balakian

In the rheumatic heat of July,   
when Public Enemy blared   
on the blasters

in a time when arbitrage   
and foreign policy
were bureaus of each other,

I made a wrong turn off Broadway   
and wound up at St. John the Divine

where I sat in the hot dark   
until the traffic died.


And a voice comes over
some columns to the breeze of the Golden Horn   
over the cypress groves

and flowing bougainvillea
where the bright blue weather and the old   
seawalls come together,

where crates of cardamom   
and musk are piled and   
the cattle hang in blood

above the brass,   
where the grain boats   
stink and red pleasure

barges drift where Jason   
sailed for his fleece—
a voice comes out of the dead water.

In great Sophia
light pours in rosy bars
on the porphyry and the green marble

till the air blooms,
and a chrysalis of lit crosses   
makes circles in the air.

Light falls through the lunettes   
like arrows of gold that could’ve   
sneaked up the Virgin’s dress.

Had the Holy Ghost flitted in
it would’ve been lost in the glare

and the kiss of peace
Justinian blew from the ambo.


Incantations flutter and rhyme   
in the apse like wings   
in a cloud of incense

thinning on the gold-leafed
vaults where the tongue’s vibration   
lingers in the upper air,

and rises and rises as if the dome could open   
to a half-hemisphere of heaven
where in the translucent glitter of the Kingdom

the Saints are poised in gracious robes   
with their thousand-year-frozen faces—
the one truth glued on the grout of their lips.


I sit with the incense of memory,   
and a bath of dark pours   
from the vaults above the pew

Outside, boutiques of money collide   
with the street fires in Harlem, whole   
skyscrapers are levitated by arbitrage,

and the only inside takeover I can negotiate
is myself in this pew with my herringbone jacket   
which I should chuck in the Salvation Army bin

down the block, so I could join the line of choir-
boys in their last innocent ritual   
as they stand before the mounted sermon sign

“he shall bring forth judgment unto truth”
(Isaiah 42:3). The Puritans because
they believed God’s altar needs not their polish

lifted the boulder of truth higher than the glittering   
face of the Nazarene once leaded in glass.

For the spirit they swallowed stones
and shattered all the panes. But beneath the lavender   
arch of a Canon Table in an old Gospel

I once tasted the consubstantial dewdrop   
in the faded color of a peacock’s wing.

So while a stone sinks to the bottom of my   
river, a peacock’s wing floats by the shore.

Who tells it like it is: Isaiah or Procopius?   


I started walking backward   
down the aisle

when I heard and thought I   
saw in the strange fenestration   
of that light—

a voice,
first incoherent, and then sharp   
as if it were in my ear

There is no reign that executes   
justice and judgment;   
is that why you whine?

“But Primo Levi’s image of a man—
a face that haunts every nation   
on the earth—

this, this!”

Don’t soak lentils in your mouth.

“Be serious; what’s left to praise?”

The fig tree drops rocks
in the morning and the fig   
tree drops figs in the morning.

It’s your new yard, am I right?   
New house, 2 kids, and all that.


When a Santa Ana blows fire down the coast   
do you run to meet it in a leisure suit   
or with a silicon chip?

Does a squirrel stash nuts   
of self-pity up its ass?

What are verses for?

And the raisin-light dribbling   
in the clerestory faded,   
and it was cold

as I backed down the aisle:

“We’ll talk more when you’re off duty.”

Peter Balakian, "In Church" from Dyer’s Thistle. Copyright © 1996 by Peter Balakian.  Reprinted by permission of Carnegie Mellon University Press.

Source: June-tree: New and Selected Poems (HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 2001)

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Poet Peter Balakian b. 1951

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Subjects Religion, Christianity

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Peter  Balakian


Peter Balakian is the author of several collections of poetry, including June-tree: New and Selected Poems 1974–2000. His recent book, Ziggurat (2010), wrestles with the aftermath and reverberations of 9/11. His poems have been widely anthologized, including in the 1985 Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, and have been translated into several languages. He has published essays on poetry, culture, and art in . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Religion, Christianity

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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