American Life in Poetry: Column 729


One of the many challenges in life is in knowing where you're supposed to sit. I slid into the wrong pew at a funeral forty years ago and still smart from the hard looks I got. Here's a church pew poem by Bruce Pemberton, who lives in Palouse, Washington. It's from the literary journal Third Wednesday.

Autumn 2017

There’s coffee and pie
with a widow from church.
Why do you sit
in the back pew? she asks.
I’m close enough, I say.
Can I sit back there with you?
I’ve always sat there, I tell her,
with my same two friends,
and their clicking oxygen pumps.
One sat next to me for years,
called herself my church girlfriend,
who metastasized, telling me she was
tired of waiting to die.
Now, theres just my 88-year-old friend,
his pump echoing in the sanctuary,
and theres that empty
space between us.
Id like to invite the widow to sit there,
but I miss my dead friends laugh,
her loving stories about her husband,
and how we were always
glad to see one another.
I tell the widow all this.
What if I just sat there? she asks.
Its a free country, I tell her,
and she smiles.

We do not accept unsolicited submissions. American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2018 by Bruce Pemberton, “Autumn 2017” from Third Wednesday, (Vol. XI, no. 2, 2018). Poem reprinted by permission of Bruce Pemberton and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2019 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.