F E B R U A R Y 1 9 9 2
THE NUNS OF CHILDHOOD: TWO VIEWSby Maxine Kumin
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O where are they now, your harridan nuns
who thumped on young heads with a metal thimble
and punished with rulers your upturned palms:
three smacks for failing in long division,
one more to instill the meaning of humble.
As the twig is bent, said your harridan nuns.
Once, a visiting bishop, serene
at the close of a Mass through which he had shambled,
smiled upon you with upturned palms.
"Because this is my feast day," he ended,
"You may all have a free afternoon." In the scramble
of whistles and cheers one harridan nun,
fiercest of all the parochial coven,
Sister Pascala, without preamble
raged, "I protest!" and rapping on palms
at random, had bodily to be restrained.
O God's perfect servant is kneeling on brambles
wherever they sent her, your harridan nun,
enthroned as a symbol with upturned palms.
O where are they now, my darling nuns
whose heads were shaved under snowy wimples,
who rustled drily inside their gowns,
disciples of Oxydol, starch and bluing,
their backyard clothesline a pious example?
They have flapped out of sight, my darling nuns.
Seamless as fish, made all of one skin,
their language secret, these gentle vestals
were wedded to Christ inside their gowns.
O Mother Superior Rosarine
on whose lap the privileged visitor lolled
-- I at age four with my darling nuns,
with Sister Elizabeth, Sister Ann,
am offered to Jesus, the Jewish child-
next-door, who worships your ample black gown,
your eyebrows as thick as mustachioed twins,
your rimless glasses, your ring of pale gold --
who can have stolen my darling nuns?
Who rustles drily inside my gown?
Maxine Kumin won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for her collection of poems Up Country. Her most recent volumes are Connecting the Dots (1996) and Selected Poems: 1960-1990 (1997).
Copyright © 1992 by Maxine Kumin. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1992; The Nuns of Childhood: Two Views; Volume 269, No. 2; page 80.