originally published February 1992
Audio: Hear Maxine Kumin read this poem (2:22)
Also by Maxine Kumin
Winter's Tale (2009)
The Cohort (2005)
The Apparition (2003)
The Sunday Phone Call (2002)
The Word (1994)
Continuum: A Love Poem (1980)
January 25th (1965)
From the archives:
The Art of Living
An interview with Maxine Kumin (Feb. 6, 2002)
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 has two new books out this year: Where I Live: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010 and an essay collection, The Roots of Things. Her other recent collections include Still To Mow (2007) and The Long Marriage (2001). She lives on a horse farm in New Hampshire.