Church of Sister Nun

“Church of Sister Nun” is the last poem in Sister Nun (which, if you are new to this blog, is a book of poems from the voice of a former Buddhist nun). I spent the majority of summer, in 2011, writing the book and really had no idea how I’d end it. I knew she had to leave the earthly narrative, but I was not ready to let her go. I also had it in mind that she would have lived a long time. I decided that I would continue with the surrealist nature of the book and let her live for 215 years. In the last poem, I give her a second coming.

Throughout her first physical incarnation, she joins and leaves a convent, but in leaving, she takes a bit of the convent with her. She changes her name to “Sister,” and she keeps her head shaved; however, she also explores the Earth’s core and outer space, and she writes a self help book. Although she often thinks of convent, either to compare or to interpret the present, she never finds religion nor cares to. Therefore, the title of the poem, “Church of Sister Nun,” already indicates that someone, or a group of people, have overtaken her narrative. The first stanza contradicts the title’s implication that she may have started her own church (or has condoned one in her name) and also declares that she has returned to Earth centuries after her death:

In life, Sister always
thought of church as an
unlucky place. The jewel
toned glass, impressing
a false sun. There’s incense,
she remembers that, lit
everywhere like perfumed
bugs, sliding down the stick.
Now, centuries after her death,
she’s back.

The second stanza declares that Sister had lived for 215 years and that, although she was heavy with grief, she was free:

After the span of her Earthly
life, 215 years, she had finally
seen it all. The melodrama
of her broken, old heart.
An impractical paperweight
holding down nothing at all.

For the next stanza, bear with me; I’m about to discuss Britney Spears, gender expectations, and the fine line between pain and freedom. Years ago, as you probably remember, Britney Spears, exhausted by the paparazzi, shaved her head in a hair salon and then took an umbrella to the windshield of a photographer’s car. I can’t speak to her deeper mental state, but I recall seeing the image of a bald Britney, umbrella in attack-mode, and thinking, “Good for her.” She shaved her beautiful, long hair, a symbol of feminine sexuality that kept her rich and working but also hounded and mocked for the better part of her adolescence and young adulthood. Truth be told, I was a fan of Britney after the umbrella incident and was disappointed that the media reduced the scenario to “crazy” (not that that’s any surprise).

Spears is thirty-six now, and like many, has taken more control of her image through selfies on Instagram; however, she is back to promoting that image of sexy seductress. I get it. Sex sells, and the images she posts couldn’t be more stilted, but I can’t help but miss the day she lost her locks and went on the offense.

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For the poem, I pictured the future to be about as hollow as the present, and although Sister Nun’s experience with fame is not as aggressively felt as Britney’s, the paparazzi’s presence burdens Sister in her golden years. The faux intimacy of their proximity foreshadows the remaining narrative after her death: “And/at her age, followers behind her/every step with their future cameras.”

In stanza three, Sister Nun again is objectified, although this time more tenderly. There is also a reference to the commodification of Sister Nun’s image:

Sometime in her 90’s she had caught
the eye of a young, male sculptor
(whom she later outlived) and spent
all his mornings creating versions of
her from clay, glass, silk, even trees.
All his lovers were bald. You see,
to hope that someone has reached
the tower and sees you, the village,
and the hills beyond the sea is worth
even more than an original Sister Nun
fetish.

In the first part of the final stanza, the speaker reveals that the worship of Sister Nun was for nought, as she also did not understand the mysteries of the universe. With this understanding, she slips away “from camp,” indicating that she has a small following in future times:

But the truth is, Sister never knew a thing.
And one night, she slipped away
from camp. The boys slept in piles,
clutching the air. The girls, curled
into the Earth, reminded Sister of
something from a long time ago.

The final lines of the poem juxtapose dark and light imagines and are rooted in nature. Sister has just left the group, and the speaker implies that she will leave her body once more:

Black sky and happy, pulsating
stars as she reached, at last, the
tamal tree, jasmine opening
the night.

In a previous blog post, “Pagans and Buddhists and Christians, O My!” I discuss the religion that I grew up in and followed until my late 20s (Self-Realization Fellowship). In church, I remember hearing stories about Krishna, who voluntarily left his body under a tamal tree. (The Mahabharata tells a different version, claiming that a hunter, named Jara, mistook a sleeping Krishna for a deer and fatally wounded him with an arrow.) The tamal tree is said to have a dark, blue bark that resembles Krishna’s skin. In the last couple lines of “Church of Sister Nun,” I wanted to allude to the story of Krishna, giving up his body under the tamal tree, and to imply that Sister would soon do the same.

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I also wanted to end the poem with a sensuous image, and I chose the scent of jasmine because certain varieties will only blossom at night. In the beginning of Sister’s journey, she is grieving and alone. Although it’s arguable that her loneliness remains through the end, it is out of the darkness of her heartbreak that Sister Nun connects with her true self and finds an enlightenment that grants her meaning, depth, and adventure.

 

Church of Sister Nun

In life, Sister always
thought of church as an
unlucky place. The jewel
toned glass, impressing
a false sun. There’s incense,
she remembers that, lit
everywhere like perfumed
bugs, sliding down the stick.
Now, centuries after her death,
she’s back.

After the span of her Earthly
life, 215 years, she had finally
seen it all. The melodrama
of her broken, old heart.
An impractical paperweight
holding down nothing at all. And
at her age, followers behind her
every step with their future cameras.

Sometime in her 90’s she had caught
the eye of a young, male sculptor
(whom she later outlived) and spent
all his mornings creating versions of
her from clay, glass, silk, even trees.
All his lovers were bald. You see,
to hope that someone has reached
the tower and sees you, the village,
and the hills beyond the sea is worth
even more than an original Sister Nun
fetish.

But the truth is, Sister never knew a thing.
And one night, she slipped away
from camp. The boys slept in piles,
clutching the air. The girls, curled
into the Earth, reminded Sister of
something from a long time ago.
Black sky and happy, pulsating
stars as she reached, at last, the
tamal tree, jasmine opening
the night.

Photo Credit: https://visualwilderness.com/quick-tips/choosing-a-location-to-photograph-aurora-borealis

Sister Wolf

Sister Nun is a character who suffers, as most people do, from the pain of duality. Sequestering herself from the world does not heal her broken heart; rather, living in the convent exasperates it. She must strike out, dramatically, in order to hunt for the connection she craves. It is by leaving seclusion that Sister finds connection with herself, and in doing so, reconciles her inner diversities. She longs for others but often prefers to be alone. She wants to understand the universe but enjoys mystery. She loves both men and women. Later in the book, we learn that she is also a werewolf.

Sister Nun often uses the surreal as a lens through which to understand life’s realities differently. In the case of “Werewolf,” the reader can immediately understand Sister’s duality, on one level. Werewolves are usually portrayed as humans who can (or are cursed to) turn into wolves or wolf-type creatures. Many tales portray werewolves as tortured: they turn into grizzly beasts against their will and become conscious again only after it’s too late, their wild instincts already satiated. However, I wanted Sister Nun to accept this transformation, especially since she is in the process of finding peace with her dualities.

In the first stanza, the speaker reveals a dark incident from Sister’s past. She becomes a werewolf after someone “pierced her back with dirty / claws, infecting her with the urge.” There is an idea of transference, that someone else’s “dirty claws” can change another person’s future. However, “Sister Nun does not mind that / she’s a werewolf. It doesn’t / bother her” to think of how she became one. At the end of this stanza, the speaker vaguely refers to the affect of the “infection” as “the / urge.”

In the next stanza, “Dogs bark at the night, prepare / for Sister’s visit.” It is unclear for what they need to prepare, but when Sister arrives, she “gnaws their / bones, humps the women, and makes everyone laugh.” In this stanza, I contrast the images that could be taken as aggression (“gnaws their / bones, humps the women”) with the fact that she “makes everyone laugh.” Everyone is included in the good time, and although the previous two images are wild in nature, the dogs and she are having fun.

The final stanza deals with Sister’s interaction with humans. The first few lines contrast her easy, natural relationship with other canines with the violent and fearful reaction she receives from other humans: “But not everybody likes Sister / Wolf.” Here, part of Sister’s name even changes from “Nun,” a distinctly human calling, to “Wolf.” Although it’s still capitalized, the name change reveals the shift from her connection to canines to her conflict with humans. These humans “grab their / rifles or, in a pinch, chuck / silver bangles at her and / shriek.” The beginning of these lines sound aggressive: they are willing to shoot Sister Wolf, but the narrative quickly devolves as their reactions become rather silly. The silver bangles refer, of course, to the myth that you can kill a werewolf with a silver bullet. However, they are throwing jewelry and shrieking, in what sounds like a pitiful attempt to keep her at bay.

Sister’s reaction is a mixture of aggression and pleasure; she “growls” and “laughs.” One gets the sense that her aggression is playful and that she is not afraid of the humans’ attempts to end her. In the morning, she “wakes nude / and adorned until the next / bald moon pulls / her like a riptide.” Rather than the traumatic wake up call that most werewolves experience in folklore, I wanted Sister’s “day after” to feel like waking from a dream where she felt beautiful and happy. The “bald moon” both refers to the moon’s fullness and references Sister’s head. (Sister had joined a Buddhist convent but kept her head shaved, even after she had left.)

The final lines “pulls her / like a riptide,” in one sense, shows that she is not completely autonomous. She is still pulled in by nature, but when she is part of nature, she also finds freedom.

“Werewolf”

Werewolf

Sister Nun does not mind that
she’s a werewolf. It doesn’t
bother her to think of the night
he pierced her back with dirty
claws, infecting her with the
urge.

Dogs bark at the night, prepare
for Sister’s visit. She gnaws their
bones, humps the women, and makes
everyone laugh.

But not everybody likes Sister
Wolf. The humans grab their
rifles or, in a pinch, chuck
silver bangles at her and
shriek. Sister growls,
laughs, and wakes nude
and adorned until the next
bald moon pulls her like a
riptide.

Photo Credit: Christian Hughes
http://www.christianhouge.no/Shadow-Within