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.

Screenshot 2018-02-02 22.01.55

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.

Screenshot 2017-12-27 21.29.37.png

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

Light or Dark, Depending

At 4AM in Mississippi, I woke from a disturbing dream. An old man, whose wife had died years before, had never stopped grieving for her. A group of us young people came to drop off some items that he was going to give to a charity, and when we went up to his apartment, we were met with a shrine to his late wife. Photos of her littered countertops, the coffee table, the walls. I knew that he would feel utterly depressed and empty until the day he died. The dream left me feeling deeply sad and anxious, and I decided to get out of bed, even though it was early.

I’ve never been a great sleeper. My partner kids that the buzz from a mosquito could wake me, and actually, it’s true. I once woke up when a mosquito flew past my head! I suffered many nightmares, when I was in my twenties, but this dream really shook me. It was summer, and even at such an early hour, it was already muggy and warm in Mississippi, where I was in graduate school at the time. I got out of bed, wrote this poem, and waited for my neighbors to wake up.

In the first stanza of “Earth,” the speaker establishes an unsettling situation: No one is perfectly good or perfectly bad, and this scenario has somehow been agreed upon. There is a lack of an authority figure, and the waters are muddy: “There’s no one in Heaven / who’s that bad. / There’s no one in Hell / who’s that good. / That’s the deal.”

In the second stanza, the speaker describes human lives as needing enthusiasm or to “rally.” The speaker claims that humanity is small and insignificant, like microbes that fit in a petri dish: “Here on Earth, / we rally. / It’s a petri dish.” Further, the humans have desires that can either be light (optimistic, healthy) or dark (destructive). The speaker describes humans as “microbes / bumping and worming” who want “dark or light, / depending.” The last word in this stanza, “depending,” points to their actions as a compass to either the light or to the dark. However, because “bumping and worming” also sounds rather haphazard, and because humans are described as somewhat of a science project, their desires could depend on something that is outside of themselves and out of their control.

The last stanza is inspired by my nightmare but is not a retelling of it. I wanted to continue with the narrative of life on Earth. In this stanza, the speaker describes humans, when they are old. The old humans suffer from the past. They wake from bad dreams before dawn. In the line, “We think that we forgot / to kill our tormentor, / but we didn’t,” the speaker describes the haziness we’ve all experienced when we wake from a dream but are unsure which part of our memory is reality. Even though, when the old wake and realize that their tormentor is long gone, they also remember that their family is gone. There is a sense of loneliness and uncertainty. The family is waiting on the other side but possibly in darkness. The last word “depending” lets the reader decide on what the location of the family depends. Did their actions lead them to light or to dark? Do they have volition? Or is it a decision made by forces unknown?

To read this poem, check out Imitation Fruit, Issue 5, November 2009, and for the audio verison, click here or below.

First published in Imitation Fruit, Issue 5, November 2009 

Featured Image: http://shushi168.com/earth-wallpaper/36939229.html

The Virgins Are All Trimming Their Wicks

Years ago, I lived in Hattiesburg, MS, when Hurricane Katrina ripped her way through the south. Of course, the destruction took its toll on everyone, physically and emotionally. The beginning of  fall semester was postponed. We picked up branches, donated water, and waited for the lights to come back on. When people were able to attempt their normal routines once more, I noticed a curious personal aftermath. I witnessed three marriages begin to break in half just weeks after the storm. Long-kept secrets were revealed, voluntarily and with haste. Affairs, grudges, surreptitious pregnancies were handed out like new playing cards, their recipients told to deal. It was as if the lack of electricity, that constant humming that allows us all to endlessly distract ourselves, suddenly gave way to the urgent need to purge dishonesties. Luckily, I guess, I was single at the time and did not experience any personal revelations, and aside from finishing my Ph.D. a few months before the hurricane, had not really experienced an emotionally eventful year.

I wrote the poem, “Virginity,” during the summer of 2011, a couple months after the tornado in Tuscaloosa, AL. That year had, in fact, felt like nothing but emotional events. I will spare you the details of a romantic relationship gone bad and a friend’s betrayal (insert soap opera soundtrack). As I was writing notes for my poem, I found myself interested in vulnerability. I was bothered by the fact that some people have the heart to mess with those who cannot defend themselves or are not in the shape even to know that they are being manipulated. Then, for some reason, a comedic example of such a scenario popped into my head: cow tipping! I am a city girl but did my undergraduate work at the University of California, Davis, which has a well known agricultural program. It was there that I learned about cow tipping. I was told that you just rush up to a cow and tip her over. Yeah, I know. It befuddles me to this day.

And so, I changed the tone of my poem by discussing cow tipping rather than dark, vague feelings about betrayal that I couldn’t quite articulate anyway. This poem is included in my book Sister Nun and fits into her narrative. She is pushed forward by forces that are not in her control but also rooted in a past that is gone forever.  At the end of the poem, I didn’t have the heart to let the kids knock over the cow. I just let her dream of her happy past! You’ll notice, in the second stanza, there is a reference to eastern philosophy. The idea of the lotus, in Hinduism and Buddhism, is that it floats on a muddy pond but remains pure and white. It symbolizes the idea that one can attain enlightenment but still remain in a world of darkness, without sinking into it.

That feat is easier said than done, of course, and “Virginity” explores the idea that such purity can be easily muddied, even by a group of ornery teenagers, at least in the case of this cow.

(For the audio version of this poem, click here or below.)

Virginity

Virginity is a fragile
canoe. Metaphors are
fragile, too, of course.
Sister knows this but
can’t help thinking of
powdered white cleavage
and unattractive doilies.
The absence of color and
all the colors at once. The
lotus, pure and floating on a
muddy pond. But what about
cow tipping, the irresistible
urge to knock down the
innocent? Children dressed
to match the night and in love
with love, snake through the
gold grass and up to that
old girl, mother to a dozen
calves in her lifetime, and
remembers them only
by their markings.
The hush of midnight and silence
of those trying to keep silent.
She brushes her tail against
her own leg, feels the breeze on
her hooves as she drifts from
one pattern to another, brown
with white spots…black and
brown swirls…white and
grey…white and grey.
The half moon takes root and
she dreams of soft
mooing and warm milk.
Silver cars on a distant
highway. The way
things used to be.

Featured Image: http://www.sustained.ie/news-items/food-exports-up-in-2012/attachment/close-upofcow/

Cocktails with Li Po & Frank O’Hara

This week, we hear from Dr. Raymond Wachter, my friend and colleague of 14 years. In this interview, we discuss journaling, the writing process, and the essence of  Zen poetry. Enjoy! 

You and I have discussed the helpfulness and the pleasure of keeping a journal. What role has journaling played in your own writing process? 

A huge role! Ha ha! I can think of nothing that’s been more central to my life–not just as a writer and teacher of writing, but as far as how I’ve constructed (and de-constructed!) my own identity.

The idea of keeping a journal was foreign to me, until it just sort of happened, organically. A day or two after my 26th birthday, I was at a low point in my life: I was living in Iowa City, bartending and feeling scattered. I was only about a year away from graduating from the University of Iowa, but I was extremely undisciplined about going to classes or even completing basic tasks like paying my university tuition on time.

At that point, in that rather dark phase of my life, I started writing my thoughts in a little notebook. The thoughts turned into entries, and, over the course of a few months, I began to develop a little bit of self-discipline in my personal life. Eventually, I re-enrolled at Iowa and soon after that found myself in a nonfiction writing course. The professor allowed us to choose our own textbook for the course, and I  randomly chose Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, although I knew nothing about it. Both for the book by Cameron, and as a requirement for the nonfiction class, I was required to write several pages a day; I wrote mostly stream-of-consciousness, in a journal, and have been hooked ever since.

Although you earned your Ph.D. in creative writing (poetry specifically) you have written mostly nonfiction in the past several years. How did this genre crossover occur? Has it changed your perspective on poetry or on writing in general?

Well, I’ve never stopped writing poetry, but after I received my PhD and came to Tuscaloosa, I felt very free as a writer, like I could do anything, be whoever I wanted to be as a writer. At first, I revised a (very bad!) novel that I’d written on a one-year break between my master’s and doctoral programs. After I revised the novel (in 2007), I worked hard to shop it around to agents in NYC. None of them ever bit, and they mostly responded in the same way, claiming that my main character was completely unlikeable. It sounds tragic, but I see it as funny now. Besides, with nearly a decade having passed, I can see now that they were on the mark. (The novel is still stored on my hard drive and a redundant jump drive, though I doubt it will ever get published.)

After the thorough rejection by literary agents, I was preparing to write another novel. I  felt it was some sort of badge of honor to keep moving forward. But I still remember quite clearly the way my girlfriend (at the time) scoffed at me, for wanting to continue writing in the same genre. Perhaps because it felt like more of a risk, or more of a jump into the unknown, I pretty much abandoned fiction at that moment. Now, I’m only interested in writing nonfiction & poetry.

What are you currently writing?

Currently, I’m writing a nonfiction book, but it’s not a memoir, and it’s not even “literary nonfiction.” It’s a book about the mind/body connection and how to make choices in your life that bring you happiness.

About seven years ago, the Department of English, here at The University of Alabama, began an initiative where the instructors would teach “themed” courses in First-year Writing. (I believe you and I were both part of that pilot program.) Out of the five themes offered, the one I chose was called “Advancing Mind & Body.” Teaching that course was really wonderful for me, professionally & personally. I began reading a number of authors and sharing them with my students, writers like Bruce Lipton & Larry Dossey, who both have rigorous academic backgrounds, but whose work might be considered “New Science” or “Mind-Body-Spirit” (as far as their publishing labels).  My initial teaching assignment, and the new authors I began reading, definitely changed the course of my writing projects.

So the book I’m currently writing, about the mind/body connection, is an explanation for New Thought concepts about Self-Awareness and the crucial importance of understanding your own inner monologue. I really can’t imagine wanting to write fiction ever again, or even “literary” nonfiction, now that I’m writing this book.

I know that you  have often favored Zen poetry. How has your view of this type of poetry changed over the years? What keeps you coming back to it?

I suppose I was always interested in poets who describe a moment of heightened awareness, which is probably what Zen is, once you strip away all the trappings of Buddhist theology. There’s this poem of Jorie Graham’s that I loved as an undergraduate, called “The Dream of the Unified Field.” Now, Graham is the last person in the world who would call herself a Zen writer, but the poem moves in and out of different moments in Graham’s life–as a mother bringing a leotard to her daughter’s overnight party, to  historical moments, including an entry from Christopher Columbus’s diary.

It’s a gorgeous poem, especially as it’s fairly long and (seemingly) meandering. I didn’t have a clue as to why I liked it two decades ago, but now I can see that I was attracted to Graham, and other poets as diverse as Frank O’Hara and Emily Dickinson, because they are all interested in moments of heightened awareness. Whether it’s a moment in their lives (Frank seeing Billie Holiday’s name on a daily newspaper, or Jorie walking through the snow in her neighborhood) or whether it’s a moment in their writing lives (Emily’s “slant of light,” “Winter Afternoons”), it seems to me that great poetry is an accurate rendering of  heightened consciousness. Then, as a reader, it doesn’t matter if it’s a Li Po poem from over 1,200 years ago, or a Sappho poem twice that age, you are able to momentarily enter into that state of heightened awareness that they left for us. Also, as I consider the diverse poets that I just mentioned in this answer, it’s clear too, that the best Zen poets don’t necessarily see themselves as Zen.

Well, if Frank O’Hara and Li Po were somehow able to read or hear this answer, I hope they wouldn’t be mad at me. Actually, if we were all somehow together on the physical plane, you and I and those two poets would probably love to have a cocktail right about now! I’d venture to say that drinks with those two, and a chat about poetry, would probably be the best dinner party one could imagine! 🙂

ray-at-bama

Ray Wachter grew up on a farm in rural, southwest Iowa. After serving two years in the U.S. Coast Guard, he attended the University of Iowa where he received a B.A. in English. He studied American Literature & Creative Writing at the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he received his M.A. and PhD. For the past ten years, he’s been a faculty member in the English Department at The University of Alabama.

 

Featured image of man typing, by Joel Robison: https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/04/06/joel-robinson-joy-of-reading/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+brainpickings/rss+(Brain+Pickings)&utm_content=Google+Reader