How difficult it was to look at them
and how hard it has been to come to the memory—
a room crowded with elderly nuns on the top floor
of a hospital in Kalamazoo more than twenty years ago.
I was still in graduate school and taking a break
to earn money and write, and I recall
writing a poem about Ulysses coming back
and another about a quest. How simple it seemed
to pick a life and have that life make sense.
That was what was easy about being twenty-four.
So it felt correct to choose what seemed hardest,
where the spiritual return was greatest.
That year I worked at a Catholic college
and my closest friend was a nun of about eighty
plagued by bad feet, which was why she’d been sent
to the hospital. At that time the nuns still wore
the full habit, black of course, with only
their hands and faces uncovered and a great
silver cross around their necks. One never saw
their hair or any trace of their bodies, everything
was concealed in the service of their calling,
and I was struck by their wedding rings—these brides
of Christ. Clearly, I was nervous about visiting
my friend, of seeing a whole floor of sick nuns,
afraid of seeing one undressed or somehow revealed,
so it was at least a week before I finally went.
I was also writing a novel and had constant plans,
a whole career under way, and the next year back
in graduate school I even wrote a poem about this visit,
although I didn’t get it right or really know
what it meant, had only been amazed, even shocked,
when I had walked down the hall and then stopped
to look through the doorway of a ward—twenty or
twenty-five women in their eighties and nineties
propped up in chairs and couches, their habits askew,
their wimples twisted to reveal a hank of hair,
stick figures lost within yards of black cloth.
But more striking than the nuns were the dolls
that at least a dozen held—rocking and soothing them,
patting their backs, clucking and cooing to them.
One singing in a cracked voice, another clutching
the doll to her bony shoulder. How much love they had
for these rag things as they stroked and caressed them
and I remember one nun by the door with her face
scrunched into a thousand wrinkles as she aped
the doting expression of a young mother. And then
came my shock at the dolls themselves:
colorless and faceless, with their features
rubbed off, stroked, kissed off, until from
top to bottom they had turned uniformly gray,
some yarn for the hair, nothing for the eyes,
handed on from one elderly nun to another,
a comfort in their last years, before death plucked
those childless women from their chosen calling.
Shy defiers of the existential world,
you draw your veil against the unpleasant,
then the head turns away, the body turns away,
the feet trudge off toward someplace nice, but you,
you were the first, you drew the initial curtain.
Oh, cautious celebrators of the decorous,
how much has gone unwitnessed or unjudged,
how much remains unchanged due to your benign
interference? Why reduce the world to this
middle range of behavior, as if the story
contained only happy couples on lawn chairs
nibbling macaroons and sipping soothing drinks.
Don’t you fear the darkness will squeeze you tight
because of your ignorance of it?
Oh, my shy ones, forgive this desecration—
the chrome of the scissors will sparkle in your eyes,
while your being closed only simplifies my task.
A few quick snips and the light will shine forever.
Gaze upon it. See that fire, those cold stones.
This is the world to love. There is no other.
Stephen Dobyns is the author of 14 books of poetry: Concurring Beasts, 1972; Griffon, 1976; Heat Death, 1980; The Balthus Poems, 1982; Black Dog, Red Dog, 1984; Cemetery Nights, 1987; Body Traffic, 1990; Velocities: New and Selected Poems 1966-1992, 1994; Common Carnage, 1996; Pallbearers Envying the One Who Rides, 1999; Do They Have a Reason? 2000; The Porcupine’s Kisses, 2002; Mystery, So Long, 2005; and Winter’s Journey, 2010.
His poems have been published in various periodicals such as Poetry, The New Yorker, Paris Review, North American Review, Boulevard, Iowa Review, Antaeus, Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, and many others. Dobyns is also the author of five novels, a collection of short stories, and a book of essays. Among his many honors and awards are fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.