Jeanine Hathaway’s The Ex-Nun Peoms
Jeanine Hathaway’s new book does that wonderful and rare thing: every poem has multiple duties—of language, meaning and emotion—and I’ll be damned if the poems don’t fire on all cylinders at once, consistently.
What would it be like to find out, when you go in to the doctor to get checked out for chest pain, that your body contains a monastery, “detailed masonry under scaffolding of ribs, past curtains / of lungs. Around the courtyard, bronchial trees,/ the lime-white cloister walk….”? To be an ex-nun is to be an “ex” outside of the Motherhouse, but still utterly connected to the experience by experience, by memory, by the internalization of life into the body, all of it building a permanent state of being with our past ways of being. In Hathaway’s funny, poignant, honest book, the bodies of the world and the words we use to describe those bodies are what we dig into: at the doctor’s office, on the geological dig, at the Catholic school:
The Ex-Nun Remembers the Ruler
“Measure up, she tells her children, points
to their rules, their feet. Pace off the classroom.
The youngest Martinez, whose birth
embarrassed his much older sister,
tugs at Maria’s black braid. Jesus!
calls the nun more than once and slaps
up the aisle behind them. Jesus! Maria!
Reverting to type, she looms—then laughs.
Some joke, her children, that image.
Called by the bell to change, the class
stretches, up go their rulers wanting to kiss,
to cross like a roomful of Knights
of Columbus, or mutinous slaves,
short oars without paddles,
about to revolt. Have they a prayer?
Over metrics she’d chosen the illogical 12
inch to honor apostles. Considered dividing
the product of 4 X 3 into red-hatted cardinal
directions adjusted to Paul’s theological
virtues. And the greatest of these?
After Compline, she paces her own
immeasurable cell, counting (one, foot
after the other) poverty, chastity, obedience,
rounding the corners they could put her in.
This is hard to do well, and Hathaway consistently makes language do double- and triple-duty. Hers is a remarkable capacity for the sheer exuberance and fun of language, and we get the stern frown of the ex-nun always broken open by an intrinsic warmth and humor where a twinkling wit just can’t help itself. The book is wonderful and generous this way, and a great relief above the incessant breast-beating and negativity of so much contemporary personal poetry. Humor and wit are, after all, a large part of the human experiment and there is really not enough of it in poetry these days. For this I am grateful to Hathaway and so should we all be for a break in the otherwise bleak play.
The poems are also, when they enter more serious territory, not stern or stuffy or depressing, but surprisingly erotic. From the poem “Going Through History”:
This is a book about fighting, which could be useful
at work. It’s also about money, so nothing has changed:
where is God? Donna Lucrezia’s motets rise above
the piazza like birds to be clerically shot. Donna Cecilia
weeps in her bed: Donna Louisa beneath her provides
what God and man do not….
Here we see the cutting edge of her wit, and yet here’s sex too, and once again we are off to Hathaway’s complex races. A book not to be missed by any reader who enjoys invigoration and fresh air. It is a sheer gift from Hathaway, who effortlessly brings enormous space to the cramped cell in lockdown that we call the English language.