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Sport 4: Autumn 1990

Elizabeth Smither — Bedazzled by Nuns

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Elizabeth Smither

Bedazzled by Nuns

In 1980 I was going weekly to Sister Ernestine for speech lessons. My understanding was that I should learn to read better in public; Sister Ernestine's that I should sit a Trinity College examination. Poets must be weak-willed creatures because I sat the exam but never mastered the public reading. Instead, lying with a heavy tome on my abdomen and Sister Ernestine circling like a bat, I entered, as poets are prone to, a sidelong world with glimpses of a white statue of St. Joseph in a grotto, the wonder of a cell with wall to wall carpet and many vases of flowers, a secret sympathy (at our parting I gave her Arpège) that Sister Ernestine and I shared a liking for expensive and lingering perfumes.

One cold morning, when I was practising my 'impromptu six minute speech' — I had decided the examiner should suffer as well and be told of the difficulties faced by poets — Sister Ernestine's hand glided behind the bars of the Conway heater with a small package wrapped in foil. I stood at one end of the flower-decked room and intoned a poem by Larkin: 'Next, Please'.

. . . for, though nothing balks
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
Each rope distinct,

Flagged, and the figurehead with golden tits

However hard I tried, my voice sounded as flat and spiritless as a fen. To console me, after we had agreed 'Next, Please' would not do, Sister Ernestine drew from the heater, with a fine Merton-like disregard for electricity, one heated-through sausage roll.

What pleasure it was when the lesson ended to walk slowly along the gravel paths between the herbaceous beds, then climb a stile and cross the railway line which bordered the school like a girdle. My ribs ached like flying buttresses and the back of my mouth with the instruction to swell and stay open as though caught in the act of a yawn. 'I could hear page 40 you, if you like. We could rehearse,' Barbara Ewing said to me on my last visit to London where I was to read at New Zealand House. 'No, I want to surprise you,' I said. I could tell by her pained face that I had.

It was an earlier nun, Mother Alberga, who had set my feet on a stoic path. In her vast music room I hoped to sneak up on the black grand piano without unleashing the metronome which crouched on its top like Larkin's toad work.

Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?

The metronome and I were unsympathetic. I escaped into a persona: the starch-white bust of Beethoven who was luckily deaf to my attempts at Fur Elïse, a piece I associated with the advertisement for the perfume Tabu where a man with a violin seizes a lady at the piano around the waist.

Mother Alberga was totally without nonsense and when I presented my autograph book for her to sign she separated herself from the saccharine jingles and wrote in a script spiky enough to impale heads: The Secret of Success: Work, Work, Work. Sister. For one metronome I had simply substituted another.

Milly Molly Mandy, another disproportionate influence, whose knickers came below her hem, was a perfect parallel to the metronome, the autograph. She was a plebian lesson of 'good', a Robin Hood of plainness, thrift and table manners who, in a moment that was perhaps more rebellious than her readers realised, gave away a first prize (an inane doll) for a booby (a slant-eyed rabbit). Not only gave it away but allowed the beautiful dumb blonde to have her tears dried and her curls unruffled. Really I think MMM was a little sadist. Or am I being too harsh? She influenced me for years, helping her parents and grandparents with chores that kept the universe in order and then, in a gesture like Emily Dickinson or Marianne Moore or Amy Clampitt, admitting to a secret passion. For all good poetry has something odd in it, like Marianne Moore's liking for hats. Milly Molly Mandy had the rat's heart, separated from its body, beating in the great sea of achievement.

In report after report from school I am faintly praised as 'thoughtful'. Like the Clock Rooms of the British Museum, so delightful after the reigning calm, I had a mind that seemed in perpetual motion, but unlike the clocks, hardly two chiming the same hour at the same time, I reached only the most tentative conclusions. It is the perceived motion of thought page 41 in writing that appeals to me like the personality of SAM: JOHNSON in a single one of his definitions for his dictionary.

In all this one word is peered at like a star
And around it tweezers separate the milky way
Of close meanings too cloudy to be nice
The doctor delicately divides it hair from hair.

('Dr Johnson adds a word to the dictionary')

My passions were Latin and ballet. Latin I did by torchlight. Marvellously compressed, like a Latin sentence in bedclothes, I searched out Subject, Object, Verb, Case Histories. Caesar flung his troops over a river or retreated to winter quarters. At the time of day I tried to translate him he was writing his lucid and dispassionate dispatches. Like a poem Latin had a take it or leave it quality. A Roman soldier patrolling the wall had an encapsuled memory of Rome to protect him. Or he might spit it all out: weather, Caesars, lice, in a fit of pique.

Ballet was the ineffable reached by broken limbs. Yeats wrote of the 'rag-and-bone shop of the heart' but if he had done ballet he would have known the rag-and-bone shop of the bones. Admiring eight fresh blisters and feet that were aging faster than the rest of me — hadn't a visiting danseur noble been congratulated by a local podiatrist for having the fee of a seventy-year-old man — I was perfectly happy to accept senility of one part if I could only understand how to penetrate that alarming, exact mocking vista that unfailingly opened on any slight advance. Latin too had begun well, with 'love', then swiftly moved onto 'laying waste'. I concluded it was a language of heterosexual violence and aqueducts.

Whole villages, plains, the countryside
There was no limit what a Roman
Might do in his elementary vocabulary.

('Laying waste')

It was another nun, Teresa of Avila, whose autobiography gave me the fullest idea of personality. Orthodox in her structures, like many poets, she pressed against any restriction not essential to her purpose with the full strength of her personality. To do less, for her, would have been to deny her vocation. She ate ferociously and the juices ran down her chin; she railed at God when her raft sank in a Spanish river; she gripped the alter rails to prevent levitation. She was jealous, a page 42 penetrating judge of character, and would have made an exemplary Inland Revenue inspector.

My aim was to be like Teresa of Avila in poetry (my occasional recklessnesses with grammar might be likened to her spitting out chicken bones) and on the surface more like the mousy Thérèse of Lisieux. At least Thérèse only appeared mousy. I had no hope of turning my face radiantly into the splashes and bad breath of a fellow nun washing handkerchiefs.

Writers are nunnish because creation demands a cell. They also require a parlour, like nuns, for recreation. Who has not finished a concentrated piece of work and felt the need to babble? Teresa of Avila used her recreation time for dancing, perhaps with her arms flung wide to echo the dress with wide orange bands she wore to enter, bands like the intense last light left in the garden by the setting sun.

As though to strip off the world is something
Must leave a stain, a lingering
As St. Teresa wanted, over oceans.

('Last light in the garden')

Later still there was Robert Lowell's worldly and aristocratic nun 'Mother Marie Therese' who drowned on an excursion, leaving a billy goat on a headland and a buoy over her, nicknamed the Cardinal. Like a writer whose faith prepares her for the blank page and nothing more, Mother Marie was only apparently serene: privately she was irascible and read Rabelais. Lowell, in a line that reminds me of raindrops, has her eyes fill with tears only when they are sockets:

The dead, the sea's dead, has her sorrows, hours
On end to he tossing to the east, cold
Without bedfellows, washed and bored and old
Bilged by her thoughts and worked on by the worms ...
... My Mother's hollow sockets fill with tears.

('Mother Marie Therese')

I doubt if Wordsworth saw many nuns, otherwise he could not have written:

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free
The holy time is quiet as a Nun.

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He wrote from a nunnish landscape, perhaps the glimpse of a ruin. It is generally recognised now that Wordsworth, with his nunnish desire for quiet while composing, failed to come to grips with London and could only successfully write about it from Westminster Bridge. A theorist might make something of the capitalised Nun. Is it because the word is too small and he would have preferred something more mellifluous or is it, like London, nuns at a certain hour?

I never dared ask Sister Genevieve, a nun related to me by marriage, when she would be 'as quiet as a nun' suspecting she would reply: Asleep or dead. With fresh dusters and a leg of lamb, recycled from the convent freezer, she appeared in the Maniototo landscape as a small travelling dot. Like Teresa of Avila she was preoccupied with water and knew how to construct an effective water race for hyacinths out of old spouting. Supremely gifted with materials she worked from a kind of early Cavendish laboratory: anything could be put to use, to ignite, combine, solve.

Sister Genevieve and I sat by a Central Otago river discussing death. The river seemed to tick. I had discovered Empson, the most nun-like and severe of poets:

Then there is this civilising love of death, by which
Even music and painting tell you what else to love

(Empson: 'Ignorance of Death')

Sister Genevieve told me she prepared for death each morning, leaving the day free. I thought it explained her practicality, her existentialism. I have never met anyone so focused in the moment. Even Empson had failed: 'Otherwise I feel very blank upon this topic.'

I have often felt that poems complain about their construction and draw attention to their weakness. Mostly these signals are lost in the reading. To keep going requires rigour; in my case the rigour of nuns.

For versimilitude I check my memory;
A small black nun (if they shorten our habits I'm leaving)
Crossing a field of gold stubble carrying dusters

('Commission from an aunt nun')

It could have been anything that stuck: the Spartan boy with the fox in his shirt but, after the first example, none were encountered. I had the good fortune to regularly encounter nuns, as Annie Dillard's mother, page 44 seeing them frequently about Philadelphia, once stopped a nuns' crocodile and asked one of them if she would mind showing her daughter they were human.

Mother Alberga's metronome, Mother Marie Therese's drilled eyes, Teresa of Avila trying not to float like a Chagall, Sister Ernestine showing me how to relax on the floor with Great People of the Bible on my ribcage, even Wordsworth's simile have served to remind me of an underlying quiet. Quiet, chaos, quiet, is the natural order of a poem, like the cathedral that floats deep in the earth on a bed of straw and whose spire floats among

... the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing and is nowhere, and is endless.

(Larkin: 'High Windows')

It is Keats who said: 'All writing is a form of prayer'. W ordsworth only presumed a monk and a nun were satisfied with a cloister or a cell. It is this activity in Keats that seems to me so spendidly nunnish, so present-in-the-moment, as when he described an imagined Globe of goldfish for his sister:
I would have it hold 10 pails of water and be fed continually fresh through a cool pipe with another pipe to let through the floor — well ventilated they would preserve all their beautiful silver and Crimson — Then I would put it before a handsome painted window and shade it all round with myrtles and Japonicas.

It is exactly the combination of delight and science—one can imagine Keats's eyes travelling to the floor for the imagined opening or estimating the 10 pails — that I associate with Sister Genevieve's plumbing for the hyacinths. Was there ever such a blend of science and explanation: the pipe, no sooner thought of, becomes cool, the ventilation sets the colour. So deeply existential is this creation that Keats has to almost wilfully drag himself away from his vision. 'I should like the window to open onto the Lake of Geneva—and there I'd sit and read all day like the picture of somebody reading.' Who else has been so present in the cell of their life?

A small anonymous nun directed me to the feretory of St. John Southworth in Westminster Cathedral. I hardly dared to look down at page 45 the body of the hung, drawn and quartered saint in his glass case but when I did I noticed he was wearing socks and his feet were small, elegant and narrow. The judge had cried at his sentencing, for John Southworth was not only well-loved but seventy. A few evenings later, at L'Ecu de France, I remarked on the brutality of the sentence to a QC who averred he simply should not have given his occupation, should have invoked the English equivalent of the Fifth Amendment. But how then could he have held to his vocation? On the same grounds, what need for writers to admit to theirs? The hurdle (I imagine it as a kind of lacrosse net with the saint scooped inside it like a fish) and the socks balance each other in my mind and the balance is there after centuries. Kneeling beside the glass was like being at a peepshow.

The long gaze through glass to what's beyond
And then the eyes, properly introduced
Rest lovingly on instep, cloth and foot.

('The feretory of St. John Southworth, Westminster Cathedral')

'I always preferred what I saw out of the corners of my eyes, Muriel Spark has written, and so it has been with me, through successive nun's parlours, ballet lessons which left stigmata on the toes, Latin done by torchlight with the zeal of Henry Williams working on the Treaty of Waitangi. Inside the shared experience I have always waited for something to come alongside. Rather like the small pilot fish said to clean the teeth of a fearsome shark, a shape that must be reflected and tolerated in the iris of the shark. Unconcerned about cohesive theories I have looked for the unexpected, the strange. Didn't Julian Huxley swear his inheritance from his mother of fast and furious images, often too rapid to set down, was his greatest gift?

So what is this business of leaping? Brad Leithauser's Between Leaps; Poems 1972-1985 with its lovely cover of Winslow Homer's Leaping Trout 1899 emphasises the space relinquished as much as the new space gained. Leaping may be an impulse to rid oneself of a deficiency at a critical moment, in the way an elderly trout, attempting to clear a weir may rid itself of its life. 'If not now, when?' says a fairly universal voice in the ear.

'... it requires no large hop
of imagination to see him as...'

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as Leithauser points out, fixing binoculars for a bird and getting a frog instead. But after the hop, what material is available: metaphor, image, fine delicacy of description, self-congratulation.

Finally there are the glorious leaping nuns in Bedazzled. With what manic energy do they plunge down into the trampoline, boots revealed, habits flying, using the ground, as we were taught in ballet, to send us up again like a sprung floor. Of all the leaping images, the leaping nuns have the edge. The trampoline awaits their least tremor and they rise in exact proportion to their courage. There is no need for them to write anything. Among poets, they are the champions.