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From The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk

On an old story.


A novice never sees behind the gates.
It’s only those who take the veil can go
Through doors and chambers closed off from the world.
The paintings in the room of the Three States
Reveal beasts gnawing on the damned below;
The saving flames where infant souls lie curled;
And, high above those glories where stars spin,
The priests and nuns alone enjoy God’s light.
For, when nuns lie or steal, the deed turns white,
And priests, we’re told, cannot commit a sin.

The nuns would say prayers, there, and wait in fear
For summons to the dark confessional.
Then, would they kneel before the seated priest
And loose their vices naked in his ear.
When silence fell, he’d hiss a subtle call
And take their buried flesh as his own feast.
My first night in the convent, Père Dufresne
Used me thus, keeping me until the dawn;
Two others did the same, as he looked on
To draw his pleasure from my speechless pain.

And there were other places, hidden deep
Beneath the chapel’s ivory and gold.
Once, sent down to the cellar for some coals,
I tripped upon the trapdoor, where priests creep
In and out of the convent. I was told
Nuns who refused their wills were locked in holes
On either wall, arms bound and soft mouths stopped.
And in a darker place, I found the well,
Caked white with lime, where infant bodies swell—
Those born and baptized, strangled, and then dropped.

Sometimes, old country priests would come to preach,
Their faces flushed and mouths befouled with drink.
Others would show themselves in candlelight,
When evening prayers were done, and reach
Within our garments, while another’d slink
Into our beds and wait for us at night.
As one lay long upon me, I’d recall
The nuns who vanished, till I felt that bloom
Of some secreted life stirred in my womb
And thought how on its limbs white lime would fall.

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James Matthew Wilson’s most recent book of poems is The Strangeness of the Good.