Dead Nun – Nicola Bowery – Analysis

Dead Nun

Flattened crow, wheeled out
like a lesson in arithmetic.
Death, minus one,
taught by a pickled nun.

I’m not ready for instruction.
Spiders stiffen quietly in corners,
an ant kisses the sand.
I am as virgin of death as they come.

Mother Agatha is dead.
Hurry girls, form a line.
I don’t want to. She’ll smell.
Move on, move on!
You’re not at death’s door yet.

She wasn’t a person, not even a beetle.
Kept in the back room to wither in secret
then served up on a trolley after homework.
She’s gone to Jesus. Say goodbye.
I don’t want to say goodbye.

The line is moving at the pace of one peep only,
the chapel suffocates in chrysanthemums.
There’s a faint whiff of fish,
the smug stare of too many candles,
the sputter of a giggle about to burst.

She’s very neat in her tight-fitting box,
a cardboard cut-out, black feathered still,
her tiny paper hands folded in a holy posture.
She looks beyond the fuss of genuflection.
What about her bridal gown, her smile for Jesus,
the hole her soul escaped from?

I want to jab her toe
and ask her where she’s going
but my knees are melting.
I want to be horizontal and carted away.
There are too many candles in Heaven.

Hush girls, off to bed.

Nicola Bowery, Bloodwood, Bunda Press 1996

The following is my interpretation on the above and as always read the poem and ponder your own thoughts before the colouring of your mind by my words.

Looking at each stanza …

S1 … great opening stanza …goes straight to the focus of the poem – the wheeling out of a dead nun – a nun who taught maths …nice number framing of a death (-1 teacher, or Life – 1 = Death + 1) taught by a pickled nun – on first reading I had the impression the nun taught while ‘pickled’ – could be a cynical view of nuns in general as being preserved for heaven.

S2 … well a different form of instruction now taking place! – first death experience – compare with her current experience of death (crushed ant or a spider) … we can start to put an age on the girl

S3 … the herding by the nuns … very believable language and response … reluctance, and and the young girls equating death to yuk

S4 … tells it all on how this girl felt about nuns – or this nun in particular … kept in a backroom nicely fits the preservation concept and now after death she is being served up (not to heaven – but to the girls on a trolley) … she may have gone to Jesus – but you get the feeling she is very much here

S5 … you can imagine the girls slowing passing the body and the various reactions … and the proliferation of candles which view with a smug stare (well, they are still alive) … and the abundance of flowers

S6 … genuflection was a word that tripped me – it looks like reflection across the generations – I wanted to look it up in the dictionary straight away
(genuflection = to bend the right knee to the floor and rise again as a gesture of religious respect, especially in a Roman Catholic or Anglican church)
But ‘the hole her soul escaped from’ – implies distaste for the nunnery-life – akin to the preserved in a jar from the first stanza. The act of going to Jesus has an unknown and cynical flavour.

S7 … the unknown journey from death makes her think – where has she gone – if only she could tell me – ‘I want to jab her toe’ … but it is all too much – she would like to be horizontal too (bed time) – the proliferation of candles combines to overwhelm – the thought of heaven too much

Summary – I really like this poem for it gives a vivid description of a very believable school experience and the early age personal confrontation with death – combined with a questioning of the life of the nun – it reminds me of that wonderful 1959 film ‘The Nun’s Story’ with Peter Finch and Audrey Hepburn.

Such a poignant ending to the film when Sister Luke (Audrey Hepburn) leaves the convent, her vows and the life and friends she has known, to walk through the door by herself to start her life as a new person – into the ‘real’ world bustle, ‘real’ life. I remember watching this very moving film when I was a schoolboy.

Nicola Bowery is a local Braidwood poet … here is a link for those interested in reading more of Nicola’s work – –

One thought on “Dead Nun – Nicola Bowery – Analysis

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