by Maxine Kumin
As true as I was born into
my mother’s bed in Germantown,
the gambrel house in which I grew
stood halfway up a hill, or down,
between a convent and a madhouse.
The nunnery was white and brown.
In summertime they said the mass
on a side porch, from rocking chairs.
The priest came early on the grass,
black in black rubbers up the stairs
or have I got it wrong? The mass
was from the madhouse and the priest
came with a black bag to his class
and ministered who loved him least.
They shrieked because his needles stung.
They sang for Christ upon His cross.
The plain song and the bedlam hung
on the air and blew across
into the garden where I played.
I saw the sisters’ linens flap
on the clothesline while they prayed,
and heard them tell their beads and slap
their injuries. But I have got
the gardens mixed. It must have been
the mad ones who cried out to blot
the frightened sinner from his sin.
The nuns were kind. They gave me cake
and told me lives of saints who died
aflame and silent at the stake
and when I saw their Christ, I cried
where I was born, where I outgrew
my mother’s bed in Germantown.
All the iron truths I knew
stood halfway up a hill, or down.