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MEMOIRS OF A NUN ON FIRE
(Published in "The Outlaw Bible of America Poetry" (Thunders' Mouth Press))

“You are worldly, Sister Marie Philomene”
The Mother Superior had said in the parlor
Bent over me, tall, angular, aristocratic
Like the silhouette of a praying mantis
“Even your voice, its inflections—worldly”

At that I was to kneel on the spot
Kneel with no excuses
Blind obedience
Drop to the floor like a swatted fly

Eyes lowered, lips closed
I wiggled. My veil fluttered
My knees bent a little
Then locked
I would not

Back straight, head erect
My eyes wide, cool
And I hope vacant
I stared into her triangular face
I turned, left
Through the dim corridors of
No time or season

In my room I reached
Through the silence, and
As if from a great height
Watched my hands
Take the scissors
Begin to cut
Name-tags off my veils
Stockings, underwear
Everything

All over the room
Threads and scraps
Of my name
“Sister Marie Philomene”
Like tiny white clouds
Far beneath my feet

I knew I would leave that night
Just walk out

Five years within this cloister
An enclosure of silence
Latin. Eyes fixed to the floor
Black robes, medieval gestures
In the most secret recesses
A thousand daily deaths

At the end of the hall
The life-size crucifix
Christ’s bruised knee
The level of our lips
A well-kissed knee

Through these corridors
We glide
Through our own ghosts
Muted light
Fluid movements
Everything clean
Silent and clean

“I have loved, O Lord,
The beauty of Thy house.”

But here things feel dirty
Like in my dreams
In the convent I do not dream
Of the good sisters
Each night it is a dark man
Who follows me
He is tall, thin
And wears black. All black
His half smile is repulsive
He wants to kiss me
Every night in my dreams

Sometimes, he removes my veil
Runs his fingers through my hair
Once he does kiss me
I am frightened
I tell another sister
She says the dark man is myself

And then—the night I am seduced
By God disguised as a fat black fly
As a bride of God I am told
To experience the Mystical Union
I must make my mind empty-
An erased blackboard
I contemplate the blackness of space
The millions of light years
Between the stars
I stretch my mind until it is
No longer fixed anywhere
I become the Bride of the
Expansive Black
I kiss it-- its deep silence

But it is difficult to
Contemplate the Immensity
While enduring a small
Persistent itch

Daily I work shoveling
The convent’s garbage
Into the incinerator
The flies and yellow jackets
Are very friendly
At times the golden insects
Cover my black serge habit
Like a jeweled mantle
As flies circle my head

At first I do not know
A fly has crept 
Into my ear to rest
I suppose it has awakened
Confused, and is trying to escape
Lost deep within my ear canal
It buzzes with mounting intensity
Its buzz is as loud and wide
As the universe I am contemplating
Finally, I know it is not God
But only a fly
Or is it God disguised as a fly?
Is it the buzz of God?

The fly buzzes
With growing desperation
As its delirium grows
So does mine with the
Frantic buzzing of
That fly. That Fly?

When it emerges into my outer ear
I open the side of my headgear
And the fly flies out
At this moment, this very moment
I have my first orgasm
I know what it is because
I have felt the sensation begin once before
While kissing my high school boyfriend
While I wiggle on the pew
I see it at the corner of my eye
And enormous black fly
It hangs in mid-air as if
To look at me for a moment
It is the most beautiful fly
I have ever seen

But what did the nuns see
As they sat silently behind me
Everyone motionless
Except one wiggling nun and
A hovering fly besides her?
I will never know
No one ever mentions it
No one ever mentions anything personal
And if they do, what would they say?
“Excuse me, Sister Marie Philomene,
But did I see you having an orgasm
During five o’clock meditation?”

***

Beat. Beaten. Beatific
I am on my knees before the bed, the crucifix
This particular night is exceptionally dark
It is this night I am to understand I am a poet

Saturday night
Time to whip myself again
I wonder is Cardinal McIntyre doing this?
But I will do it right this time
Five years within the convent
And I have not yet done it right
Each time the hand that holds the chain
Has exerted its own will

I say to the night
“I will tonight
I will beat myself until I bleed.”

My body, mind—one thing
I raise the chain high up. Higher
That way it will come down
With greater force—
To beat, to beat, to beat.
To be beaten. Higher. Faster
Body, mind, chain
One thing. One will
To strike repeatedly
To beat to blood

It ends
I run my fingers over
My bare back
There is blood
For the first time– blood
A small amount. But I did it

“Beautiful blood,” I say
I remove my habit
I run my fingers over the spot
Yes. It is blood
Beatific blood. Beatific spot

Slowly, I turn in awe to see it
It, indeed, is beautiful
But it, my beatific spot is
A mosquito bite!

I stand in the center of the room
Let loose a mighty laugh
“Beatific mosquito! Beatific!”
I, who have been the Bride of flies
Have become the Bride of mosquitoes
“Holy proboscis! Probe of fire!”
(Didn’t Saint Rose of Lima
Out among the mosquitoes
So that they might bite her,
Say their hum sounded to her
Like a choir of angels?)

O Holy Night!
The mosquitoes are quietly biting
Little fly. Great night

If you would have looked
Into the dark corner
You would have found
Philomene naked as if by the night
A Philomene who no longer
Hid her heart under crossed arms
But who excitedly
Held her breasts in her hands as if
She was offering them to her beloved

Hers was a song of…
No, it was deeper even
It was a prayer
As he priest mutters
From the altar
Holding up the Host
Her heart thumping
In this forgotten corner
As she prayed

You would see her dare to
Look at her own body
In the stark black night
Her body—golden, serpentine,
Glowing cheeks, glistening eyes
Crimson tongue in this night of
Black fingers
Her slick long body rising
Rising in the blackness slowly
Very slowly turning
Turning in the unseeing
Dreadful hole of night
The night, its burning lips
The night of kisses
She danced. Naked, burning
Bride of God

In the Grand Silence
You could hear Philomene whisper
“I am a poet.”

But I will always be a nun
Always in my dreams
I am a shabby nun
There are flies
Under my habit
And my robes are in
Bits and pieces
I will always have
An affinity for the extreme
Even now I prefer the company
Of a St. Francis of Assisi
Taking  his clothes off in public
Or a  St. Simeon Stylites
Who sat for years atop a high column
Or a St. Joan of Arc
Who heard voices and
Dressed in men's clothes

Even now I prefer to live among
The poets, saints and mad ones
Of Venice West

I know no other way
But to strip and leap naked
Into the Holy Fires

Burn.  Burn.  Must burn

--Philomene Long

Philomene Long as a Nun

(C) Copyright Philomene Long Estate 2008-2010, All Rights Reserved. Photographs by Pegarty Long.

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