The Nuns Who Wrote Poems

Pictured from left: Mary Madeleva Wolff, C.S.C., Jessica Powers (Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit) and Madeline DeFrees (Mary Gilbert, S.N.J.M.) (photos: Saint Mary's College archives/Wikipedia/Madelinedefrees.com).Pictured from left: Mary Madeleva Wolff, C.S.C., Jessica Powers (Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit) and Madeline DeFrees (Mary Gilbert, S.N.J.M.) (photos: Saint Mary's College archives/Wikipedia/Madelinedefrees.com).

“Modern poets are talking about their digestive systems, their empty skulls, and of the refuse of humanity.” Quite the literary jab in 1962—from a nun, no less. But Mary Madeleva Wolff, C.S.C., was not speaking from the sidelines; she was a poet herself, whose Collected Poems were praised by The New York Times as having “melodic skill.” Despite their “orthodox piety,” the reviewer wrote, her “appeal is a popular one.”

Sister Wolff was not alone in her poetic prowess. Mary Bernetta Quinn, O.S.F., a critic and poet, was acclaimed by Flannery O’Connor and kept long correspondences with many of the best poets of her generation, including Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and Denise Levertov. In the mid-20th century, several nuns like Sister Wolff and Sister Quinn were writing ambitious poems and publishing them in renowned magazines and newspapers. Their writing garnered awards and accolades. These women were not the first literary nuns—Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, O.S.H., a 17th-century Mexican nun, is famous for her iconic verses—but something of a minor literary renaissance happened in mid-century America and abroad. Although literary nuns tend to be overshadowed by poetic priests like Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., and Robert Southwell, S.J., these women deserve attention.

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In the mid-20th century, several women religious were writing and publishing ambitious poetry.

(Although often used interchangeably, the terms “nun” and “sister” connote different religious lives. Nuns are typically cloistered; sisters profess simple vows and live apostolic lives out in the world. Of the women religious depicted in this story, Jessica Powers fits the traditional description of a nun, living a cloistered life.)

Best known for administrative accomplishments—she served as president of Saint Mary’s College for 27 years and founded the School of Sacred Theology there in 1943, the first graduate theology school for lay persons—Sister Mary Madeleva Wolff was also a dedicated poet. Born in 1887, she studied medieval literature at Oxford at the same time as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, and earned her doctorate in English from the University of California at Berkeley. “I wrote at least one poem a month over a period of 15 or 20 years, every one of which I sent out at once to earn its living by publication in some magazine,” Sister Wolff said—her work appearing in The New Republic, Commonweal and elsewhere.

In “The Light,” from American Twelfth Night, and other poems (1955), the narrator longs for God: “You do not know, you cannot, cannot guess/ Across what burning sands I come to you;/ Over what difficult seas, upon what new/ Hard ways of exile, ways of loneliness.” Sister Wolff thought of poetry “as a distillation requiring undistracted time in large quantities. This no sister that I know of has ever had. What one doesn’t have one must make, naturally or supernaturally.” She would steal time, even while “walking to and from class, holding every fraction of quiet for milling these thoughts into lyric form. The process has been continuous and almost more secret than my conscience.”

Sister Wolff corresponded with Thomas Merton, a mutual admirer, for 15 years—although she could be blunt in her criticism of his work.

She corresponded with Thomas Merton, a mutual admirer, for 15 years—although she could be blunt in her criticism of his work: “It takes a whole field of flowers to make a gram of perfume.”

Someone who would appreciate that metaphor was Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit, a Carmelite nun who published under her birth name, Jessica Powers. Her sister and father died when Powers was young; the central Wisconsin farm of her youth likely provided fodder for many of her natural descriptions and the elegiac tone of many of her poems.

Powers did not leave her childhood farm until she was 31, when she moved to New York City; she said the city was a place she “could revel in, but not love.” While there, she wrote poetry that appeared regularly in Poetry magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harper’s, Chicago Tribune and America.

Jessica Powers did not leave her childhood farm until she was 31, when she moved to New York City; she said the city was a place she “could revel in, but not love.”

The Lantern Burns, her first book, was published two years before she joined the Carmelites. That was followed by The Place of Splendor (1946) and other books, including Mountain Sparrow (1972), Journey to Bethlehem (1980) and The House at Rest (1984). Powers’s poems range from the softly devotional to the spiritually complex. “Like Kildeers Crying,” an early poem, is written in the tradition in which devotion to God is spoken of metaphorically as romantic love. “Tonight I lost my heart’s whole sense of you—/ I could not find you any way I turned./ Even your swift impetuous words, that burned/ Into my mind, were cold and palely blue.” The lovelorn narrator is surprised when a bird “lifted from a glassy pond,” and she watches it “Flying and crying with a wild despair.// I lost you then.” She ends the poem: “The dusk held nothing save their lonely crying,/ And nothing mattered—neither love nor you.”

“Parasceve,” another poem of desire for God, is set on Good Friday: “Life has become for me a Parasceve/ To the earth’s wood and to my own harsh being/ The Christ has nailed Himself to hang and grieve.” Powers concludes the poem on a note of hope: “Yet even here, in gravities of sorrow,/ My soul rehearses underneath its breath/ The jubilant Alleluias of tomorrow.”

“The Little Nation,” published in 1941, shortly after she entered the Carmelites, is a terse poem of peace. The first stanza begins:

Having no gift of strategy, no arms,
No secret weapon and no walled defense,
I shall become a citizen of love,
That little nation with the blood-stained sod
Where even the slain have power, the only country
That sends forth an ambassador to God.

She also occasionally wrote personal verse, as in “Siesta in Color”:

I remember how rainbows had addressed me as a child
how light and color made their language heard.
Though I was not yet judge or analyst,
something secure as given, kept; I held,
as with my grandmother’s warm bursts of Gaelic,
sweet words that had no meaning but were there.

Sister Wolff and Powers wrote traditional poetry that appeared in secular publications. Yet they were joined by poet-nuns who pushed the boundaries of form and subject matter. Sister Mary Gilbert, S.N.J.M., born Madeline DeFrees, entered the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary in 1936 at age 16. “Everybody wrote poems in the novitiate,” she once joked.

“I think nuns might be more reluctant than laymen to write religious poetry,” Sister Gilbert said in a report by the Associated Press that appeared in numerous regional newspapers in 1965. “I find, for instance, that many of the symbols that are meaningful to me don’t communicate to other people. Also, if you are using this material you have to be very good or you will really fall flat.” Sister Gilbert was very good, and very prolific. Her early poems, including “Recession,” had pastoral settings. On a cold morning, fruit falls “between the orchard rows” in “a late warning/ Of what the lean branch knows.” Similar imagery returns in “Early Winter”: “The harvest burden bent the crusted branch/ Serenely to the earth until it brushed/ The snow with color, and reluctance rushed/ To free its treasure in an avalanche.” Unsurprisingly for a Wisconsinite, Sister Gilbert often returned to imagery of snow and silence, as in “Signals”:

Strung on magnetic frequencies
In aureoles of dance,
The incandescent snowflakes
Suffuse our small pretense.

Then later:

Bewilderingly simple
And born to last a breath,
They range the tall uncertainties
To how sublime a death.

Sister Gilbert began turning her poetic gaze inward—toward the walls of her convent. “Some people seem to think that being a member of a religious order would be restrictive as to writing,” she said. “But I don’t feel this as far as poetry is concerned. I feel more free than I would be otherwise.” She wrote two memoirs about convent life and also wrote poetry about religious life. Her first book of poems, From the Darkroom (1964), was lauded in The New York Times: “her lines deliver the laconic music that reassembles reality in a smiting chord.”

“Requiem Mass: Convent Cemetery,” from that book, is a moving, funereal piece. “Life shrinks to a pair of names/ (born into one, the other worn with the veil).” She writes that the “solitary, single hearts” of the sisters were “quickened by the same Love/ in a million guises.” She ends with a wonderful final stanza: “Disguises, rather, for we seldom see/ from above the tombstones. Only now and then/ between the Introit and the last Amen,/ here in the cemetery,/ we look and gauge our place and look away.”

By the time of her departure letter, she had arrived at a more direct conclusion: “religious life and poetry both demand an absolute commitment.”

Sister Gilbert continues her solemn touches in “Matinal.” The narrator wakes at 4:30 in the morning during a “soggy May.” “Unbreakable as doom/ five street lamps watch me come/ to keep my tryst.” The lamps are “Nailed each to a man-made cross.” The light “hooding our early brightness in a cloud/ tempers the shock/ and orders lonely emanations/ by a clock.” Her final end rhyme, the only one in the poem, nicely punctuates the piece.

She also wrote fiction, including a story, “The Model Chapel,” that appeared in Best American Short Stories for 1962 and perfectly encapsulates the minutiae of religious life. A nun, Sister Constance, is asked to “write a little poem” to put on plastic piggy banks, strategically placed throughout the convent house during a fundraiser. She escapes the job, but “cringed at the sight” of the hokey typewritten messages taped to the banks: “A fervent prayer/ An extra penny/ For our new chapel/ To sanctify many.”

When Sister Constance enters the chapel, and sees a “dressed-up doll with a crown of gilt and pearls,” she says a “prayer of atonement and not of petition.” As a young nun, “she might have felt obliged to muffle her distaste for cheap religious art. Now she knew that God does not demand suspension of the critical faculties; that obedience and intelligence, taste even, can be reconciled without compromise.”

By the time of her departure letter, she had arrived at a more direct conclusion: “religious life and poetry both demand an absolute commitment.”

The story captures the worry that devotional writing can become trite. For this reason, Sister Gilbert’s poems tend to be less outwardly steeped in divine praise than those of her peer nun-poets—yet they are still distinctly Catholic. In “Mexican Crucifix” she writes, “the body is its own cross.” She describes Christ’s body in tight, visceral language: “the bent knees, relaxed/ and reverent together, as if/ suffering were more than a posture.”

After almost 40 years as a nun, Sister Gilbert requested release from the order. “You can deceive yourself into thinking you are praying when you are really writing poetry,” she had said years earlier. “I’m not a theologian, so I don’t know whether you can divide the two. But I think poetry is oriented toward expression and prayer toward silence.” By the time of her departure letter, she had arrived at a more direct conclusion: “religious life and poetry both demand an absolute commitment.”

Maura Eichner, S.S.N.D., who published alongside Sister Gilbert in The New York Times, The Literary Review and elsewhere, disagreed with that sentiment. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1915, she entered the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1933 and taught at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland for nearly 50 years. Her books include Initiate the Heart (1946), The Word Is Love (1958), Walking on Water (1972), What We Women Know (1980) and After Silence: Selected Poems, and her poetry is inventive and unique—shifting between pop culture and religion.

In the densely packed “Parking Lot,” “a fierce cat nurses her brood/ in a leaf-logged drain where no one would/ park though anyone could.” The short, strange piece “Advertising,” published in 1966, captures the era:

On the neuter-gender sheath
paint Campbell soup pop art;
blow up breasts and rump
to flip the leering heart.

And later in the poem:

Lengthen the beatle hair; blacken
the boots; shadow the eye;
pluck the eyebrow, tilt the head.
Sell it for cool and high.

“Creativity” describes a writer being interviewed on television, in which he says that he must write to “record this place before it changes.” The camera shifts to show “adobe walls, books, books,” and Sister Eichner slyly moves wider to show the writer’s pregnant wife “listening to his words,/ hearing—under her swelling smock—/ that other life.”

Her style shifts within her more religious work, as in “Dialogue at Midnight: Elizabeth to John”: “What we women know./ And how much we keep/ within the heart, secret/ as the honeycomb that is/ your skull growing in me.” Rather than a monologue, she chooses a dialogue between Elizabeth and John the Baptist—although he is still in her womb—and it is a masterful choice. She ends the poem with beautiful language: “My son John, trust this/ first solitude. Here in the/ ancient cave of my body,/ sail inland water/ safe from followers,// kings and dancing girls.”

Of all these mid-century nun poets, Mary Agnes, O.S.C., has the most enigmatic, and tragic, story. Born Pamela Chalkley in 1928, she joined the contemplative Order of Saint Clare in Lynton, England, in 1950. Her first book, Daffodils in Ice, appeared in 1972. The short title poem is ethereal: “Frost, moon, snow—silent fall, soul-musical./ Christ’s hand, outstretched to bless,/ sheds silver over all./ His scars, his ring—his marriage band/ are daffodils/ in ice.”

Siser Agnes’s debut release outsold future British poet laureate Andrew Motion’s collection (they shared a publisher). Her second book, No Ordinary Lover, appeared the next year. Luke Thompson, one of the few critics to consider her work, notes that even in her second collection, she shifts from using a capitalized pronoun of “You,” “signaling God or Christ,” to a lowercase referent, “allowing some romantic and erotic ambiguity.” Thompson notes that Sister Agnes was in love with a Benedictine monk, and in poems like “Palm Sunday,” she writes of longing: “The air sifts emotions/ thoughts hover/ brush my hair, in a thrush’s wing/ —silence at last,/ the wallflower is still/ full/ of flame/ I listen to its heart/ burn your name.”

A World of Stillnesses, her third book, appeared in 1976—in the midst of a nervous breakdown that caused her to leave cloistered life. Depressed and heartbroken, she continued to write for two more years, work that was posthumously collected in Harvest (2016). These later poems are haunting—the work of one who remained steeped in faith, despite the end of her cloistered life. The lines of “The Far Country” reverberate with pain: “Morning: a rose-rim glows,/ silhouettes the city,/ a bird sings, mindful of origins,/ intones notes it could have split/ alone over hills/ in a far country.// Sun smiles in my heart/ when shadows break/ as I wake/ married to past scars/ which still remain,/ stain a new day.” Yet other poems, like “Harvest,” retain the sweet feeling of hope:

I had seen vibrations tremble in a glow
over the horizon, to herald your arrival:
you appear on a robin’s song, striding, young,
your hair sheaves of corn,
damsons and pears falling from your hands,
ripe berries for rings,
your smile, apple-flesh.

All these sisters—Mary Madeleva, Mary Bernetta Quinn, Jessica Powers, Mary Gilbert, Maura Eichner and Mary Agnes—reveal a notable midcentury Catholic literary renaissance: women religious poets publishing widely. Their poetry is devotional and deft, complex and contemplative. The writing of these nuns captures Sister Mary Gilbert’s observation that “there is a tendency on the part of some persons to substitute poetry for religion, but there is an affinity between them.” These women bore lyric witness to this in verse.

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