Touch The Dead
These poems focus upon a young girl growing up in a house next to a cemetery. Set in the 1940s, she watches her father — the grave digger — earn his living preparing graves. He goes about his work dutifully judging no one. He meets the families, sometimes while he is working deep within the grave itself. They stop by sometimes looking for directions, sometimes just to talk, and he listens to them. In these narratives, Mary Ann Mulhern, a former nun and author of The Red Dress, poems focusing on her life in the convent, draws together the spiritual and sensual in her depiction of people caught between life and death.
Poetry, 80 pages, 6 x 8, $18.95
May 1, 2006. 01:00 AM
She grew up the gravedigger’s daughter.
But Mary Ann Mulhern insists, though, that a childhood living beside the Holy Angels Cemetery in St. Thomas, Ont., was not filled with melancholy or even a sense of mortality.
That came later, when her best friend was killed in an auto accident on her way to university.
The shock and grief Mulhern felt when death hit home in such a personal way propelled her into a convent for eight years, a failed experiment that taught her the true meaning of loneliness and depression.
But today in conversation, the Windsor resident is surprisingly quick to laugh. And those earlier experiences did bring out the poet in her.
A first collection about the nunnery years — 2003’s The Red Dress — is in its second printing (by Black Moss Press) and last week marked the official launch of a second book of poems, Touch the Dead, recalling that childhood in the cemetery house.
“Margaret Atwood in her book Negotiating With the Dead says that actually writing is a way that people deal with their fear of mortality,” Mulhern notes. “She thinks the voice continues beyond other art forms, because it’s storytelling.”
The Touch the Dead title comes from one poetic memory of her Irish Catholic mother:
In the funeral home
my mother kneels before a coffin
kisses her friend
says you should touch the dead
they are not lost to love.
Yet Mulhern recalls nothing morbid or even abnormal about being a kid whose playground was a graveyard.
“In school, there was more fear put upon me. I had never heard of hell or fire or damnation until I went to school and the nuns really drove this home. My parents never talked about that.”
She says her deeply religious immigrant father felt being the caretaker of the graveyard was more than a job, that his was a work of mercy.
“People wanted him to care for their dead, they wanted the grass kept, they wanted the markers and the monuments maintained,” she recalls. “That gave them solace.”
Mulhern says our culture is so ambivalent about death.
“People will say to an undertaker `I want to remember her the way she was.’ What they’re saying is, `I don’t want to see her dead. I’m afraid of death.'”
“And at the same time, people will search ruins, like 9-11, people searched for their (loved ones). And if a child is missing, the parents will search. They want to know and they want the body back. So we fear seeing it and we also fear not seeing it.”
The poems range from the darkly sorrowful to the outright macabre. Mulhern describes the unfinished tombstones her father sold at the house, waiting for names to be inscribed, or the time her brother found an old tombstone with the same name as his on it. And there was one occasion when her brother dared to sneak a peek inside an old woman’s coffin:
Huge hands clutch dark beads curve like claws
ready to reach out
snatch a bad little boy
pull him inside
shut the lid.
The sense of isolation of the convent experience from the late 1960s to early ’70s proved to be more of a shock than life in the cemetery house. The nuns were not allowed friendship. She was even scolded once for holding hands with her visiting brother.
“I glimpse life through narrow bars,” she writes, “pillars of religion.”
Even so, the shockwaves of the 1960s social and sexual revolution managed to infiltrate the convent walls and eventually she had to leave the order.
Mulhern is critical of the Roman Catholic Church, saying it has lost its credibility and must change drastically to survive. She notes that it’s under siege on so many fronts: the sexual abuse shocks, refusals to ordain women and to end priestly celibacy and the practice of appointing bishops based primarily on their allegiance to Rome. To say nothing of the revisionism prompted by the likes of The Da Vinci Code in which the Vatican’s version of biblical history is viewed by some to be at odds with historical evidence.
Mulhern quotes liberal reform theologian Hans Kung: “We need a miracle and that miracle would be a Pope John XXIV.”
Then she adds, incredulously: “I mean, a pope that goes into Africa and tells people not to use condoms?”
Mulhern says her next literary project may look at the way women have been portrayed through history. “I’d like to do something on wives, witches, virgins and whores.”