God Takes Things Literally

January 13, 2009
By Melanie Muellenbach, Hartland, WI

It is not some fancy imagery, outlandish metaphors, or saucy Freudian symbolism which compel readers to take a second look at Nowlan’s work, but rather his tricky paradoxes that sound like one thing but mean another. When reading “Aunt Jane” initially, thinking of a rotting corpse hidden in the attic is enough to make one sick. Through thought provoking paradoxes, blurring lines between the reality of what is dead or alive, and a clever new version of an old bedtime prayer, the grotesque feeling is replaced by an eerie sadness.
The speaker dreams of Aunt Jane “the nights it thundered” because thunder comes from above and Aunt Jane soullessly clunks around upstairs. Every crash and bang reminds him of her. She frightens him with her cadaverous personality. Thunder, an eerie bang following a shockingly intense flash, is scary just like her. Therefore, the relation between the footsteps above and thunder is brilliant.
Readers are primarily grossed out when thinking of a body being “dead at ninety, buried at a hundred.” It seems impossible. One cannot just let a dead body sit for ten years without proper burial. Taking a second look explains the critical word “dead.” While Aunt Jane’s heart keeps dancing in rhythm, life’s rhythm already retired to the punch table for hors d’oeuvres. Aunt Jane lost her swagger. She is just her corpse with no life inside. While she will not die for another ten years, those years will be routine, lifeless, and uneventful.
“We kept her corpse a decade, hid upstairs,” at first glance sounds unreal. People cannot keep a rotting body ten years after it dies. Someone will find out and report them. Aunt Jane’s corpse is kept upstairs “where it ate porridge, slept, and said its prayers.” This perplexes one because a corpse cannot eat, sleep, or pray. It does nothing. After initial befuddlement, the lines come together to reveal the contradiction of a dead woman living. Aunt Jane is not dead, only mostly dead. The window in Aunt Jane’s room was too small for her body to follow her soul on the way out. Now she is stuck on earth long after her time to expire eating bland porridge (her teeth crossed over too).
“And every night before I went to bed / they took me in to worship with the dead.” Why would someone go to pray with the dead? The dead are not holy, and their souls are gone. Aunt Jane is not one of the dead. She only seems like it. She is alive, and still praying devotedly. She does not have the spunk she used to, and the speaker thinks she is creepy now because she changed. Aunt Jane used to be fun, but now her effete personality is about as lively as a gallon of milk. She is like the end of the gallon; not enough for a whole glass or cereal so she is left for dead.
The speaker ends with an allusion to the classic bedtime prayer “Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep.” The end of the prayer says “I pray thee lord my soul to take.” This allows god, incase of emergency, if he must, to take one’s soul and keep it. The speaker disagrees with the ending and makes up his own. “Christ Lord, if I should die before I wake, / I pray thee Lord my body take.” He changes it because he does not want to end up like Aunt Jane, one of the living dead. If he asks the lord to take his body and not his soul, then he will be completely wiped away from the earth when it is his time. Nobody wants to be cooped up on earth without a mind. The rhyme scheme simply flows to a rhythm, with every two lines rhyming. “Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep” flows the same way adding to the allusion.
This poem hit home for me because I work at a nursing home. All day I help the elderly, and some seem soulless. Some simply lay in a chair while someone else feeds them, changes them, and bathes them. Aunt Jane prays to the lord to take her soul when she dies, and he does but forgets her body. The speaker believes Aunt Jane is already gone, just droning about until an organ gives out. The lord works in mysterious ways, maybe there was a surplus of porridge he needed her corpse to devour.

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