“This Reckless Journey”: Immanence and Transcendence in the Poetry of Jean Janzen
Abstract: From her earliest work as a writer, Jean Janzen’s poetry has explored the incarnational dimension of human existence, moving back and forth between her strong belief in the presence of God in the natural world and spiritual epiphanies that in some way draw her out of the created order and into another plain of existence. What Janzen’s poetry ultimately reveals is the quest, or yearning, to be both fully present, fully immanent, within the human body while at the same time to be so completely filled with the presence of God that she may transcend the limitations of her physical frame.
But there’s something tempting, nonetheless, about seeing poetry in its movement “between”—both as one of the most important vehicles bearing us upward and as a way of understanding that ardor precedes irony. Ardor: the earth’s fervent song, which we answer with our own, imperfect song.
—Adam Zagajewski, A Defense of Ardor
In Selves at Risk: Patterns of Quest in Contemporary American Letters, Ihab Hassan maps the various ways that quest informs the attitudes and desires of authors and their readership. While Hassan’s goal in this particular argument is to identify and describe a range of questing patterns that configure the American psyche, he observes, in the process, that for some writers the quest is the pursuit of “the sublime, transcending the human.” Jean Janzen is one such writer. Because of Janzen’s own spiritual faith—rooted in Russian Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren rituals and practices—her art chronicles a personal, as well as communal, negotiation with the realities of the material and spiritual elements that comprise life as she perceives it. Much of Janzen’s poetry presents a passage through the earthly toward the sublime—a hunger for ecstasy that transcends the crude, dualistic notions of body and spirit, of human and godhead. Similarly moving beyond duality, Janzen’s quest, while embedded within the Mennonite culture she was born into, is not limited by this particular religious practice. Instead, we find Janzen embracing her Mennonite faith while at the same time moving beyond its cultural and theological limitations—in particular, in her acceptance and celebration of the sacred physicality of her own body and the body of the earth that makes all life possible. At times Janzen appears to desire nothing more than some kind of passage beyond the moorings of her finite existence, a mortal constraint that leads her to state plainly in the poem “Overflow” that “Our stories are too big / for our bodies.” What Janzen’s poetry ultimately reveals is the quest, or yearning, to be both fully present, fully immanent, within the corporeal frame of her body, while at the same time to be so completely filled with the presence of God that she transcends the limitations of that very same blessed physical frame.
From her earliest work as a writer—which she turned to as a vocation later in life, after working as a medical secretary and piano teacher—Janzen’s poetry continually, and rhythmically, moves back and forth between her strong belief in the presence of God in the natural world and spiritual epiphanies that in some way draw her out of the created order and into another plain of existence, into another way of seeing. Ecstasy—the feeling of being overpowered or drawn out, what some may even refer to as rapture—is integral to Janzen’s conception of immanence and transcendence. According to Kathleen Norris, “In an ecstatic moment—making love is a vivid example—we are most ourselves, and yet not our ordinary self. Ecstasy is both resoundingly physical, and deeply spiritual.” And while not many in the Mennonite church speak freely of ecstasy—perhaps its sexual connotations or explicit connection to pleasure make it a subject few wish to pursue—Janzen not only confronts the ecstatic in her poems, she also appears to embrace it and to assert its primacy in her experience of God. “To recognize desire, the erotic, as central to spiritual experience is important to me,” Janzen explained in an interview with Raylene Hinz-Penner: “The sensual and the spiritual are inevitably intertwined.” Certainly this is a bold, even provocative statement within a mainstream Christian culture that often stifles discussions of sexuality and seldom, if ever, connects one’s experience with God to the erotic or sexual dimension of living. In this manner, Janzen’s poetry is less an exemplar of Mennonite religiosity and more a hearkening backward to the experience of the Godhead chronicled by so many pre-Enlightenment Christian mystics.
As one enters the worlds that Janzen’s
poetry unlocks and explores, it becomes clear that the flora and fauna, as well
as the human lives that interact with the landscape, are for her at once both
physical and spiritual, overflowing with the sensual and erotic, and that the
wedding of these elements is a means by which the poet may experience a portion
of the divine. “We all ride / earth’s
original music,” she asserts in “
As is the case with most art, music and painting possess an incarnational dimension: the body unavoidably becomes involved in their creation. The elements that comprise the musician’s keyboard or the artist’s palate, for example, are drawn from the earth, and the experience of a particular musical composition or painting—through the eyes, ears or fingers of the participant—requires an embodied presence. Yet at the same time, the artist may no longer be present in a corporeal sense—because of geographical limitations or the finality of death—and in this manner the artwork itself transcends the finite world of the artist’s fleshly existence. As Janzen contemplates the month of August in her long poem, “Naming It: A Garden Cycle,” she cannot, thanks to art’s incarnational dimension, escape the ways her perceptions have been shaped by her previous experiences with art. Here she focuses upon a cluster of naked-lady lilies in her garden and recalls how Rubens painted the women of his day: the weight of their “flesh lifting into cloudy pinks, / buttocks unashamed.” Rubens’s paintings have been taken in, literally consumed by the eye and mind of the poet, and now this art is transformed within her own physical body and used to create yet another kind of art that also engages with the physical landscape. Janzen concludes this particular meditation by offering the reader comfort, assuring us that “the smell of earth’s tilt, / time’s ooze” may be sipped and swallowed on this day, then sealed in a jar and stored in the cellar of one’s own being. “More than enough,” she pronounces, referring to what can be saved from this moment for some later day. Although art may have its limitations, Janzen’s own poetry highlights the play between incarnation and transpersonal existence, or immanence and transcendence, in such a way that art shapes her and her reader’s experience of the infinite within the finite.
Immanence and Transcendence
To better understand the negotiations that are forever at play in Janzen’s poetry—the give and take between the desire for immanence and the longing for transcendence—it may be best to examine her conception of the roles performed by the body and the world, and the hope and promise her faith offers in some kind of afterlife. Because such acts of scholarly dissection artificially represent more holistically conceived ideas, we do well to keep in mind that Janzen’s art depends upon her recognition that such desires—like the bodies we are born into—should not be understood as competing in some way against one another. In “Getting It Right,” Janzen asks, “What have we in us / to want perfection, to think / we can get it right?” Her question chides not only the poet but also her readers. Why do we strive for some unreachable perfection? As humans, our knowledge and our ability are limited. To declare an understanding of such matters would be an act of hubris leading to an inevitable fall. At the end of the poetic day, Janzen’s lack of any ultimate resolution between immanence and transcendence within her artistic corpus simply represents the struggle of our collective (finite) understanding of such ideas in relationship to the siren song of dichotomy. Duality’s oversimplification as it sorts the existential contents of life into categories of neither/nor, instead of placing them into the category-less mystery of both/and, does great harm to our understanding of the miracle of life. Perhaps this is Janzen’s most precious gift: she offers a poetry of “communion” with what at first appears to be disparate elements, braiding them together toward a recognition that the mystery we name as God transcends any arbitrary linguistic boundary between material or spiritual.
The Body and the World
How surprised we are to find we live here,
Here within our bodies.
—Eric Pankey, “Santo Spirito”
Love calls us to the things of this world.
For those writers whose work is informed by a Christian faith, exploring the body through art—embracing and celebrating it in all its needfulness and desires—can sometimes feel like a transgression. Many of us inherit a longstanding tradition that urges us at best to ignore the blessings of the body and at worst to demonize those very same blessings. There is plenty of blame to cast for the denigration of the flesh as less precious than the spiritual. In Carnal Acts, Nancy Mairs contends that the pervasive dichotomy between body and soul, or flesh and spirit, is reflected in our naming of these ideas as separate entities and in our hierarchical privileging of one over the other. In the Western world, Mairs explains, we say “I have a body,” rather than “I am a body,” and in doing so we “widen the rift between the self and the body,” making it possible to “treat our bodies as subordinates, inferior in moral status.” To say one has a body suggests an act of ownership. In a cultural landscape that increasingly encourages us to believe that we may possess virtually anything we want and in turn to discard what we no longer desire, this is a truly frightening prospect. To be a body demands that we acknowledge the ways in which we are rooted in the physical world, to examine how our very flesh shapes the ways we think and act, to acknowledge that there is no returning or discarding the bodies given to us at birth for a refund or an exchange. Janzen’s poetry continually explores the multifaceted dimensions of this crass and often unhealthy dichotomy, insisting that not only does she have a body but also that she is a body—inseparable from it.
The title of Janzen’s poem “Claiming
the Dust” serves as a pointed reminder that we must recognize the earth’s claim
upon us. From dust we are created and to
dust we shall return. In the poet’s cosmology,
the Lord has made such dust, imbuing its particles with the sacredness of the
first creation, and has shaped out of dust and the breath of God what we call human being. Instead of the more popular interpretation of
Genesis’s creation story, which would have us believe that a human equals “body
+ soul,” essayist and poet Wendell Berry claims that “God did not make a body
and put a soul into it, like a letter into an envelope. He formed man of dust; then, by breathing His
breath into it, He made the dust live.
The dust, formed as man and made to live, did not embody a soul; it became
a soul.” Thus, the dust of the earth is just as
valuable as the breath of the Creator in
According to ideas found not only in orthodox theology but
also in the field of physics, concerning the ever-transforming nature of energy
and matter, all subsequent acts of creation use and reuse the cosmic energy of
the first creation. In his poem “How to
Be a Poet,”
It is this blazing from within that Janzen
observes and celebrates in her poem “Chicken Guts,” from her collection Snake in the Parsonage. The poem is set in Janzen’s
rural youth and finds her, along with other family members, engaged in the
process of putting up food for the long winter months. We are told that, after the “steam of plums /
and the fuzz of peaches,” it is time to can the stewing hens. Her father works with the hatchet at an elm
stump, and the poet scrapes “grit out of gizzards” in the cellar. Janzen dramatically
captures the elemental activity of taking the life of another to feed one’s own
life, a scene that pointedly reminds us that we are rarely intimately connected
with the production of our food. As a
host of writers—most recently Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma—have pointed out,
the more disconnected we have become from our food sources the more
disconnected we have become from our own bodies. There is something absolutely essential and originary in growing and harvesting one’s own food. While such acts do not operate as a magic
elixir that immediately and comprehensively changes how an individual responds
to the sacredness of the material world, such writers as
Clearly, Janzen does not wish to climb out of her body, nor does she seek to divorce herself from the body of the earth and all the other precious bodies the earth houses. Janzen is one of those individuals whose own experiences of the material world—in this case the taking of life for survival and nourishment—have helped to foster in her an attitude of reverence. Although Janzen writes about this ritual with unflinching detail, including “the chop, / the boiling body-dip for defeathering, the swing / through the singe of fire,” she boldly states halfway through the poem that “this is not about death, or violence to animals, / not even about sex.” Rather, Janzen directs the reader toward an outcome few could anticipate. “It’s about those intestines / I stripped into the bucket,” she asserts, “About how they / could have been saved, stretched across a hollow, / and made to sing.” For Janzen, the most base part of the chicken’s anatomy carries the potential for the most miraculous transformation. The intestine, or gut, can be strung across her cousin Eugene’s cello, and, in turn, he can make the instrument throb until “something throbs in our own” bodies. Ultimately, the poem is about the dance that the material world is forever engaging and with which it is forever attempting to engage us: “The deep stomp that awakens the bottom / of the lake, the dance I want to do among / the festival of wild grass and flowers.”
The poem concludes miles and years away from the chicken slaughter, but, without this past ritual—without the necessary contact with the physical realities of creation—Janzen might be lost, disconnected and unaware of the “deep stomp” within her own being, the holy rhythms that sustain her. With this family history to guide her toward an embrace of the earth’s body, she is able to write of her own longing—her desire to paint her face with mulberry juice, to stay up all night, to put her ear “against the belly of the earth to hear / it rumble, to hear it sigh.” What a sight to behold: a Mennonite woman, dark purple juice covering her pale cheeks and forehead, up all night, listening to the earth, joining with it. And here the rumbling and sighing of the planet have little to do with discord or despair. This is the sexual thrum of creation’s intimacy, the sigh of fulfillment expressed at its deepest, orgiastic level. This is the primacy of creation, of communion, the sensual, erotic connection we all may experience through the blessing of our bodies.
This sensual response to the earth, which for Janzen is also a spiritual response, surfaces throughout
all her collections—whether it takes the form of the poet clipping a pomegranate,
crushing it and sucking its “dark astringencies,” then spitting out the seeds;
or, in the wake of death, using the spade, making a “shape and fragrance” of
the earth in order “to taste the center.” Her poem “
In her poem “Seeking the Song,” Janzen confronts the ecstasy of this world and its ultimate dissolution into some other world, some other way of knowing. She recounts the composer Verdi pacing his room, Violetta’s voice leading him “into labyrinths where ecstasy / and loss entwine. / Page after page, / the writing twists, / the search for resolution.” Janzen praises the small rhythms of this world and the bodies that know such rhythms. She asks, after observing a canary, “What is the path / to the original melody?” But instead of mourning the loss of the earthly body or the unanswerable questions of our existence, she admonishes her reader to “notice what is gained, / how in those last chords, Love, / older than the world, gazes at you.” Because of her love for the body and her strong conviction that the earth is divine, that the physical and the spiritual are one and the same, Janzen does not dismiss the artistry of this life—sometimes found in painting, sometimes in song, sometimes in the written word—but rather embraces and celebrates it, revealing its important role in our movement through this life.
Her faith, however, does alter her understanding of what transpires. In the chords Verdi seeks to write, Janzen reminds us of the “Love” that gazes upon us as we commit ourselves to such acts. What we choose to do in this time and in this space is of great importance to the Creator. This life is not a way-station before we pass on to heaven, nor is it simply some proving ground to test our spiritual mettle. This moment is as holy a place as is heaven. Here the originary love of the universe gazes at us. Nonetheless, the search for resolution in Janzen’s “Seeking the Song” is and must always be connected to the limitations of our corporeal frame. At this juncture of our existence, we may only know the objective reality of our bodies and their ultimate earthly demise. Therefore, although Janzen argues for the sacredness of the flesh and the overturning of a dualistic approach to the provinces of the spiritual and the material, she cannot escape the weakening of the body as it ages, our slow diminishment and the encroaching presence of death.
In “Piano in the Vineyard,” Janzen combines her love of music with what she perceives to be the spiritual practice of gardening in order to work toward a better understanding of our physical death on earth and how the physical dimensions of our existence turn toward something else, toward some place else. Recounting how as a child she “found solace at the piano” in the face of death—“five clustered crosses for my friends”—Janzen moves from Ravel to Chopin to Rubenstein, searching for reconciliation, for a way to pass gently, even reverently from this good earth. She says “every harvest / is rehearsal” and reminds herself of the often repeated Christian phrase, “Lose your life to find it.” Yet there is no righteous simplicity or piety in her litany, no self-assured spiritual smugness. All the sacred gifts she has cultivated—music, painting, gardening—now lift her toward a degree of acceptance. “This is the end of striving,” she claims, “but not of music.” As her husband finds a dead vine and mounts it on “a cross of grapestakes,” the poet contemplates the “heft of swollen grapes cut, / branch springing back, leaves flaming” and proclaims that our path is “to live in the rhythm of such outpouring, releasing / ourselves. Life and death as light as that, / wheeling between earth and heaven, then spilling over.” It is to this “spilling over” that we must now turn, the place to which Janzen’s faith pulls her.
Two things will last forever:
this insistence to save what is drifting,
and the need to let it go.
—Jean Janzen, “Looking for the Soul”
In “The Poetry of Jean Janzen: A
Theological Approach,” Laura Schmidt Roberts contends that Janzen
“reflects a fundamental conviction of the Christian faith, that truth comes in
paradox: divinity and humanity,
transcendence and immanence, sovereignty and free will, righteousness and
forgiveness, the now and the not yet.” While Roberts’s point is well-made within
traditional theological terms, the beauty of poetry is that such terms—and
their inherent limitations—need not have the finality nor the weight of
conclusion. Indeed, Janzen’s
poetry moves beyond duality. As Christ
Hassan claims that quests “are
imagination and spirit in action.” While Janzen
might be hard pressed to explain her own mystical beliefs in clearly rational
or orthodox terms, the amalgamation of imagination, spirit and her position as
a Christian in a particular historical and cultural moment enable her to speak
about a hope in some life beyond this life, in what for millennia many have
named heaven. In her poem “Sun Crest,” after walking the
“dusty rows of peach orchards” and eating the sweet fruit, Janzen
acknowledges that “this earth, worn carpet,” is only “home for awhile.” The only home the poet has ever known,
however, is the earth, and her
practice as an artist must be indelibly linked to the physicality of this
place. Still, within the faith to which
she has clung since childhood, Janzen has heard
Christ’s oft repeated claim that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In God
Laughs and Plays, David James Duncan asserts that mystics “stress not the
gulf but the astonishing intimacy between humans and God.”
“Mystical yearning . . . is played
out in vividly physical bodies,”
As early as Snake in the Parsonage (1995), Janzen employs images from the natural world, as well as narratives that grow out of the natural landscape, to suggest some kind of release into a life that comes after death. In “Wild Grapes,” she depicts her grandfather’s “last pain-filled days,” emphasizing that, despite the torment of his body, he remained grateful for the things of this world. She explains how she has “known others who, at the end, / crushed the flesh of nectarine against / the dry palate, or swallowed bits / of cake, eyes brimming.” For her grandfather—“who loved God, / who would go to him”—this yearning after the things of the world is represented by his thirst for wild grapes from a distant creek. Even at the end of life, her grandfather and, in turn, Janzen perceive the “indescribable beauty,” the sacred and spiritual nature of the earth. And, as the poet notes, the only proper response, even as one approaches the life we pray comes after this life, is to “eat” and love the fruit this world bears up for us.
Janzen’s notions of resurrection are based upon her experience and observation of it in this world. Because she has not passed over yet—nor does she claim celestial visitations from the other side—her key point of access to the idea of rebirth and resurrection is grounded in the cyclical patterns she observes in nature. For example, in the poem “Sometimes Hope,” collected in Snake in the Parsonage, Janzen describes a summer of mountain wildfires, when for weeks ashes fall like rain, making the air nothing but a dark haze. When the fires cease, all that can be seen is the smoldering wreckage of “the giant / black slash with stumps / in grotesque postures, / acres and acres where nothing / moves or sings, where / nothing waits.” But out of this earthly carnage, the poet tells us, there is a “reach for something / extravagant, something holy”; from this death there is a “new greening, / shoots everywhere breaking / through the crust of ash.” Similarly, in the poem “Going West,” which recounts the immigrant passage of her father, Janzen considers her ancestors “staring out / over the Baltic,” and through this connection—both to the flesh of her forebears and to the landscape that sustained them—she envisions somewhere beyond, “a place,” as she puts it, that “we glimpse / in prayers, in sexual ecstasy, in pain.” Whether in the green shoots of raspberry that reclaim the burnt forest floor or in the physical acts of prayer, pain, or sexual ecstasy, Janzen believes that she is given a foretaste of the kingdom that awaits her beyond this present kingdom.
Hassan suggests that “the originary mystery invites even as it defies our knowledge.” Likewise, Janzen claims that all of us are “thirsty for the unknown,” that we long to “cross over into that country / without map or tools, / to touch the source, / to kneel down and taste it.” In her poem “Child Diving,” she builds upon this theme by recounting in stark relief the “reckless joy” of a child as he leaps out into the air, arcing his body, holding his breath for the plunge, and then rising once again to the surface for yet another dive. Although the child, in his exuberance, gashes his head and must be taken to the doctor for stitches, it is not the failure of his mortal frame that catches Janzen’s poetic gaze, but rather her own body’s memory of “the ecstasy of falling, although / imperfectly into a perfect sky, / loving even its borders—a place to fall and to be held.” Such a desire connects to the popular view that heaven in some physical way lies beyond the clouds, in the sky somewhere. In this poem, Janzen offers a gesture toward heaven, a longing to fall into a perfect sky, to be held in the presence of the Creator. Of course, Janzen could conceive of none of this if it were not for her belief, her faith, and, accordingly, Hassan offers a reminder that “belief is indeed central to quest.”
At the heart of the faith for many Christians is a quest for
God—a yearning to come into eternal contact with the creative energy of the
universe, to enter into the peace of heaven.
Such longing is seen in Janzen’s elegy for her
mother, when she says of the
In Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris observes that the concept of heaven is “apparently irresistible to the human spirit.” As she explains, “otherworldliness can be a real temptation in the religion, but the Incarnation itself is a corrective. . . . Even at feasts such as the Ascension, which might seem otherworldly, the scripture texts for the day are anything but.” As Norris points out, the passage from Acts —“Why stand ye gazing up into heaven?”—seems to prod the faithful back toward the matter at hand: the here, the now, the earth and our business upon it. The mortal frame of Janzen’s present body, the earth and its finite materiality, are not something to be denigrated or escaped. In some means beyond her ken, the kingdom of God is within her and the kingdom of heaven is at hand; it is a matter of both/and rather than either/or. Perhaps this is the only sadness that plagues the poet: the inability to see as God sees, to have a sustained vision of the world as one, heaven and earth conjoined. This is the “reckless journey” Janzen speaks of as she washes her newborn in the poem of the same name—the space between immanence and transcendence, the holy blessings of this life to which she bears witness in her poems, the ardor to which she clings so fervently.
. Ihab Hassan, Selves at Risk: Patterns of Quest in Contemporary American Letters (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), 20.
. Jean Janzen, Tasting the Dust (Intercourse,
. Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead, 1998), 231.
. Jean Janzen, interview by Raylene Hinz-Penner, Mennonite Life (Dec. 2000), http://www.behelks.edu/mennonitelife/2000dec/janzen_jean.html.
. Janzen, Piano in the Vineyard (Intercourse,
. Ibid., 59.
. Janzen, interview with Hinz-Penner.
. Janzen, Piano in the Vineyard, 29.
. Janzen, Tasting the Dust, 30.
. Nancy Mairs, Carnal Acts (New York: Harper, 1990), 84.
. Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (New York: Pantheon, 1993), 106.
. Wendell Berry, Given:
. Franz Wright, interview by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler, Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion 51 (2006), 75.
. Annie Dillard, For the Time Being (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), 122.
. Mary Rose O’Reilley, The Barn at the End of the World: The Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd (
. Jean Janzen, Snake in the Parsonage (Intercourse, Pa.: Good Books, 1995), 17.
. Janzen, Tasting the Dust, 11, 66-67.
. Ibid., 8.
. Janzen, Piano in the Vineyard, 64.
. Janzen, Piano in the Vineyard, 65.
. Ibid., 67. Italics in the original.
. Ibid., 68.
. Laura Schmidt Roberts, “The Poetry of Jean Janzen:
A Theological Approach,” Migrant Muses:
Mennonite/s Writing in the
. Hassan, Selves at Risk, 46.
. Janzen, Tasting the Dust, 59.
. David James Duncan, God Laughs and Plays: Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments
of the Fundamentalist Right (Great
. Janzen, Snake in the Parsonage, 57.
. I should note that, for many Christian traditions, this focus upon the earth in the face of the promise of heaven would seem at best ungrateful and at worst heretical, a negative view toward the earth grounded in what I contend are the weaknesses of a dualistic perspective.
. Janzen, Snake in the Parsonage, 63.
. Ibid., 25.
. Hassan, Selves at Risk, 51.
. Janzen, Piano in the Vineyard, 61.
. Janzen, Piano in the Vineyard, 54.
. Hassan, Selves at Risk, 204.
. Janzen, Tasting the Dust, 65.
. Ibid., 25.
. Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon, 1992), 99-100.
. Jean Janzen, “Favorite Poems,” The Christian Century,
. Norris, Amazing Grace, 367.
. Ibid., 368.