The Case of Lena S. By David Bergen. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart. 2002. Pp. 286. $32.99.
David Bergen’s third novel takes it title from a poem penned by its main character, a teenager, Mason Crowe, whose poetic sensibility and emotional intimacy with his mother make him seem mature beyond his years; yet he is a sweet sixteen, in an adolescent’s body, with all its angst and yearnings. After his watchful gaze falls upon Lena Schellendal outside the bagel shop, she soon proves an untidy muse whose own emotional turmoil, intelligence and sexuality entangle him in an initiation story he could not have imagined.
Mason has his own troubles. Inept yet lovable Dad is mostly on the road selling encyclopedias (and marveling, in his rarely-at-home conversations, that the whole thing is now on CD-ROM). Mom seems to be stepping out all too often with a mysterious friend ?Rhoda.? Older brother Danny, endowed with surplus charm and testosterone (gorgeous model on his arm, hair on his navel), poses a constant threat to Mason’s innocent forays into romance. Even Mason’s first love, Seeta Chahal’the tennis partner whose brown arms chime with bracelets and whose playful voice charms with irreverent comments about her impending arranged marriage to an East Indian philosopher (?Nietzsche? she calls him)?may not be safe from Danny’s predatory advances.
Fresh off his bitter disappointment over Seeta, Mason meets Lena Schellendal who enters the novel through several footnotes, but soon makes her role central in the reader’s and in Mason’s consciousness. What so attracts him is her apparent self-assurance: not only does she ace the English test on Turgenev’s First Love, but she can talk frankly about the graphic sexual marginalia scribbled into her book by an earlier reader. And she’s more than a smart mind and brazen mouth. On the way back from the Koop farm to pick up eggs for the caf where she works part-time, she stops the van, pulls him among the cartons in back and initiates a precarious (watch the eggs) coupling.
But Lena’s blessed self-assurance is fragile. The same girl who confidently directs Mason’s sexual initiation is also the girl who sketches herself with labeled body parts’divided, anatomized. Lena’s encounters with Mason that at first seem relatively innocent adolescent exploration (such as when they ?fool around? a bit in the mall, their shopping bags rustling at their feet) soon take on a darker tone, tingeing his pleasure with dread. To Bergen’s credit, his treatment of Lena’s sexuality is as complex as is his understanding of her character and her relationship with Mason. Unlike Lena’s father, who warns Mason that her case history is marked by unhealthy ?obsession? with boys, Lena’s author refuses to reduce her sexual behavior to a clinical symptom (?promiscuity’) of a mental illness (?depression’).
Indeed, it is Bergen’s ability to defy the clinical overtones of his novel’s title and resist confident diagnoses that makes The Case of Lena S. a fine novel. Bergen’s honesty and insight make this more than the study of a sad girl. A reader worried about Lena’s ?case? will be surprised by joy and humor, such as when Lena forewarns Mason of her father’s piety and suggests that he prepare a religious presentation for his first supper with her family’so he dutifully studies a commentary on original sin, ponders the infallibility of Scripture and meditates on Christ’s sojourn in the wilderness. Not long after Mr. Schellendal has said grace (thanking God even for ?the fresh frozen beans’), Mason works in his recitation from Ecclesiastes, to the bemused snickers of Lena’s younger sisters.
Bergen’s portrayal of Mr. Schellendal is another example of his deft handling of a story line that, in the hands of a lesser writer, could slip into tired patterns. Even the publisher’s press release for this novel encourages lazy thinking, characterizing Lena as ?battl[ing] with the restrictions of her religious father.? But Bergen’s Mr. Schellendal is not a religious simpleton’not the predictable oppressive father. Yes, his ingenuous invention for handling pesky squirrels and unwanted pets is a bit spooky. And yes, his attempts to help his daughter seem pathetically inadequate’for instance, handing her a pamphlet on ?Youth and Depression? that simply offers God as comfort. But Mr. Schellendal also recites for her the lines from Shakespeare’s King Lear in which the old king (now a broken father) expresses his love for his long-lost daughter, and imagines their reunion and years of intimacy together (?`So we’ll live, / And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh ? / And take upon ?s the mystery of things, / As if we were God’s spies . . .??).
Mr. Schellendal’s quotation from Shakespeare is one of many literary references in the novel that emerge as a pattern of self-referential play by Bergen. Even as this is a story about Mason and Lena, their story reflects back upon the act of story-making itself. The presence of Ms. Abenschade, Mason’s high school English teacher, produces creative writing commentary that seems to typify Bergen’s own style (?Ms. Abenschade liked clarity. She liked short, quick sentences . . .?). Mason’s discussions with a fellow young poet, Turbine, generate similar self-referential analysis: Turbine’s praise for Mason’s poetry could equally serve to describe Bergen’s prose (?`You aren’t sheepish or sentimental. Or vague.??). Mason’s part-time job reading to a retired, blind university professor, Mr. Ferry, creates ample opportunity for discussions of favorite authors, mostly English and Russian. Often such references function conventionally to reveal character (for instance, exhibiting Mason’s literary interests) or to suggest plot directions (for example, at the novel’s beginning Bergen evokes Yeats? ?The Stolen Child,? a poem about a child lured into oblivion).
Less frequently Bergen strays from ?realistic? uses of such literary references to engage in self-conscious play, such as when Mason returns from watching the latest Hamlet film (he’s not so keen on Ethan Hawke’s performance), enters his mother’s empty bedroom and fondles her intimate apparel while astride her bed. Bergen’s variation on Act III, Scene 4 of Hamlet offers a clever send-up of the now-clichd Oedipal readings of the young Dane’s obsession with his mother. Bergen’s wit is also evident in some of his textual footnotes. With this form he invites expectations of scholarly pedantry, then violates footnote etiquette by offering remarks that are in turn irreverent, and randy, but also strikingly important.
Not all readers may appreciate what the novel’s dust jacket characterizes as Bergen’s ?intellectual playfulness,? but Bergen manages to offer a straight narrative in clean, crisp prose, even while providing numerous markers for readers who enjoy playful stops and scenic loops along the way. To Bergen’s credit, what readers will not find in this novel is conclusive analysis that closes the file on Lena S. Much as Mason in his helplessness turns to poetry as a way of appreciating Lena, so too Bergen offers not treatment for Lena’s ?case,? but a story told with gracious and keen observation. As is his young poet, Bergen is a ?watcher,? and as is said of Mason, in the presence of a watcher, certain things are revealed.
Bethel College BRAD S. BORN
The Breath You Take from the Lord. By Patrick Friesen. Madeira Park, British Columbia: Harbour Publishing. 2002. Pp. 79. $16.95.
Patrick Friesen’s newest collection of poetry, The Breath You Take from the Lord, represents an improvement on, and a departure from, his 1997 collection, A Broken Bowl, in which lines less poetically compelling skew the maturity of the spiritual voice. In the earlier book, Friesen’s poetics are not as rigorously conceived as his politics. In The Breath You Take the verse is better crafted. It extends the contemplative tone and deepens the speaker’s marked interiority, in a quest for meaning so private that it becomes, somehow, a little metaphoric clearing from which to view our shared struggles with purpose and belief. In the earlier collection, the lines are enjambed by natural caesura, and the result is unimaginative, if devotional, verse. When the line receives insufficient attention, its possibilities are reduced to predictable, basic-unit-of-grammar line breaks and rhythms. Moreover, the language of A Broken Bowl does not benefit from the economy of revision; the poet’s imagination runs more to lists and literality than to depth and metaphor. Reading the earlier book, one comes away with a stronger sense of urgency than of poetry. For that one might as well read prose.
But in The Breath You Take from the Lord Friesen crafts long wounded lines’lines that trail like injuries or regrets, eliding any distinction between experience, idea and image. The new line is the perfect metonym for the speaker’s refusal to separate self from nature, belief from doubt, past from present. Commas and periods drop away. With conventional marks of punctuation assuming the role of rejected constraint, each ragged line stages a quiet rebellion. And since Friesen’s theme is ultimately about acceptance, that’s a neat sleight of hand.
Of the book’s two sections, Trumerei and Clearing Poems, the latter are the more successful’haunting, even. These poems tiptoe round a literal clearing from which a little-boy speaker watches his father working and to which he returns as an adult. Memory locates a mind ?that moved rustling like a small animal in underbrush skittering among the leaves,? and from the first poem, this movement charts both the restlessness of imagination and the speaker’s peripatetic journey of faith. The view from the clearing symbolizes that psychic place often called epiphany, and the clearing itself becomes our longing to experience it. These poems are deeply romantic in the sense that a solitary speaker projects his interior landscape onto a beautiful exterior terrain. The speaker not only participates in the clearing; he becomes it, in true Wordsworthian spirit. ?You lie down in grass as seed and flower,? he says, comparing himself to that part of the natural world that must grow or die. Here foxes tease one’s peripheral vision and shadows of hawks scud only the edges of imagination. The poems cross the clearing, circle it expectantly, return at twilight and tramp through in snow boots.
The epiphany, though, never swoops in, hawklike, as the speaker wants it to. Instead our speaker achieves anagnorisis’a slow-motion epiphany, an understanding that unfolds only over time and only because of time. The speaker keeps expecting to grasp suddenly and in proportion to his effort the very mind of Christ, as when the speaker detects a movement at the corner of the eye and says, ?you shift in time to see someone disappearing into the trees at least you think so/ [?] and you know it was jesus though you don’t know why something about the stride/ out of where you’ve come from voices across long rooms [?].? The speaker’s anagnorisis involves not the flash of insight that he wants but the awareness of Christ’s presence that he needs. Even in the first clearing poems, Christ has traveled with this man across those ?long rooms,? the distance of an adult life from ?those abject surrenders and hesitations? to a place where ?a wind muscles through clumps of scrawny jack pine [. . .].? As the speaker travels metaphorically from tender seed to muscling wind, he intuits that season is a verb, not a noun.
Christian poets, alas, risk two kinds of clich’poetic and religious. It is extraordinarily difficult for contemporary poets to write in new ways about spiritual experience, as anyone who has ever tried it knows. Decentering the reader’s expectations of what constitutes religious language is what Friesen does best. To husk oneself of a churchified vocabulary, at once so beautiful and so worn, is no easy thing. And when a difficult thing is made to seem simple, as with Friesen’s images of dogs and ticks and foxes in the snow, effective writing is the result. Who, reading about bloated ticks and snow-trotting foxes, wouldn’t be surprised that these images manage to convey a hushed and reverent spiritual quest?
With consistently fresh poetic language, however, Friesen is less successful. The poems would be better without the one-word abstractions that simultaneously dodge detail and invoke stock sentiment. Words like desire and memory and absence recur so often that sometimes the clearing seems all too shaded by poetic clich. But just when the longing seems linguistically undeserved, Friesen surprises with beautiful, offbeat, fragrant lines. He’s fond of olfactory images, and they serve him richly here. Indeed a faint whiff of some familiar smell is the perfect metaphor for how we try to grasp meaning: the tickling but elusive sense that we can inhale some evanescent truth. The speaker sniffs his weather’?the smell of approaching thunder’?but, even more luxuriously, he allows people to share the redolence: ?listen some men stand in their own smell wherever they are they can’t walk away.?
Friesen’s poems are always about to rain, and they smell of damp dogs and sweat and woodsy comings. This is recommendation enough to read them. And if we need more, there is the invitation to pause like ?breath on air? and find our clearing, a space where the whiskey jack darts among the trees.
Hope College RHODA JANZEN
What Mennonites are Thinking: 2002. Edited by Merle Good and Phyllis Pellman Good. Intercourse, PA: Good Books. 2002. Pp. 318. $11.95.
Mennonite writing currently runs a three-legged race. As Anabaptist-Mennonite thought increasingly flows into the academic mainstream, Mennonite thinkers? essays and articles probe deeper questions and provide more thorough answers to both particular and universal questions. Mennonite fiction, on the other hand, still largely confines itself to a backward-glancing historical longing. In fact, as the scholars? search for a definition of Mennonite literature shows, one of the simplest ways to pinpoint ?Menno lit? is by Mennonite historical details. If a short story or novel has a sprinkling of untranslated Pennsylvania Dutch or Russian, a predominance of last names like Yoder or Epp, and an energetic young hero seeking to break the mold of a stifling authoritarian society, it must be Mennonite. There’s only so far this theme can carry a reader, and new Mennonite writers are struggling to expand their parochial concerns into evocative narratives. Creative writing presents unique challenges of detail, memory and symbol that nonfiction writers simply don’t have to deal with. The latest volume of What Mennonites are Thinking illustrates the awkward difficulty of Mennonite fiction struggling to keep up with its older, stronger and more valued cousin.
In their introduction to What Mennonites are Thinking: 2002, Merle Good and Phyllis Pellman Good define ?Mennonite? as both a strain of Christian faith and a variety of lifestyles. The Goods observe that ?this conversation/tension between faith and life forms the backdrop for many of the pieces in this collection? (xvii). The contrast between the traditional Swiss-German or Russian-Mennonite folk heritage and the chimerical identity of the Anabaptist faith heritage underlies many fruitful places of tension in the Mennonite world today. The latest contribution in the Goods? winnowing of Mennonite writing illustrates the struggle between farm and urban sprawl, between fiction and faith, between European farmers and two-thirds world immigrants. In its contrasting mosaic of subject, genre and talent, What Mennonites are Thinking shows that the term ?Mennonite? is not a snapshot but a collage.
The Goods arrange the chosen contributions in alternating sections of genre-related material. By concentrating only a few similar selections at one time, these thematic chapters relieve the reader of the potential monotony of uniform blocks of academic essays or pages of poems. The editors divide the book into five basic categories: essays and articles, fiction, poetry, humor and reviews. Featured articles, essays and opinions contain theological challenges, personal anecdotes and historical research. The short fiction confines itself primarily to ?typical? Mennonite settings such as nineteenth-century Russia or rural Pennsylvania. The humor section features (largely unattributed) contributions by the authors, with one short piece by a Bethel College student. Review sections include reviews of important books such as James Juhnke and Carol M. Hunter’s A Missing Peace and Julia Kasdorf’s The Body and the Book, as well as editor Merle Good’s fair and wide-ranging ten-point rating system for significant films of the past year. A cumulative index references the entries of the past five years by subject, author and scripture reference. The pastiche of sections accommodates both a straight read-through of the whole volume or leisurely browsing.
Due in part to the history of Mennonites privileging scholarship above creative work, most of the stronger contributions to What Mennonites are Thinking are nonfiction essays. The book is worth purchasing primarily for several well-chosen examples of strong new tendencies in Mennonite thought. Nelson Kraybill’s essay ?Is Our Future Evangelical’? proposes a positive exchange between the evangelical and Mennonite traditions. Robert Rhodes? evocative impressionist essay highlights the work of the Amish author David Kline. Valerie Weaver-Zercher challenges Enlightenment conceptions of evil in ?Becoming Un-Enlightened.? Gilberto Flores? ?Dare to Become a Global Church? highlights the urgent necessity of acknowledging two-thirds world Mennonites and their impact on the church. As Mennonites and Anabaptists expand their cultural spheres, thinkers both inside and outside traditional Mennonite organizational structures need to address the issues of a transforming church. The essays noted illustrate that challenge with thought and sensitivity.
The fiction and poetry selections, while somewhat uneven, also contain significant contributions from the past year. Jeff Gundy’s ?The Cookie Poem? has already become canonical for some younger Mennonites. The poem begins: ?The sad cookies. The once and future cookies. / The broken sweet cookies. The cookies / of heartbreaking beauty. . .? (202) and continues on with a litany of cookiedom that quickly reveals itself as the spectrum of human life, concluding with a Cookie Monster God who loves all cookies and joyfully embraces them in ecstatic consumption. Gundy’s poem provides an example of how Mennonite literature can ground itself in the details of its past (?The faithful cookies of Rotterdam. The wild-eyed cookie of Muenster’) while still containing a message applicable to a wider audience. Evie Yoder Miller’s short story ?Time to Begin Again,? on the other hand, mires itself in historical detail and Yoderdom without transcending detail to a more human response, a pattern typical of ?Menno lit.? For literature to be truly effective, it must be grounded in the particular while speaking to the universal’the story of one person that speaks to all people. Sometimes Mennonite fiction succeeds. Sometimes it doesn’t.
The humor section further illustrates contemporary divisions in the church. Mennonites lag further behind in creative humor than they do in fiction; Anabaptists have largely considered themselves a grim no-nonsense people for several centuries now. Other than Cassidy Claassen’s semi-postmodern goat herding tale, the humor choices’written by the editors’actually draw further lines down the church’s present ?culture wars? rather than gently relieving them. The ?Who Wants to be a Millionite’? questions reflect a criticism of ?modern Mennonites? without a corresponding criticism of conservative Mennonites. The MCC Beauty Pageant essay sarcastically criticizes the peace and justice tradition. A few of these entries amuse, but primarily the reader wonders what particular ideological ax the editors are currently grinding.
The Goods, to their credit, are well aware of the dichotomy in quality between fiction and nonfiction. Phyllis Pellman Good herself, in her included essay ?Unlikely Partners: The Mennonite Soul, the Mennonite Imagination,? states boldly, ?Mennonites, it seems to me, come limping to the world of expressive writing? (74). Good asks several important questions, including whether Mennonites can write for themselves and a broader audience at the same time. One successful nonfiction essay’Louise Redford’s ?A Trip to Magdagachi’?recounts the author’s tense memories of her father’s disappearance under the early Communist regime; Redford grounds her writing in particular detail’swapping fruit with friendly soldiers on the train, traveling with a suitcase full of her father’s favorite rocks and flowers’that nonetheless touches underlying chords of parenthood, loss and oppression. Redford succeeds in portraying her particular (and factual) story without bogging down in the mire of detail. What is it about Mennonite fiction that makes it more difficult to do the same?
Merle Good and Phyllis Pellman Good take it upon themselves for the fifth year in a row to ascertain what indeed Mennonites think. The results of their search prove almost as interesting as the writing itself. This compilation’s layers span historical essay, fiction and poetry to build a complicated edifice indicative of the expanse of Mennonite thought. The work of well-known writers follows publishing debuts, and academic essays alternate with the pastoral and the poetic. Strong essays on the evolving church lie next to less robust essays on the wagon trip across the Midwest. What Mennonites are Thinking: 2002 illustrates both the strengths and the foibles of current Mennonite thought’and the editors? choices in portraying each.
Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary JEREMY GARBER
Scattering Point: The World in a Mennonite Eye. By Jeff Gundy. Albany: State University of New York Press. 2003. Pp. 212. $20.95.
Scattering Point Creek, the watercourse that originates on Jeff Gundy’s family farmstead in Illinois, twists, turns, meanders and merges until it finally finds the Atlantic.
The essays in Gundy’s second book of creative nonfiction, Scattering Point: The World in a Mennonite Eye take a similar circuitous route as they ground themselves in Mennonite identity and yet journey beyond the familiar realm, questioning assumptions and searching for connections with the larger world. ?Perhaps I cannot fully embrace a creed,? acknowledges the author,
because I keep discovering that what I once thought was true is only part of the story, that the universe is bigger and more complicated than I will ever grasp, its depths and subtleties far beyond me. And yet the more I realize my limits the more driven I am to extend them, to see and to say as much as I can about the world as it appears to my eyes.
Gundy, the author of three books of poems, searches for meaning by interpreting personal glimpses of the world. He feels drawn to plumbing what is secret, whether it is the underground water that feeds Scattering Point Creek or the hint of melancholy in his grandmother’s voice. When Gundy asks, ?What’s to gain by looking crossways, down the creek instead of along the road’? he is, among other things, juxtaposing a subjective, imaginative mindset to an objective, rational one. In the development of the essays, however, he uses the tools of both the poet and the scholar with facility. Fine metaphors and descriptive passages abound, but, when appropriate, he develops his ideas with well-chosen quotations from various sources, many of them literary.
The subject matter of this book, more diverse than what is often found in a collection of essays, will speak to Mennonites trying to discern their relationship with the world. The book calls each essay a chapter, but this designation implies a progression of ideas and degree of unity I did not find sufficiently apparent. In the first essay, ?Cathedrals, Churches, Caves: Notes on Architecture, History, and Worship,? Gundy ponders his relationship to the broader society as he takes the roles of tourist and pilgrim, traveling to Gothic cathedrals and to the hidden caves and churches where his Swiss German ancestors practiced their faith. He can accept the lavish beauty of the cathedrals as well as the austerity of his ancestors? churches by realizing that a space need not be perfect in order to be holy. This same insight helps him to embrace both his own tradition and the larger world.
?Scattering Point? is another strong essay that begins with a close, objective examination of a geography map and then delves into a more subjective exploration of how personal memory, imagination and history help connect us to the land. The essay makes many significant points, including the necessity of training the eye to find beauty in a Midwest landscape and of treating the space we inhabit with care and gratitude.
One of the most ambitious essays in the collection, ?Scatter Plots: Depression, Silence, and Mennonite Margins,? begins with the haunting poem ?Rain,? about a university student Gundy briefly observed years earlier. Moved by the young woman’s quiet isolation, the speaker in the poem longs to provide a sanctuary for her. In the essay, Gundy defines depression in spiritual terms, as ?a sense of loss, of being separated from a beloved object,? and he urges church communities to provide ?shelter and comfort? to those suffering from the disease. He spends time examining melancholia in a literary and religious context but also looks at clues that might indicate that his grandmother suffered from depression. He asks whether it would have changed her life ?to have grown up with more permission to speak loudly, to be angry, to claim her griefs’?
Throughout the book I appreciated Gundy’s willingness to take a risky stance. In ?The Sparrow in the Mead Hall: On Birds, Souls, and the World? Gundy rejects the idea that souls are meant to be isolated, insular entities and raises the fascinating theory that, like birds traveling in a flock, souls have a field larger than themselves. He suggests that we think of the soul as containing the body and not vice versa. If we do so, he contends that the spaces we inhabit will become more important to us and we will care more for the people, plants and animals whose souls our own souls are ?constantly rubbing up against.? The notion of an outward soul also leads Gundy to surmise that it would be better to speak of ?growing souls? rather than of saving them.
Before turning to the last essay, I want to briefly mention three other pieces. In one, Gundy speculates on the lives and motivations of two of his great-grandfathers and recreates scenes in which his imagination fills in the blank spaces. In another, he describes a pilgrimage to Lauber Hill, Ohio, where his ancestor John Gundy brought his family in 1834. The revelation that the past is important because it shapes the present moment is subtly reinforced in the second part of the essay as the writer muses upon the small midwestern town where he lives. In a third essay, Gundy presents an autobiography of his development as a poet and submits that the voice of ?rebellious individualism? is necessary to the Mennonite community. ?What worse betrayal of the group,? he asks, ?than passive acceptance of what the least imaginative and most authoritarian within it would have us be and do’?
?Would You Have Left All This for Waldo? Notes on a Partial Pilgrimage,? the last essay in the collection, brings us back to Gundy’s European trip. He relates stories about wealthy Amish Mennonite ancestors in the Palatinate who sometimes acted in ways our tradition would rather not acknowledge. But Gundy, who throughout the book embraces paradox, writes, ?Perhaps I love most that these stories are so mixed, so full of contradiction and complexity. These old Stalters seem both pious and proud, earnest and stubborn, noble and venal, capable and foolish; their virtues and their faults seem to have sprang from the same sources.? Gundy exhorts Mennonites to tell both the ?bad? and ?good? stories; he wisely contends that an acceptance of human ambiguities ?may be an essential defense against the way that unacknowledged anger and violence emerge, all the more explosive for having been suppressed.?
As I read Scattering Point I was reminded of an earlier writerwho, though assimilated into American culture, came from a religious tradition that preached perfection and sought to create communities at odds with ?the world’?a writer who also felt driven to understand his ancestors and to speculate upon their secrets. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Gundy insists that the human soul is complex and that the failure to accept that complexity will inevitably stunt spiritual growth by severing our connections to others.
Assimilated Mennonites who value their tradition yet find they have strong allegiances to the world will want to read this engrossing book as they grapple with what Gundy calls ?great mystery of identity.?
Westfield, IN SHARI MILLER WAGNER
Fixing Tradition: Joseph W. Yoder, Amish American. By Julia Kasdorf. C. Henry Smith Series, vol. 4. Telford, PA: Pandora Press U.S. 2002. 280 Pp. $22.95 pb.
Fixing Tradition is a work of history. Julia Kasdorf’s main purpose was to explore the classic question of the artist’s individualism vis–vis the claims of the community. So she chose the case of a musician and writer, Joseph W. Yoder, who had deep roots in Amish life and culture. Although Yoder cherished those roots, he pursued his own aims along paths that alienated him from the very community to which he had turned for artistic strength.
The bulk of Kasdorf’s book, six chapters, some quite lengthy, is the biography of a character who in the end turns out to be a tragic figure. Born in 1872, Yoder was reared Amish but became a Mennonite, all in the Kishacoquillas Valley of central Pennsylvania. To Amish and Mennonites the name is ?Big Valley,? even though it is not very big. For many of his years until he died in 1956, Yoder lived away from Big Valley, yet he kept returning, he held his church membership there and there he was buried. Emotionally and psychologically he tried to stay home.
Yoder would hardly have been more than a somewhat colorful local figure except that in the late 1930s he wrote Rosanna of the Amish (1940). Part fact-based novel, part biography and part autobiography, the book was the (or at least a) story of Yoder’s own mother. She had been born a McGonegal, a child of immigrant Irish, but was soon orphaned and then reared in an Amish home. From her teen years onward she kept up frequent and happy contacts with her Irish Catholic siblings; yet she chose to be Amish and married a thoroughly Amish man. At the time, some Amish were becoming ?Old Order,? while more progressive ones were becoming ?Amish Mennonite.? Later, in the early-twentieth century, most Amish Mennonites would merge into Mennonite churches. Even among the Old Order Amish various splinters developed, for which the Big Valley makes a superb case study. Amid the varieties, Rosanna and her husband remained Old Order, but not of the strictest kind.
At least in Yoder’s somewhat embellished telling, Rosanna was a talented woman who struggled to mix a fun-loving and spirited Irish temperament with the Amish ethics of humility and obedience. So Rosanna of the Amish let Yoder successfully weave together various themes: local color; irrepressible womanhood; mixing and clash of cultures; formation of personal identity; both his mother’s and his own coming of age; and, not least, individuals struggling with community controls. Actually Yoder’s immediate purpose was to counter literature (most specifically Straw in the Wind, a novel by Ruth Lininger Dobson) that portrayed the Amish as backward, unenlightened and in bondage to authoritarian and tyrannical leaders. So Rosanna joined an already established genre that interpreted the Amish to a popular American audience’a genre that David Weaver-Zercher has analyzed well in The Amish in the American Imagination (2001). Because Yoder aimed to correct distortions, his purpose was at least partly polemic.
Yoder did not write Rosanna until he was in his mid-sixties. As a young adult he had studied a bit at Northwestern University and briefly taught Greek and other subjects at Elkhart Institute, predecessor of Goshen College. Then, in an odd sequence, he earned an undergraduate degree at what was becoming Juniata College, a progressive Church of the Brethren school not far from the Big Valley. Along the way Yoder took up ?muscular Christianity,? a turn-of-the-century American male passion that fused Teddy Roosevelt-style physical culture with a kind of spirituality. At both Elkhart Institute and Juniata, he promoted and taught strenuous physical exercise and male athletics. On into adulthood he also lived the role of bachelor, and indeed did not marry until age sixty. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries bachelorhood was another distinct form of male culture, a point Kasdorf has developed nicely.
Meanwhile Yoder showed an artistic side. Gifted with musical aptitude and a rich baritone voice, through much of his life he spent a portion of each year conducting singing schools, especially in the Mennonite communities of central and eastern Pennsylvania. Indeed, his most positive legacy to his church was probably not his writings but his contribution to four-part singing. The singing schools made him some money, but even a bachelor needed more income. As a young man he hoped that Goshen College would call him back to its faculty, but it did not. So for many years he worked at recruiting students for Juniata, which enabled him to remain near to the Big Valley. Even in the twenty years during which he lived more than 150 miles away, in Bucks County northeast of Philadelphia, he often returned to his home valley. Thus he stayed geographically and psychologically close.
After Rosanna, in retirement, Yoder published Amische Lieder (1942), a small collection of Old Order Amish songs. Believing that he needed to help save the Amish way of singing from extinction, he had listened and then written out the musical notes for some songs’which was no small feat, given the slow, highly inflected manner of Amish singing. He continued to publish: in 1948 a kind of sequel to Rosanna, named Rosanna’s Boys; in 1950 an argument about Amish doctrine and practice, Amish Traditions; and in 1954 a pamphlet, The Prayer Veil Analyzed. As his new titles appeared, he waxed ever more polemical. And although he had written Rosanna to defend the Amish, in old age he gradually turned on them, their doctrines and their systems of authority. As he did, he showered Amish leaders and others with critical and accusatory letters. As one reviewer of Amish Traditions remarked, ?The defending attorney [went] over to the prosecution.?
Such was the tragedy of Joseph W. Yoder. Although Kasdorf never quite says so, he seems really to have been quite shallow. In his youth he gulped the values of American progressivism and individual self-assertion without bothering to think critically about those values, even though his Amish and Mennonite formation gave him resources to do so. He was an egotist, so much so that, as Kasdorf noted, in almost every extant group photo that includes him, he managed to get himself in the center of the picture. As he grew more and more polemical he surely lacked self-criticism and a sense of proportion. And although thoroughly Americanized, in old age he still claimed constantly and publicly that he was authentically Amish.
Earlier in Yoder’s life many Big Valley Amish had been rather fond of ?Singing Joe? and happy that he kept returning. But in his later years, rather than letting his polemics reform them, the Amish grew puzzled and understandably resentful. How could he claim to be one of them when he refused to live by the Amish church’s communal religious code, or Ordnung? How could he make that claim even as he attacked the very traditions and outlook that made the Amish who they were’and as he sowed dissension among them? In the end, the main Mennonite congregation in Big Valley, the one where he was a member, buried Yoder with a funeral that Kasdorf presents as a ceremony of honor and forgiveness. But evidently he died quite alienated from the very Amish to whom, in his own way, he had clung so tenaciously.
As biography and history, Fixing Tradition is a fair success. Kasdorf herself recognized that its details are not entirely reliable because many of them come from Yoder’s own accounts, which frequently contradict each other, and from oral interviews, in which details often become confused.
But the larger contours of Kasdorf’s account are thoroughly convincing. Moreover, she offers various interesting and valuable side excusions. For instance, she delves well into the literature of ?muscular Christianity? and its intense maleness, and into that of early twentieth-century bachelorhood. And she offers a fine comparison between Yoder and John A. Hostetler, famed author of Amish Society. The two were friends of sorts. Like Yoder, Hostetler was reared Old Order Amish, became a Mennonite and related back to the Amish in a career of interpreting them to the public. Yet, unlike Yoder, Hostetler always respected them and in turn kept their respect. In another kind of side excursion, Kasdorf occasionally comments on the power and authority of a written text. Had she developed that theme further she might have added to the book’s scholarly value but perhaps interfered with its readability. As it is, Fixing Tradition is an apt combination of scholarship and easy reading. Advanced scholars can profit from it, but so can other persons who are simply interested. Readers will get local history. They can add depth to their general American history as they watch how an American culture that valued individual self-assertion enticed or berated a minority that emphasized yielding and humility, and also how a strongly communal minority managed to resist. They will get at least some minor literary history. And of course the book offers a good dose of Amish and Mennonite history.
Yet it is not as history that the book should stand or fall. Kasdorf is, of course, a noted and much-loved poet. She herself has deep family and religious roots in the Big Valley. She is self-consciously a Mennonite and has been brilliant at transforming material from her Amish and Mennonite roots into critically acclaimed poetry. Fixing Tradition grew out of a doctoral dissertation at New York University, yet ultimately it is autobiography. Kasdorf sandwiched her six chapters on Joseph Yoder between an introduction and an epilogue that tell, in literary and emotive rather than sociological language, of her own Big Valley ties to present and past generations and then of her own professional struggles. For instance, she presents her struggle with how to dress and comport herself among Big Valley Mennonites and Amish in order not to cut herself off from them before she could reap the rich stories she wanted for her own purposes. And in her own paraphrase of another ethnic author, she considers her own struggle with a ?complex sense of guilt: for straying beyond the norms of the community, for calling its norms into question, and for exposing its knowledge to a broader world.?
The introduction and epilogue tantalize but may not satisfy. Unless I missed something between the lines, Kasdorf gives us some fascinating autobiography but not much exposition on her main concern. She opened large and valuable questions about the right of individual expression, so highly cherished and vaunted by artists, and about the relationship between that right and the rights and ethos of the very community upon which the artist draws. Stated as a matter of ?rights,? by the lights of America at large that is a kind of political question. But for Amish and Mennonites the question is theological and ethical. That is because (at least in the past) their theology and ecclesiology have taught strongly that the individual is always accountable to the body of Jesus? followers, the church. Some artists (and some historians) may believe that if they love their church, turn to it for subject matter and speak back to it, then they are accountable. But in his sometimes crude way Joseph Yoder exposed that assumption to be false. Kasdorf opens the questions, and perhaps her way of doing so with autobiography rather than direct discussion was the right method for a poet. But the questions surely need extended and continual exposition. The discussion needs to occur in many forums, churchly as well as artistic and academic.
Fixing Tradition is a creditable book, well worth almost anyone’s reading. Its publisher gave it attractive layout and appearance. However, two requests to the publisher: please proofread more carefully, both for typos (including quite a few that a spell-check should have caught’e.g., at mid-page 126) and for standard form (e.g., fn. 11 on p. 259, which has an unpublished title set in italics and the plural abbreviation ?mss? in place of the singular); and please put headings on the endnote pages to show the text locations to which notes refer. Some of us do actually check the notes!
Goshen College THERON F. SCHLABACH
Ending with Music. By Maurice Mierau. London, ON: Brick Books. 2002. Pp. 89. $15.00.
In Ending with Music, his first collection of poems, Maurice Mierau tackles many difficult subjects: poverty and hunger; age, sickness and debility; sex, war and violence; and those two perennial poetic subjects, love and death. But especially death’and usually violent death, at that. We do meet Grandpa and Grandma who die in old age after full lives. Mierau, however, is far more intrigued by men and women cut down in their prime: by war, execution or frequently their own hands. In fact, we encounter the first reference to suicide on the title page. Concerning the acknowledgment for the cover photo of the Washington Avenue Bridge, Mierau informs us that the ?American poet John Berryman ended his life by jumping off this bridge on January 7, 1972.?
Despite the darkness of much of the material, we don’t close the book with a heavy heart. In part that is because Mierau sets all of this death in a world filled with life, with energy and motion. In part that is because he finds comfort in the simple pleasures of the movies of Hollywood’s golden age, in old jazz and country records. But mostly that is because Mierau knows that, while people are capable of hatred and violence, they are also capable of love and comfort. The very act of writing these poems demonstrates the human concern with suffering of others that helps make that suffering bearable.
The book is divided into three sections: ?Family and Others,? ?Murders? and ?Ending with Music.? The first section is the most varied in subject matter and lightest in tone. Many of these poems confront Mierau’s Russian Mennonite heritage. The past is merely the past, or passing. The old ways of doing things, the old values, even the old hymns and country blues are dying along with the generation that valued them. In ?Norman Vincent Peale visits Saskatchewan, 1933? the cousins leave the hardscrabble life of the cold north country for sunnier pastures to the west. ?Grandpa,? on the other hand, even though he is forced to sell ?the Model T for food,? ?stayed on his land/ while the dust made ravines around his mouth/ his face dry and cracked and/ he never thought west and south.? But the past is never romanticized and the present never condemned; these poems are more observation than elegy.
Mierau’s humor shows through in ?Escape,? with its depiction of an inexperienced teenaged lover:
fumbling in the dashboard light, finding
the dreamed-for bra strap,
hiding cigarettes and understanding baseball
metaphors already like the great code
of some knowable literature
Yet even this is only ?adolescent escape,? set against the world of adult sexuality with its ?marriage, mortgages, missed menstrual cycles.? A number of poems in the first section look at this world of grown-up love. We read of love lost and betrayed but also of its abiding power. As poets have always known, love redeems the suffering and loss of this world.
The second section, ?Murders,? looks to the other side of the coin’to hatred, violence, revenge, intolerance. But what Mierau calls ?murders? are not, in fact, murders at all in the normal sense of the word. Nearly all of the killings are executions, usually of martyrs; nearly all of the violence is related to war. Mierau trains his eyes on institutionally sanctioned violence. Many of these stories are drawn from Martyrs? Mirror, the sixteenth-century collection of post-Reformation martyrs. What makes these poems interesting is not so much the depiction of religious violence and intolerance but the bemused glance that Mierau often casts on the ones who suffer violence. ?Tall George Wagner? tells of a man put to death because he did not believe in transubstantiation or the saving power of baptism. Mierau is intrigued not by Wagner’s theological position but by his refusal to recant even in the face of leaving behind a wife and child:
(Why didn’t he [recant]? He could have
just relaxed or gone shopping.
Other than contributing this folk tale
to the Martyrs? Mirror, what good
did he do? Why the hell was he so happy’)
The strength of conviction, the willingness to do and suffer harm seems unfathomable in our thoroughly open society. And the glorification of these ?folk tales? in the Martyrs? Mirror seems at best misplaced, if not dangerous. The juxtaposition of these narratives with the unspeakable horrors of modern war’the Nazi concentration camps and the Serb rape camps’emphasizes the similarities rather than the distinctions between the Reformation martyrs and the twentieth century’s perfection of torture. Hypostatic conviction seems to lead to cruelty in all instances. But Mierau makes no distinctions regarding the validity of the underlying convictions.
The final section, ?Ending with music,? turns to self-inflicted violence. If the martyrs died happily to save their souls, these suicides die to free their pained souls from bodies’imperfect bodies so readily susceptible to sickness, decay and pain. These bewildered souls wanted more from the world than the world could give. In ?The pain problem? the poet has difficulty finding an adequate image for the deceased:
because what you always wanted
was to leave the body,
what you always wanted
was to free yourself from pain
what you always wanted
was to stop talking
about it, finally
to free yourself from grievances
The body causes pain in this instance because it stands in the way of fulfilling idealized desire:
the impossibly beautiful
The grievance with the body, here’with the world (?the imperfect body of the world’)?is gnostic. Suicide is the release of the soul from corruptible flesh. One of the two poems not about suicide in the final section, ?Night at the opera? describes a woman: ?84 years old and secretly incontinent, / she avoids liquid all day to go see Carmen.? Here, too, the body is a hindrance, a malfunctioning machine. This is only one of at least three references to incontinence in Ending with Music.
I don’t mean to suggest that Mierau glorifies suicide as a noble and courageous escape from mutability. No, he is sometimes sympathetic, sometimes angry, sometimes confused at the decision to end one’s own life. But he is always left, as the survivor, with the pain of loss. The book closes, however, with another love poem, ?My son learns to ride a bike.? As he sits watching The Third Man with his wife, he thinks about:
being hungry for life to
change completely and how white
your throat is, and the strength
of your arms and words, and how surprisingly
everything does change
So, Mierau sends us off believing that our hunger is not insatiable, that it can be satisfied’at least sometimes.
Goshen College KEVIN SAYLOR
Writing Peace: The Unheard Voices of Great War Mennonite Objectors. By Melanie Springer Mock. Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House. 2003. Pp. 348. $23.95 U.S., $35.95 Canada.
During the First World War, pacifists in the U.S. often faced ridicule from fellow citizens for opposing the war. In 1917, Congress passed a new and unprecedented Selective Service Act, specifying that draft-eligible men who belonged to established religious organizations might be granted conscientious objector status. These C.O.s would, under the new law, be designated noncombatants under military authority. Beginning in the summer of 1917 and continuing through the next year, approximately 2,000 Mennonite inductees classified as C.O.s would travel to many of the nation’s thirty military training camps, knowing they would be expected to conform to the new conscription law. But they could not know how their obligations to the state would meld’or clash’with their religious convictions.
As the literary scholar Melanie Springer Mock points out in Writing Peace, a study of the objectors? wartime experiences, these young men were ?in an unenviable position, uncertain of what the government would ask of them and uncertain too what the church expected of them? (p. 40). Scrutinizing the diaries of four Mennonite conscientious objectors, Mock shows how war fervor on the home front played out in the lives of men at military camps in Kansas, Iowa and South Carolina; at farms in Iowa for agricultural furlough assignments; and at the federal penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The diaries provide details about the Mennonite men’s activities and thoughts in military training camps. Some of these locations, such as Camp Cody, in New Mexico, were notoriously hostile to conscientious objectors. And the Fort Leavenworth prison housed hundreds of C.O.?s whose lengthy sentences’often twenty years or more’meant that grim uncertainty about one’s fate was part of the experience.
Mock builds on the scholarship of Gerlof Homan, James Juhnke and others who have previously used diaries and letters in recounting the experiences of American Mennonite C.O.?s during this period. But whereas historical narratives typically use the Mennonite men’s diaries as documents to construct broader arguments about the World War I Mennonite milieu in the context of heightened nationalism, Mock approaches the diaries differently, considering them as literary works to be read for their insights into the writers? consciousness of their place in a warring world: ?Like the soldier who documented his time in battle, leaving an artifact . . . the objectors too must have realized the significance of their diaries, marking their place in the history of the Mennonite church and of the country? (p. 114). Because several of these men eventually donated their diaries to Mennonite archives at North Newton, Kansas, and Goshen, Indiana, Mock suggests that the men were aware of the significance of their writings beyond personal musings for their own comfort and benefit.
In her discussion of the Great War literary canon, Mock points out that male soldiers? writings, especially those of European combatants, have been especially influential in shaping subsequent understandings of this particular war. Yet the literary landscape is of course more complex, with classics such as Vera Britain’s Testament of Youth offering authoritative commentary on the tragedies and heroism of people caught in the drama of the Great War. Mock suggests that whereas women’s writings are essential to broadening our understandings of the war’s impact on combatants and noncombatants in Europe, North America and elsewhere, the writings of conscientious objectors deserve to be read as war literature as well.
Given that the content of these four diaries is often repetitive and seemingly unremarkable in the reporting of daily minutiae, Mock reminds readers that the Mennonite diarists? writings were limited in part by the writers? fears about possible confiscation of their diaries. She also finds a peculiar Mennonite ethos in the writings, an emphasis on ?work and hope? as the men recounted their doings: hauling garbage, cleaning latrines, doing kitchen duty and, in some cases, facing authorities who seemed to be persecutors.
In this volume Mock includes four Mennonite wartime diaries, written by Gustav Gaeddert, Ura Hostetler, John Neufeld and Jacob Meyer. Her selections permit comparison across denominational, educational and occupational lines. The volume’s introductory chapter surveys the historical streams of American Mennonitism represented by these men, namely the General Conference, ?Old? Mennonite and progressive Amish Mennonite groups. Each of the men whose diaries appear here were just beginning their vocations when they were drafted: Gaeddert was a primary school teacher; Hostetler, a farmer; Neufeld, a missionary; and Meyer, a historian-in-training with a graduate degree from Harvard. The diaries suggest that each of the men felt justified in the stances they had taken as religious objectors, but their individual circumstances led them to widely divergent experiences that would, in turn, shape their lives beyond the war.
Of the four men, John Neufeld suffered the harshest treatment for his minority stance. Like a number of other religious objectors, Neufeld was beaten for disobeying an order from a military superior, court-martialed and sent to do hard labor at the Fort Leavenworth federal prison. While there he was hospitalized briefly after contracting influenza and diphtheria. By contrast, Jacob Meyer, who spent much of his time in South Carolina military camps trying to obtain permission to serve in France with the American Friends Service Committee, was a respected clerk and liaison between fellow C.O.?s and military officers. The personal freedoms that Meyer enjoyed inside military camp were unusual for a Mennonite. A typical entry from his diary from August 1918 includes the self-assessment, ?Health fine. Spirits good.? (p. 245).
Writing Peace offers contextual material, based in part on interviews conducted with some of these men in the 1960s, about their lives during and after the war. Mock shows how the wartime experiences led some of the conscientious objectors to take part in service abroad after the war. Several taught at Mennonite colleges; several also did reconstruction work in Europe. Evidently the sense of Mennonite identity among the men was strong before the war, and their bonds with the church community appear to have strengthened further during their wartime tribulations.
By focusing on four Mennonite objectors’and what can be learned from the writings they produced’Mock shows how source materials that upon first glance seem unimportant may in fact deserve a closer look. This volume magnifies one’s understanding of Mennonite objectors in the Great War, and more broadly, appeals for a deeper appreciation of minority voices in time of war.
Washburn University RACHEL WALTNER GOOSSEN
The Fat Lady Struck Dumb. By David Waltner-Toews. London, Ontario: Brick Books. 2000. Pp. 120. $14.00.
Poets like David Waltner-Toews’white, male, well-educated and at least modestly prosperous’face a curious set of challenges in times like these, especially if their progressive political views cast considerable suspicion on their own privileges. (I speak as one who fits the same profile.) Empowered in obvious ways, such poets can scarcely present themselves as romantic outsiders or victims of a cruel world, no matter how skeptical their view of society may be. Well aware of these issues, David Waltner-Toews offers himself to readers in his sixth book of poems as a traveler, a scientist, one whose broad and deep knowledge of the natural world is both a gift and a burden. In the first dozen pages of the book, the scene shifts from Italy to Nova Scotia to Nepal, Kenya, India, Peru, Honduras and Namibia, and yet the poems bear the weight of so much experience and awareness lightly. Against the self-importance and self-pity that he must risk, Waltner-Toews finds the best resources to be humor, precise observation and humility. Ample use of all these makes The Fat Lady Struck Dumb consistently unpredictable and engaging, drawing readers into the poet’s private predicaments and public obsessions.
The author of these poems is clearly a family man, a considerable wit, a formidable storyteller, a Christian and an unabashed defender of the liberal values of compassion, justice and concern for the biosphere. But he is also, as ?Sunday Morning? illustrates, a lover of self-deprecating humor and quirky, sometimes almost surreal narratives. Beginning with a disquieting glimpse of a crow beside the highway as ?a priest in black satin,? the poem goes on to describe a wild service and a pianist with ?a mind of her own’:
She knows that all the bad things
in her life were because
she was a woman
and all the bad things
that happened to me
She knows, knowing myself,
I will concur. (34-35)
The ?woman at the pulpit? is even more startling, as she more or less rapes the speaker: ?She has me on my back over the lectern. / Rising white, glistening, luminous and erect / above me, her penetrating insights / reduce me to moans and quivers.? Her words provide a release from ?all those cocky victories? the speaker remembers, into a new world where he need no longer feel so responsible and, it seems, so guilty.
Many poems in this book turn on the problem of knowing a great deal about the world’s ills while being able to do very little about them. Poems, Waltner-Toews suggests, may not change the world all at once, but they may at least enable us to glimpse the possibility of speaking rightly. The wittily titled ?Teilhard de Chardin Surfs the Internet? has it this way:
For just one cresting second,
in tightening bellies, tumbling over
flashing sand, stars, water, air,
and just before
the flotsam engulfs us,
we shall have spoken everything,
the sea will sigh,
and, rising sluggishly, heave:
just one more try. (51)
The title poem has for its subtitle the familiar maxim ?It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.? Like many others in the book, the poem is located within a very specific place and time’here a Canada Day gathering in Victoria Park in Waltner-Toews? hometown of Kitchener, Ontario’which provides the context for deeper meditation. The poem describes immigrants from all over the world as they mingle in the sunny park, led to this spot by their desire for ?dancing, justice, / fresh pastry, a kiss on the cheek, / a decent job, no guns at the grocery store.? (59) The ?fat lady,? who is also the statue of Queen Victoria that rules the park, is struck dumb by the polyglot vitality around her’and just maybe, Waltner-Toews suggests, the world’s dance is not over yet.
Another moving poem, ?The Amateur,? celebrates words and poems and ?that a man can still be amateur, / uncertain, seen, obscenely, from all angles, / practicing at his humanity, asking / what it means? (72). The stance here is reminiscent of William Carlos Williams? famous claim that ?It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.? While poetry may not save the world or offer up its insights easily, Waltner-Toews suggests, those who exist without poetry are impoverished by that lack. ?Take these lines? the poem says, ?a gift for having lived / another day amid the fragile, happy / babble of a family, the info-streets strewn / with the pulp and wreckage of our public cant, / so little to dream on, to suckle hope’s gaunt baby.? (73)
The last section of The Fat Lady Struck Dumb mainly consists of poems addressed to specific people, something Waltner-Toews has done often and well throughout his career. (Readers familiar with his earlier work, and fans of his ?Tante Tina? poems and her earthy, dialect-driven humor and folk wisdom, must be warned that she does not make an appearance here.) These poems flirt with the merely personal and, curiously, with the abstract; there are a few predictable lines in ?You Are Not a Cat,? an ?advice to children? poem that ends ?Drop by for no reason. / If we are not in, / drop a note in the mailbox. // Just say hi.? But there are many lively and surprising moments as well, including the surreal one when the poet, calling the children down for supper, discovers ?a path into a ravine? in the stairwell, one with mountains in the distance, a bear, the rush of water. ?How could I have missed this’? he wonders, ?How shall I ever know you? / Is 50 years enough? A lifetime? / The bear waves her head, slowly . . .?
The last poem, ?Coyotes at Eyebrow Lake, Saskatchewan,? is both typical of this collection and something of an innovation. Typical in placing the poet in a meditative moment and a colorful setting, its innovation is the use of third person to shift and defamiliarize the perspective: ?The poet sinks into the sleepy, self-indulgent / dusk of his tent, unaware.? Amid the sudden howling of coyotes, ?an extended, happy, off-key / full-hearted family campfire song,?
The poet sits, stunned,
amid the litter of his daily rhyme,
terrified by sudden fleeting joy. (114)
In a world with misery, oppression and disaster on every side, by what right do we find ourselves happy, and are there conditions under which we are entitled to joy? These are the questions that Waltner-Toews returns to compulsively and rightly, for they are crucial for all of us who are privileged as he is. It is worth our while to contemplate the canny and vital poems through which he arrives at his answer’a complicated, contingent and resonant ?Yes.?
Bluffton College JEFF GUNDY
A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry. Edited by Ann E. Hostetler. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press. 2003. Pp. 222. $39.95.
Since Mennonites have historically ?been suspicious of the fine arts,? as editor Ann Hostetler notes in her introduction (xv), an anthology of poetry by Mennonites and those influenced by Mennonite faith and culture has been long in coming. The wait, however, makes this collection all the more interesting.
The authors included here represent a range of voices, and the title, which recognizes the difficult beauty of the four-part unaccompanied singing in many Mennonite congregations, is apt for the variety yet overall cohesiveness of this collection. The contents include writers who are active participants in Mennonite churches as well as those who are ?culturally? Mennonite, that is, raised in Mennonite communities but no longer participating in Mennonite congregations. Also included are several poets who have been influenced by the Mennonite community, although they are not themselves Mennonite. The voices are predominantly female, as 17 of the 24 poets included are women. Hostetler includes 4 to 6 poems for each poet and organizes them chronologically, based on the respective poet’s birth date. Poets included in this anthology are Anna Ruth Ediger Baehr, Jane Rohrer, Sarah Klassen, Jean Janzen, Leonard Neufeldt, Janet Kauffman, Betsy Sholl, Patrick Friesen, David Waltner-Toews, Raylene Hinz-Penner, Di Brandt, Jeff Gundy, Keith Ratzlaff, Ann Hostetler, Juanita Brunk, Shari Miller Wagner, Sheri Hostetler, Julia Kasdorf, Audrey Poetker, Todd Davis, David Wright, Barbara Nickel, Carmen Horst and Jessica Smucker Falcn.
Hostetler frames the anthology with an introduction and afterword. The Introduction offers some context, both historical and personal, for the development of this anthology, while the Afterword offers a more interpretive reading of the poems in which she outlines the problematic nature of selecting poems for this anthology, since ?to create an anthology of poets of ?Mennonite origins? is inevitably to engage in the identity discussion? (185). This discussion is far from over but provides a useful framework for the reader.
Many of the poems included here are lyric poems based on personal, often childhood, experiences. Hostetler has chosen a number of poems that highlight music, from the first poem by Baehr ?I Am Dancing with My Mennonite Father,? which carry the theme of the title throughout. Yet this music signifies not only joy but also its opposite. Wagner’s poem ?A Cappella,? which shares its title with the collection, is wary rather than joyful, for the a cappella singing of hymns represents not only the joy of immediate worship but also a legacy of Anabaptist persecution and martyrdom, of a house of worship ?so haunted/we breathe/the same breath? as the ghosts of the past.
Another predominant theme in this anthology is a pervasive sense of loss. This loss is both personal and communal’from the immediate sorrow over the loss of a favorite tree, the death of a husband, a mother, a grandmother, to the broader anguish of a loss of childhood joy through repressive rules, a loss of innocence in a community which refuses to recognize and prevent abuse, a loss of faith in a religion that was inconsistent, and, at times, a loss of faith in the self who has never been tested by martyrdom but feels acutely the injustice others experience.
Related to this sense of loss is a deep and rich anger along with an associated resentment that this righteous anger is often muted by understanding and even the obligation, within the Mennonite faith, to love rather than hate. In poem after poem, the past experience of the poet or an ancestor is revealed in images that suggest both fierce resentment and an equally fierce fascination, even love. Perhaps this is the price of poetry for Mennonites: that which fuels and fascinates must also wound and infuriate. Brandt’s ?nonresistance, or love Mennonite style? rails at how ?you wish you could stop/being angry all the time but you can’t/because God is watching & he sees/everything.? Anger forces these writers to break the silence imposed by the community, yet they are pulled back to painful memories about people they continue to love. Friesen’s ?pa poem 4: naked and nailed? expresses this contradiction most explicitly, admitting, ?. . . I start with my grievance / and always end up with this Goddamned love.?
But this is not a depressing anthology. There is also joy and an appreciation of the beauty of the world, despite its flaws. Poetry, is, as Hostetler notes, a celebration of the sensory world (xv), which is often downplayed by religious aesthetes in quest of the spiritual. The poems collected here highlight the poignancy of moments of awareness when the poet is truly in and of the world. The world, as Sholl notes in ?Redbud,? loves us, though we have ?probably never loved enough/never dared to let ourselves go that far into its beauty.? Here the role of the poet is clear, to offer this insight, to remind us again and again of our essential role as participants within creation. These images in words do indeed ?[breathe] on a page,? as Janzen writes, and those of us who are not poets appreciate the insight into our own world and into the poet’s mind at work. Davis? ?Loving the Flesh? emphasizes the importance of the earthly, bodily being, recognizing the propensity of the human mind to ?tip away? from the fact ?that we would not know a soul if it were not draped by skin/and muscle, by tendon upon bone, by artery and vein entwined.? At times, though, even language is inadequate to remind us of the beauty surrounding us. In Waltner-Toews ?Coyotes at Eyebrow Lake, Saskatchewan? the external experience of a ?coyote hootenanny? offers a vivid image of poetic insight that is sometimes beyond the power of language to convey, and the poet is left only with emotion, ?terrified by sudden fleeting joy,? inexpressible except through sensory image.
Ironically, the strength of this collection for me lies in the poems that seem the least ?Mennonite? in theme or content. Indeed, the poems with specifically Mennonite themes, as is likely to happen in this kind of collection, run together, overlap and repeat themselves, so much so that Gundy’s satire in ?How to Write a Mennonite Poem? is all the more acute, rendering other poems almost as parodies of themselves. This is unfortunate but perhaps suggests a historical moment in the evolution of poetry by Mennonite and Mennonite-influenced writers. Wright’s perplexed ?A New Mennonite Replies to Julia Kasdorf? also suggests that poetry grounded in memories of a more conservative Mennonite culture risks becoming at best a curiosity and at worst a way of isolating a community of readers who share similar experiences from the ?new? Mennonites joining the faith from other religious backgrounds and cultures.
Hostetler does recognize in her introduction that the Mennonite church is growing quickly outside of North America and that there are now in fact more Mennonites south of the equator than north of it. Yet these poems overall represent a North American experience, specifically the Swiss-German and Dutch-Prussian-Russian, with less evidence of other Mennonite experiences in North America and elsewhere. This anthology thus represents one strand of writing from those who are Mennonite or who have experienced Mennonite communities. The next anthology, one hopes, would be able to widen that perspective to include the voices of those now joining both the church and its ongoing four-part harmony.
Central Michigan University JESSICA LAPP
Ripe: Poems. Todd Davis. Midwest Writers Series. Huron, OH. Bottom Dog Press. Pp. 85. $10.95.
Ripe is a strong first collection of lyric poems focusing on the light and shadow of the natural world. It encompasses a fertile land and all that grows’plants, animals and humans’in the turn of the seasons. The collection is divided into three sections of about 20 poems each, and, as the title suggests, many locate themselves in the fullness of fall ? with redemption right around the corner.
Davis, raised in Elkhart Indiana, is a former professor of American literature, poetry and nature writing at Goshen College; has been a visiting writer in the creative writing program at Iowa State University; and now teaches at Pennsylvania State University at Altoona. Many of these poems have been published in U.S. journals and magazines, a testament to the craft of the writer and the appeal of his finely tuned work.
Influences brought to bear on the work are most easily identified by the quotations from other writers, including Jim Harrison, in a book jacket blurb. The others referred to inside the book, most notably Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry and James Dickey, represent a clarity and focus gained by first-hand experience in the out-of-doors. Other less obvious references are from M. S.Merwin, Galway Kinnel (a personal favorite of mine) and Robinson Jeffers.
A minister once told me of how privileged he felt in his work and presence at all the major life events of his congregants’most significantly birth, marriage and death. So, too, with the poet. Those life events make the world’and the word’memorable and significant to each of us. Davis makes that clear.
The collection opens with ?Ferment? and the figure of an apple tree in the meadow late in the season, ripeness having passed to bitterness, then changed again to the ?wooden fragrance? in the bottle, a reminder of ?. . . the kiss / given by the angel / who comes for us all? (9), firmly associating the fall with death and the ?kiss? of redemption and grace of the Christian tradition.
The poems in the first section move mostly from fall to winter with signs of spring. An elegiac tone is established early and is common throughout the collection, establishing a sense of loss to which many of us who have become an urban people can relate. For example, in ?For an Uncle, Twenty-Four Years after his Passing’:
I too talk of country matters
my wife riding with me in the dark
the day left behind at the university.
I have a fond admiration for what will never be mine:
The soil ? pushed over, turned under ? waiting
for spring rain, summer growth,
for doves and crows who will sit on stalks,
rigid with life, with eventual death,
and I am reminded that we never met (14).
The writer is claiming, or reclaiming, his relationship to the land and to the thirsty giant of his uncle who ?often talked of country matters with fond admiration: the field, dark… but the country was never [yours]? (14). Davis grows poetry in this land of loss to memorialize his uncle ?sprawled on broken stalks, the first light snow of winter/falling slowly on you, like bits of heaven.?
Death also moves through the poem ?Indiana Gothic? in which a husband kills his wife after lovingly drawing her a bath. In the title poem ?Ripe,? which concludes the first section, Davis writes of deer who gather ?as best they can? to rise:
from melting snow, as will
the fawn mushrooms whose soft
haunches lift round the rotting
bodies of deer whose hunger
could not wait for the return
of warm, green rains.? (36, 37)
The collection does not present only an earnest and grim world, even when it is examining an earnest approach to life. There is always hope, and sometimes there is humor. One of my favorite poems ?Mennonite Prayer? is short enough to quote in its entirety:
And you will find
all the blessings
that come after
belong to those
who greet the dawn.
For light finds no
resting place in ease
but in toil alone. (17).
The poem bathes the work ethic (one in which Mennonites often take pride) in the light that comes from a little poke in the ribs.
Davis? use of religious and often liturgical language is most prominent in the middle section, where it appears in almost all of the poems: ?baptized,? ?blessed,? ?grace,? ?wings,? ?sacrament,? ?heaven,? ?against the grave,? ?Kyrie eleison,? ?liturgy,? ?rosary’, ?toward the light,? ?like water from a jug,? revelations,? ?blessing,? ?grace and felicity,? ?forgiveness’, ?his head bowed,? ?ready to fall,? ?Noah? and ?goddess.?
While fall and winter are the predominant seasons in the first section of poems, summer is featured in the second and third. All of the poems are infused with light, although the light is generally moonlight in winter. The sun pours forth in the summer, most directly in ?The Mystery of Sunlight,? dedicated to the poet’s son Noah and set when Noah is still in the womb:
I speak to you at six in the morning,
try to describe what the light was like
as it leaked over the trees
how it made its way
from leaf to leaf, a waterfall
rushing in its youth,
only to crash ever wider upon the earth,
rising swiftly until
the world as we knew it
drowned in the mystery
Family is celebrated in four generations’grandparents leaving, parents loving, children learning’and pervades all three sections of this collection. Love is expressed with a breathtaking clarity in these mediations on the nature of human relationships.
On his wife: ?you stir me, as you always have, / the way light flashes where the stream / pools under the arms of a beech (45), ?the smell of you / like oranges / on my hands? (51).
On his mother: ?. . . made of her / an improbable bird whose nesting the son/wished to guard? (43).
On his mother with his son: ?my mother sits / beneath the peach tree/near the garden / and holds a sweet / sticky slice, golden and full of light, to the mouth of our baby boy, . . .? (61).
On his father: ?they will see in the ring that marks/your sixty-second year, / all that was wooden, / all that was lovely, burning in November fires? (15).
On his grandfather: ?the gentle wind, like your faith / moving in tall grasses? (62), which concludes the second section of poems.
The third and final section of poems examines nature in the context of human activity and longing and loss. The heart is a valentine, birth is the opening of a tulip, the deer are caught in the headlights, the redbud blossoms settle on the hood of the red truck, his grandmother’s death is like a departing heron, the blind man is on the bus with his seeing eye dog, the stone is being hauled from the creek, he hears that his niece is asleep in the trees of Wisconsin, and we humans ?would do well to try to bear our best fruit in the end? (77).
There is time at closing for confession (diving headfirst into dark water), grace beyond the sunken garden and a prayer in the disappearances of a fox’s tail in the underbrush (echoing John Berryman’s dog leaving behind a wag in ?Dreamsong #14?). The apple tree is back, raising a question and longing for a blessing:
. . . But what have
we made of this gift ? some mythical garden
of doubt? What I wouldn’t give to see
it all as an original blessing: wind comes up
from the south, branches sway, the ripest
fruit falls into the green grasses below (68).
A few poems do not engage because they are too prosaic (not even the heavy title ?Forgiveness? can save the two sentences that make up the poem) or too self-conscious (?Over the Water’), or because the natural/human comparisons do not work (?Summer Storm: Gary Indiana’). The personification of trees with their limbs and hands in various postures is clichd and overused throughout the collection.
But these are small spots on the bountiful harvest presented in this collection. Clearly, Davis has been writing for a long time, honing his craft and skills of observation. Ripe does not read like a first collection. It is polished and accomplished’work published only when it was ready for readers who will enjoy this collection.
Rhubarb, Editor VICTOR JARRETT ENNS
Empty Room with Light. Ann Hostetler. Telford, PA: DreamSeeker Books, 2002. Pp. 100. $12.95.
?We turned the pages again and again,? begins the first poem in Ann Hostetler’s Empty Room with Light. ?Looking at Pictures with My Mother,? which relives her encounter under her mother’s guidance with wonderful Renoir paintings, works very aptly as the lead poem. The centrality of looking closely is clearly evident throughout her poems, which is not surprising since Hostetler’s undergraduate degree is in studio art. (She is now professor of English at Goshen College.) Further, the evocation of a warm memory with her mother emerges often in these poems; indeed, the importance of Hostetler’s mother to these poems is underlined by the dedication of the volume to her. Perhaps most important, the image of turning the pages ?again and again? suggests well what Hostetler’s readers will want to do as they peruse these poems. For this volume invites readers to return again and again to the warm descriptions of families working together, to the startling and occasionally jarring recognitions of life’s pains, and to the suggestions of transcendence that sometimes grace our lives.
Empty Room with Light is divided into five sections: Impressions, Family Gallery, Life Studies, Exhibitions and En Plein Air. While there are different emphases among the sections’Impressions, for instance, does seem to offer more brief observations than the other parts’common themes appear throughout the entire volume. Again, the importance of the visual arts is apparent with references to a gallery and exhibitions, but Hostetler also seems to signal her indebtedness to the confessional poets with her use of the phrase ?Life Studies,? the title of Robert Lowell’s influential first volume of deeply personal poetry. Yet if Hostetler’s poems are confessional’and they are’they operate on a much quieter register than do those of the early confessional poets like Lowell.
The themes in this book will resonate with Mennonites, although only a few of the poems explicitly deal with Mennonite identity. Hostetler writes about her grandfather, an iconoclast who was more interested in reading than in plowing his land. Effectively using the image of a new car that he won by solving puzzles, Hostetler describes how that ?car / began to carry him away? and now ?None of his children live in that place any more / and none of his land is theirs? (28).
More common are the many poems in which Hostetler fondly remembers moments that she shared with her parents and with her children. For instance, she recounts how her mother knew just what coat to make for her ?to celebrate your becoming a woman? (22). She offers an impression of a father, bending to hear his young daughter: ?His listening brings out the blue / in his eyes, the tender lines / around his mouth, as salt brings out / the flavor of food? (20). She revisits silly playtimes with her child, recalling made up snatches of song and timeless games of peek-a-boo. These poems depict well-loved and contented parents and children.
Yet these poems refuse to degrade to a sappy sweetness because of Hostetler’s unbending honesty. In ?Teething? she describes her deep enjoyment of her child’s nursing: ?Droplets run / across your plump cheeks as you stretch / the nipple, then pull away, sated [. . .].? But she remarks that ?something has come between us [. . . .] I will never / again trust your sucking completely now that you / have gnawed your way through necessary pain? (46). This poem nicely suggests the difficult process of teething’with the attendant sleepless nights’that every parent well remembers. At the same time, Hostetler shows that these same teeth create a barrier between the nursing mother and her child’and uses that image to hint at the separations that eventually occur between parent and child. In other poems, those losses are more explicitly acknowledged. As she writes about ?Fast Food? that is ?seized and plundered? from a drive-through window, Hostetler recognizes that something is lost when eating together becomes diminished to a quick meal in the car, hoping just ?that the kids? whining be muffled by chewing? (45). In poems like these, Hostetler depicts the reality of parenting, acknowledging that real frustrations and struggles are also a part of raising children.
Even beyond these everyday irritations, moments of sharp disturbance and pain are present in these poems: her little sister fondled by a violin teacher, the shocking death of an unusual babysitter. One of my favorite poems ?Kitchen Sink Meditation; or, Ode to the One I Refused? remembers a girl whom the speaker (presumably Hostetler) met at a state mental institution. The child became very attached to her, but though she pondered the possibility of adoption, Hostetler as a college student could not imagine how she could manage to do so. Even though Hostetler does not necessarily question this decision, she refuses to rest with it easily, recognizing the inadequacy of our small efforts to help those in need.
Amidst the warmth and the pain of these poems, what makes Hostetler’s volume most fulfilling are the moments of transcendence that at times emerge from the mundane experiences that she describes. In ?Marriage with Children? she fully recognizes the complications that children have brought to the life she and her husband share together, with the lists and complaining children and doctor’s visits causing her to ?feel our marriage falling / like a loose, baggy net about us.? But in an embrace with her husband, ?As your fingers work the muscles / of my back, our life draws taut again, / a web hung rich with glittering complexity, / unimagined in our youthful love? (38-9). It is this rich web of glittering complexity that Hostetler celebrates in this volume, a web that includes a son who volunteers to iron napkins which transform into ?prayer flags? (43), a teacher whose burdensome essays to grade suddenly become ?unsorted prayers? sent to God ?in a laundry-sized sack? (91).
Perhaps what finally gives these poems their depth is the contentment evident throughout them, the recognition, certainly, that the work with children and in teaching is never finished. ?But, then, / I’ll delight in a smile, a word well-used, / a student’s thanks, a child’s hug, a paper well-written, / an image recorded, my scratchings on this page? (78). In those scratchings, the reader also delights.
Bluffton College L. LAMAR NISLY
Tasting the Dust. By Jean Janzen. Intercourse, PA: Good Books. 2000. Pp. 69. $9.95.
Divided into four sections with an organizational pattern based on allusive references to major paintings by Jan Vermeer, Tasting the Dust includes 44 pomes in which the author explores a wide variety of subjects: the natural world, family relationships, memory and imagination, cultural and historical aspects of the European heritage, and religious faith. Part I ?Windows Facing South,? opens with a response to the Dutch artist’s ?Young Girl with Water Picture’; Part II, ?Window Facing North,? with Vermeer’s ?Maidservent Pouring Milk’; Part III, ?Window Facing East? with Vermeer’s ?Woman in Blue Reading a Letter,? and Part IV, ?Window Facing West? with Vermeer’s ?Lady Weighing Gold.? These lyrics become tonal, thematic and metaphoric preludes for all that follows.
Intricately textured, the collection poses the question, ?Where is home’? while inviting the reader to undertake a journey where ?Grace and necessity, the endless paradox? (?The Mountain,? 14) are seen in interior and exterior landscape, domestic life and fine arts; painting, sculpture, photography, architecture and music. The poet elicits a sense of wonder before the tragedies and joys of human experience. Like the figures in the paintings, we are all ?held in uncertainty,? spending a ?lifetime / in rooms, confined? (?Window Facing North,? 17) where shadows adumbrate areas of light (?Windows Facing West,? 53). This conceptual framework enables Janzen, like Vermeer, to establish border that delineate the reflections she makes:
Rooms everywhere holding
our bodies, our memories
walls and ceilings floating
around us in a balance
of matter and air. (?Rooms,? 33)
From California vistas to intimate spaces within a home (both physical and psychological exteriors and interiors), enclosure and containment allow her to maintain a precise focus on her subjects and to attain a sense of serenity and poise that is so characteristic of her poetry.
Janzen’s work is seamless. Once she establishes a theme, she restates it with complex variations, often in a point/counterpoint form, as she intensifies and amplifies dominant figurative elements. For example, ?Pinwheel,? ostensibly recalls a child’s toy, yet encompasses with a tempered restraint multiple levels of meaning about beginnings and endings, which make its perceptions about birth and death, life and art, all the more poignant:
Verse means ?to turn,?
striving towards its end
which then seeks its beginning
Last things first, as though
time itself knows where it began.
My mother, ninety-five years old,
is dying. ?It’s like a dream,
my life,? she says, closing
her eyes, ?Like it really didn’t happen.:
And my newborn grandson opens
his eyes in unbelief?
these shapes, this shifting light.
Somewhere deep within the seed
this other seed, its shadows turning,
a wheel which opens its wings
from that non-dream
we try to imagine, around which
my poems circle?
that pin which holds time
against the wind for a brief,
bright whirring on the end of a stick.
The poet compels us to examine this ?pin,? those realities that center us through the regenerative power of human love and artistic achievement.
In ?Tryptych: After Ghent? (40) we join all who have gazed on the Van Eyck masterpiece:
The centuries are kneeling, watching.
The apple is fresh and glazed with oil.
The drama of temptation, fall and redemption is reenacted endlessly. In ?The Lion’s Eye? (45), Janzen writes of ?the winged and ancient lion? who presides over a Venice of architectural and artistic treasures, where the iconography of St. Mark fuses the immediacy of the present with the resonance of the past:
. . . For the story
is still being written?
in the shopkeeper’s gesture,
in the flesh of Titan’s paintings,
his reds and blues. And in the church
where Bellini’s Holy Infant sits
on his mother’s lap,
it shines in her eyes.
Refuge and loss, this child
like water on whom we float
Until he takes us in.
The expansiveness, yet the particularity, of Janzen’s technique undergirds the poetry and gives it a tensile strength.
Constantly concerned with repetitive pattern, Janzen finds design in many places, from the whimsical ordering of ?Variations? (31-32) and ?Cellar Blues? (27-28) through the heart-rending elegies of ?Underwater? (23) and ?Magnolia? (61-62) and the contemplative reflections of ?The Language of Light,? (36-39), ?After the Martyrs Exhibit? (41), ?Reading the Fields,? (42) ?Isaiah Fifty-Three,? (43) and ?The Frescoes, Fra Angelico? (47-52). Emerging from all of her work is a sense of reverence, of wondrous implications, as for example, in ?Looking at Nilsson’s A Child is Born? (24) where pre-natal photographs inspire awe:
The skull a shadowed room
Where thought and speech wait,
Hushed and electric with
The pulse of mother’s breath.
The mysteries of neuron and synapse
Are branching in the buds
Of the hands, the carved ear,
And the eyes?
In ?Sun Crest? (59) still other ?ancient patterns? in an Oriental rug lead to the metaphorical identification of ?This earth/worn carpet,/home for awhile? with the implicit expansion of all experience:
We taste and we gaze, but what
We finally hold in our empty hands
Is what we glimpsed’a memory
Of beauty and sweetness . . .
Like the butterflies in ?Monarchs in Winter,? we deal with ?that cost of survival? as we struggle ?to choose the right current / . . . To know the wide light. . . ? (9). That knowledge lasts only for a brief interlude until we ?are earth itself,? as Janzen observes in ?Elegy in the Shenandoah Valley? (65) with her gentle, albeit anguished, awareness of the sustaining land. As she asserts in her title poem, we are ?the story of dust? and dwell where poetry (and all history and art) becomes ?Pages of leaves,? raked with care into the ?shape and fragrance? of understanding and gratitude (?Tasting the Dust,? 66-67).
The limitations inherent in a brief review make a detailed discussion of such important pieces as ?The Language of Light? and the four ?Window? poems impossible. The former contains some of Janzen’s best writing. We find in its lines a brilliant fusion of the imagery of sound and light, those qualities which make ?dark hollows? bright while also establishing ?measurement . . . and order? (37)–insights essential for that joy of recognition where wholeness abides.
As Vermeer, Janzen embraces the sacredness of ordinary things, the dignity of daily life, the calm serenity of patience and acceptance. She has brought us to ?windows? that face east, west, north and south: they encompass a world. Choosing her canvas and colors of language with consummate skill, she shades them with subtle tones and delicate nuances as she expresses a mature, clear-sighted view of the human condition.
Another American poet, Howard Nemerov, also found in Vermeer a touchstone for his own writing. Nemerov’s words apply to what Janzen has done in this book and her other works as well:
Taking what is, and seeing as it is,
Pretending to no heroic stances or gesture,
Keeping it simple; being in love with light
And the marvelous things that light is able to do,
Janzen writes with distinction, and her collections belong not only in the tradition of Mennonite literature but also in the mainstre3am of American poetry.
University of Notre Dame DARLENE MATHIS EDDY
Sweeter Than all the World. By Rudy Wiebe. Toronto: Vintage Canada. 2002. Pp. 438. $21.
This book is a powerful fulfillment, through the author’s increasingly distinguished literary career, of the youthful promise ofRudy Wiebe’s less ambitious Blue Hills of China, published three decades earlier.
In his masterful historical-fictional evocation of ?Wiebe? and ?Loewen? family memories, the author seamlessly interweaves startlingly factual history with family lore and legend. The result gives the reader a saga-like tour through the Dutch-Prussian-Russian-Canadian landscape of Mennonite memory. Linguistically, geographically, economically, the author’s imagination sweeps passionately across that five-century panorama. The layered memories of swamp-draining, technologically astute Mennonites at Danzig, of Bible-reading villagers on the steppes of Russia, of Low German immigrant family gossipers on the Canadian prairie, or of the clutter of stacked urban professionals, are urgently sorted and collated. All along’diachronically but out of chronological order’from Friesland to Danzig to Warsaw to Orenburg to Coaldale to Calgary, from Claus Epp to David Toews’the story is replete with major Mennonite memory. An acutely rendered episode from Martyrs? Mirror is interwoven with macroculturally iconic strands, e.g., wars, migrations, Hitler, Stalin, the Kennedy assassination. The thread leads back and forth from Edmonton to Toronto to Manhattan to Stockholm to Cape Horn to Chile to Trieste to Fernheim.
Understatement is not the mode; obsessive energy loads every rift with ore. Wiebe’s style is one of burgeoning, impacted, infolded imagery, impatient with prissy grammar. Honed and enriched by the craft of decades, it is informed by unmistakable innate talent and passion. The reader savors not smoothness but the power of a relentless imagination. There are descriptive riffs within riffs, elaborations, expansions’here an etymological sally and there a historical excursus. Scenes, whether architectural, social or topographical, are rendered in kinetic imagery. The reader is drawn close by a persistent tactility: touching, nudging and brushing, whether parental, fraternal, social or erotic.
Although the title comes from lines in a pious gospel song, the by-now de rigueur amorous scenes may well disappoint conscientious readers seeking devotional uplift. Nor is Sweeter Than All the World a book for speed-readers. Its narrative disclosures are non-linear, as in Faulkner, compelling the reader to learn via scrambled chronology (which is how we learn our own family stories); allusive and quasi-encyclopedic, as in Melville, in their evocation of Kafka or Graham Greene, or in inventory-like commentaries on beaver flesh or engineering techniques. Such comparisons, of course, suggest that the author is aiming for the higher reaches of literary expression.
Where’to echo one of Rudy Wiebe’s earlier titles’is this story’s voice coming from? From a small chorus of multiple characters in trans-chronic settings. Central to the narrative is a contemporary voice, that of an eponymous twentieth-century Wiebe, who is a bilious, secular but sensitive exile rejecting and correcting the bromidic piety of his prairie relatives. Not those who stay, but he who has moved away must do the nuanced work of reconstructing the conscious continuum of family memory. Having left a successful medical career, and become a puzzle to himself, his wife, his children, he is driven by his anomie’?What’s wrong with me’??to ask the questions they are neglecting. The disappearance of his daughter sharpens his emotional states. Is there any Nachkommenschaft [progeny] for his future, after these centuries of family coherence?
This Adam Wiebe, named for a Danzig ancestor, impulsively interrupts a bromidic, ?braying? Baptist cleric in order to provide authenticity at a family funeral. We are invited to believe in the intellectual interest of his intelligent, though separated wife, in his nearly five-century Mennonite story. Their intimate conversations, carrying some of the story’s longer threads, are for this reader the artistically least persuasive (she helpfully asks, even in bed, the right genealogical questions for him to answer). But the cumulative assemblage of that story retains and gathers power throughout.
The sheer scope of this massive overview-cum-microscopic-close-up of family history may overwhelm readers with its insatiable drive to find imaginative Mennonite connections to iconic events and images. Whether it is Kiev and Babi Yar or Sakhalin Island; the vast Marienburg (converted into a Mennonite factory) or a Mennonite-born painter at Covent Garden listening to Handel put on his Messiah; whether at Peter Minuit’s Manhattan or Dresden’s Zwinger’the Mennonite Kilroy is not only there but plays a cameo role. The cover of the paperback edition itself boasts a half of Rembrandt’s painting of the magisterial Mennonite preacher Anslo (which today dominates a gallery in Berlin’s famous Gemlde Galerie). Make no mistake, the story itself seems to assert: the ?bush piety? of Adam Wiebe’s Canadian Mennonite upbringing, the ?swamp of sin-soaked boredom? of his youth, has not extinguished an instinctively soaring imagination. Not only so, but his escape from it has energized the gift of insight fudged by people who should be carrying the story.
The phenomenon of such a North American artistic achievement in the ?northern? wing of the historic European Mennonite family provides the occasion to ask again what counterpart we might look for in the Swiss/South German communities of Anabaptists, who since the seventeenth century have borrowed the northern name and, finally, in the twenty-first century, have formed at least rhetorically a joint community: the Mennonite Church USA. While Alberta has bloomed with Mennonite literature, what has come from the deep-rooted communities in Pennsylvania who had been there for two centuries before responding financially to David Toews? pleas on behalf of the ?Russian? immigrants of the 1920s? Is it not intriguing that those ?Russian? Mennonites have been not only immeasurably more articulate about the native cultures they have helped to shove off the land, but also remarkably more accomplished in interpreting their own stories?
A fascinating ?artistic Mennonite? foil to the overtness of Wiebe’s style was in evidence in 2003, shortly after the appearance of Sweeter Than All the World, in an exhibit of Pennsylvania artist E. Warren Rohrer (1929-1995). Occupying a gallery in Philadelphia’s Museum of Art, Rohrer’s large abstract canvases reflected a lifelong dialogue with the land that his Swiss-derived ancestral family had come to’the legendary Lancaster County’over two centuries earlier. Like Wiebe, Rohrer had powerfully gathered up into his own sensorium some of his Mennonite people’s Ur-motifs. Like Wiebe, he had consulted macrocultural artistic models, then shaped his own style. LikeWiebe, he had deepened his art for decades. As Wiebe, he had been offended by the imaginative dullness of his people and, unlike Wiebe, left their fellowship. Still, he acknowledged that their consciousness, their relationship to the land, was the matrix of his art.
But over the years Rohrer deepened into what, in terms of Wiebe’s art, might be called under-statement. The palimpsest of human strokes on the land became his passion, and it became all the richness he sought. How is that Swiss? Did he gain mastery of his craft and the admiration of the artistic guild, only to confess a passion for ?reduced color’? To imitate his plowing and weaving ancestry with a humble ?stroke, stroke, stroke’? An astute critic said that his ?painted fields? were ?screens of eloquent articulation enduring in space, unfolding in time,? but also functioned as screens between the viewer and ?inarticulate longings that never can finally be directly faced.?
So different in expression! Yet in achievement alike in that, just as the ?Swiss? Rohrer is not likely to be surpassed in the patient, subdued subtlety of his painterly quest, so also one expects to wait a long time to see a fictional realization that will match the ?Russian? Wiebe’s flamboyant pageant of memory.
Harleysville, Pennsylvania JOHN L. RUTH
Prof. Ervin Beck, Goshen College, Dept. of English, Goshen, IN 46526 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Prof. Beth Martin Birky, Goshen College, Dept. of English, Goshen, IN 46526. E-mail: email@example.com
Prof. Wilbur Birky, Goshen College, Dept. of English, Goshen, IN 46526. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Prof. Todd Davis, Penn State Altoona, Dept. of English, 3000 Ivyside Park, Altoona, PA 16601. E-mail: email@example.com
Prof. Hildi Froese Tiessen, Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada N2L 3G6. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Prof. John J. Fisher, Dept. of English, Goshen College, Goshen, IN 46526. E-mail: email@example.com
Prof. Ann Hostetler, Goshen College, Dept. of English, Goshen, IN 46526. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Prof. Daniel Lehman, Ashland University, Dept. of English, 401 College Ave., Ashland, OH 44805. E-mail: email@example.com
Prof. Paul Tiessen, Wilfrid Laurier University, Department of English and Film Studies, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada N2L 3C5. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Prof. David Wright, English Department, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL 60187. E-mail: email@example.com
Prof. Carroll D. Yoder, Eastern Mennonite University, Dept. of Language and Literature, 1200 Park Road, Harrisonburg, VA 22802. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
. Collected Poems (Chicago: Chicago Press, 1988).
The Mennonite Quarterly Review