Recent Mennonite Poetry:
A Review Essay
I Saw God Dancing. By Cheryl Denise. Telford, Pa.: Dreamseeker Poetry Series, vol. 2. 2005. Pp. 90. $12.95.
On the Cross: Devotional Poems. By Dallas Wiebe. Telford, Pa.: Dreamseeker Poetry Series, vol. 1. 2005. Pp. 96. $12.95. With illustrations by John Leon and Paul Friesen.
Evening Chore. By Shari Miller Wagner. Telford, Pa.: Dreamseeker Poetry Series, vol. 3. 2005. Pp. 108. $12.95.
I often find it interesting to read Mennonite poets alongside one another, not to situate them in the broader world of contemporary poetry, but to consider how and why their content is distinctly Mennonite. It’s satisfying to read both for surprises and familiar pleasures’are the poems in a new collection trying to come home to roost, or, so to speak, fly the coop? In this review I respond to three Mennonite poets who published volumes in 2005, and it seems to me that the contemporaneity of their work invites such a consideration, especially for the reader who has followed recent conversations about Mennonite poetics.
The central organizing metaphor of Cheryl Denise’s I Saw God Dancing uses dance as an analog for intimacy with God, and, by extension, for everything that is creative, personal, private and free. In these poems dancing is the reward for communion with God: ?She will take your hands/ in her big gardenia scented palms/ and swing you through/ ten thousand dizzying dances.?
Dancing is a particularly laden trope for Mennonites, traditionally tabooed by virtue of its nomenclature. Either it was a sin itself, or it was the stumbling block that gave the appearance of sin. For a writer of Mennonite background, to embrace dance at all is a gesture of subversion and defiance. For centuries Mennonite orthodoxy imagined the body as the site of suspicious passions that might compromise faith and lead the believer astray; dance was thought to render the body especially susceptible to sexual sin and erotic impulses that were dangerous because of their spontaneity. Denise pointedly plays with the notion of dance as transgressive, as she makes clear in her poem ?Grace,? about the Mennonite party line, so to speak, on dancing: ?I wanted to dance, to pirouette, / a Mary Magdalene spilling her perfume.? By comparing the female child’s dream of dancing to the supplication of a transgressive woman, Denise implies that all such taboos need to be reexamined. Thus centering the trope of dance in a collection of Mennonite poems is more than a reclaiming of the body. It is also a reclaiming of the body as a site of worship, a holy creation, a kind of lectio divina that can bring the believer closer to God. Given the Mennonite traditions, to attach dancing to God is joyously heretical.
It is a truism by now that poetry written by Mennonite women is heavily gendered, and Denise’s poems are no exception. Yet Denise asserts her gender concerns in ways that do not foreground the familiar tropes of Kinder, Kche and Kirche’the aprons, the quilts, the shoo-fly pie (though we do see a smattering of those images, particularly in the poem ?My People,? which wittily implies that Mennonites envision food as a metonymic substitution for tolerance.) Many of Denise’s poems emerge from the vantage point of a young nubile woman, keenly aware of her status as a sexual object, but inchoate and terrified to explore what it might mean to be a sexual subject. The speaker worries that she will be objectified, exploited, even raped. This is a speaker who takes care to ground this fear in the role of a female passivity that emerges from the Mennonite experience.
In ?Kissing Tag,? for instance, the speaker tells of a second-grade encounter with a boy named Fish who catches her at tag, kisses her and then briefly claims her as a girlfriend. The adult speaker, looking back on what has clearly become a formative encounter, says,
I thought for a second [Fish] wouldn’t do it,
fixing me with his eyes, holding me against green metal
before quickly banging his face into mine.
Even in memory the salient characteristics of this experience advert to female passivity: the speaker is fixed, held, banged, always the person who is acted upon, never the actor. The poem’s aw-shucks joke is that the kisser, Fish, simply grabbed the speaker’s hand and walked home with her in silence. It is the tragedy of many little Mennonite girls to absorb passive female roles modeled by their elders: sometimes it never occurs to the girls that they might have some voice. The adult speaker remembers,
Then one afternoon [Fish] just wasn’t there.
He must have grown bored
and I was relieved.
The little girl never agreed to be Fish’s girlfriend. She never agreed to break up. She never spoke to Fish at all. The modern reader might mentally cheer, ?Go on, honey! Kiss the Fish!? or, variously, ?Slap’m silly, you little ninny!? But the reader doesn’t know what the little girl wants. More to the point, neither does the little girl.
This passivity is less amusing in an adult, and Denise returns to it again and again. The numbing lack of agency is rarely the stated subject of a poem, however. Denise takes a different tack, sneaking it in into poems that break suddenly on a vexing image of female passivity before turning back to the narrative. Images of predatory male sexuality are often juxtaposed against frozen female stasis. We hear of sexual importunities to which the female speaker can only react; it seems never to occur to her that she can check or even prevent an unwanted sexual overture:
[?] I told you
about the guy in a shaker knit sweater
grabbing my breasts
at 6 a.m. on King Street
waiting for the light to change,
his tongue in and out of my ear.
Here a repellent memory intrudes into a poem that is ostensibly about a fond early romance, as if female passivity overshadows even the positive romanticized memories of youth. Denise describes the aggressive action of the breast-grabber, but she never describes how or if the female speaker reacted. In ?Missing Someone like You,? the speaker recalls, ?I felt safe in your arms/ knowing your hands would not/ slide down the straights of my hips.? Interestingly, safety is equated with something a man does not do, a passive omission of action, rather than with something he does do. In ?Baby Sister,? the speaker wishes she could tell her sister about an obscene caller:
[…] I want to tell you about the man who called
saying grab, kiss, rape
just to let you know
how I paced the cabin so loud,
how for days I hung up on any man who called [?.]
In this instance the speaker’s encounter with the perceived predator is so painful that she literally loses her voice; she cannot talk about this experience to her sister, who has experienced pain of her own. Taken together, the poems present a woman whose Mennonite culture has taught her that she can do nothing in the face of unwanted sexual advances.
Denise seems to be offering a covert criticism of traditional Mennonite gender roles, since the trajectory of the poems depicts a speaker who does learn to take pleasure in the dance of sexual intimacy. This pleasure pervades several of the poems in the collection, but is at its best in ?Legs.? In a sexual candor that recalls the blithe confessions of cummings’s oft-cited line ?i like my body when it is with your body,? the speaker of ?Legs? unapologetically settles on the leg as the best shared synecdoche for bodies in love: ?My legs are happiest with your legs, / doing anything, doing nothing, lying leg over leg over leg/ in bed with you.? In poems like ?Legs,? the female speaker is neither numb nor paralyzed. She is capable of movement (taking walks, dancing, running miles); moreover, she is capable of expressing intentionality (?When I know you have to leave, / I put on my black leather mini skirt/with bare legs [?] and you stay/ a little longer’). Finally, this is a female voice that can exhilarate in its vision of the partner’s legs’which is to say that the passive sense of being observed takes a backseat to the active sense of observing. ?Legs? is an assertion of confident female sexuality.
Some of the images, it is true, tap old clichs. Breasts unsurprisingly represent abundance, nurturance and succor. In the prayer ?Mother God,? the speaker entreats God to put her to bed, casting herself in the role of baby girl in need of comfort: ?Soothe me with/ honey-laced milk [?] Hold my head/ to your breast.? If there still exists a mild surprise in the refiguring of God as a woman, it ekes away when the woman is cast in the same role that so many Mennonite women have sought to challenge or extend. But Denise also connects breasts to nature, to wild expressions of urgency outside the purview of governance and protocol, and in these poems the pervasive breast imagery seems fresher.
The poems are plainspoken, archly matter-of-fact, like anecdotes told by a neighbor over her shoulder as she bustles to fix you a cup of blackberry tea. The poems make their prose-like confessions using end-stopped lines, little or no enjambment and minimal figurative language. However, the poems are always readable and sometimes lastingly lovely, and at these times they derive their luminous quality through their very literality. In ?Gifts,? for example, Denise tells a story about sorting through a dozen Red Delicious apples to find the perfect specimen for her father who
eats an orange at ten,
an apple at three.
The simplicity of these isolated lines, taken as a separate couplet from the rest of the poem, points us to the rich, heartfelt meditation of Denise’s argument: in order to sense the providence of God, we must celebrate the gifts of God.
The name of Dallas Wiebe will be familiar to many readers. He is the author of four books of short stories, a Mennonite novel and a volume of minimalist poetry. In the latter, The Kansas Poems, wee poems shift on the pages like pebbles eroded by wind and rain. Now, at the end of Wiebe’s distinguished literary career, comes a collection from the twilight years’Wiebe is 76 at this writing’called On the Cross. The text presents a series of meditations on the cross as a symbol not just of Christian commitment, but also of Christ’s agon, the physical suffering that Wiebe takes as a metonym for the psychic suffering of the Christian living in a secular world.
I admit that I was worried when I first picked up the book, thinking that I would not like it. With a title like On the Cross, I was expecting old-school religious sentiment, those fervent and familiar pieties flavored by decades of churchified language. Is there a more recognizable symbol in Western culture than the cross? The Cross’it deserves its own capital letter!?is more pervasive and portentous than even the wedding band. Do we not see the cross on every house of worship in Christendom, on every caduceus in the medical profession? The cross dignifies our collective hot buns, our stitching, our childish pledges not to tell.
So. The churchified language: yes and no. Every familiar reference to the cross, every scrap of cross-driven hymn (?The Old Rugged Cross,? ?Rock of Ages,? ?Gladly the Cross I’d Bear,? etc.) makes an appearance on these pages. But I am happy to report that Wiebe is not using The Cross as a point of arrival. He is using it as a point of departure. By this I mean that these poems are seeking to transcend the familiar image by admitting its centrality to the Christian experience in a sort of scriptio continua, which, weirdly, was how the earliest Christian writings were copied, in one enormous superchunk with no spaces between the words. In Wiebe’s case, though, the scriptio continua is more like a sustained and beautifully focused meditation that declines to examine anything other than the cross. It’s like saying a word thirty times in a row. (I refuse to believe that I’m the only one who has done this.) By the twentieth repetition the word has marvelously emptied itself of meaning, so that it becomes a perplexing sign not of the thing it is intended to represent, but of our touching hubris. How arrogant to think we can fix representation with linguistic sign! And how we cannot resist trying!
Wiebe’s book is like that. Crosscrosscrosscrosscrosscrosscross. Say it like you mean it, and you will soon mean what you say. Every single poem in this book is nailed to the cross, as it were. The poems are not at all interested, as Denise’s are, in exploring a Mennonite cultural legacy; they are uniformly, almost rigidly, focused. I do not recommend reading them all at one sitting as I did. That would be overkill. Instead, read them as they must have been written’tenderly, and over time. These poems would be at their best read out loud, one per morning, around the breakfast table, over three months of devotions. Provocative, lucid and firm, they would give any family something to talk about.
And now to the poems themselves. If you are sitting down for the first time with On the Cross, turn straight to the pair of poems called ?The Crucifix? and ?My Pectoral Cross.? Everybody who has written about this book responds to these two rich poems. X. J. Kennedy, summing up the project of the book, says, ?Wiebe writes a moving elegy for his wife, contemplates a cross-shaped scar left on his chest by surgery, frankly confronts the hard demands of cross-bearing.? Jean Janzen, editor of the Dreamseeker Poetry Series, says that Wiebe’s words ?[?] are wounds, raw and open.? How true. That scar-shaped cross emblazoned like a brand on the author’s chest poem permanently recalls a cut that goes deep, and a truth that deepens memory:
I have a soft heart
for the knives that slit and slice,
for the hands that fondle and peel
our internal organs [?]
The cross swells and contracts
with my breath.
The cross rides out in advance
of all my going and coming.
These last lines echo the Blessing of the Front Door from the Feast of Epiphany:
Blessed are You, O Lord our God,
For you guide our footsteps.
You bless our coming in and going out,
From birth to death, you hold us in your care.
Although Wiebe’s surgeon was simply following medical protocol when he cracked the chest open into a shape that would later swell and contract with each breath, he also created a new significance, a new sign. The cross does indeed become a front door, the door to the Christian interior, the door to the ?soft heart? that necessitates the operation in the first place. Given the seriousness of this operation and the age of the poet, the ?going and coming? are sober reminders of dying and becoming, in that order. The man who bears the pectoral cross has already embarked on the long return to the Maker of all creation.
Not all of the poems draw on personal experience. Some are meditations on the state of the nation and the culture. ?Lift High the Cross,? another allusion to a familiar hymn, reads as a powerful indictment against the politics of George W. Bush. These lines assume an eerie significance when considered in light of the presidential response to Hurricane Katrina:
[A]nyone can take up a cross
if he has corporate sponsors.
Anyone can take up a cross
if he has attack helicopters on alert.
Anyone can take up a cross
if he has nuclear weapons in his pocket.
The cross is heavy for the poor.
The cross is crushing for the defenseless.
The cross is devastating for the dying.
If these lines read as bald statements devoid of poetic device, it is because they are. But note the rhetorical efficacy of the repeated antiphonal gestures: ?Anyone’Anyone’Anyone? is answered by ?The cross’The cross’The cross.? This almost sounds like an altar call, with a prophetic incantatory quality that denounces even as it exhorts. In the hard-hitting poem ?Punch Lines,? Wiebe slams the government by name, citing by nation and city a list of places where the U.S. presence has resulted in death and destruction. He imagines a scenario in which the broken body of Christ moves the world to grief, and everybody and everything begins to weep. The exception is the government, which stands dry-eyed on the shoulder of Jesus, like a big indifferent vulture. Wiebe pulls no punches.
Indeed the identification with Christ’s suffering is so strong that some readers might wince at the surfeit of bloody crucifixion images’all this talk of loincloths and blood loss and bitter gall. (Is there any other kind’) But those unsympathetic to the Christian tradition will not want to read this book anyway. Part of Wiebe’s point is that the meaning of the Cross privileges both privacy and confession; it is a suffering that encompasses every possible permutation of human despair, even those desperations and forfeitures that are too painful to air abroad. That our suffering is also Christ’s own acts as a fundamental tenet of the Christian faith. This is a tenet that becomes more precious to the Christian by virtue of its worthlessness to the non-Christian, who would perhaps assert that the Cross projects human suffering onto a man-made deity.
These cross poems purposefully push into every corner of human experience, from private moments and epiphanies shared with a beloved partner to explorations of every stage of human development. For instance, ?Folk Song? and ?Nursery Rhyme III? recall that Jesus made a special invitation to children. Even when children are at their most irreverent and merry, the Cross is there. ?Gladly the Cross I’d Bear? takes us from the giggly improvisations we all did as kids’read: Gladly, The Cross-Eyed Bear’to the dawning of spiritual consciousness, that moment in a child’s life when he begins to understand what it means to take up the cross.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is a series of ekphrastic poems: solemn nods to Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams; explicit references to paintings by El Greco, Dal, Grnewald and Michelangelo; and line drawings by John Leon and Paul Friesen. The references allude to artists who span centuries, genres, styles and ideologies, everything from perfervid piety (Grnewald) to gentlemanly skepticism (Williams). Since ekphrasis is by definition art that responds to other art, Wiebe paints his own picture as a way of dialoguing with some of the great artists of the Western tradition. The ekphrastic depict a commitment so huge that it swallows all art, all thought, all intellectual achievement that has come before. The implication is that the commitment must be huge in proportion to what occasions it: a sacrifice so great that our best etchings shrink to puny expressions of need and longing.
On the Cross is not a volume of poetry for the accidental tourist. It is for the troubled reader who has noted the distance between sign and signified. It is for the student of symbology. But mostly it is for the journeymen and women who have dedicated their lives and minds to the service of Christ. I would describe these poems as a rigorous tribute to this witness, and as an insistent call to those who share the same.
Of the three books I am discussing here, Wagner’s Evening Chore has, in my opinion, the most of the elusive M-word’Merit, as in Literary. Shari Miller Wagner is a talented creative writer who has applied herself with diligence to her craft. Her poems bear all the hallmarks of a writing pro: spare images, delicious metaphors, concise language, last lines that surprise and please. They don’t smell like the MFA workshop, either. Wagner’s work reads as a mature voice; there is nothing slick or produced about it. This is poetry that gives you the shiverin? bits. And you do not even have to be Mennonite to get them.
Unlike Denise or Wiebe, who respectively organize their books around the tropes of dancing and the cross, Wagner does not opt for symmetry that asserts itself through repetition. Instead she divides the text into five untitled sections whose poems are not necessarily thematically related, but that do follow a sure, though submerged, logic. For an epigraph Wagner takes a passage from Willa Cather’s beautiful novel My Antonia:
In that singular light every little tree and shock of wheat, every sunflower stalk and clump of snow-on-the-mountain, drew itself up high and pointed; the very clods and furrows in the field seemed to stand up sharply. I felt the old pull of the earth, the solemn magic that comes out of those fields at nightfall.
My Antonia is about the American immigrant experience in the late years of the nineteenth century. It celebrates the Bohemians, Norwegians, Swedes, Italians, Catholics, Mormons and Protestants who joined together in pioneer spirit to risk the howling winters of the undeveloped prairie. Its narrator is mournful Jim Burden, who grows up with his grandparents in the wheaty heartland of Nebraska. As an adult Jim discovers that he has conflated his love and admiration for a little Bohemian immigrant girl with every memory of his vivid childhood on the prairie. The passage that Wagner has selected for her epigraph is spoken in Jim’s voice, when he is returning to his old haunts after having been away; its gentle sadness comes from Jim’s realization that he cannot recapture the simplicity and the passion of those early years.
The implication of this epigraph is that Wagner, too, has made a long journey from a simple life to a complex one’from a life grounded in nature’s rhythms to a life that education has hypercorrected and perhaps sealed shut, like a Ziploc baggie. The hallmark of living a simple life is that we are unaware of its simplicity; we are not judging it by criteria of intellectual or aesthetic inquiry. In having chosen an epigraph about the Zangwill-inspired melting-pot experience, Wagner deftly sets the tone. She reads the Mennonite experience as a subset of all immigrant experience; she seeks neither to glorify its alterity nor examine its distinctive beliefs and praxis. Rather, she positions the Anabaptist heritage as one of many that have shaped her own cultural identity and, by extension, America’s. In the poem ?A Capella,? for example, Wagner uses the rousing image of Mennonites doing what Mennonites do best’singing the doxology ?with echoing/alleluias and amens’?to suggest not just that the past shapes us, but that it constitutes us:
From every direction
there are voices within
voices, husks beneath
husks. The dead sing
in a house so haunted
the same breath.
The dead are the ?old ones? and the martyrs. The singers include both the living and the dead, the Mennonites and the non-Mennonites they have married. The project of singing a capella results from a desire to create something from nothing, to be heard as a community of voices who are connected through history and labor and art.
Notwithstanding Wagner’s refusal to platform one symbol or motif, the book does have some resonant recurring images. Her ?Silent Sam? poems invoke a grandfather whose presence in death is surely as large as it must have been life. Silent Sam enacts the same quest as the poems themselves: he is trying to reach the ineffable through silence, even as Wagner is trying to reach it through language. And there is nothing quite as eloquent as a refusal to speak. The silence calls to caretaking daughters ?with the persistence of killdeer.? In the poem ?His Silence,? Silent Sam’s speechlessness makes his daughters so uncomfortable that they ?[back] away/ as if the space around him were/something oppressive and dead, a bear skin rug in summer.?
But this self-same oppressive silence can also be more beautiful than any uttered language. The grandfather, John Mishler, used to take Wagner with him on his evening chores, and the poem eponymously named is surely one of the most striking in the collection. It appears all by itself, separated from the others, like a garden gate through which one gets a glimpse of shady vistas:
He’s riding out to the far
pasture where cows have been grazing
twenty-five years in the shade of some elms.
[…] the old man is cupping his hands
to call the cows away from the shadows
and into the field where the last light is
The twenty-five years of grazing invokes a sense of history, as if the speaker is beginning to be aware that she is but a part of a story that began long before she arrived to follow her grandpa’s evening chore. And the chore itself stands out in the child’s memory as it must in the poet’s symbology: to call the cows from shadows is to call meaning from memory, to put them in the last light of a poem that says the last word. (Calling meaning from memory is what Jim Burden does, too, in My Antonia.) Interestingly, the last word is the poet’s, not the grandfather’s, who speaks neither to his granddaughter nor to us as he goes about his task. He calls only to the shadowy cows: what he says is a secret between him and nature. Meanwhile, the sinking of the last light asks us to be content with our losses, even though they may occur abruptly, like funerals or full stops, halfway through the lines of our lives.
Another favorite motif of Wagner’s is wifeliness, as demonstrated by a nonsequential series of poems that meditate on what it means to be a wife: ?The Farm Wife Ruminates on Cows,? ?The Farmer’s Wife Sells Her Cows,? ?The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife,? ?Persephone,? ?Psyche,? ?The Miller’s Wife,? ?The Farmer’s Wife? and ?Diana of the Dunes.? Such a chorus of wives might make us wonder where the antiphon is. The husbands, fathers, grandfathers’why do they not speak? The answer, perhaps, is that they have spoken, and now it is the wives? turn. These wives neither protest nor complain about their domestic lot. Even when the wife has much to protest, as in ?Diana of the Dunes,? her soliloquy is peaceful, though she has literally died at the hands of a brutish, murderous husband. Diana is buried in a mass grave with ?other bones.? But she ?couldn’t keep house with all those lost souls wringing/ restless hands until resurrection morning.? Diana refuses to see herself as a lost soul; furthermore, she has no use for the notion of a resurrection morning. Instead she declares herself as ?resilient as the deer/ who nuzzle [. . .] with kind eyes.? She returns to the dunes, with all their sand and debris, safe in the knowledge that both marriage and solitude are mere illusions.
My favorite of these poems is ?The Farm Wife Ruminates on Cows.? The poem is indeed ?cow heavy,? to borrow a phrase from Plath. Even the title insists on imaging the wife as a cow, and this insistence presents a gesture of defiance to a culture whose ultimate insult to a woman is to compare her shape to a cow’s. ?Hey!? says the title, friendly-like, ?Comparing a woman to a cow may not be so bad after all!? Ruminate comes from the Latin ruminatus, past participle of ruminari, to chew the cud. Ordinarily we think that throwing up a little in the mouth is a bad thing! But no! Not here. Here the rumination, slow and stolid, leads to the pleasant invocation that cows, not angels, be the guardians of the farm wife’s daughters:
My girls believe they’re named for Bible women
but each was named for a favorite cow,
a blessing of sorts, the only kind I knew,
so that even if they never have cattle in their barns
or live near fields in which they graze
they will have one guardian with a steadfast shape.
Note the subtle but slippery antecedent of the pronoun they in the penultimate line: does the they refer to the daughters or to the cows? The farmer’s wife’s poem is a sort of rumination; the daughters are cows or blessed by cows; and even the grandmother dreams that the infant she has delivered has a snout and ?full-moon eyes.? The farmer is consigned to a different poem. In this one, the wife elides the boundaries between the ?heavy pears? of female and bovine bodies, and although she fully anticipates that her daughters will grow up to abandon the farm for the city, she rightly insists that some things are permanent, heavy enough to remain in the field of the familiar.
Maura Stanton has said that the poems in this volume are ?calm and exact.? And although in the hyperbolic language of poetry criticism calmness and exactness are not usually considered the ripest attributes, they are among the most complimentary. These are not poems of astonishing epiphany. They turn no philosophical somersaults. But they are poems of beauty and grace, poems that run barefoot from memory’s porch, leaving the screen door open behind them.
As I finished these volumes, I was reminded of the richness and texture of our collective Mennonite experience. If I may borrow a familiar Jamesian trope, our poets have been writing long enough and well enough to have built a little House of Fiction, a collective barn-raising, complete with expectations, conventions and vaspa. I love the view from its sturdy windows’our vistas on gender roles, on cultural experience, on the centrality of Christ and his mission’and I hope that Mennonite writers whose voices we have not yet heard will come in and make themselves at home.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Recent Mennonite Poetry: A Review Essay
*Rhoda Janzen is an associate professor of English at Hope College (Holland, Mich.).
MQR 81 (Jan. 2007)