new Mennonite Life logo    December 2002     vol. 57 no. 4     Back to Table of Contents


by Ann Hostetler

Note: Click on each title for a audio reading of the poem by Ann Hostetler.

Male Chorus

On Saturday night at the Michiana Mennonite Relief Sale
I can almost hear that beautiful river
flowing in the voices of men
gathered from the tribes of Beachey and Brenneman,
from farms near Shipshewana, Warsaw, Angola--employees
of Mennonite Mutual Aid singing next to chosen sons returned
from universities of Harvard and Chicago, or
high school athletes (still called Redskins)
trying not to think of getting
lucky later on. Under the lights in the fair-
ground pavilion--yes! We'll gather at the river--
our hands sticky with apple fritters and Bar-B-Q, our streets
of gold quilted in the jeweled patterns of a hundred sewing circles,
our hearts drunk on the harvest we buy and sell
not for salvation, but for relief. We revel in the deep vocal
harmonies of our plain-suited and covering-capped
brothers and sisters, their true pitches unspoiled
by piano accompaniment, while they revel
in the heavenly soaring of trumpets--still forbidden
in their churches. My white-haired father wanders
through the crowd hoping to find someone who can talk "Dutch"
as the daughter beside me, freed from homework, sits and listens,
circling all of the "t's" in her program
just the way her daddy used to do in church.

Imaginary Housekeeping

Coming Home to pages of towels folded
and stacked in gradations of pale color
like Gatsby's shirts
or opening upon room after light-filled
room in Garnet Hill where elegant printed linens
and mahogany headboards invite repose
like an instant bed and breakfast,
or scooping into Crate and Barrel for
corduroy slipcovers and weathered end tables
to furnish a living room of bedroom slipper
comfort where I lounge in loose knits
with Eddie Bauer, man of my credit card dreams,
who, like Chuck Williams of Sonoma,
graciously waits, season after season,
to outfit my kitchen with heart-shaped
waffle iron on Valentine's Day or cover
my picnic table with Provencal
accessories in the endless summer
of catalogues from which, in Indiana, in February,
I can order a palm-fitting Felco pruning shears
to snip imaginary lavender buds,
or Japanese farmer's pants to wander Smith
and Hawken's artfully unmanicured prairies,
close my eyes to conjure Martha's effortless
cuisine, hand my Hearthsong children pictures
of wool-stuffed dolls to snuggle with. Instead
I wake to stir up Gourmet's currant-cornmeal
hotcakes for their breakfasts from ingredients
I miraculously have on hand:
pretending I am not stranded at wit's end,
laundry undone, dishes crusting over,
bills swelling the mailbox,
Mennolink stories of starving
Iranian families glutting my Email, at my fingertips,
and L.L. Bean an overnight
delivery away.


"We are more than the sum total of our wounds,"
the priest's voice echoes through the nearly-empty cathedral.
For me his words conjure up images

from the famous Mennonite bible of suffering-those
who entered the flames singing in hopes that their descendants
would not sit where I am sitting, listen to holy words in a temple

of full of graven images. But Jan Luykens' portraits of the martyrs
are images too, images that keep the wounds of our forefathers
and foremothers visible, wounds we choose to pass on, saying,

"this is how others suffered for you. No matter what
you do now, you can never suffer enough." As a girl
tells me on the phone from a place 12,000 miles away how

she slit her arm last night from elbow to wrist, the priest's
words flood back to me. And I am angry. Who taught her
that by wounding her own body she could release herself

from the terrible guilt of being human? Who taught her
that pain validates anything? I listen on NPR to news
of a Palestinian boy shot in his father's arms by Israeli soldiers

and cry out against the sacrifice of Isaac. I read about Bosnian
women who cannot admit the enemy rapes they have suffered
for fear of rejection or even slaughter by their own kinsmen.

I want to tell the girl that writing on the body is not writing.
That people are not martyred, they are murdered. That war
is just mass slaughter, not the validation of a nation. Damn it.

Let's get more literal. The body's
just a body, and each of us
has only one.

Prayer Watch

When Mennonites pray
must the folded body be clenched,
words thrust upwards into a head voice,
a pure tenor cry?
Om shanti
chants the yoga teacher
as I imagine life force flowing
through my stretched and reclining frame.
The breath--pranayama--raises
my diaphragm, fills the cavity
of my chest as I try to pray
without images. Is God
only in the upper register?
Or encased in words--immortal,
invisible--on some celestial shelf?
Or is he a Mennonite
watching my stretched, reclining body
from a pulpit in a plain coat,
uneasy lest I breathe in other gods
as I relax into the rhythm of the breath?


When I entered your room
for the last time I saw a shell--
broken--your head thrown back,
mouth open--as though something
had hatched and taken flight.

Just that morning I had rubbed
your ankles with oil, but now
your legs are stiff to the touch
purple stains pooling under tissue
paper skin as capillary walls

give way, the process of return
beginning. At the hospital entrance
I had met the women weeping--
mother, sister, niece, pastor--
who told me the story or your last

breath, which I imagine now--
angel presences hover as my sister
plays her violin--Cast thy Burden
Upon the Lord--and after days
of uphill breathing your face reflects

a moment of sheer delight--Christ
We Do All Adore Thee. I carry
this story with me like a garment.
Each time I tell it the circle widens
as with the telling of another

story, an empty tomb,
the stone rolled away,
and nothing to fill
the empty space
but language.