new Mennonite Life logo    June 2004     vol. 59 no. 2     Back to Table of Contents

Blending Voices from Past and Present: Ann Hostetler's A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry

by Deborah Penner

Deborah Penner is associate professor of English and Writing Center Director at Tabor College, Hillsboro, KS. She earned her master's degree in English Literature from Wichita (KS) State University in 1996, and her doctoral degree in Literature and Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, PA, in 2002 (Dissertation title: "The Evolution of the Disruptive Female Voice in Renaissance Pastoral.") Her sabbatical project for Spring 2005 will be the production of a scholarly edition with explanatory notes of Lady Mary Wroth's 1621 unpublished text "Love's Victorie."

The A Cappella anthology presents 24 voices singing the song of their contemporary Mennonite subculture across geography and time. These twentieth-century authors, the eldest born in 1916 Clinton, Oklahoma, and the youngest born in 1977 Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, seek to negotiate and integrate a European past of piety and martyrdom with a North American present of self indulgence and self expression. Editor Ann Hostetler emphasizes this in her "Afterword" noting her "serendipitous discovery" of Anna Baehr's words in " I am Dancing with My Mennonite Father," one of the first poems in the collection. Hostetler explains, "Dancing was forbidden by most Mennonites when I was growing up . . . but dancing with one's father was unthinkable. One's father was an earthly model for one's heavenly father " (178). In her poem Baehr relives a school memory when she is allowed to pin leaves on friends' costumes, but is forbidden to dance in a spring school play. She revises the memory in a fantasy, allowing her father to say instead that "[i]t is all right" to dance. The speaker in the poem is "no longer eight years old / in [her] modest dress / watching [him] / in [his] black suit at the classroom / door tell the teacher that [she is] not / allowed to dance " (2). Baehr's poem illustrates for Hostetler that the two seemingly polarized worlds of faithful Mennonite and gifted poet could be negotiated in the same poem, and by extension, in the same human mind and heart.

The voices in this collection negotiate the tensions of past and present via struggles with external worldliness, physical and spiritual connection, and internal turmoil. Jean Janzen's "These Words Are for you, Grandmother" gives voice to her mute Ukrainian grandmother who committed suicide in silence. Janzen's father, then a boy of ten, finds the body "in the barn, your body / a still dark strip, your face / swollen and purple. And by that grave / he could not sing for you; / he did not speak of you. / He sealed his mouth with a heavy stone / and walked away" ( 27).

Leonard Neufeld's "Dyke View Berry Farm" notes that Time could not silence the words of his family, but the transforming force of place from old Europe to contemporary North America "changed" rather than stopped the words. He claims: "Our Mennonite ancestors . . . were mostly too poor or too suddenly rich / to stop talking . . . " (34). The religious reason for leaving Holland was never forgotten, but the father figure in Neufeld's poem seeks a new voice in the promise of prosperity in the Fraser Valley. "In our berry field, Father wanted everything / to speak [my emphasis] for itself: family name, reclaimed lake and marshes . . . bumper crops . . . pacifism, newly forged hoes" (36).

David Waltner-Toews duplicates the Mennonite cultural idiom of German syntax blended with English words in resonant mixture of past and present in "A Request from Tante Tina to the Mennonite Women's Missionary Society to Put Salman Rushdie on the Prayer List." Waltner-Toews' elderly female speaker remarks that she has "remembered the Bolsheviks / and how they came to our village / and a factory from the church made. / Ja, but this morning . . . I have on the radio heard how the Ayatollah in Iran is wanting / to kill this Salman Rushdie / because he is telling stories." The speaker's memory links Rushdie's place as hunted man with a "John Friesen [who] has once a letter in Russia written /during the time of Stalin" and was taken away "never to be seen again" (67). She begs the women to pray for Mr. Rushdie in a poem that bridges two divergent faith traditions of the Christian Mennonite and the Muslim under the same rubric of persecution and martyrdom.

Raylene Hinz-Penner gives a voice to a twentieth-century South Central Kansas legend of a Holdeman (Church of God in Christ, Mennonite) suicide in her "Crossing Over" poem. Hinz-Penner examines the local legend and probes into the reason why the young woman "got into her blue car / stripped of its chrome, / her dark hair wound / into a smooth firm knot / under her black cap / and crossed the line into the headlights of a truck-- / never braking" (76). An example of the literary term rapprochement (a French word meaning to bring together) that editor Hostetler refers to in the "Afterword," Hinz-Penner merges the strict discipline of the plainclothes life (no chrome on the car, the hair tucked neatly under the cap in submission to God and man) with the woman's erotic drive into "crossing the line" to the wild and forbidden territory of self actualization and self destruction. At the close of the poem, Hinz-Penner links the woman's tale to the strong attraction we all sometimes experience to "suddenly throw myself / from a high bridge / into the long fall" (77).

Ann Hostetler's poem "Resisting Geometry" raises another, more contemporary voice against the precise lines of logic in her academic struggle with mathematics. She writes that "[w]hen the boy circled Mr. Oelkers / at the blackboard, arguing logic, / I sat at the back of the room / drawing shapes that defied these laws." As a resisting reader of logic, she questions the strict discipline that gives either a right or wrong answer, and that leaves little room for the ambiguity of interpretation or the flowing shapes of poetry itself. She realizes that "what was at stake for me was the axiomatic quality / of reasoning itself, the ways in which our assumptions / construct reality, become paradigms / that organize our vision." (107). This poem, like Baehr's earlier text, also contains the presence of the strict Mennonite father, skeptical of the "hard-won D" in Geometry with a "shadow" over his face. The speaker has learned more than what the "grades reflected" but the skeptical Mennonite father must accept the proof of this growth on "faith," rather than upon evidence observed.

Julia Kasdorf's "Eve's Striptease" gives voice to the conflict of past and present regarding perception of the younger generation about Old World notions of marital bliss as her speaker embarks on the trip to purchase wedding clothes. She writes: "Lingerie shopping with Mom, I braced myself / for the wedding night advice. Would I seem / curious enough, sufficiently afraid?" the daughter wonders, fearing her baby boomer knowledge of carnal desires will be revealed to a mother brought up in a stricter tradition. Yet the mother's words are "surprisingly wise: / [she says] Whatever happens, remember this-- / it keeps getting better and better" (131). She receives her mother's blessing and permission to experience physical relations, allowing the speaker to "learn for myself all the desires / a body can hold, how they grow stronger and wilder with age, tugging in every direction . . ." (132).

Carmen Horst's poem "Everything I Know" presents her Grandma Susie's alternative female voice to the strict Amish discipline wrought on her father's creative worldliness. Horst's speaker tells how her father "cleaned the family bumpers once / to show the shiny chrome, and Grandpa, / without a word, painted those bumpers black again" (166). Her father is shunned from the Lord's and family tables by his "bishop brother" But there is "another story" as Grandma observes her son with his "worldly guitar" and silently "smile[s] and whisper[s] like a blessing, / 'David and his harp,' " as she passes by the doorway laden with clean laundry (166).

Jessica Smucker-Falcón, one of the youngest of the poets represented in the anthology, crafts a call to her elder Mennonites caught within the conflict of piety and desire to speak an original "wordless" language of the womb in her poem "Hemispheres." She writes that "[i]f your right brain causes you to sin, / lobotomize" with women and men seated on opposite sides of the church sanctuary. She challenges traditional notions with a call for unity of voice if not unity of physical proximity, calling the congregation to "raise its voice / harmoniously / but in parallel lines / which, according to custom, [it will] never cross" (169). Smucker-Falcón invites her auditors to "[l]isten to the wordless touch . . . God walking through the Garden. / You've toiled many years away, harvested the notion / that every leaf must one day detach / and fall--/ Have you not heard of evergreens? / They stand tall, leaves intact, speak one language [my emphasis] / every season, year after year" (170).

The large number of poets covered and the range of subject matter may be daunting for the casual reader of this collection, especially those unfamiliar with the ethos of Mennonite poetry. Editor Hostetler admits that submissions to this comprehensive anthology were pruned (much to the editor's regret) with suggestions from scholars and poets Ervin Beck, Todd Davis, Julia Kasdorf, John D. Roth, Beth Martin Birky, and Hildi Froese Thiessen in the formation of the manuscript. The collection certainly demonstrates the range of twentieth century Mennonite poetry if not the complete canon. Hostetler also admits to a rather broad range in her definition of Mennonite poet. She writes that to be included poets need to fit one of the following criteria: "be born into and/or be nurtured by one of the diverse groups whose designation includes the word 'Mennonite,' . . . be a member of or regularly attend a Mennonite congregation, or be raised by or strongly influenced by close family members who are Mennonite" ("Introduction: Mennonite Voices in Poetry" xviii). The addition of the historical overview of "Contemporary Mennonite Poetry in North America" covered in the afterword greatly enhances the work and makes this anthology useful as a text for an undergraduate or graduate course in North American Mennonite literature or for a poetry study group for mature readers.