A Good Mennonite Poem

One new little blog feature that I’m happy to roll out this year is a Good Reads widget that gives you a peek at what I’m currently reading.

(Yes, I said books, plural. I’m famous for reading several at a time. This is actually good practice according to Douglas Wilson, author of the cunning little writing book Wordsmithy. In his chapter, “Read until Your Brain Creaks,” he encourages writers to read widely, and he announces that it’s perfectly acceptable to have to have, say, twenty books going at a time.

I don’t quite have that many, but I DO try to follow his advice by reading a lot, dabbling in different genres, and bouncing between several different covers.)

Currently, I’m still digesting The Brothers Karamasov… then there’s Vera Brittain’s autobiography, Testament of Youth (a movie by the same name was released in 2014) about a young British scholar, who, after fiiiiinally convincing her Papa to let her go to college (and Oxford at that!), she abandons her studies to enlist as a nurse in the armed forces during World War I, after which, she becomes a staunch pacifist, due to her experiences on the front and the war-time death of her brother, her lover, and another friend.

A reader once pointed me to the biography of Lilias Trotter (after having blogged about the writings of John Ruskin), and let me tell you, Lilias Trotter’s testimony is phenomel (though much of the literature around her life is a bit lacking). A documentary of her life was made in 2015 (a little disappointing cinematically, but I made my parents watch it on Christmas with me, and we enjoyed her testimony, despite some of the movie’s slow pacing). Basically, John Ruskin, leading art critic of the Victorian era finds 20-year-old Lilias to be England’s next rising artist. Convinced of her artistic genius, he offers to tutor her, and they enjoy the kind of friendship that only the arts provides, until Lilias announces that she cannot continue to paint, but that she has another love–that of Jesus Christ, and as a young women, heads off to Algeria as a missionary. Despite her poor health, her inability to speak Arabic, and the fact that all missionary societies refuse to support her, she and a few friends leave on their own, determined to make North Africa home. Her slow, steady work and her approach to missions was uncommon for the time as she tried to reach the Arab world through the written word and the arts. Go google Lilias Trotter! Or better yet, read her biography A Passion for the Impossible!

I’m also reading The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost Their Sense of Evil by Andrew Delbanco. (That’s pretty self-explanatory.)

And finally, I continue to page through one of my new favorite books, an anthology of poems (published by the University of Iowa Press and edited by Ann Hostetler, professor of English at Goshen College) called A Capella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry.

a capella.jpg

I picked up my copy at my favorite used book store in Goshen, Indiana for $9, only to go to the Goshen Library sale a few weeks later and find a copy for $1. (Lucky me. I gifted one to my roommate). And. We have been devouring Mennonite poems for days!

Who even knew that writing like this existed?!

Good Mennonite poems!

Good poems. The kind I read at university and dearly loved but never stumbled across ones that were about me.

I read the poetry of white British mothers, African American artists, Native American activists, political poetry from Guam, plays from Hawaii, Lakota cries, Cherokee voices, Argentine verse… but where was the story of me?

In Mennonite Voices, these poems are our story.

Probably the strangest poem in the anthology is this poem about cookies. It is my favorite poem of the anthology. If you read it here, and you don’t understand it, that’s fine. It’s probably not meant to be totally understood at the first reading.

The Cookie Poem
by Jeff Gundy

“Here are my sad cookies”

The sad cookies. The once and future cookies.
The broken sweet cookies. The cookies
of heartbreaking beauty. The stony cookies
of Palestine. The gummy and delicious
olive and honey cookie. The pasty
damp cookie trapped in the child’s hand.

Sad cookies, weird cookies, slippery
and dangerous cookies. Brilliant helpless
soiled and torn cookies, feverish and sweaty
cookies. Sullen cookies, sassy cookies,
the cookies of tantrum and the cookie of joy
and the sweet dark cookie of peace.

The faithful cookie of Rotterdam. The wild-eyed
cookie of Muenster. The salty Atlantic cookie.
Cookies in black coats, in coveralls,
in business suits, cookies in bonnets
and coverings and heels, cookies scratching
their heads and their bellies, cookies utterly
and shamelessly naked before the beloved.

Cookies of the Amish division, cookies
of the Wahlerhof, cookies of Zurich and
Stassburg and Volhynia and Chortitza,
Nairobi Djakarta Winnipeg Goshen.
Cookies who hand their children off
to strangers, who admonish their sons
to remember the Lord’s Prayer, cookies
who say all right, baptize my children
and then sneak back to the hidden church anyway.
Cookies who cave in utterly. Cookies
who die with their boots on. Cookies
with fists, and with contusions.
The black hearted cookie. The cookie with issues.
Hard cookies, hot cookies, compassionate
conservative cookies, cookies we loathe
and love, cookies lost, fallen, stolen,
crushed, abandoned, shunned. Weary
and heroic cookies, scathingly noted cookies,
flawed cookies who did their best.
Single cookies, queer cookies, cookies of color,
homeless cookie families sleeping the car,
obsolete cookies broken down on the information
highway. Sad cookies, silent cookies,
loud cookies, loved cookies, your cookies,
my cookies our cookies, all cookies
God’s cookies, strange sweet hapless cookies
marked each one by the Imago Dei,
oh the Father the Son the Mother The Daughter
and the Holy Ghost all love cookies,
love all cookies, God’s mouth is full
of cookies, God chews and swallows and flings
hands wide in joy, the crumbs fly
everywhere, oh God loves us all.

You Are Rare Art (Before I Met You)

Before I met you, you were already a rare piece of art. Grey background, yellow flourishes, black shadows, peach strokes, all overlaid with strands of gold.

You are rare, a type of art that takes time and talent to appreciate, to understand, to comprehend.

pollock
Jackson Pollock, Number 5, 1948

Sometimes I’m not in the mood for Art, though. I don’t want to spend the time. And that is the worst thing I (we) can do. To never take the time to take a step back and appreciate a good canvas.

When I’m not thinking artistically, I find myself sometimes wanting to add to the picture. Do you ever want to adjust a painting? (Maybe some people come to mind—your brother, a parent, perhaps one of your students.) Do you ever meet a new person and think, “Well if I could fix just this one thing, then they’d be a really nice person.” “I like her, but this Thing really bothers me about her.” “Such a nice guy, but did you know This?”

I learned something this week: Nobody asked you. Nobody asked you to change a painting. Nobody asked you to “fix” a “broken” picture. Nobody asked you to create anyone.

You know, people really are who they are, whether or not you affirm them.

But sometimes we get struck with a savior complex, and we feel like it’s our duty to change people. When I run up against this, it always turns out badly.

My own impulse to “fix” people, and my inability to see, to listen, and to understand, remind me of the impulsive and sensual Dmitri in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamasov, who in his love-stricken state, cannot bear the facts about Grushenka, a disloyal woman.

Dmitri reasons to himself: “‘If she’s sitting at Kuzma’s, she won’t go to Fyodor Pavlovich . . . if only she’s not lying,’ he added at once… His jealously was precisely of such a sort that, separated from the beloved women, he at once invented all kinds of horrors about what was happening with her, and how she had gone and ‘betrayed’ him; but, running back to her, and shaken, crushed, convinced irretrievably that she had managed to betray him, with the first look of her face, at the gay, laughing, tender face of this woman, his spirits would at once revive, he would at once lose all suspicion, and with joyful shame reproach himself for his jealousy.”

But she has betrayed him. And Dmitri cannot see the truth (rather he cannot accept the truth) because of his own selfish jealousy.

And Dostoevsky indulges us at length, with this explanation: “It is hard to imagine what some jealous men can tolerate and be reconciled to, and what they can forgive! Jealous men forgive sooner than anyone else, and all women know it. The jealous man (having first made a terrible scene, of course) can and will very promptly forgive, for example, a nearly proven betrayal, the embraces and kisses he has seen himself, if, for example, at the same time he can somehow be convinced that this was ‘the last time’ and that his rival will disappear from that moment on, that he will go to the end of the earth, or that he himself will take her away somewhere, to some place where this terrible rival will never come. Of course, the reconciliation will only last an hour, because even if the rival has indeed disappeared, tomorrow he will invent another, a new one, and become jealous of this new one. And one may ask what is the good of a love that needs constantly be spied on, and what is the worth of a love that needs to be guarded so intensely? But that is something the truly jealous will never understand, though at the same time there happen, indeed, to be lofty hearts among them. It is also remarkable that these same lofty-hearted men, while standing in some sort of closet, eavesdropping and spying, though they understand clearly ‘in their lofty hearts’ all the shame they have gotten into of their own will, nevertheless, at least for that moment, while standing in that closet, will not feel any pangs of remorse.”

In this case, it is ridiculous to feel shame but no remorse. This, truly is the jealous heart.

We need not limit Dmitri’s blindness toward (and jealousy for) his lover alone. How many of us, due to our own selfishness, or jealousy, refuse to really see a person for who they truly are? How many of us refuse to allow someone to live outside of “our box,” never bother to sit down and really listen to a human, especially if it’s a person who either makes you feel AWKWARD or really just flat out annoys you? (Distant children, difficult students, and new acquaintances come to mind. Or, in Dmitri’s case, a person whom you love very much…)

In every situation, be careful if you feel like the bringer of truth. Please pause and consider carefully: while we influence people, we do not necessarily recreate them.

People are not containers. You can’t “fill them up” with truth.

People aren’t boxes that you put things in.

They are canvases.

In your whole life, you may only get to paint one purple stroke or a green dot.

No need to cover them in voluminous red vomit.

Before you meet them, and after you are gone, they are rare art.