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Thursday, 3 January 2008

Guest Review: Vickers on new Mennonite Writing

Janet Vickers reviews
Half in the Sun: Anthology of Mennonite Writing
edited by Elsie K. Neufeld
with Robert Martens and Leonard Neufeldt

Half in the Sun is a collection of prose and poetry from west coast Mennonite writers, including such well known names as Andreas Schroeder, Carla Funk, Barbara Nickel, Melody Goetz, and Patrick Friesen, with an introduction by Sharon Butala. The voices in this anthology are diverse, yet reveal a textural quilt of shared tensions – surviving political cruelties of Europe, the angst of settling in a new world, and the attempts to weave faith, history and hard work into the new community.

The Mennonite church is present in the evidence of virtues here, but there is no preaching and no sectarian chauvinism. Faith comes through a family’s ordeals moving from a farm to a house in the city, in Schroeder’s humorous ‘Renovating Heaven’. It comes through in Darcie Friesen Hossack’s ‘Ashes’ as a woman and her daughter-in-law learn to deal with loss and grief together, in spite of their different interpretations of how to live well.

Hell is a place on earth for many, including ‘Katya’, the eponymous refugee desperately seeking to survive Siberia with her family in Louise Bergen Price’s story. Hell is normal for Oscar Marten’s ‘Safe Places On Earth’, although the protagonist (a thief and con-man) hardly notices as he goes about the tricks of his day, preying on the good hearts of Mennonites.

However, the good heart is open to honesty and refuses to euphemize violence. Most Mennonites come from the farming community; they know how meat is more than that package in a supermarket refrigerator. In ‘The End of Swinbourne’ written by Harry Tournemille, a young boy comes of age watching the breach birth of a calf, and is expected to get in there with all the stinking fluids. Neufeld’s poem ‘Yesterday’s Kill’ describes the harvesting of pigs. You can feel the fear and smell the “piss blood” while women in the kitchen merrily prepare sausage.

Sentimentality is absent but not missed between these covers. Life is full of danger as listed by Funk in her poem ‘Angel of Stupidity’. Giving up is not an option either. Nickel’s ‘Sestina for the Sweater’ knits an endless return that “casts me off, casts me on, sound of needles as we face the years”.

The sacred is in the mundane. In the many chores that chart their lives Larry Nightingale writes in ‘Barrel-burning’, “we’re white smoke in time’s orchard”. K. Louise Vincent confesses “Up close, I see the heart of the world/ is broken; it is winter and there is war” in her quiet protest ‘I Find all Devotion Difficult’. You can feel the presence of something larger than weather in Neufeld’s ‘November Snow’... “the dead come to life. Snow crafting bare limbs / into crooked white fingers”.

Between the activities of hard working people there are those private moments of despair. It is palpable in Funk’s poem “Nightwalk” where a “long mirror of sidewalk lights” take you to “the night to sudden nowhere”. Yet we are warned about contentment, the crescendo’s of self-congratulation in Marten’s ‘a little mennonite goes a long way’. We are told by the ads that “orgasm is immortal” and “if you’re having a good time” you need to locate that “little mennonite” to remind you, that no matter how full the banquet table “this could be our last meal”.

Friesen warns, in ‘Limoncino Road’, “There’s so much civilization, so much deception, to work your way through”, yet this book is a testimonial to the authenticity of the single creative voice embedded in a collective. These voices know of starvation, injustice and refugee camps; of farm labour, of trying to fit in the new world and of the thin line between coping and giving up. It rises from the experience of each writer and is as personal as the colour of an eye. It is a wisdom that comes from seeing, as Neufeldt observes in ‘Why Our Town is Replacing silver Maples with Better Trees’, your beloved “standing half in the evening sun and half in the shade wondering”.

Janet Vickers is a British-Canadian poet based in BC who recently won the first-ever Facebook Poetry competition. Her chapbook is You Were There (2006). Her poems have appeared at Nthposition, Eyewear and elsewhere.
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