Rhoda Janzen has published poetry in Mennonite Life in 2002, as well as publishing widely in journals including The Yale Review, the Gettysburg Review, Crazyhorse, American Literary Review, Buffalo Carp, Folio, and Malahat Review. More recently, new work appears in the anthology New Voices: American Academy of Poets Prize-Winners, edited by Heather McHugh, and in the journals Poetry Midwest, Lichen, Good Foot, Cairn, Salt River Review, among others. Recent poetry commissions include the dedication of UCLA's new I.M. Pei hospital. Rhoda teaches Creative Writing and American Literature at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and wrote some of these poems as a result of going on a heritage tour in Ukraine.
I longed to wear those Catholic socks
that shook me up like aftershocks,
but when I wheedled, Mother sighed
that God would not be glorified.
And it would have made me happier
to underskirt the calendar:
on Monday, peach; for Friday, red;
at midweek, festive yellow plaid--
ideal and secret documents,
verboten, fruity underpants!
Beneath my woolen dress I wore
a sober panty plain as prayer--
by language wholly undefiled,
but underneath, still Friday's child.
good walking shoes
We Mennonites ate lunches of
rye, Schenkenfleish, and melon,
exchanging tales of war and love,
of Machno, and of Stalin.
In Schönsee I found Oma's rude
grave choked with dill and parsley.
They boiled harnesses for food
and portioned them out sparsely.
One night the troops with bayonets
came stinking drunk and cursing.
They held her down and called out bets
on the bed reserved for birthing.
At dawn a neighbor found among
grass withered sharp as needles
my Opa's head with fuzzy tongue,
inhabited by beetles.
Fireflies recede and blur
the darkening sage and lavender.
Now evening bends the drooping stalk
of colorless vague hollyhock.
Too dark for shades, the night can't tell
the onion from the feathered dill--
at night the lines, in life and poem,
retreat toward the monochrome:
the dying light rocks back and forth
and waits for us like Mother Earth,
an aging aunt to whom we bring
a crochet hook and tufted string,
a garment we will never wear,
but politely thank her for.
June 19, 1883
In the high clear light of early disclosures,
Cousin Jacob Hoeppner casts his line
near the mouth of the Sredniaia Khortitsa.
From over the water some Russians
fishing the other side call cheerfully, Hey,
Mennonite Fellow, the corpse of a drowned
Jew! In the shallows near Bütendick!
Cousin Jacob takes his sweet time to
check it out, departing after lunch with the hound.
The corpse, he knows, is Helena, not a Jew. Peter
has already found her footprints leading south
along the Dneiper's banks, past rocks that clench
like fists on Bernard Dyck's shoreline.
Mid-afternoon, Jacob finds her, face down,
white nightgown floating out as if to sail
her all the way to the Azov. (Tied snug as
a shoe, her black nightcap made her look to
the distant eye like a crazy or murdered Jew.)
Who in all the Kolonienen ends a life? No note,
no sorrow, although two busy aunts will intimate
that Helena pined for a Miklashevskii nobleman.
By no means, thinks Cousin Jacob Hoeppner.
And: Loud cheers to you, Helena. For years
he will think of her with a smile, stern Hausfrau
whose apron covered up this fine surprise.
A thousand Gänseblümen to you, Helena,
pioneer of departures, fearless angel! If
Frau Dyck recalls how Priska has been howling
mournfully, and how he has begun to creep low
on his belly round the yard, and if Frau Dyck
reports an apparition of three white-clad figures
weirdly hurrying who knows where, let them all
whisper of retribution. As for Jacob, he will tip
his cap every time he passes this place, tribute
to a totemic ghost, desire clean and cold as well
water swished in a sleep-furred mouth. It shuts
the door on midnight's ease and scrambles briskly
barefoot, the pale and promising moonlight leaning
its elbow on the window sill, saying, Hast oben--
no time, no time, no time to bid them all farewell.
Exquisite in its seediness as those
refulgent laundromats I hung out in
when as a youth I had the perfect clothes
but no machines to keep them private in,
the laundromat in Holland, Michigan,
confesses penitents with soiled jeans.
The tangled loads of darks dissolve like sin.
The absolution, pinched in quarters, cleans
the stains we'd all be mortified to wear:
prodigious biscuit residue of crotch,
damp underarms imploring us as in prayer--
a succoring it almost hurts to watch.
My bloodied comforter beseeches aid,
the triple lock and load, commercial grade.
goes into a stall
sweet jesus cast this & etc
suddenly the knee
feels fine she pats her hair
in the mirror kisses
a Kleenex shrimp that's how fine
she felt there are
powers and principalities nodded
marilyn you got a
precious gift do you need
nothing in this world dear
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