Jeff Gundy, Deerflies. Cincinnati, OH: WordTech Editions, 2004. Pp. 133. ($17.00paperback) ISBN 1-932339-35-3 Reviewed by Raylene Hinz-Penner.
John D. Roth, Beliefs: Mennonite Faith and Practice. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2005. Pp. 150. ($9.99paperback) ISBN 0-8361-9270-2 Reviewed by Stanley Bohn.
Ervin Beck, ed., MennoFolk2: A Sampler of Mennonite & Amish Folklore. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2005. Pp. 248. ($15.99paperback) ISBN 0-8361-9307-5 Reviewed by Brad Born.
Jeff Gundy, Deerflies. Cincinnati, OH: WordTech Editions, 2004. Pp. 133. ($17.00-paperback) ISBN 1-932339-35-3
These four sections of 53 poems by Jeff Gundy include poems which are variously titled as meditations, mumbles, warnings, explanations and epiphaniesmixed in with numerous "ancient themes." The opening poem, "Deerfly"sets up the poet's stance. The poem's voice has assumed various forms of experienceonce a water lily, then the sun, the path and even Jeffadaptations for ways of knowing. Finally, the persona was a deerfly, we assume for this collection, since this is the introductory poem, an invitation like Frost's "going out to clean the pasture spring." The invitation offered here by the poet is to come along to watch the deerfly at work: "When I was a deerfly I zoomed around everybody's head, as if I/ could persuade them my troubles were their own" (16).
Gundy's poetry, like the openly curious first book called Inquiries, is about the human capacity for knowing, how things work, what we can know, what we can't know, and the poet's fascination with that pursuit. The tone of Inquiries was that of a laughing philosopher, intrigued and drawn in by the unknowable and the serendipity of what can be known through this quirky existence. Deerflies offers a more tired and grizzled eye about the human pursuit of the unknowable. One has the sense that the poet has aged, grown more cynical about knowing; there is more mumbling and complaining. Yet, the poems are determined to keep at it: "Now, I know/my soul-bird is a penguin, stupid/but an excellent swimmer" (19) in "Brief History of Life."
One could catalog the diverse poems in this collection in various ways. There are the many poems that are inquiries. There are the dream-poems in which the poet ruminates in a trance. There are the crazy poems of wild juxtapositiona hallmark of Gundy'slike his "Impersonations of an Ordinary Woman," after Elizabeth Bishop: "My underwear was filled/ with little bits of strawit makes one feel/like Miss Wisconsin" (51). There are war/peace poems like "Epiphany with Sirens": "Will we ever be safe? Not in this world" (79).
There are the confessional poems like one of those seven on "ancient themes," this one to the poet's first teacher: "Yes this is personal, hard as the pine tables of that long-gone/basement room where you broke every chunk of my soul/ you could reach" (53). There are the "domestic" poems like "Crawl Space," a prose poem about the family hamsters, which elicits well the poet's angst in this collection and provides a fitting thematic question in its opening segment: "Even the stupid hamster has fallen asleep, wearied at last of pushing at the top of her cage, the clank, clank of her efforts just an echo in my whirly head. I can't sleep tonight. Isn't that what I want, to push out through the wire mesh, burst the earthly bond, float free in the soupy whirls of love" (65). That question is quintessential Gundy: The world is too much with us. How can we escape to freedom?
The poet remains throughout the persistent, troubling deerfly practicing the poetic formula established in that first poem. "White Chicken," a reference to "The Red Wheelbarrow" and modern angst provides the poet's own deconstruction of his poetic practice and the deerfly approach: "Who needs more about art about art, coy in-jokes/about one's friends and friendly enemies, all so safe and cozy/here in the warm heart of the Empire. No, it's just me again,/overcome by ressentiment, trapped into apologizing for my feelings/just because they're irrational" (96). The poet's rant here, like Lowell's confessional voice admits that he is sick of self. Disgusted, the poet notes that his life is less dismal than he deserves, the gesture is all that he trusts, all stylish and scenic and phony. Self-mocking, he admits that this is the part where (in the poet's own characteristic way of making poems) the poet would tell of chickens he has known"thousands, I picked their eggs up/ three at a time, four sometimes, and filled flat after cardboard flat/ with them, I herded white chickens into nets and cages and caught them/by their scaly legs and handed them to my father or my grandfather/ who pulled the hot knife down on their homicidal beaks,"(97). It goes on. And it is, ultimately, the poet's self-recognition as privileged contemporary thinker, angst-filled, guilt-ridden, tired of his own gestures toward meaning, but unable to resist the effort. "White Chicken" is a great poem, at once taking on the history of American poetry and incorporating the cultural folk story of everybody's grandfather: "you think you got it bad . . . listen to this!"
This book's poems are filled with the crazy tension of tracking the world for meaning, with a particular knack for finding its troubled underbelly, a la the deerfly, all the while completely self-conscious as a poetic voice, trying to resist the human need to symbolize, make meaning. For example, "Letter to John from R.,"presumably from Ragdale"For hours we stay in our rooms,/while the Hispanic gardeners clip and rake/in their red jackets. This is not metaphor" (68). That is Gundy's problem. The world is not metaphor. It is real. It troubles him.
And belief is so hard. But sometimes neither Gundy nor the reader can resist. A lyric poem results one morning when the black flies sleep. The poet breaks free from the mode of the deerfly troubling the world to heed God's commandment to "hold this day like an egg, hold and cherish it as you dream of being touched yourself"(70) . But paradise through God's voice becomes paradox in the voice of the poet:
God says all this has been given you,
the whine of the crane and the whir of engines
pulling tired women to their bad jobs
and the drumlin where the last glacier
gave up its journey and grumbled away.
God says remember, God says
don't give up. God says give up. (71)
Or is it paradox? Perhaps rather the gift of the poet, redefinition. For a moment, relief. For a moment, meaning. Don't turn the page.
John D. Roth, Beliefs: Mennonite Faith and Practice. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2005. Pp. 150. ($9.99-paperback) ISBN 0-8361-9270-2
John Roth has written a helpful and realistic description of the Mennonite/Anabaptist contribution to Christian life and thought. It is realistic in the sense that he includes how much we Mennonites practice Anabaptist beliefs and the questions and differences we have in understanding them. He purposely wrote it to generally follow the contents of the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective and it provides good help for users of that document.
As he suggests, the audience most interested in this description of Mennonite/Anabaptist faith and practice would probably be persons with Christian background and seekers of Christian ideas rather than skeptics who want to be convinced of the value of religion. The "Mennonite agnostics" who are Mennonites because of social needs and want to support denominational service and relief agencies will need to go elsewhere with their questions about miracles, prayer, the afterlife, Biblical authority, and the logic of God talk. Roth states he is writing from the viewpoint of a believer.
So in that regard, the questions of his Japanese airline seatmate that helped initiate this book may not get entirely answered. Neither is he aiming at providing academic level Anabaptist theology. Roth is writing more for Mennonites and other interested Christians whose faith may be shaped by customs and social pressures and who don't remember what it means to be a Mennonite. Those who merely seek stress relief in a more shallow church life without reflecting on what they are doing in worship and church activities should find this book thought provoking and renewing.
One of the values of Roth's writing is the way he clarifies the Anabaptist contribution without arrogance. An Anabaptist perspective is offered as a way that heals and encourages believers to live the Jesus way that is different than what society accepts. With some current Christian groups shaping the gospel to fit American economic and military imperialism, it is a badly needed contribution. But Roth doesn't write an apologetic that criticizes those who differ. He admits Mennonites do not have all the truth and need to dialog with other views. Chapters 4, 6, 9, and 12 are the opposite of a dogmatic approach. These chapters have the unique feature of discussing the temptations, distortions, and unresolved questions Mennonites can unexpectedly encounter when focused on a discipleship kind of faith and using the ambiguity of Christocentric scripture interpretation.
It is helpful that issues are raised in a down to earth way without using theological/religious jargon or "brand names." (Names of the various atonement theories, for example, were not listed but are described.) I did wonder if listing some of the two-kingdom theories common in other groups would have helped to clarify by contrast the kind of participatory nonconformity that Mennonites try to live.
As an instruction book in Mennonite faith it doesn't replace Michelle Hershberger's recent fine book, God's Story, Our Story, aimed at preparing youth for church membership. She traces the Bible story, describes basic beliefs, and inserts provocative questions that help persons decide about commitments. However, Roth's book, aimed at a different audience, would be a valuable supplement for any teacher using the Hershberger book. It is so readable it should be on the Choice Book racks for non-Mennonite readers who think Mennonites are Amish or Mormon. But it is also a helpful book for Sunday School teachers, church libraries, and for Mennonites unaware of our Anabaptist contribution, not only for the information on beliefs but for those four chapters on "critiques and ongoing questions." We owe thanks to Roth for producing this well written useful resource.
Ervin Beck, ed., MennoFolk2: A Sampler of Mennonite & Amish Folklore. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2005. Pp. 248. ($15.99paperback) ISBN 0-8361-9307-5
A sequel of sorts to Ervin Beck's MennoFolk, this book, appearing one year later, offers a collection of selected essays written by Beck's folklore students at Goshen College. As editor, Beck helps bring unity and focus to these materials through his explanatory Preface, an analytic head note to each selection, and the book's closing essay. But readers of Beck's original volume should not expect to find that same achievement recreated in this sequel. And yet while this volume lacks the depth and consistency of analysis evident in the previous book, the personal curiosity, varied interests, and good humor expressed by these undergraduate voices lends the collection a genuine charm. If the character of these essays is representative of the folklore courses taught by Beck from 1976 to 1995, those must have been lively, engaging gatherings.
Following a brief Foreword by Catherine Hiebert Kerst (of the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress) and Beck's Preface, the book offers 17 selections, most of them grounded in each author's personal family history. Variety abounds, with essay topics including nicknames, horse-trading tales, Low German insults, auctioneering traditions, courtship stories, summer camp skits, and college pranks. Most memorable in this homespun crazy quilt of material is what Hiebert Kerst calls the "texture" of this folk cultural life, as opposed to its "religious and social history." Her remark astutely highlights the strength of this bookthe particularity of its details, the curious collection of folkloric bits and pieces that these students have gathered through their field research among personal and family histories.
Most of the 17 selections do offer interpretive analysis, usually appended to each essay as a concluding commentary. Too often this commentary offers a standard, unexplored themethat the family lore described functions to promote unity within the family or a common identity across the generations. When asserted, this claim always seems true, but some readers might wish for less obvious conclusions, for analysis that digs deeper into the cultural significance of the folkloric practices described. Individual authors who do offer such analysis, such as when Peter Blum explores the "boundary-transcendence" evident in Mennonite foot-washing accounts, further enrich this compilation.
"The Joy of Family Folklore" could serve as an apt subtitle for this book. Whether relishing the taste of a good Low German insult, the color of a vivid homesteading story, or the musical cadence of three generations' of auctioneers, these writers share their folklore with good-hearted gusto.
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