David Wright, A Liturgy for Stones, Telford, PA: DreamSeeker Books, 2003. Pp. 80. ($12.95--paperback) ISBN 1-931038-13-9 Reviewed by Suzanne Miller.
Will Schirmer, Reaching Beyond the Mennonite Comfort Zone: Exploring from the Inside Out. Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2003. Pp. 172. ($14.95-paperback) ISBN: 1-931038-15-5 Reviewed by Ardie S. Goering.
Peggy Faw Gish, Iraq: A Journey of Hope and Peace. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2004. Pp. 317. ($17.99-paperback) ISBN 0-8361-9287-7 Reviewed by Julie Hart.
David Waltner-Toews, The Complete Tante Tina: Mennonite Blues and Recipes. Kitchener: Pandora Press, 2004. Pp. 129. ($14.50-paperback) ISBN 1-894710-52-5 Reviewed by L. Lamar Nisly.
David Wright, A Liturgy for Stones, Telford, PA: DreamSeeker Books, 2003. Pp. 80. ($12.95--paperback) ISBN 1-931038-13-9
I plan to use David Wright's poetry collection, A Liturgy for Stones, as a resource in the high school Sunday School class I teach this spring because I think people need literary analysis skills to survive and find nurture in the world of religion. As Wright acknowledges in his December 2001 Mennonite Life essay, "Poetry as Argued Seduction," "the language and vision poems might provide is needed, especially in a church afraid of indirect and sensual assertions of the truth" (para. 1). He believes in the practice, through his poetry, of "argued seduction," which is "what it might be like to leave neither our senses nor our minds absent from the world" (para. 5). He worries about how to help "poetry to matter more to the faith community, and [he] can't figure out . . . how to make that happen. Though it's made from the very stuff of daily speech, and though poetry works in part through a mingling of music and felt truth, its value still eludes many thoughtful people of faith. [And he] suspect[s] there's little [he] can do about this" ("A Few Worries About Being a Poet," Winter 2004 online issue of DreamSeeker Magazine, para. 25). "Yet," he says, he "continue[s] to read and write poems, hovering under the recognition that centuries worth of poets, including the prophets and psalmists and hymn writers, worried their particular combinations of words into forms that afflict and surprise [him] in necessary ways" (para. 26). I do not wish affliction upon my students, but I hope Wright's poems will surprise their minds and senses into a conversation that strengthens both.
I will talk to them about the way Wright pays as much attention to sounds and images--sensual knowledge--as to ideas--intellectual knowledge. The book is built with sonnets and other patterned rhymed forms as well as musical free verse. Wright delights in alliteration and in creative rhymes. Listen, for example, to the linked sounds building the final couplet of "Elegy (for David Erlanson)": "I cannot return. No, I would rather rattle rougher words / to scare and scatter all these deaths, like starlings from the curb." Notice how he replicates the harshness of death with an almost literal "gr-r-r-r-r," then softens his tone with "s's" and with the sad, comic image of trying to rid the world of starlings by shouting. To rhyme "words"--our highest form of intellectual truth-making--with "curb"--the literal concrete boundary limiting a journey's breadth, and linked to the image of "gutter," which carries refuse away--shows and seduces readers into feeling a mourner's experience with death. The reader feels anger and futility, but also hears the way the words flow together. Maybe the reader will be comforted by pattern under girding form.
Wright is attentive to patterns of imagery. Two strong images in the book are rocks and voices, echoing Jesus' juxtaposition of the two in Luke 19:40, the verse Wright uses as an epigraph to his title poem. Jesus said the stones will cry out if the people won't; Wright, another master of inverted perceptions, of seeing the world inside out, asks what the stones would say if they started using their voices. "Our voices ride the blue flight of morning [. . . ]" (line 1), he begins, and then describes the message given when a rock shatters a stained-glass window. The eight sections of this poem speak in languages of stone, bedrock, mud, dirt-devil, mountain, canyon, cathedral, rubble, brass, sculpture, concrete, brick, and crevice--a "Pentecost to free the long-staid tongues" (line 11).
Many of the other poems in the book speak of and for voices that have been silent. Often these voices and languages are not expressed in "words" (intellectual knowledge), but in images (sensual knowledge). In "Children's Sermon," for example, the children are stunned by the image of God accidentally revealed in the powerful movement of one of their mothers acting like a mother. In "Electric Glossolalia (The Neighborhood Boys Speak in Tongues)," the implied metaphor for the Holy Spirit is a nine-volt battery. The reader must consider how receiving power from on high might be like ten-year-olds tasting "power's metal flavor" and risking "how it felt to dare." In "The Prodigal Mother Suspects," the first line of the poem continues the thought the title begins: "No one, not even Jesus, will mention her [. . . ]." Wright seems to be asking his readers to continue thinking about the parable, to draw out the subtext, to let the silent, unmentioned characters speak.
A Liturgy for Stones is both thoughtful and musical. Wright's mastery of form, his ability to hear and contribute to the conversation humming within sacred and secular literature, as well as within the physical and spiritual world, and his personal poetic vision make this a book worth examining. I recommend it for readers of many ages and stages of literary experience.
Will Schirmer, Reaching Beyond the Mennonite Comfort Zone: Exploring from the Inside Out. Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2003. Pp. 172. ($14.95-paperback) ISBN: 1-931038-15-5
Will Schirmer tells a story about visiting a Mennonite congregation's sewing circle and having one woman ask him, "Was your mother a Moyer?"
When he replied no, and explained his mother's original name was Koerber, Schirmer watched the woman's face fall. She turned away, uncomfortable and disinterested. Schirmer "stood there in mid-breath, frozen, wanting to say, 'I'm still a Mennonite; I'm still a Christian; I'm still a person.'"
In a lively and conversational style, Schirmer uses his personal life as a starting point to examine how Mennonite congregations sometimes exclude, both explicitly and implicitly, people who do not share a set of typical life experiences or ethnic names of common Mennonite communities.
Written in ten topical chapters with frequent Biblical references, the book appears directed towards those who understand the "comfort zones" of Mennonite culture and desire to break down sharply defined boundaries between insiders and outsiders for a more authentic sense of community.
To that end, Ch. 8, "Reaching Out Beyond the Familiar: What Does It Require" and Ch. 9, "Getting to Know People and Meeting Their Needs" are helpful, citing specific examples of how church groups have changed and how Mennonites can think differently to encourage such changes.
While the book seems targeted to a large Mennonite audience at times, the author's perspective is also strikingly narrow at other points. "Guess what? Not every family in your church comes from a Pennsylvania Mennonite family bloodline," he says. "Is that news to you? It shouldn't be."
Indeed, the book refers frequently to Franconia, one regional conference in one Mennonite denomination, Mennonite Church USA. Most individual congregations mentioned are from Franconia, a group of 44 churches mainly in Pennsylvania. There are a number of comments about Pennsylvania Dutch ethnicity. I was confused if Schirmer understood his experiences to be rooted in one slice of Mennonite life or if he saw the book as a description of the normative Mennonite experience.
Schirmer draws heavily on the perspectives of three couples, one who came from evangelical church backgrounds and the other two who joined nondenominational congregations after having tried Mennonite churches. Their comments seemed to represent one perspective only out of many who do not feel at home in Mennonite churches.
I'm also troubled by the lack of explanation concerning MRN Ministry Resources, which seems to have a strong connection to the book; to not explain an acronym seems odd in a book about getting beyond Mennonite clannishness.
Schirmer's inability to put his perspectives into a larger and helpful context speaks to how difficult it is for any group to break down the cultural and communication boundaries that separate insiders and outsiders. The lapses of a book dedicated to inclusion demonstrate how complex welcoming and accepting people really is.
But Schirmer is a brave man for having tackled a thorny issue. Reaching Beyond the Mennonite Comfort Zone is an honest book from someone whose vision of the church is compelling. I find the discussion questions at the end of each chapter to be thoughtful, interesting, and some of the best parts of the book.
Perhaps the conversations from such questions would prompt both first-generation and multi-generation Mennonites to speak candidly of issues related to identity, culture, and the mission of the church.
Because most Mennonites would agree with Schirmer that "since community is an important and coveted aspect of Anabaptist heritage, it is one of the best gifts that can be given to a hurting and alienated world."
Ardie S. Goering
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Peggy Faw Gish, Iraq: A Journey of Hope and Peace. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2004. Pp. 317. ($17.99-paperback) ISBN 0-8361-9287-7
Peggy Gish writes of her experiences as a full-time member of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Iraq from 2002-2004. The reader learns in an accessible and concise manner the day-to-day activities of CPT and the realities of the Iraq war on the ground. Gish writes passionately of her motivations for this work. The reader is invited into the strategic planning process for CPT as well as the challenges of team dynamics. We learn of the extensive networking that enables CPT to contribute to a broader effort in Iraq and enjoy eyewitness reporting of conditions for common Iraqis before, during, and after the 2003 Iraq war.
Gish is a 60-year old Church of the Brethren grandmother who has lived most of her life in intentional community. She and her husband Art farm for a living in southeastern Ohio but both of them spend a significant portion of each year serving with CPT in the Middle East.
Perhaps the first question readers have of a woman who would choose to stay in Baghdad, Iraq, during the US bombings that began in March of 2003 concerns her motivation for such work. Gish speaks of Jesus' impatience with those who "do not bear fruit" as well as those who cooperate with or gain from corrupt religious, political, or economic systems. She acknowledges that we are in fact limited as individuals by our access to power but "we have more than we are ready to admit to ourselves" for changing unjust systems.
Gish offers a glimpse of the sacrifices involved with leaving family and knowing that you may never return. While the majority of her family and community are supportive of her CPT work, there are also those who are vocal about their desire for her to come home prior to the war. Gish is transparent in her struggles with fear and self-doubt. It becomes obvious that this work is a challenge each hour of each day. Without a strong faith, Gish would not be able to persist under such pressures.
The team supports each other through daily worship, discernment, and prayer. All types of concerns are shared within the group and they draw strength from scripture and each other. Gish also maintains a regular commitment to working in a Baghdad orphanage housing children with both mental and physical disabilities. She is grounded and energized by this weekly contact.
Gish wishes people would become angrier about the mass slaughter, malnutrition, social injustice, and policies that bring suffering to the world. She has been able to channel her anger into a presence and style that speaks truth to power but is both approachable and gentle as she calls others to accountability for their harms.
Prior to the war, we experience a taste of the emphasis on relationship building that CPT has found effective. They enjoy weekly visits with neighbors, government agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and others. CPT works closely in strategic planning and public actions with the Iraqi Peace Team, a coalition of North American and European groups hoping to stop the war and later to monitor the human rights situation there.
Gish serves in Iraq for three to five month stretches and in this time experiences the first bombing raids of Baghdad by the US and coalition forces, the bombing of the United Nations building killing hundreds, the capture of Saddam Hussein, and the death of a CPT delegation member in an auto accident.
Daily, the team must confer and be accompanied by Iraqi government "minders" who approve their travels and monitor their actions. Days following the war when Gish and a visiting North American delegation traveled off the approved path without a minder to witness some of the US bombing damage, they were promptly deported.
We learn of details of the war that are only available to eyewitnesses and may only be reported fully by those outside the commercial media. For example, Gish speaks of finding evidence of the use of anti-personnel weapons by the US--weapons whose purpose is to maim. These weapons are considered illegal, Gish reports, under the Geneva Convention.
We learn of early Muslim responses to the bombings via the mosque system of communication--loud speakers. Following each bombing raid during the early days of the war, the widely dispersed speakers would announce Allah Akbar- God is Greater to the surrounding neighborhoods.
Five days after the war began, the majority of the Iraqi Peace Team were told to leave the country. As they arrived in Amman, Jordan, following a harrowing drive west through crater filled and car littered highways, they were shocked to hear the first US reports of the war. Gish states, "It seemed more like the reporting of a football game than war coverage." Newscasters emphasized each bombing victory by the US while failing to report the extensive civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure that overwhelmed the hospitals and brought Baghdad to a virtual halt.
Following her return to Iraq three months later, Gish reports on comments she hears in Iraqi homes and on the streets. While some praise the US for bringing an end to Saddam's brutal dictatorship, the majority criticize the US occupation due to lack of the basics--clean water, electricity, adequate food, or jobs. In her unique role, Gish had access to US soldiers, Iraqi families, sheiks, Baath Party members, and internationals working with NGOs. Many shared mixed emotions about the war but all were consistent with their negative reports of the occupation.
Following the war, CPT began hearing reports of violent house raids carried out by US soldiers and prisoner abuse in the US prison system including Abu Ghraib. CPT responded by documenting and attempting to confirm Iraqis' stories and then using their US status to report these abuses to US authorities. They often found sympathetic US officials but most claimed that they had little control to change these practices.
While Gish reports that prior to the war, CPTers felt safe traveling around the city, following the war they observed an emerging "culture of violence" that made walking or driving a dangerous venture. Seeing dead bodies became normal. Armed guards in front of businesses became standard practice. Guns were everywhere. CPT lived in a neighborhood among the common Iraqis. And although they experienced remarkable safety, one day their luck ran out.
Following the war, the word was out that CPT was taking reports on detainee experiences and house raids. Frequently people would come by their apartment or stop them on the streets to share a story, see if CPT could check on a missing family member, or talk with the US authorities about complaints. On one occasion, they invited two young men in who shared their stories and proceeded to unveil a gun and a knife, tie up the men and demand cash and valuables from the women. The men ran off with $600, cell phones, video cameras, and two computers. The experience shook the group and caused a great deal of re-evaluation.
As complaints and violence mounted from January to April 2004, the team gathered a more formal list of 72 Iraqi detainees who were unaccounted for and feared dead by their families. Generally, these were young men who had been arrested by US military without formal charges and taken from their homes at night. The summary report garnered little response from a series of US authorities but finally caught the attention of a New York Times reporter who eventually broke the story of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal to the world.
The reader who is seeking careful analysis, nonviolence theory, or an academic treatment of the project will be disappointed. This book will instead serve as a rich source of historical data on early CPT work in war zones.
For those who seek a glimpse of some modern day prophets working in a land of injustice, this book is for you. It is inspiring, informative, energizing, and thought provoking. It challenges each of us to ask, could we do this work if we felt called? Gish demonstrates the indispensable role of Christian community, scripture, a life of prayer, and relationship to God as she struggles with her fear, self-doubt, and sense of humility each day. We see that there is a role for pacifists in war zones and just what a difference that role of "getting in the way" of injustice might make.
Julie Hart, Ph. D.
Associate Professor of Sociology and Peace Studies
David Waltner-Toews, The Complete Tante Tina: Mennonite Blues and Recipes. Kitchener: Pandora Press, 2004. Pp. 129. ($14.50-paperback) ISBN 1-894710-52-5
Readers who have loved David Waltner-Toews' ongoing presentation of poems from Tante Tina, his created Canadian Russian Mennonite aunt, will find much familiar to appreciate in The Complete Tante Tina. For those who have not yet made Tante Tina's acquaintance, this volume offers not only her collected wisdom but also a sampling of Russian Mennonite recipes for "food with consequences" (121).
Engaging as these narrative poems are, they represent both the beauty and challenge of any literature written from and representing a clearly identifiable ethnic vantage point. For those from within the tradition, the poems offer a shared experience of nodding and chuckling at common experiences and inside jokes as well as feeling the shared pain. For those from outside the tradition, the poems and recipes provide a more tangible encounter with an experience that may have been only vaguely familiar. At the same time, the Tante Tina poems may represent something of a challenge to those who come from backgrounds other than Russian Mennonite. Since I come from a Swiss German Mennonite background with roots in Kansas and Pennsylvania, I have to admit to a bit of an odd response: while I very much enjoyed entering into Tante Tina's world, arguably I felt my most immediate connection to a pie. In his introduction to the recipe for Shoo-Fly Pie, Waltner-Toews writes, "This isn't Russian Mennonite. It comes from those other Mennonites in Pennsylvania." As one of those other Mennonites, I was comforted by his next line: "But it still tastes pretty okay" (93).
As that quote indicates, Waltner-Toews maintains a light, often gently ironic tone throughout much of the book, even extending to the fictitious blurbs on the back cover. However, through the voice of Tante Tina, as well as her children and grandchildren, Waltner-Toews also is able to bring to life the significant pain that Russian Mennonites experienced during the Russian Revolution and comment on contemporary global events.
In the course of the volume, Tante Tina remembers her childhood in Russia, her life with her husband, her experience of raising her children. As she laments her son's ignorance in trying to move away from his background, she asserts that "his heart is full of borscht, / and his words are like sour cream" (17). She remarks of her husband, "The more hard we worked / the more the Lord blessed / the more pious was my man" (23), and "Only once was he hitting me / when I something said" (24). The recipes liberally sprinkled throughout the volume contribute not only a homey feel to the book but also provide a gloss on the poems since Waltner-Toews often places the recipes after a poem in which a reference to that food occurs.
Yet my favorite poems are the ones which link together this Russian Mennonite voice with contemporary issues. Tante Tina sings of Brauda Friesen, a Mennonite preacher who condemned the rich; the Mennonites praised him, but "things run a little smoother / now that Brauda Friesen's gone" (63). She requests that her Mennonite Women's Missionary Society put Salman Rushdie on the prayer list because "how much Jesus is stories loving, / ja, the truth comes to us that way. . . That is why Stalin and the Ayatollah / and even some Christians / do not like stories so much" (55). In a powerful poem, "Tante Tina Puts the 1991 Gulf War in Perspective," she tells of her experience as a child in Russia when her mother took in an injured man. During the night, other men came, dragged the injured one from his bed, and killed him. Tante Tina remembers going with her mother to help clean the dead body. She is reminded of this memory because on TV she has seen:
Mr. Bursch and Mr. Saddam and Mr. Shamir
and Schwartzkopf and Yasser, the whole pack of them
they make widows and blame God or the anti-Christ, ja?
They want to look strong, because they are cowards.
They are killing men like Papa.
Ja, I know there are reasons,
always there are reasons to kill, ja?
Always the same. (75)
Sadly, such a poem rings as true in 2005 as it did when it was originally published in 1995.
Waltner-Toews also includes a longer poem first published as "A Word in a Nest" in the 1995 collection The Impossible Uprooting. Re-titled "Little Haenschen's Vision" to connect more explicitly with Tante Tina's grandson, the poem is a sobering indictment of the world's ills. With some debt to Ginsberg's "Howl" in phrasing and structure, Waltner-Toews laments the ever-present suffering and insists:
There is no righteousness in suffering.
There is no poetry in it.
There are no words but the vultures,
the last words, unspoken. (112)
For several decades, Waltner-Toews has been able to combine his life as a veterinary epidemiologist at the University of Guelph with his writing as a Mennonite poet. In a similar way, The Complete Tante Tina draws together distinctive ingredients, offering a rich mixture of homespun reflection and advice together with sharp indictments of societal ills--all served up with a generous portion of traditional Russian Mennonite recipes. For all these reasons, The Complete Tante Tina is a dish well worth sampling.
L. Lamar Nisly
Associate Professor of English
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