3 BOOKS ON AND BY DI BRANDT and GLENNA LUSCHEILYNN STRONGIN Reviews
Now You Care by Di Brandt
(Toronto, Coach House Press, 2004)
Speaking of Power: The Poetry of Di Brandt, Edited by Tanis MacDonald
(Wilfrid Laureir University Press, 2006, Waterloo, Ontario)
SEEDPODS by Glenna Luschei
(Presa :S: Press, Rockford, MI, 2006)
“Heaven Located in the Hayloft”
Di Brandt, born in Winkler, Manitoba, 1952, was raised in the conservative Mennonite community of Reinland and was one of the first women in Canada to break the Mennonite Silence. She creates within a visionary frame.
Brandt writes “there are no words in me for Gaza,” and “Jerusalem the golden, city of my dreams.” Her first book of poetry recalls the experience of growing up within sharply defined boundaries of the conservative Mennonite world. Her second book is Agnes in the Sky which won the McNally Robinson Award for Manitoba Book of the Year. She visited Jerusalem in 1991 and wrote Jerusalem Beloved. Her first several books won her the honor of being “one of the first women writers to break the public silence of Mennonite women in Canada.” In addition to poetry, she has published a critical study of maternal narrative in Canadian literature, Wild Mother Dancing.
Brandt, like William Blake, finds “eternity in a grain of sand, heaven in a wildflower.” Brandt writes:
when I was five I thought heaven was located
in the hayloft of our barn the ladder to get
up there was straight & narrow like the Bible
said if you fell of you might land on the
horns of a cow
(“when I was five”)
That is one little theatre. Then here is another, a bit more intimate, domestic one:
little one, black angel,
wild, spirit child.
you wouldn’t die.
you wouldn’t take
the family lie
. . .
between the rows.
the tidy family plot.
you changeling, you!
(“little one, black angel)
This is one of Brandt’s poems culled in A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry (University of Iowa Press, 2003.) An American place, a Canadian place: encapsulation, the drawer, the bureau, the little theatre. Why a cappella? This sort of unaccompanied, pure vocal singing, is a time-honored traditional unison of hymns of the Radical Reformation. The anthology’s voices create a concert.
Until the last decade many poets wrote in isolation, unaccompanied. They were largely denied both recognition by religious communities and even conversation together. But the poets had to emerge from this context as Di Brandt did. “For a broader audience,” writes Anne Hostetler, editor of A Cappella, “this poetry offers Mennonite experience as a distinctive lens through which to view the universal themes that underlie all good poetry.” (“Introduction”) The world, at moments, which do not resist radiance, is seen as breakthrough visionary by the poet, Brandt. Like Glenna Luschei she does not resist the radiance because it is treacherous, threatening leaves the partaker in it vulnerable, heart-open. Constance Rooke’s “Fear of the Open Heart” comes into play. There is the luminous quality of which things beyond our comprehension partake. This is a world, like all worlds portrayed by poetry, which transcends the rational, although many elements of it are rational. Like the shards which form a kaleidoscope’s stained glass window images, reality forms pith and pitch of the picture. Reality is the backbone. But the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The history of the Mennonites is fraught with persecution: theirs is a tapestry with more sombre than brilliant threads. Persecuted by Protestant and Catholic alike, with this legacy, they fled to Pennsylvania invited by William Penn or to the steppes of Russia , at the invitation of Catherine the Great. They became a rural people famed for skills as agriculturists and artists. They had a tendency to separate from the world which is a mystic’s bent. The challenge is how, in what ways to behave in the integrated, socialized world of affairs. An Amish boy, or even more particularly, a girl was challenged from the outset by how to develop in the world. They wore sombre colors but had glowing crafts and stories to tell, just as Luschei from the plains of Nebraska had the luminous stones of the Celtic swords and Holy Books to discover and share in her poems. For Margaret Avison, to whom I shall come, the plan was more formal, framed by the rituals of Catholicism, with an urge toward freedom, information, even rebellion these two poets, Brandt and Luschei, respond to the world by leaps and bounds. Upstart, or enraptured. Neither was flawlessly immunized against the world. Figuratively, both Luschei and Brandt still drove a horse and buggy yet they were smack-dab in the middle of the twentieth century and even dared to get married, have children. Rural community branches out for Brandt to Jerusalem, for Luschei to the fairytale villages of Russia. They learned to negotiate “multiple communities” (Hostetler. p. xvii intro) They are dispassionately curious about the world in which they find themselves. Finally, the Mennonites learn to sing in many layers, harmonized, not with the severity—albeit richness—of a cappella only.
For both American and Canadian woman, Luschei and Brandt, there exists world without and world within, exterior and interior kaleidoscopic images like a folk dance in which a dirndl skirt flares fold over fold, then closes. in.
“Rain dance” by Luschei reads
. . . on the bronzed California hills,
it began to rain as in the green
corn dance at Zia Pueblo. It rained down
mudhens, kashares, crickets, lightning
bugs and lightning. The Wall
broke into wet crumbling adobe.
Our grandchildren slid down the berm
Luschei invites a supposed visitor
up the sweet-
My redwood home
would welcome the traveler,
sun on pine needles,
light through clerestories.
who sits through the night with you
cough of the kit fox
rasp of the newborn word.
She wants the stranger to:
pull out the onion
with a head like Einstein.
Get ready for surprise!
I’ll whisk you through
the silk & barbed wire.
Her cornucopia of cumulative details in the entire book Seedpods is reminiscent of the psalmist. She creates a catalogue as she, like Brandt, treads earth, not water. Her images are strange, haunting as doves flying out of a hatbox of flowers but are not surrealistic like Salvadore Dali’s melting clock. The naturalistic world where “cough of the kit fox” occurs merges with the “rasp” of newborn. She sees the humor in the onion with head like Einstein and the menace of “silk & barbed wire” conjoined. Cough of kit fox, presence of mudhen, it is all Magnum Mysterius; Mysterium Tremedum. Tanis MacDonald writes, Speaking of Power.
The poetry of Di Brandt introduces the reader to the lyric power and political urgency of the poetry of Di Brandt, providing an overview of her poetry written during a prolific and revolutionary twenty-year period. Beginning with her early poetic inquiries into the dynamics of gender, religion, and the politics of language, Brandt examines the use and abuse of power as a cultural issue, emphasizing cross-cultural and domestic relationships. Particularly engaged with questions of motherhood, the land, violence and reparation, feminism, and spirituality, Brandt explores ecopoetics, an ecology of poetry, as a possible antidote to the cultural despair of the twenty-first century.
Di Brandt is a poet who does not resist the brilliance, but instead opens the lens to fully admit it whereupon the voices sing thousandfold and they light is returned. Brandt is the more political of the two producing poems, which are socially aware without being preachy, didactic. “Brandt traces the erosion of community and environment on a scale. . .at once global and local/”(Stephanie Hart, Quills Poetry.) She uses incantatory rhythms in Now You Care to drum on the boron drum warning of catastrophe. “She never loses emotional connection with her subjects.’ (Judges’ Comments, Lowther Memorial Award.)
In the same book, Brandt has written ghazals:
Now that it's much too late,
now you care.
Poison ivy wrapped around the
ash trees; lover's embrace.
Turtle, are you crazy, get
your diamond shell off the damn road.
The eating and the eaten, all
are gathered here, dearly beloved. The blood, the liver, remember
our mother tongues.
A species gone every three minutes.
History racing us by.
(Dog days in Maribor 10, p. 38)
References in her ghazals, as well as an interest shared in the work of the late French poet René Char. The physical and emotional city of Windsor, and the border struck by water, are obvious references, much the way the city fell into the work of Judith Fitzgerald in the year she spent there, crafting her Trillium-nominated collection, The River (1995, ECW Press):
See how there's no one going to Windsor,
only everyone coming from?
Maybe they've been evacuated,
maybe there's nuclear war,
maybe when we get there we'll be the only ones.
See that strange light in the sky over Detroit,
see how dark it is over Windsor?
You know how people keep disappearing,
you know all those babies born with deformities,
you know how organ thieves follow tourists
on the highway and grab them at night
on the motel turnoffs,
(Zone: , p. 15)
Place itself has always been both centre and periphery of Brandt's writing. Now You Care represents a move on many fronts, leaving both a city (Winnipeg) and a husband, resulting in shifts that can't help but affect. From Winnipeg she goes to Windsor, Ontario, a factory town on the border, as the back cover tells, "another wasteland, rendered with ... exasperated celebration." (Tom Mclenan on Coach House Book Now You Care.)
Tanis MacDonald has written an introduction to Speaking of Power: The Poetry of Di Brandt (one of Wilfred Lalurier Poetry Series). MacDonald points up that Brandt writes with both political and lyric expedience, and has done so during a prolific revolutionary twenty-year period. Writes MacDonald, “Brandt's poetry sings with a voice that is pressured by desperate circumstances. but predicates a better world with its ecstatic music” (p. XI introduction Speaking of Power.) At times, Brandt writes with what Tanis MacDonald dubs “savage irony.” At others, Brandt, transcending “cultural shame” bred into her, speaks of that “rare flower” you pray to appear:
I’m not sure to what extent that old ecstatic visionary world, marvelously preserved in the villages right into the 1950’s, the years of my childhood, still exists. . .This is not the story of one woman, one family, one minority culture alone; it is the story of many of the world’s peoples, around the globe.” (p. 48 Afterword to Speaking of Power)
Much of my poetics derives, despite my defection from the transitional ways, from the village practices of singing folk songs and hymns, all day, ever day, during milking, picking strawberries, cutting the hay: a kind of joyful praise of the gorgeous living world (p. 49 Ibid.)
The life of faith, no longer hidden, has a vibrant voice and a vividly realized presence of its own.
Lynn Strongin's new book of poems, Short Visiting Hours for Children: Rembrandt's Smock, is forthcoming from Plain View Press, Austin, Texas. This review is a chapter from Strongin’s forthcoming book Returning the Light: Portraits of Hidden Faith in Fourteen Contemporary Poets which is now seeking a publisher. A full introduction to Lynn Strongin is available at her website: http://members.shaw.ca/stronginweb/index.html