Can we find ourselves in Poetry?

Hey, everyone. Tim suggested I post some of what I’m working on, so here goes. This selection was among poetry read at Bluffton’s “Beyond Borders…” writing conference last month, and I’m attempting to publish them elsewhere. I’m really interested in why practicing Menno women are still so wary of certain issues in their poetry. Is breaking from community approval and drawing focus on the creative “self” still so painful? Are we comfortable with the silences demanded of us? Julia Kasdorf and Di Brandt are examples of more “confessional” writers who have not been afraid to keep the church accountable…but both also had decided to leave the Menno dem. before publishing. I’m thankful they’ve opened doors for others to raise up voices and concerns, but where are those creative voices in the current Menno church? Surely some appear in A CAPPELLA, the recent poetry collection. But I’m aching for something more… Silences I’m most interested in are the “violence” of leaving a Menno community (in a way, we are still “shunned” for doing so, even if it’s the guilt we shoulder for not settling down on the family farm) and our denomination’s “silence” in the face of America’s many messages about “American Christianity”–when we should be calling out a public, joyous, and united offering of simple/peaceful living. Here are some questions I return to again and again as a writer and songwriter: How do I (as someone who wants to connect with her Anabatist beliefs) live out my faith in this busy, self-centered world? Where do I find that still, strong Center? (Maybe I should ask Mary Oliver or Wendell Berry). Are Mennonites going to be known more for their cookbooks, hardware stores, and disaster relief than core values? (I’m not saying the things previously listed are not somehow tied to these values, yet I have to wonder if some Mennonites are so just b/c their great-grandfathers were, not b/c they necessarily agree with what the denomination asks of us). So…wow. I read over my blogs again, and I sound rather preachy! Translate that tone into my excitement and hope that we can encourage each other to examine our lives, goals, and spiritual longings. I figure if many of our ministers feel unable to preach on core values (especially simple living and active pacifism), then our writers have an even bigger job. Here are a couple of poems; eat them with a nice strong cup of joe and let them digest for awhile… :)

Talking Poetry With the Amish
-For David Kline

The world knows your quiet; I know
your harvest of words. It has been a year

since we stood in your back field, recited
Berry and Frost. You have no doubt

harnessed the draft horses hundreds of times,
sat on front porches with libraries of books

after long seasons of talking, listening, arguing
with the earth. I remember

your feet–it sounds silly, yes–but
I’d never seen an Amishman in *sandals*.

I remember, too, the swift June rain, chasing us
under two maples. You gave me your barn coat, and the sky

threw its body down–we almost had to shout–What do you
think of the president these days? How is the market for

soybeans, Jerseys? Water gathered in the rows you’d been plowing,
spilled from your hat brim; I looked down at mud-flecked ankles.

Can we really write out
how this world aches, how the heart
will never stop planting its questions?
why we are born into stillness, spend
the rest of our days filling it in with
anything, anyone really?

The team horses stood, steaming statues–I remember
their quiet presence, too. Have you changed that stanza,

the one where you’re out picking blackberries? Have I
changed my life, after that day in your field, since

running to dodge lightning, waving to your sons, then backing
my car down the drive? Have I paused long enough to gather myself

up from calling highways, appointments, the poems
yet to be written? to glean myself back
into the stillness, the quiet in the land?


Those who are not among us bring
their cameras and their children. They leave
what’s heavy on their hearts for a morning, a day.

Those who are not among us bring ready
billfolds, pay for bentwood rockers and log cabin
quilts. So easy to buy
an hour of quiet. It is not surprising
on Sunday mornings to see a car with windows

open stopped where the road dips between Salem and
Sonnenberg. God is a cappella
on the seventh day of the week; hymn crosses
hymn between these two churches, and music carries
off their centuries of feuding (this the visitors
don’t know; it is rarely talked of now).

What does our martyr family think as we
sit back, barter our quiet to the world, pretend
that we are holy, different? “Six friends ended their lives in
great joy, and those that saw them burn went and
penned a hymn, the first letter of each verse
replacing the names of the dead.”

Do *we* ever feel warm when breathing deep to offer up
our harmony? Do we think of them
as verses change? And what *would* they say, after
watching us join the frontlines, deadlines?

“Burn us, bake us, drown us,
World, and in the end, make us yours”?


From the pulpit, congregations
mimic those Kansas fields,
the ones we’re supposed
to have visited
already: wind-swept-
predictable, they wait
for the coming
of a crop they’re sure
to recognize.

* * *

For years,
I have carried
my body
like something
I couldn’t quite
shake, like someone
I dreaded
meeting in public.

For I’ve never known
what to say to her
in private, have never
sat– just the two of us–
on front porches
before a storm
or a bleeding winter
sunset, because
she’s not the kind
you’re taught to want
to bring home.

* * *

Finally, I am loving
what I carry. On paper,
the world drips
off of shoulders.
Body, I need
you! Body, I sing
you onto the page!

From the pulpit,
the World spreads
its legs. And I open
my mouth to tell it
you’re beautiful.

*Cleave- 1. to split with a sharp instrument…along a natural line of division
2. to pierce or penetrate
3. to make one’s way
4. to be faithful
_American Heritage Dictionary_

What dreams are ploughed under when we cleave ourselves
to the land of our fathers, mothers, martyred soil wealthy with roots!
*** Twenty years ago now we stumbled across the dumping ground
of our ancestors: bits of blue china accidentally dropped, glass
insulators split down the middle; rusted shovel heads, hammers, wire-
rimmed frames at the bottom of a creek bank. For two sisters, it was
Egypt, this watery unearthing. Pieces of people we’d never meet but could
hold, rub clean in our hands. *** For centuries, the Amish have built
their daudies–houses that birth houses to keep parents close
and safe, part of the journey. From the road, it’s often obvious where
new planks have sprung: sudden porches, chimneys, back screen doors.
New rooms for new roles. *** How emptying it must sometimes feel
for the aging, living so near to their home, not truly in it. Do they grope
for the past all the more loudly because of its proximity, because
of its sudden forbidden fruit? *** To keep his only daughter near, my grandfather
gave open fields and breathing forest as wedding gifts. A piece of the farm.
Such a generous father; such a quiet yoke. Our daudy was fashioned
from trees, streams, the path through high corn to Grandma’s kitchen.
*** Now, I do not know where to start my own building, when to pound
the first nails–onto what, onto whom *** do I cleave?

All poems by Rebecca Rossiter/c 2006

Comment (1)

  1. Janelle

    Thanks for sharing those. I thought about my grandmother while I was reading them, who has written poetry for years and years and keeps it very quiet.

    I know I often feel stifled and self-conscious in my own writing…there’s a lot of family and church history weighing me down. We don’t talk about things below the surface, we don’t draw attention to ourselves. We carry around a lot of unspoken rules. How does that help us, and how does it help the church?

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