Since the appearance of her award-winning first volume of poetry, Sleeping Preacher, in 1991, Julia Kasdorf has been lauded as a significant new voice in American poetry. Her ability to write out of her experience as a Mennonite rooted in a centuries-old Amish-Mennonite community for a larger audience also makes her work unique. She is the only U.S. Mennonite poet to date who has received such critical attention, which also makes her stand out among the handful of religious poets who have a following in the larger circle of contemporary poetry. The soil of ethnicity clinging to the roots of Kasdorf's work has been both a great asset to her writing and a drawback to her being read as anything but an ethnic poet. The essays in The Body and the Book address, from various angles, the problems inherent in representations of ethnicity and voice, of distinctive religious cultures and self-representation, as well as readings and misreadings by the other. Kasdorf does so in a prose as supple and compelling as her poetry.
In Sleeping Preacher, Julia Kasdorf described a place--Big Valley, Pennsylvania--and its Amish and Mennonite community through poems rooted in a bold retelling of its stories . Her second volume, Eve's Striptease, is closer to a solo. The revelation of a young girl's coming of age, stripped nearly bare of the communal stories that both sheltered and shaped her sense of self, seems almost a form of penance for transgressing community propriety in her first volume. In The Body and the Book, Kasdorf holds the reader spellbound with a mature and resonant voice, reclothing herself in a garment woven of her own silken prose, skillfully revealing flashes of naked soul where she chooses. Crafted with exquisite particularity and intellectual integrity, these remarkable essays offer rare insight into a writer's thinking processes--the intersections of experience and thought that provide the substance of the writers' arsenal. Moving through and beyond the layers of autobiographical and cultural inflections, Kasdorf uses her complex positioning as an ethnic and a woman writer to meditate on language itself.
The ten essays are divided into four sections: "A Place to Begin," "Writing Home," "The Witness a Body Bears" and "Conclusion," which contains the single final essay "Writing like a Mennonite." Interspersed among the essays are a dozen poems from Kasdorf's first two books that "converse" with her prose. The first two sections contain essays that illuminate the importance of place, family, and community in Kasdorf's work. Two of these, earlier versions of which have been tucked away in hard-to-find denominational publications, enrich the reading of Kasdorf's Sleeping Preacher and are essential to the informed teaching of it: "When the Stranger is an Angel" and "Bringing Home the Work." Both of these essays explore the theme of boundary crossing, introduced in the first essay, "Mountains and Valleys," written expressly for this volume. Boundary crossing is a distinctive feature of ethnic writing: the writer must travel beyond the boundaries of home, but is always compelled to make a nostalgic return that is never entirely possible. "Tracking the Mullein, or Portrait of a Mennonite Muse" is a tribute to the "Bertha" figure of many of Kasdorf's poems--and at least as unforgettable as the best of them.
The volume's title, The Body and the Book, takes on numerous layers of reference as the essays progress. The outermost layer is Kasdorf's exploration of the ability of language to mimic and construct--to express, if you will--the physical. Yet, as Kasdorf points out in "Writing Like a Mennonite," writing is anything but physical. It is both more permanent and less flexible. "A written text cannot be made to change in response to others; it does not fail to speak out of fear, nor can it alter in response to the loving attention of a reader," Kasdorf explains. While writing comes from the body, its end product in textual form is something like the skin of a snake--secreted, worn, then ultimately discarded as the living being forms another layer to fit the growing mind.
Beneath this layer is another: the construct of Mennonite identity that informs much of Kasdorf's work and which--like many ethnic and religious labels--has often been the source of both attraction and misinterpretation. This layer of Kasdorf's book is complex, perhaps like Dante's seventh circle of hell containing several sub-layers within it. Not only do we have the writer's physical body, scripted by the complexity of cultures and religious values she has grown up with, but we have the larger communities of discourse surrounding the production of poetry.
One of these is the ways in which the aesthetic of contemporary American poetry has joined the current interest in ethnic literature to create both opportunity and danger for ethnic writers. A central tenet of contemporary poetry and creative nonfiction--the substance of many a poetry workshop--is the paradox that in the particular lies the universal. This modernist orthodoxy is both a windfall and pitfall for the ethnic writer. For American readers of ethnic literature often behave like tourists in a gift shop--wanting to find a few trinkets to "bring home" rather than finding connections through the specificity of image. This is true of sophisticated readers as well, and in "The Preacher's Striptease" Kasdorf takes elegant revenge on a few of them in an astute cultural critique of the images and criticism surrounding her book from within and without the Mennonite community.
Kasdorf 's complex linguistic dance in this essay recalls Alice Walker's Crossing the Same River Twice, although Kasdorf's focus is the various interpretations of ethnic and religious identity in her writing, rather than the film version of her work. Her analysis of her book's covers and their resonances with a vocabulary of images serves to illuminate the ways in which ethnicities and the female body are constructed in the American imagination. Her inclusion of two poems by other Mennonite writers in response to her poem "Mennonites," deconstructs the notion that one person can speak for a group.
A common perception of Mennonites as harmless pacifists who can be dismissed as unworthy opponents in either litigation or literature is also dismantled by Kasdorf. In "Writing like a Mennonite" she explores writing as an act of transgression and violence as well as of accommodation and connection. And she burns an irreparable hole in the naive, good-girl Mennonite stereotype by revealing an incident in which she impulsively reached across a bar table to burn another writer with a cigarette when he used a vulgar term referring to female genitalia. This incident occurred when Kasdorf was just beginning to write about the sexual abuse she survived at the hands of a "kindly" neighbor for over a decade. Such poems can be aggressive acts, Kasdorf argues, when they serve as counter-narratives that destroy the more aesthetically pleasing ones families have adopted about neighborliness and mutual accountability, fictions that allowed the abuse to continue unnoticed for so long.
Ironically, it is the perpetrator who gives Kasdorf a heavy, unabridged, albeit old-fashioned dictionary for her seventeenth birthday, hinting at a means of survival, as well as his own eventual punishment, in the "hands" of her words. By owning her own potential as perpetrator and aggressor--both through her writing and through the cigarette incident--Kasdorf moves far beyond the facade of Mennonite martyrdom, that of saintly religious victim, to construct a complex embodied self that can wound, suffer--and heal.
While Kasdorf wishes to remove the glaze of kitsch from the eyes of readers who would dismiss ethnic writing as trivial or marginal to a "centrist" narrative of what counts as memorable literature, she does not allow such readings of her work to deter her from exploring her obsession with Mennonite subjects. Her meticulous research into hidden corners of Mennonite history and culture dignifies her subject and, combined with her narrative skill, enhances the intensely pleasurable experience of reading these essays.
In the most valuable and original layer of this book, Kasdorf addresses those who would dismiss the Mennonite aspect of her work with a few ethnic clichés by delving far more deeply--with meticulous research and a Bakhtinian playfulness--into an analysis of Mennonite icons and artifacts, especially in her repeated explorations of the Martyrs' Mirror, the sacred Mennonite storybook of those who died for the faith. One of these essays focuses on a printer's illustration of "work and hope" that graced the title page for centuries and plays with the ways Mennonites have inculcated these values into their communities. Kasdorf's outrageous juxtaposition of Marilyn Monroe and Mennonite "demi-god" Harold S. Bender is as playful and biting as the trickster hybridity of a Sherman Alexie--another ethnic writer whose work plays the edge of assimilation and ethnic particularity against each other. She closes this essay with another tour de force, uniting her Episcopalian worship with that of Amish and Mennonite acquaintances through their mutual deference to Lady Diana upon hearing the shocking news of her death. Finally, "Writing Like a Mennonite" explores the violence of martyrdom and its implication as a model of witness for the contemporary writer. For those who have internalized religious speech and self-assertion through these images of torture and suffering, art is indeed a serious and sometimes impossible business. Kasdorf concludes, however, upon further examination of martyr, that it is a word for witness, not for victim, and that she must "[offer herself] to conversation and relationship as a martyr offers her body to flames."
In her introduction, Kasdorf cautions readers against superficial readings of other cultures through a humorous anecdote about an Episcopal priest friend who went to visit a Mennonite Church and saw a simple circle above the altar. He attempted a friendly interpretation of it as "suggestive of God's presence, Alpha and Omega, divine mystery without beginning or end. But when he asked the Mennonite pastor--and he did ask, an action that should be instructive to the reader, as well--the pastor replied, "The builders put it there to hide a ventilation duct." Paradoxically, Kasdorf the "Mennonite" writer is now Episcopalian by choice. But The Body and the Book shows the rewards of boundary crossing, and its readers will delight in the richness of travel back and forth between the many boundaries crossed or transgressed in this book, as well as in the quiet of the spaces in-between. They will also hope, as I do, that Kasdorf will continue to share the rewards of her polyphonic vision as she finds her "own life's pleasures."