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.