Mennonite poet Julia Spicher Kasdorf is the author of three poetry collections–Sleeping Preacher (1992), Eve’s Striptease (1998), and Poetry in America (2011)–all published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Sleeping Preacher won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize and the Great Lakes College’s Association Award for New Writing, and Eve’s Striptease was named one of the top 20 poetry books of 1998 by Library Journal. She also co-edited an anthology, Broken Land: Poems of Brooklyn, with Michael Tyrell (New York University Press, 2007). Spicher Kasdorf was awarded a 2009 NEA fellowship for poetry and is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize. She is also the author of a scholarly study of Pennsylvania writer Joseph W. Yoder, Fixing Tradition, and co-editor of two editions of Pennsylvania local color novels, Rosanna of the Amish by Joseph W. Yoder and The House of the Black Ring by Fred Lewis Pattee. Her essay collection, The Body and the Book: Writing a Mennonite Life, was awarded the Book of the Year award by the Conference on Christianity and Literature. She is Associate Professor of English and Women’s Studies at the Pennsylvania State University.
In The Body and the Book, Spicher Kasdorf explores the cultural and geographical inspiration for her writing in her Mennonite and Amish communities of origin, as well as in New York City where she studied creative writing and published her first book. In her essay, “A Place to Begin,” she comments, “I liked being able to think in the free space between places . . . As poetry’s power often comes from linking two unlike things to release new insight, so my life has been charged by the experience of embodying a connection between disparate locations” (p. 8).
Julia Kasdorf was often criticized because she was one of the few Mennonite poets that expressed her encounters publicly. She was one of the first Mennonite poets to cross the boundaries of writers and express encounters that she experienced as a child. For example in Julia Kasdorf’s Eve’s Striptease “Sinning” she states, ” When I was seven, Mom asked if I knew what rabbits in the hutch were up to. “Fucking” farm cousins told me long before. “We call it intercourse” she said and began the cautionary tales right then.” This is an example of how Kasdorf’s attitude being a Mennonite poet was completely different toward the public. Mennonites consider themselves a closed community which meant that they do not express or associate their personal/ community issues to any outside person(s). They like to keep any or all personal issues within their environment. However, in Kasdorf’s case she took the initiative to not only express personal issues of Mennonites but to publish them and become an award winning poet for her courageous acts and writing. She covered many topics that you would not expect to read about from a Mennonite poet such as desires, marriage, domestic life, and personal encounters she had with other Mennonites whether it was in her hometown or on her journey to becoming a writer. (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.)
I have almost felt a little indecent peeking into Julia Kasdorf’s inner world. She’s very interesting. This poem resonates with me because I think a lot of us spend our lives repeating our parents behavior or trying not to. And on the surface the behavior this poem describes seems laudable and a gift to learn from her mother. But by the time I got to the last six lines, I knew I was in trouble because she’s right. Locked in that behavior it’s hard to ever get out of feeling you have a responsibility for EVERYONE’S well-being. Even those you don’t know.
What I Learned From My Mother
I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.
Picture Credit: www.poets.org