The Body and the Book
Writing from a Mennonite Life
Johns Hopkins ($26)
by Sarah Fox
Julia Kasdorf is the author of two collections of poems, The Sleeping Preacher, published in 1992 and Eve's Striptease, published in 1998. This new book--a more literal "collection" of essays, poems, photographs, and other illustrations--ostensibly attempts to examine aspects of Mennonite life from her personal experience as well as from family stories, historical documentation, and other more contemporary references.
Kasdorf grew up near Pittsburgh with her Mennonite parents on the periphery of Mennonite culture. But when, as a child, she had occasion to be in the company of her grandmother and other more devout family members, she made brave and passionate attempts to assert her place as a Mennonite, a tradition defined by its ancestral lines as much as by its exclusion from conventional society. Her struggle as a woman still trying to locate her place within varying communities--American, academic, literary, Mennonite--informs the bulk of her work.
And it is from this struggle that Kasdorf can write from, and toward, her own "aesthetic of the body." The title of the book wants to embrace the cohesion of these essays, but its vagueness provides evidence for the opposite. The "body" referred to is described in the book symbolically as an actual lack of clear delineation: is it contained within the individual physical body, or within the body of a religious community, an ethnic community, a national community? Can the metaphorical Book--for Mennonites belief is based upon the primacy of the Bible and in collective, rather than individual, expression--or the book one makes out of one's personal experience to represent one's identity--be considered bodies whose boundaries often blur but can also be painful to cross? How does gender, work, landscape, and cultural progression, fit into the growth of an individual artist? These are questions Kasdorf addresses with candor and poignancy.
Certainly there is little in the way of mainstream literature by or about women in the Amish and Mennonite communities, and if nothing else this book provides a touchstone on the topic for the general reader. One familiar with Kasdorf's previous poetry collections, however, may see this book as a kind of extension of, if not outright exposition on, the poems themselves. The first third of the book seems to vacillate between a mea culpa for disclosing in her poetry--against Anabaptist code--information about specific activities and characters from her Mennonite childhood, and a poetry primer for those readers who may not have fully appreciated the poems the first time around. In fact, several poems from both collections are reprinted here, not in conjunction with the text of a particular essay but as illustrations in the sense of a photograph or painting. Most of the time the poems are not referred to specifically at all.
One early essay deconstructs the painting on the cover of Sleeping Preacher, done by Kasdorf's husband, with the sort of indulgence probably best reserved for diaries or an analyst. In this essay, titled "Preacher's Striptease," Kasdorf lists for the reader excerpts from the many positive reviews of Sleeping Preacher, confesses "I have been unable to avoid situations in which I must account for myself and my work" (I struggle to understand the uniqueness, for a writer, of this dilemma), presents a Titian painting which, like the poems, remains an unacknowledged illustration, and proceeds to reflect on the image of the woman in the painting as being representative of Kasdorf herself. The essay also investigates Kasdorf's personal battles with both male and Mennonite authority, and how this authority has cast its shadow over her work as a poet. She ends "Preacher's Striptease" with a statement that could be taken as the book's primary intention: "Writing essays has helped me to climb outside the frame of this painting, to try to make meaning of the sight. Out here with you, dear reader, I find that I worry less about how I can be myself and inhabit these two communities [Mennonite & literary], because this vantage point allows me to see and consider many things beyond this picture." An irritation persists throughout the book that Kasdorf has indeed written these essays to help herself more than to enlighten her readers.
There are moments of surprise and transcendence from mere autobiography; unfortunately the reader won't arrive at them until about halfway through the book. The essay "Bodies and Boundaries" displays an often lyrical and intelligent exploration of "the body"--specifically in terms of religion (both general Christianity and the Anabaptist tradition) and in terms of Woman. Anecdotes about hymn-songs in Amish and Mennonite spiritual services--as a cappella choruses representing, through sound, the one spiritual body (or, as Kasdorf remarks, "Singing enables a person to feel deeply connected to others and also to transcend one's own body as well as the mass of the collective group")--along with thoughtful interpretations of early essays by Mikhail Bakhtin, increase the book's general appeal. She may rely too heavily on titles and sub-titles--which signify book sections, essays themselves, and sections within the essays--to make transitions for her, and their monotony denudes any potential effectiveness. To call, for example, Section I of the book "A Place to Begin" seems merely gratuitous.
Anyone unfamiliar with Anabaptist history in the United States, the distinctions between Mennonites and the Amish, and intimate details about the lives of individuals within these groups and their religious practices, will learn many new and very interesting things through Kasdorf, especially in the essays "Work and Hope" and "Writing Like a Mennonite." And fans of her poetry, along with members of her family and Mennonite community, will surely find deep pleasures in The Body and the Book, not least because of its emotional honesty and its overall honoring of the Mennonite tradition.