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Fall 1987 · Vol. 16 No. 2 · pp. 75–77 

Book Review

Three Mennonite Poets

Jean Janzen, Yorifumi Yaguchi, and David Waltner-Toews. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1986. 117 pages.

Reviewed by Luetta Reimer

The editor of Three Mennonite Poets opens her afterword {76} with the rhetorical question, “Why publish a collection of this sort?” Many sensitive readers are likely to be unconvinced by her answer. While Jean Janzen and David Waltner-Toews clearly share some themes and motifs, sandwiching Yorifumi Yaguchi into the collection is forced at best.

Each of the three writers anthologized here is worthy of respect as a poet. Surely none of them is eager to be read only because he or she is Mennonite, any more than Wole Soyinka wants to be read because he’s black or Philip Roth because he’s Jewish. The collection, in fact, raises the larger question of what distinctives characterize a Mennonite poet, or a Mennonite novelist, composer, painter or sculptor. Is it an orientation towards peace? An interest in Anabaptist history? A unique world-view?

Janzen and Waltner-Toews both relate to the German-Russian ethnicity of many North American Mennonites. Janzen addresses one poem to Conrad Grebel, but the heart of her poetry is more surely with Reimers and Kroegers and Saskatchewan than with doctrinal ideals. Waltner-Toews practices more name-dropping, moving past Brauda Friesen and Eric Reimer to zwieback, borscht, and platz. Janzen and Waltner Toews both reveal a loving respect for the past, especially as it unfolds in personal and family history. Both recreate genuine emotion, never slipping into sentimentality or soft nostalgia. The constant awareness of life’s pain—its bitter edge—prevents even deeply emotional passages from becoming maudlin.

North American Mennonites may appreciate these poets and Yaguchi as well, but will Japanese Mennonites digest the Low German cuisine served up by this volume? Is this a book for African or Indian Mennonites too?

We’re told that Yaguchi is a Mennonite pastor, and several of his poems allude to pacifism, but it is never apparent in the poems themselves that Yaguchi is being Mennonite. He is much more clearly being an artist, sometimes reflecting the traditionally expected Japanese gift for compression, other times sounding vaguely imitative of E.E. Cummings or William Carlos Williams. Some of his blatant sexual imagery may keep this book out of church libraries, and the violence of some of his metaphors may make even seasoned readers {77} wince, but the power and energy that infuses his work cannot be denied.

The publishers of Three Mennonite Poets have put together a very attractive book which combines excellent poetry with helpful information about three Mennonite poets. One can only hope that next time the selection will include more poets from the broader Mennonite world.

Luetta Reimer
Professor of English
Fresno Pacific College

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