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Spring 1993 · Vol. 22 No. 1 · pp. 91–92 

Book Review

The Upside-Down Tree

Jean Janzen. Winnipeg, MB: Henderson, 1992. 77 pages.

Reviewed by Beth Impson

Even readers not especially enamored of modern poetic style will find pieces in The Upside-Down Tree to appreciate. Though an occasional image seemed obscure to me, and familiarity with the paintings that inspired some of the poems would have been helpful, this collection of poetry is lucid and moving, well worth finding time to ponder.

The lead poem, “Potato Planting,” suggests a theme of stories from the past: The planted potatoes, hidden in the earth “like those losses we think / we bury for good” are found in the fall:

whole families of pale,
forgotten children coming home . . .
begging for their stories to be told.

Janzen includes such stories as her mother’s river baptism, the starvation death of her aunts in the Ukraine, the canning of peaches in Minnesota, the martyrdom in flower-filled Amsterdam, and her grandfather carving a violin. They are a collage of Janzen’s Mennonite heritage, a celebration of life—but also of the believer’s commitment to more than just life, a commitment that claims beauty in the midst of the mundane, the ecstatic, and the tragic.

“Flowers of Amsterdam” records the martyr death of four believers in 1549—fearful deaths by fire and water. But in spite of the rising tide and strong current of anti-Christian sentiment,

here and there
one moves against it . . .
. . . opening a secret passage
in the deep and watery place.

“Lines and Strings” shows us the speaker’s grandfather shaping the violin—whose “single melody” of unity and hope will become a touchstone for his descendants—“even / as the wheat, sown too late, / withered under the moon.” The beauty of belief, the beauty of music—these can’t be taken from us.

An outstanding quality of Janzen’s poetry is her ability to weave this life with the next, the earthly with the spiritual. “Double Rail” embodies this weaving with the speaker’s father—a teacher and pastor—living passionately in this world while also passionately looking to the next. But this weaving is throughout her poetry. In “How It Looks at You,” the speaker describes the intense beauty of the mountains, a dragonfly “in its shimmering armor,” the face of a loved one—only to end with the child’s gift of “a miniature tabernacle” which she opens, layer by layer, “and then, {92} at last, the golden eye / with its holy, holy.”

Holiness in the earthly, beauty that points to its creator—this is the message I take from The Upside-Down Tree, with thanks.

Beth Impson
Assistant Professor of English
Tabor College
Hillsboro, Kansas

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