Previous | Next

Spring 1996 · Vol. 25 No. 1 · pp. 66–68 

Book Review

Snake in the Parsonage

Jean Janzen. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1995. 73 pages.

Reviewed by Beth Impson

Lately the structure of my days, the well-laid plans for completing urgent tasks, keep exploding into discord as people find their way to my door—and I feel suspended in the overwhelming needs that surround me, needs I cannot ignore yet so often cannot meet.


Then along comes Jean Janzen’s Snake in the Parsonage, her third volume of poetry, filled with the very dissonances I’ve experienced lately—but also filled with the images of harmony and resolution I’ve had a hard time seeing.

The opening poem of the volume, “Piano Lesson,” gives us the image of a young girl readying herself to play, knowing that she is about to experience the “lovely ache / of suspension, and the slow / dissolving into harmony, again and again”—something she is too young to understand, but which is life itself, a bittersweet dissonance and search for resolution that we both pull away from and embrace. The image sets the tone for the rest of the volume, as Janzen explores the suspensions and harmonies of life.

In “New Country,” for example, Janzen describes the “rain’s brown slosh” and “black dripping trees” that are her family’s only welcome to their new home in America. Yet within weeks she has so memorized the pledge of allegiance that she rises in her sleep to recite it, “giving myself / to whatever would have me—/ the window, the wet breeze, the stars / as they drowned in the growing light of day.”

And in “Chicago, 1954” Janzen explores the dissonance between her father’s letter—“So glad you are safe and cared for now,” he writes after her marriage—and the reality of the “bullet holes in the glass / of our front door, our tires slashed, / and then the pharmacist murdered / at the corner.” Yet her father knows all this, too, knows “the howling winds” and that it is only in the dangers of life that we learn to trust God.

Because Janzen’s words have pierced my own darkness with the light of harmony God always offers us, I share them with others to affirm both their struggles and their perseverance. “Sometimes Hope” encouraged a student learning that sometimes dark side of answered prayer: after describing the desolation left by a massive forest fire, Janzen writes

Sometimes hope
is a black ghost
in a fantastic twist,
. . . .
a reach for something
extravagant, something holy,
like fire itself,
which in its madness
devours the forest for the sky,
and then dreams a new greening,
shoots everywhere breaking
through the crust of ash.


Ultimately, as she writes in “Photographs of the Wild,” Janzen finds resolution in the call of Jesus to “be daring, leave home” and at the same time “be like a planted vine”: “Among the turmoil, the settled heart.” And fittingly, the final poem of the volume, “Blue Piano,” returns to music, discord resolving into harmony:

Chords, the repeated note,
runs and cadenzas
beating, vibrating,
sparks flying off
shaping the air
into something whole . . .

Dr. Beth Impson
Associate Prof. of English
Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas

Previous | Next