A Review of Diane Driedger’s The Mennonite Madonna (1999)
Diane Driedger’s book is hardly news – in fact, many have come to regard it as a classic of the protest poetry of late 20th Century Canadian Mennonite-dom – the so-called Bitter Poets, the self-styled Recovering Mennonites.
Driedger’s compositions can be divided roughly into four groups – poetry dealing with the shunning and ban of her great grandfather Johann Driedger in a 1908 frontier town in northern Saskatchewan; the poetry of her own autobiography; the poetry of womanhood finding its own strength and empowerment; and poems of her personal liberation in Trinidad and Tobago.
The Mennonite world is full of descriptives – English, German and even a few Russian modifiers flying about seeking to inform and influence every moment of worship, work and self-consciousness. So many words might be found filling the air that Mennonites have often become masters of the acronym and the code word just to marshal these spurious gnats into a semblance of order, to constrict them enough to give us the space necessary for us – for our individual living and the freedom to form our own identities. In many ways, Driedger’s book Mennonite Madonna is exactly that – the marshaling of words into small coherent packets of order that can be dealt with, celebrated, praised or even buried and forgotten. Under her direction, words of hatred, control and even the unspoken Mennonite sins of communal abuse, are slowly forced back into place – into a format and cogency that diminishes their power to inflict pain. In this Driedger succeeds admirably – establishing a collection infused with meaning culturally, sexually (as in relating to the genders) and yet intimate through personal reflections of herself and her great-grandparents.
Driedger takes the title of the book from Pieta – a reflection on the vandalizing of the famous Roman statue in 1972. Driedger reflects on the dismemberment of a finger:
… I looked at the fingerglued on?yes it was stillresisting the comforting motionof the other fingersa fingergoing its ownway
Perhaps this image of a broken finger, restored, yet going its own way is a the picture of both the experience of the greater Driedger family still paying for the presumed offense of Johann in 1908 and still bearing the marks of a generation of emotional and social abuse against her family. At the same time, Driedger reveals a picture of her own conflicted heritage as a Mennonite. Obviously, Driedger feels shaped and formed by her Mennonite ethnicity, and yet like her great-grandfather, demands the freedom to identify with it but not to be shaped, controlled or abused by it. Unlike Johann, Driedger finds her own strength to accept the church, society, marriage, others… on her terms, not theirs. Sometimes she chooses to cooperate and accept:
nasty hand his. on my knee in his office where I need tofundraise for this project you see. and he waits until my malecolleague is out of reach and then sets me down in his den.pretends to flip over my page. he’s not interested inthe paper. finds a fancy for knees and thighs as his fingerslightly touch my knee. I breathe in out in out in out. I thinkour government should be hiring decent men. pretend notto notice, like a lady. …
Sometimes she chooses to decline:
… now I leave himour established routinesthe old withering awayI fashion new wineskinsof my ownloving leaving entirelyarriving at myselfand on this day death smellssweet
But always, she sees participation as a choice – if not in fact, at least in her ability to withhold consent:
… your life givinghad a plana prerequisiteif I had knownI would not haveemergedwould not have accepted.
The image of the Madonna itself is perhaps borrowed. As Mennonites, we have no strongly preserved tradition of spiritually powerful and authoritative women – at least not outside of the kitchen, bedroom and garden. So the image of the Madonna is appropriated from Rome, from Catholicism – and yet it finds a comforting home astride Driedger’s collection. By page 68, Dreidger finds her own Mennonite and personal identity by allowing others to discover her self, her words and her female form through the consensual sharing of her private thought, her physicality and her independence:
BreastsMy boyfriend read that poemabout breastsat Bible collegeit was by a Mennonite writerso my boyfriend read it in classamid snickersembarrassedI knew he was filledwith breastsin his heart and handsmy breastsbeautiful he saida Venus di Milobut I had armsand a headnow oh breastsonce perky and proudwomanhood has set inthe after thirty plungejugsno longer gobletsafraid I avert my eyestry to focus on anotherbody partthat may have fared betterbut alasmy breastswere my last strongholdof youthI wonderwill these breastslure men to my denah it doesn’t really matter.
Driedger’s portrayal of Johann as the proverbial victim, creatively allows him to emerge – a man more interesting in life for his afflictions, a man more sure of the love and dedication of his wife for her support in his spiritual and social exile – a man empowered with a strong voice, a voice able to single-handedly push back against the many combined voices of a weak, passionless and fearful congregation. Yet as an outsider, Johann is allowed to become a prophet – a position of authority he never held from inside the church. Johann’s voice emerges from the one-amongst-many as the solitary voice of a poet-writer – a crooked finger, once cut off only to be restored in its uniqueness, strengthened to makes its own way apart from the general curves of the whole:
The Congregationto the churchup the stairshe comes again and againquickshut the doorshold them tightagainst Johann Driedgerwhy does he come herewhy keep pushing againstour shunningour beliefsour Godhold the doors shutDreidger is pushingpuffingsaying let me inI will blow your housedown!
and from Johann’s Psalm:
… I have become a god headthe head beckoned by Godto do his will to be inlove with the world themodern worldthe sins of the Mennonite fatherskeep piling upeven the snow cannot hide them.
or Johann 1911:
… yes to the church to confront the Bishophis lack of understandingof biblical teachingto love each other in difference …… I will not be silencedin my oppositionwill not acceptno never accepttheir shunningI am of the Mennonite Churchof God
From this tradition, Driedger has dredged her own identity, her own strength, her own voice and her own commissioning by the Spirit. In my sir name, she pays heed to her name – Driedger, of Flemish origin meaning “powerful spear”. She explores this meaning and decides that it is a good name for a “Menno knight.” Diana, her first name, hearkens back to the Roman goddess of the hunt, the moon, of women – a “power full spear.” As an ethnic Mennonite, she also couches her quest in the spiritual language and metaphor of her forebears:
memy penis this what ismeant by the inspired writingof the Bible…… he wrote was he like metrying to find a way out of(into) the maze of the worldof himself …
Less compelling stylistically yet equal in emotional vigour is her anthem to Mennonite writers:
This is a psalm of praiseto the homeless onesselahfrom Russiafrom Reinlandfrom Steinbachamen …… oh for a thousand tonguesyes in Winnipeg there are manyMennonite writersall tongues wagpraise to the writersfor they have tongues of fireand God has not delivered themunto their peopleinsteadHe has cradled themwith words fiery deepand so full of love for this homeselah …
The Mennonite Madonna, despite its age – it was published in 1999 – continues to resonate with pride, determination and voice. Drawing from the stories and strength of her great grandparents and their pioneer history, their quiet, individual spiritual determination and their survival as spiritual outcasts in an inhospitable world, as well as from her own quiet struggles with self-acceptance, womanhood and socially-empowered injustices, Driedger wraps the comforting arm of her great grandmother Katharine around individuals seeking their voice in this world. The solid unwillingness to wrongly concede defeat when words of truth are meant to be spoken comes from Johann, Katherine’s husband. Yet nowhere is there such a strong condemnation, a bitter gall of past wrongs, as much as an invitation to the present to be inspired by the errors of the past to create a better now – to feel sorry for those who unlike her great grandparents, cowered together in dull, conformist, unfulfilled and perhaps erroneous lives. Her own stories demonstrate how those lessons remain pertinent to this day. Any bitterness would be directed not against the past or even against organized religion, but rather against the expectant assertion that one could choose fear over life, conformity over self-realization, and silence over truth. The secret of the Madonna seems to be that life is a choice – not one necessarily entered into freely, but one of how we will choose to live. While the Pieta’s pose is traditional, formal and manipulated – hope rests in the divine inspiration of that tiny little finger – going its own way, drawing strength from the whole yet following the inner inspiration of its own voice, resolving its own maze, confronting its own physical insecurities – finding its own way. Selah.