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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Madonnas, Breasts and Mennonites

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 finger
                glued on?
                yes it was still
                resisting the comforting motion
                of the other fingers
                a finger
                                going its own
     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 to
fundraise for this project you see. and he waits until my male
colleague is out of reach and then sets me down in his den.
pretends to flip over my page. he’s not interested in
the paper. finds a fancy for knees and thighs as his fingers
lightly touch my knee. I breathe in out in out in out. I think
our government should be hiring decent men.  pretend not
to notice, like a lady. …
    Sometimes she chooses to decline:
                 … now I leave him
                our established routines
                the old withering away
                I fashion new wineskins
                of my own
                loving leaving entirely
                arriving at myself
                and on this day death smells
     But always, she sees participation as a choice – if not in fact, at least in her ability to withhold consent:
                 … your life giving
                had a plan
                a prerequisite
                if I had known
                I would not have
                would 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:

                My boyfriend read that poem
                about breasts
                at Bible college
                it was by a Mennonite writer
                so my boyfriend read it in class
                amid snickers
                I knew he was filled
with breasts
in his heart and hands
my breasts
beautiful       he said
a Venus di Milo
but I had arms
and a head

now    oh   breasts
once perky and proud
womanhood has set in
the after thirty plunge
no longer goblets

afraid     I avert my eyes
try to focus on another
body part
that may have fared better
but alas
my breasts
were my last stronghold
of youth
I wonder
will these breasts
lure men to my den
ah    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 Congregation

                to the church
                up the stairs
                he comes again and again
                shut the doors
                hold them tight
                against Johann Driedger
                why does he come here
                why keep pushing against
                our shunning
                our beliefs
                our God
                hold the doors shut
                Dreidger is pushing
                saying let me in
                I will blow your house
 and from Johann’s Psalm:
                 …  I have become a god head
                the head beckoned by God
                to do his will to be in
                love with the world the
                modern world
                the sins of the Mennonite fathers
                keep piling up
                even the snow cannot hide them.
 or Johann 1911:
                 … yes to the church to confront the Bishop
                his lack of understanding
                of biblical teaching
                to love each other in difference …

                … I will not be silenced
                in my opposition
                will not accept
                no never accept
                their shunning
                I am of the Mennonite Church
                of 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:
                my pen
                is this what  is
                meant by the inspired writing
                of the Bible…
                … he wrote was he like me
                trying to find a way out of
                (into) the maze of the world
                of himself …
     Less compelling stylistically yet equal in emotional vigour is her anthem to Mennonite writers:
                 This is a psalm of praise
                to the homeless ones
                from Russia
                from Reinland
                from Steinbach

                … oh for a thousand tongues
                yes in Winnipeg there are many
                Mennonite writers
                all tongues wag
                praise to the writers
                for they have tongues of fire
                and God has not delivered them
                unto their people
                He has cradled them
                with words fiery    deep
                and so full of love for this home
                selah …
     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.


  1. good evening Steve. I read the blog in your posted link. I assume it is your blog. As a stickler for references, I think that there are some slight misstatements concerning the reference to the Pieta. First, it isn't Roman, but it was sculpted by Michaelangelo. Secondly, it would seem odd that the author would reference that statue as the source for her book and call it "Madonna" as the the pieta idiom in ecclesiastical art is not necessarily about the Mary, but rather to emote a sense of pity (hence the name) for the scene of a mother holding her dead son. Lastly, the damaged suffered in the 1972 attach was much greater than a mere finger. Several fingers had been destroyed a couple of hundred years before. In this attack, even Mary's nose was blugened off and a few pieces of the missing marble were never found. I hope you don't take offense, but I thought I should offer some fact checking before your academic career is ruined by a posting on face book ;);)

  2. Absolutely not Robert -- thanks for your comments. This is a non-academic blog -- and part of what I am trying to accomplish is teasing out more accurate information. I will definitely check the primary text (the book) and make any corrections -- and note them. Thanks.


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