Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

When Flesh Becomes Word: Creating Space for the Female Body in Mennonite Women's Poetry

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

When Flesh Becomes Word: Creating Space for the Female Body in Mennonite Women's Poetry

Article excerpt

Abstract: This essay explores the representation of the female body in poetry by Juanita Brunk, Jean Janzen, and Julia Kasdorf. Like many women, these three Mennonite poets write from a history of patriarchal condemnation of and restrictions on the female body and attitudes that have alienated women from their own bodies.

Such a dualism between body and self not only undermines a woman's self-esteem, but also her spirituality because she is denied the unity of body, spirit and self that is represented most powerfully by Christ as the incarnation of Word in flesh. In their intimate, lyrical exploration of the female body in their poetry, these poems offer a unique incarnation of flesh in word, a fusion of image and thought that captures the way mind and spirit are bound to physical reality.

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us ... full of grace and truth.

--John 1:14.

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In "The Laugh of the Medusa" Helene Cixous declares: "Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies." (1) As a French feminist critic exploring female body and language, Cixous calls female writers to awareness, acceptance, and more intimate exploration of the relationship of body and self than society has historically permitted or encouraged. Cixous claims that "by writing her self, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display.... Write your self.... Your body must be heard." (2) And indeed, since Cixous' famous 1975 essay, numerous women have written about self and body and explored voice and identity in unprecedented ways.

Cixous identifies and responds to patriarchal oppression and repression that has controlled women's bodies in language and in experience throughout a long history that does not require summary here. This same history has been shared by Mennonite women, with issues of female body and identity further shaped by theological and cultural definitions of and restrictions on physical appearance as well as on women's roles in the community and church. From the question of women wearing head coverings to restrictions on ordaining female pastors, the female body and voice have been integral to issues facing Mennonite women. I remember, for example, my mother's story about not being able to teach Bible school in the early 1950s because the bishop found out she used curlers in her hair. (The bishop never bothered to discover that she only curled her thin, straight hair so it would better conform to the shape of the modest roll at the base of her neck.) Her perceived transgressions of the accepted female body became a reason to silence her. Although I experience more freedom in the church and in society than my mother did, I still live with the legacy of what Di Brandt has referred to as a "tradition which has designated [women] as subordinate, silent, and sexually other," a history that has placed many restrictions on the voicing of life in a woman's body. (3)

My awareness of this alienation of body and self has been heightened by my reading of Mennonite women's poetry, where I find other Mennonite women heeding Cixous' call to women's identity and body through writing. In the poetry of Juanita Brunk, Julia Kasdorf, and Jean Janzen, in particular, I have found an honest exploration of life as a female body, whether negative or positive, whether rejecting patriarchal limitations or asserting personal discoveries. And I intentionally say as a female body, not in or with a female body, because these poets write their lives as women who experience, explore, and give voice to a self that is both mind and body. I examine the way I have experienced their poems as acts of incarnation, of flesh becoming word in a way that has allowed me to grow into fuller understanding of my self as a spiritual and physical being. …

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