The Southern Cheyenne in the Poetry of Anna Ruth Ediger Baehr

By Hostetler, Ann; Roth-Mullet, Sarah | Mennonite Quarterly Review, July 2011 | Go to article overview

The Southern Cheyenne in the Poetry of Anna Ruth Ediger Baehr


Hostetler, Ann, Roth-Mullet, Sarah, Mennonite Quarterly Review


Abstract: This essay explores cultural crossing in the life of Anna Ruth Ediger Baehr--the first contemporary Mennonite poet to win a major literary' prize in the U.S.--as a source of insight into her work as well as into mission as a cross-cultural enterprise. The daughter of Mennonite missionaries J. B. Ediger and Agatha Regier Ediger, Baehr grew up among the Southern Cheyenne in Clinton, Oklahoma. This setting formed a matrix for her later interests in interreligious communication and poetry writing. Thus, as she turned to writing poetry full time in her early 60s, she also returned to her roots in Clinton, Oklahoma, with an eye to writing a cycle of poems about the Cheyenne. While the cycle was never completed, six poems were published and at least three more were completed. This essay examines these poems with regard to the ways in which they construct a cross-cultural persona for the poet and serve as a record of the cross-cultural nature of Mennonite mission work among the Southern Cheyenne.

Anna Ruth Ediger Baehr, the daughter of Mennonite missionaries to the Southern Cheyenne in Clinton, Oklahoma, was the first contemporary Mennonite poet to win the recognition of a nationally known literary prize.(1) Her poem "I am Dancing with My Mennonite Father," which won the Mary Elinore Smith Prize awarded by The American Scholar for the best poem of 1985, announced the poet's Mennonite and religious and cultural identity. (2) At her death in 1996, Baehr left a slender literary legacy--a few dozen publications in literary journals and a volume of poetry, Moonflowers at Dusk. (3) Yet her pioneering work contributed to the contemporary flowering of poetry by Mennonite writers in the context of renewed interest in cultural diversity in American literary publishing.

In skillful hands, poetry can be a cognitive instrument for navigating the poet's complex journey through multiple perspectives and memories, through ambiguities and seemingly irreconcilable interpretations of reality. Baehr's poetry treats not only her Mennonite upbringing on an Oklahoma farmstead, her love of nature, and her connection to the Cheyenne people, but also her search for an image of the divine that resonated with her development as a woman and as a complex human being--poet, wife, mother, daughter, teacher, spiritual seeker, lover of beauty--a participant in multiple communities, each with its own set of values and narratives of truth. Although Baehr wrote and published just before the emergence of a critical discourse about Mennonite literature in the United States in the 1990s and early 2000s, she worked in the same context of consciousness-raising and cultural analysis fostered by feminism and multiculturalism that has also informed recent Mennonite literature and its theoretical context. Baehr's poetry, and the life it narrates, establishes her as a pioneer in the Mennonite literary struggle to "re-map" narratives of the past in order to articulate complex identities shaped by cultural crossings. This is particularly clear in the poems in which her Mennonite missionary and Southern Cheyenne past meet to form a new synthesis through the poet's eye. (4)

In retrospect, it is not surprising that a poet with such a varied background and a talent for synthesis would be among the first Mennonite writers to achieve literary recognition in non-Mennonite circles. Contemporary American poetry, bom of paradox, thrives on the juxtaposition of unlikely elements in new combinations. Baehr's early experiences of cultural crossing and diversity between the Mennonite and Cheyenne communities--and her adult experiences of cultural crossing between Jewish, Unitarian, and United Church of Christ communities--gave her a rich perspective from which to write about identities forged in cultural conversations.

Anna Ruth Ediger Baehr's unpublished papers reveal her intention to develop a cycle of poems on the Cheyenne, whose way of life had deeply influenced her childhood and her spiritual formation. …

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