Julia Kasdorf,
Sleeping Preacher
(University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992)

Growing up in a Pennsylvania Mennonite community proved rich in imagery for the poet Julia Kasdorf.

Pickled eggs and pails of huckleberries take on a resonance, become full and blessed by her voice. The tasks of canning tomatoes and peaches become gifts with her touch.

She celebrates the faith of her Mennonite upbringing:

"We keep our quilts in closets and do not dance. / We hoe thistles along fence rows for fear / we may not be perfect as our Heavenly Father. / ...We do not drink; we sing. Unaccompanied on Sundays, / those hymns in four parts, our voices lift with such force / that we lift, as chaff lifts toward God."

The author of Sleeping Preacher, which won the Agnes Lunch Starrett Poetry Prize in 1991, Kasdorf lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she knows "better than to pay six dollars" for a pie baked by an Amish woman.

The tensions and conflicts that arise by living in New York after a Mennonite childhood are the focus of her poetry. She attempts to reconcile the two worlds, contrasting the sins of leaving strawberries to rot on the vine to the knifings in Central Park.

She knows she "can't be alone in (her) memory of calico / bonnets to keep the gray air and stench / of chicken off your hair," as she sits under the corrugated tin roof of Manhattan's Acme Bar and Grill that reminds her of a Pennsylvania henhouse.

New York summer nights leave her longing for home, where "fireflies rise / off the cornfields, and apricot clouds / butt against the mountain's spine...."

It is her family that draws her back, that link her life to theirs. She relishes and celebrates that shared history.

At a Yoder reunion the great aunts tell her: "... It's the Hartzler blood that makes you / dark and thin. It's just like Aunt Toot to love / olives and pickles and fuss like a hen. / Your Yoder nose. Those Spicher ways -- / you know, your grandpa ran from house to barn / to get the milking done before his neighbors. / You can't help it, the Peachy in you / makes you faint at the sight of your blood."

These memories keep her warm in the city, wrap around like the sky on an August night, comfort her like a quilt.

[ by Daina Savage ]

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