Thinking about poetic influences again, I went back to the first two books of poetry I ever bought: questions I asked my mother (Turnstone Press, 1987) by Di Brandt, and Journey to Yalta (Turnstone Press, 1988) by Sarah Klassen. These collections came out at a time when Mennonite writers were getting a lot of attention, which happened to be around the time I began taking poetry seriously.
For both writers, this was their first book, and the two collections are quite different in both style and tone. Brandt’s poems and prose pieces feel like they came out in a rush: without capitals or punctuation, they feel breathless, urgent. Klassen’s have a more measured pace, and use the conventions of capitals and punctuation. Brandt’s poetic voice is sometimes angry, sometimes defiant, often questioning, pushing back against the faith she grew up with. For Klassen, faith is a lens through which to view the world, and Mennonite history a story to be explored and claimed.
What I found remarkable in questions i asked my mother is how Brandt mingled the spiritual and the sensual. She was, I’m sure, deliberately asserting the value of the material and physical, over against the church’s tendency to value the spiritual over the earthly. It felt daring to me at the time; I couldn’t have written that way myself, but I admired it.
In Journey to Yalta, the poems in the middle section are all based on biblical characters—which, in our highly secularized culture, is just as daring. Her poems take biblical narratives already rich in imagery, and pull us in so close we can feel, through vivid sensory language, both the force of the prophets’ words and how it felt for them to bear that message.
In both of these collections, the poems echo beyond themselves, through biblical and literary allusions. They elevate ordinary things, making them almost mythical. Different as they are, both books gave me a sense of possibility.