Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

A shared set of beliefs and values and an established pattern of living are often what distinguish a religious community such as the Mennonites. While the link between spiritual heritage and personal history is not overt in Kasdorf’s poetry, it is a constant presence. The Mennonite culture stresses community accord and discourages dissent. To speak as an individual voice from out of the collective, as Kasdorf does, is rare. Kasdorf has not been sanctioned for her poetry—indeed she has received a great deal of support from Mennonite members—but she is not without her critics in the community. Certainly Kasdorf’s reception suggests an increased degree of acceptance for individual creative expression among the Mennonites. As she herself has observed in interviews, the stories were always there; they just were not written down.

There is a reverential quality to many of Kasdorf’s poems that allows them to exist as lyric prayers in the tradition of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Gerard Manley Hopkins. While a comparison between an American Mennonite poet of the early twenty-first century and two late Victorian British poets of the Catholic faith may seem conveniently interdenominational, it must be noted that female voices in Mennonite literary history are scant and recent. Thus, Kasdorf is at the forefront of Mennonite poets twice over. In an interview with Sheri Hostetler, Kasdorf noted that she did not want to write bitterly about her Mennonite culture despite the tears that accompanied some of the stories her relatives shared with her in her childhood: “Take that pain and . . . make it beautiful. That’s what transforms it into poetry.” This generosity of spirit pervades her poetry, removes the shame, and makes even the tragic honorable.

In her poetry Kasdorf both honors the traditions and transcends the boundaries of her Mennonite heritage. She has given voice to women’s experiences within and outside the community and has bridged divides between religious practice and literary expression. The relationship of the Mennonite artist to his or her community was the subject of Kasdorf’s dissertation at New York University and has resurfaced in essays and poems appearing in The Body and the Book (2001). Obviously Kasdorf’s topic is a lifelong case study and grist for future poetry.