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Spring 2015 · Vol. 44 No. 1 · pp. 106–108 

Book Review

Songs from an Empty Cage: Poetry, Mystery, Anabaptism, and Peace

Jeff Gundy. Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2013. 294 pages.

Reviewed by Peter Dula

Jeff Gundy is a gifted American Mennonite poet who has taught for many years at Bluffton College in Ohio. He is the award-winning author of six books of poetry as well as several books of nonfiction prior to this one. Songs from an Empty Cage collects essays on, as its subtitle has it, poetry, mystery, Anabaptism, and peace. But that subtitle also contains the argument. Gundy wants to use poetry and mystery to transform Anabaptism and peace, to pry them loose from the grip of what he perceives as their academic guardians—John Howard Yoder (chapter 11), Denny Weaver (chapter 5), John Roth (chapter 2), among others—and to replace their intellectual heaviness with his own poetic lightness. To marry, as he puts it, “Anabaptism and surrealism” (84).

Gundy’s text is animated by questions he poses in his introduction, questions one might summarize as, “What does it mean to be an Anabaptist poet?” While there are many fine poets who are Anabaptist or who have Anabaptist backgrounds, “Anabaptist poet” is still a curious category for Gundy. Anabaptism has a reputation for legalism, literalism, and utilitarianism, none of which sit easily with the poet’s task. On the other hand, Anabaptists were rebels and, at least according to Gundy, so are poets. As such, the poet becomes the figure that continues in the spirit of resistance when the rebellion turns into calcified tradition.

The Anabaptist poet, therefore, has to become, at least in part, a theologian, one who brings “poetic methods of exploration . . . to theological questions” (31). This is because “the guild of lofty theologians/ethicists, eager to keep the troublemakers quiet and the other guilds subservient” (185) are both the products of the calcification and its defenders, responsible for draining the mystery from God-talk. Poetry and theology exist in constant tension because poetry is “open to psychological and existential depths and mysteries, while standard theology is fixated on logic and reason” (104). The poetry/theology dualism is foundational to Gundy’s thought but it is accompanied by a whole series of oppositions: God-talk vs. human talk, will vs. imagination, and rationality vs. mystery, all in service of a renewed, Anabaptist appreciation for desire, mystery, and the bodily.

While we often think of Mennonite poetry and fiction in rebellion against conservative, rural, communal repression, Gundy is just as concerned with the church’s intellectuals, the ones who preside over the reigning neo-Anabaptist orthodoxy around peace theology. John Howard Yoder comes up for some less than nuanced criticism here. And while Gundy is sympathetic with English professor John Fisher’s “desire that Mennonite poets should write ‘peace poetry,’ and ‘make something happen’ ” (146), {107} this can’t help but seem to him like peace theology’s vortex trying to rob poetry of its difference. Against that kind of utilitarianism, Gundy urges a much broader sense both of peace and of peace poetry.

For Gundy, poetry is work. One gets the sense that he reads poetry the same way that he splits wood or lays tile, or pours concrete—as a way to free his mind, “to leave behind all the human contentions that seem, however crucial, so frustrating and irresolvable” (90). That is not something theology or philosophy can do. While that dualism is clumsy, it means something like the James Baldwin quote Gundy turns to repeatedly: “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers” (83, 138, 215, 245). For Gundy it means to “dwell less obtrusively and more lightly within the mysteries of existence” (92).

It is a compelling vision, one that reminds me of my frequently neglected promise to myself to get more poetry into Introduction to Theology or to finally teach a topics course in systematic theology where the texts are poems. But despite the compelling nature of the vision, the book is severely marred by a tone that I am not quite sure how to describe. It is found in repeated claims like the ones that follow:

Like Dickinson, I have always felt that I was one of the bad ones . . . that there’s something wrong with those of us who can’t quit asking questions and heading out over the mountains that border the valley. . . . Who is to say what drives us to invent, explore, imagine . . . (224)

Alone, with the crowds of the dead and the living babbling and bubbling up inside, the theopoets do their part. For the work of the tribe is not only what happens in committee rooms and church kitchens and sanctuaries, not only in letter-writing and demonstrations, visiting the sick and clearing the wreckage after the tornado, necessary and good as all these are. The work of the tribe also happens on the edges, in wandering away, in dreaming. (35–36)

Gundy’s confidence that he is the edge to everyone else’s center is meant to sound prophetic but ends up sounding merely vain. He does his book no service with such declarations. His is clearly a unique and creative voice, attempting to do something new. At its best, a welcome respite from worn out orthodoxies and clichés of Christian and Anabaptist thought. However, he can’t stop reminding us of that, and so even the best parts of the book seem forced to live up to a standard that they can’t and shouldn’t have to reach. Meanwhile, the rest of us non-poets don’t feel like we are being invited to join a conversation so much as to listen to a lecture from on high, to be the audience to a performance. “[Thoreau] was odd, as true {108} poets are; the well-adjusted and compliant satisfy themselves with the ordinary gruel of community and convention” (35). One begins to worry that only two kinds of people inhabit Gundy’s world, the poets and the compliant well-adjusted gruel-eaters.

There are occasional and important shifts in tone. Chapter 12, “A Farm Boy’s Thoughts Turn to Beauty” starts off with a typically sweeping generalization: “It is no secret among Mennonites that for a long time we have been suspicious about beauty, sought to domesticate and tame it, to manage it” (204). The essay then follows the by now well-worn path: Gundy is the artist rebelling against Mennonite contempt for beauty’s frivolity. But then the essay closes with a moving meditation on Gundy’s grandfather. He writes, “Not only artists recognize this beauty and the presence of God in the world, of course” (211), and then tells the story of a letter written by his grandfather, a moving, lyrical account that showed his grandfather to have a deep appreciation for wild beauty and prompts Gundy to write a poem. What should we do with this poem, this letter? Gundy wants us to understand his grandfather to be like Gundy himself, one of the lonely and heroic “poets” who have transcended the banality of small town Midwestern life. But it seems to me that we should instead let the grandfather and his letter complicate that portrait of banality and conventionalism. Then we realize that all the “Mennonites” dismissed in the opening sentence of the essay are potentially just like Gundy’s grandfather. And that our task (and Gundy’s) ought to be to look closely, patiently, attentively, generously at all the people Gundy keeps walking away from, to notice the times they too wander away, dream, stand alone, in awe of trees and God, in the face of death. That would be a task worthy of the name, theopoetics. It is the task Gundy seems to set himself at the end of the second stanza of his poem: “I lived/ten miles away, and saw him every week,/but never knew he had such thoughts” (212). The “him” there is all of us whom Gundy throughout the book consigns to the backwaters of “community and convention.” Now, all of a sudden, the book becomes genuinely interesting as Gundy’s portrait of his grandfather forces the book to fold in on itself. If only it hadn’t waited 200 pages to do so.

Peter Dula
Associate Professor of Religion and Culture
Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia

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