headshot of poet and author Jean Janzen

Poet Jean Janzen

The word “wild” has loomed large over the field of memoir this year. You’ve probably heard of Cheryl Strayed’s wonderful book about her amazing journey on the Pacific Crest Trail. I reposted a wonderful review of the book by Strayed’s mentor Paulette Bates Alden here.

Now I have another wild book to recommend. Here’s my review of Jean Janzen’s Entering the Wild: Essays on Faith and Writing:

“Jean Janzen writes our songs,” declares Canadian writer Rudy Wiebe on the back cover of this book of memoir essays. He is right on at least three levels: literal, lyric and longitudinal.

First, the literal. Janzen may be most well-known to Mennonites through the hymn texts she wrote for Hymnal: A Worship Book. If you have sung “Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth,” or “O Holy Spirit, Root of Life” or “I Cannot Dance, O Love,” you might want to start reading this book with Chapter 11: “Three Women and the Lost Coin: How Three Women Found Me.”

Like all the essays in the book, this one exudes a spirit of grace, receptivity and gratitude. For example, the three hymn texts above arose from an externally perceived need for a new kind of song.

The hymnal committee, searching for texts that honored feminine characteristics of God, sent Janzen and a group of other poets the writings of three medieval women mystics. Janzen describes the medieval women as muses and herself as being like an Aeolian harp that sings when the wind blows through it, both passively responding and courageously challenging the status quo.

She writes: “These three women inspired me to create hymn texts that were ultimately set to music and included in the hymnal. To my amazement, they have since appeared in numerous hymnals, and some have even been translated into other languages.”

Second, the lyric. Even when writing nonfiction prose essays, Jean Janzen’s voice sings. She uses many of the poet’s devices: metaphor, rhythm and repetition. While describing her home of more than 40 years in Fresno, Calif., she says, “These are the months of a hush that turns into deep velvet evenings and a cathedral for morning birdsong.”

Often these ecstatic, near- erotic and Psalm-like passages end with allusions to biblical and mystical texts: “The mountain … says, somehow, that holiness desires me… . The night presses its immensity and mystery against me and knows me. It calls me by my name.”

Read the rest at Mennonite World Review.

What experiences in your reading or writing life qualify as “wild”? Any you are willing to share?

Shirley Showalter

5 Comments

  1. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on November 29, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    Since I am Mennonite and I have only lived parts of four years in places where Mennonites are a majority, I find myself entering the wild when my reading or my writing help me discover what is true to being Mennonite.

    As an example, I grew up singing out of the Church Hymnal and Life Songs, and I later discovered that very few of those hymns were written by Mennonites. While I can love things about those hymns, I get goosebumps or feel a big YES in my core when I sing, “We are people of God’s peace” (words attrributed to Menno Simons) or Jean Janzen’s “From the hands of the earth and the lap of the sky.”

  2. shirleyhs on November 29, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    Thank you, Dolores, for these thoughts. Jean Janzen’s contributions are so many. And the words to her hymns are among the best. I too am grateful for them. When I sing them, I will think of your goosebumps and your YES.

  3. Richard Gilbert on December 4, 2012 at 9:08 am

    This sounds like a fantastic book. I think it has become wild to write about faith, any kind of faith, at all. My memoir ends in a rural church where we found community and solace. It’s pathetic that that feels at all risky, but the presumption now is that the mass audience is not only secular but hostile to faith. I think that’s untrue, and yet writing about faith still feels risky. I wonder why.

  4. shirleyhs on December 4, 2012 at 10:49 am

    I’m so eager to read your memoir, Richard. The latest Pew study on religion confirms the suspicion that our culture is becoming increasingly secular, or at least much less loyal to/interested in church. However, a majority of the increasingly large group of Americans who claim “none” as their religion also say they believe in God. So that means the culture is still more theistic than most (any) in the Western world. Risk that ending! If Anne Lammot and Mary Karr can do it, so can you.

  5. shirleyhs on December 4, 2012 at 10:50 am

    I meant to say that I think you would really enjoy Jean Janzen’s book also. My link above takes you to Amazon in case you want to explore further.

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