Grist for the Mill

Ann Hostetler reviews a recently published book of poems by Helen Alderfer. We tend to assume that lyric poems reflect something of the author's life and feelings, but in this book the poems even become a kind of lifetime memoir in verse, scanning the author's life from childhood to advanced age.

Helen Wade Alderfer. The Mill Grinds Fine: Collected Poems. Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House. Co-published with Herald Press. [2008]. 135 pp.

Born to a Mennonite farm family in Sterling, Illinois, Helen Wade Alderfer attended Goshen College and became a teacher, writer, and editor who had a significant shaping presence in Mennonite publishing. Throughout her life, Alderfer has also been a poet, and began publishing at the early age of eight. As editor of Mennonite publications Christian Living and On the Line for nearly forty years, Alderfer was among the pioneering female leaders in Mennonite publishing. She also edited A Farthing in Her Hand, a collection of essays by women on stewardship of time, money, and resources. As a wife and mother of five children who also had a significant career investment, Alderfer would certainly have known first-hand about this subject. Fortunately, her own stewardship of talent and time has produced this distinctive collection of accessible poetry, harvest of a full life lived reflectively, refracted to readers through a keen, probing, honest, and wise pair of eyes.

Alderfer's life exemplifies the cultural transition of several generations of Mennonites who moved from rural community origins through the experience of Mennonite higher education to a life of service based in professional training. The Mill Grinds Fine includes poetry that reflects on all phases of this cultural transition in a distinctive, personal way. In this sense it is not simply a collection of poetry, but also a form of life writing. As Alderfer says in her succinct introduction to the volume, "Whatever life brought to me, I put between the stones, not knowing how fine the mill would grind."

Some of the volume's most memorable poems appear in the first two sections—"Childhood" and "Parents." The images of farm life, communion with nature, strict teachings, loving family, early loss, and the power of survival will strike a chord of recognition in readers from several generations, and provoke wonder in younger readers who will marvel at a life lived with the possibility of visits from tramps and gypsies and "The Watkins Man." But Alderfer's keen wit keeps these scenes from lapsing into sentimentality. Her poem "We Had Dick" is a wonderful example of her gift for choosing specific, evocative imagery. Her spare, straightforward voice accurately captures the speech and thought of rural Mennonite life, but her presentation of the story reflects a dry wit distinctly her own:

Dick was old and slow and bony but he was what we had.
We begged Mother for a pony but she said, "You have Dick."

Dick, she tells us, is a horse with a history. He "pulled the buggy when father courted mother" and "brought Father seven miles to town to the lawyer's house/ where Mother kept house and cared for the invalid wife." But it is the fruit of such devoted love, finally, that thwarts the desire of Helen and her siblings for a lively pony:

One November morning Aunt Lena called us for school.
"Hurry," she said, "there is a surprise downstairs."
Please God, I begged, let it be the pony.
Dashing downstairs we found Grandmother
Sitting on her low chair at the kitchen stove
Holding a new baby—our brother.
At that moment we knew we would never get a pony.

The enduring love of Mary Conrad and Clark Wade, Helen's parents, is woven into the texture of these poems about her childhood, making the abrupt loss of her father due to a farm accident all the more poignant. But it is Helen's mother, who emerges as the heroine of these poems. She is full of pithy, wise sayings, teachings in frugality, a church-goer, a lover of routine, and a strong woman who is able to carve some personal space in her demanding life as a farmer's widow. She is a competent mother, but fades without companionship on a remote Illinois farm. Fortunately, she is also gifted with foresight and arranges for her mother and sister to come live with the family, adding to the powerful female influences in Helen's early years.

In the manner of Julia Kasdorf's Aunt Bertha, whose presence permeates Sleeping Preacher, Alderfer's mother takes on the role of the writer's "foremother." In "The Topic," Alderfer recollects her mother giving a "topic" in church—something like a short sermon, although not from the pulpit. In "Mother and Norman Vincent Peale" she reveals one source of her mother's inspiration and courage in the face of a difficult and sometimes dull life for a woman of intellectual talent. And in ""Our Mother the Writer" she honors her mother's Sunday afternoons of letter writing as a model of the writer's dedication and sacred time. We have a chuckle at Mother's determination in meeting the automobile in "Mother and the Car," and an understated foreshadowing of the grief that is to come in "The Brown Suit."

Thus Alderfer's poems are permeated with an awareness of history, including the surnames of maternal ancestors, inserted in reference to relatives. But Alderfer's homage to her ancestors is tempered with a seasoned awareness of the necessity of letting go. For instance, in "The Bird Nest" she asks, parenthetically, "Do daughters want to please their mothers as long as they live?" The poem is about anticipating her mother's arrival and making sure the children are in order; when they show up with a mud-covered bird nest, hoping to share their delight with her, she is dumbfounded. The poem ends, "I stood struck speechless/ Knowing I was about to fail a test." Alderfer wisely allows the reader to surmise which test she will fail-that of her mother's approval, or that of affirming her children's curiosity and delight in the natural world. Given Alderfer's poems, I think it was the former, as her parenting style seems to have departed somewhat from her mother's admirable, but strict, propriety. On another level, her poem "Transformation Mennonites USA"—few poets could get away with a title or a topic such as this, but Alderfer pulls it off somehow—is a generous letting go of the quarrels on points of doctrine that have splintered and weakened Mennonites as a denomination over the years. She embraces a hopeful picture of the future, asking her readers to meet the challenge:

What will history write of this disparate people

who lived through centuries of change
sometimes displaced and sometimes martyred?

That we became a people known for unity

despite the differences that tugged
and sometimes tore us apart?

That we forged new patterns of justice and peace?
That we lived with amazing grace?

In Alderfer's view, finally, the only choice is the positive one, even though she does not sugar-coat or minimize the pain of loss that change can bring.

Although Alderfer did not adopt a rural lifestyle as an adult, nature is of central importance to her poems, both in terms of imagery and in spiritual grounding. In fact, poems that draw their inspiration from nature help to sustain the energy of the poems about Alderfer's early life throughout the collection and to create continuity as she progresses through the life cycle. The third section of her book is entitled "Gardens," and the sixth and final section of the book, "Mortality," offers a reflection on the first garden in "Instructions to Adam and Eve." "Above all, tend well your inner garden./ This is where the true riches are," the poet's voice declares. Alderfer has followed this instruction as she shares the lessons of her inner garden with us. This inner garden is a transcendent, but also earthly one, shot through with the acceptance of mortality.

Alderfer's attitude towards suffering is an embrace of what is beautiful, good, and worthy; the poems hint at the struggles that marble any mature and long life, but they do not dwell on loss and they are never self-pitying. "A Bitter End" is an elegy for a nest of baby robins torn apart by a hungry raccoon. A naturalist friend tells the poet, "Take your place in the rhythm of life and do not be bitter." This appears to be the poet's instructions to the reader, but not without acknowledging the pain. "I was not bitter, but I was very sad./ Now, remembering, I am still sad." But in another poem, "The Two-Cent Copper Coin," the poet fails to fall asleep by reciting the losses of her life. "Try remembering things you found," she instructs herself, and a poem is born.

The penultimate section of the book is devoted to a celebration of and eulogy for her long partnership with her beloved husband, Edwin Stover Alderfer. This beautiful relationship harmonizes with the happy portrait of marriage evoked by her description of her parents' relationship. Loss, here, must also be acknowledged. But even in this extremity, the poet is not without solace. In the introduction she remarks, "When my husband died, people offered many kind words. One person said, 'You still have poetry.' I thought it was a strange thing to say when I was not sure anything would help. But poetry was still there." The introduction also acknowledges a community of kindred spirits, a poetry writing group, which likely served as Alderfer's first audience and the nurturing atmosphere in which many of these poems were developed. Such sustenance empowers this strong, clear-eyed writer to articulate her thoughts on the final loss, that of one's own aging, in such a way that we can enter the elegant and still joyful winter garden of her late years. While this is a substantial book of poems, one closes the book without surfeit. I felt that a great, rich body of a life fully lived has just been hinted at—knew that I wanted to keep the book handy so that I could open it again soon, and often.

About the Author

Ann Hostetler

Ann Hostetler is the editor of A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry (Univ. of Iowa Press 2003) and author of two collections of poems, Empty Room with Light (Dreamseeker 2002) and Safehold (Dreamseeker 2017). Her poems and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies including The American Scholar, Poet Lore, The Valparaiso Poetry Review,Rhubarb Magazine, Testimonies and Tongue Screws: Poems, Stories, and Essays Inspired by the Martyr's Mirror, Making Poems: Forty Poems with Commentary by the Poets (2010), The Mennonite Quarterly Review and PMLA . Professor Emerita of English at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana, Hostetler is the web site editor of the Center for Mennonite Writing and co-editor of its Journal. She directed the 2022 Mennonite/s Writing conference at Goshen College.