Four Poems

Rhoda Janzen honors her own reading in Martyrs Mirror by transforming its plain style and narrative into a complex poetic art, linking early Anabaptist suffering with wide-ranging literary and historical allusions--like the martyr in “Last Words,” who “instead of plain words . . . speaks in bright jewels, rubies and emeralds and aquamarines.”

The Martyr Box

They used to strap gun
powder to the knees
of Anabaptists, a small
but civil courtesy before
the flame, whereupon
the martyrs would

explode in merry
laughter. At ten I took
a test, the Butler
Mennonite Brethren
Spiritual Gifts
Questionnaire. Up

came the martyr box
like a pink and personal
valentine, the fuchsia
heart for pain, the burn
to stand one’s ground
in clover. Here’s my

advice. Let them kill
you every day for
fifteen years. Slip
through the world
unseen, the ant that
wanders off the line.

To others, the grand
booboiseries of
lust, the marriage plot.
But the martyr minds
her winter in the fine

tormented space beneath
the stage, where it’s
dark as a cawl and one
must squint. True: death
is a mouth that needs
a mint. Call it a rotten

sacrament. These
cuts, lord knows,
refine one’s attitude.
And you’ll find
that death improves
the mood. In fact

one does much better
if one lives to die in
a dense hair sweater.
Do take me down
to the grave, where
dark crumbs roll.

Death is a night
through which I sing,
curled in my box like
a dahlia bulb with a
blackened eye and
a dream of spring.

First published in The New Delta Review 25:2 (Summer 2008): 22-23. Reprinted here by permission.

Ars Moriendi*

Babels Raets Mandamenten Worden
Aldus Volbracht Door haer Dienaers…
—song for six Anabaptist martyrs

We six, in 1559,
hummed the tune of “Zion Wilt
Thou Gather,” suffering no small guilt
for savoring a verdict so divine.
To die as Christ—what luck! And what an art
to get the tongue to run with praise enough,
like a chicken with its head cut freshly off!
And what a wholesome sacerdotal sport
to wave away the burgher’s casket of
exploding Chinese powder, which he meant
to girdle round our knees, whereby he’d prove
his disapproval of the punishment.
We said that we preferred the flames ascending,
like him who granted us this happy ending.

*Ars Moriendi = “the art of dying.” Title of two Latin texts c. 1415 and 1450 on how to die with nobility and dignity.

Last Words

Let the ears receive
the final words,
the flicker of truth
from the great beyond
that falls from the tongue
like pearls in the tale

where the girl is good
and under a spell. Instead
of plain words, she speaks
in bright jewels, rubies
and emeralds and
aquamarines. (But

the witch-sister’s mouth
is like an eclipse that
darkens with spiders
and frogs and nits. They
writhe, and she spits,
and they all run away

like terrible words you
want to unsay.) An angel
inhabits the dying mouth.
This angel sits in, and it
can look out. “More light!”
exclaimed Goethe.

And Basho’s dear friends
bent closer to savor
the poet’s laconic last
utterance—“The flies
look happy that I’m
about to die.” And what
of the Master who
stately lay in vast
confusion? What did
James the Master say?
Making a gesture not
precisely like Napoleon’s,

he murmured, “Ah—
the Distinguished Thing!”
At the end my friend Joe,
who decided to choose
his own time to go,
put his thoughts on

a card. He added a stamp
and the wrong address.
Twelve days after
the fact, I received it
nevertheless. Although
I can’t say that I knew

the man well, I still hang
on to his tipsy scrawl.
He loved me because
he was ill, I was blonde.
And the card came back
from the great beyond

You are here,

six feet from where the worst of the attacks
occurred. You’re standing right beside the spot
where Mrs. Whitman’s husband got the ax—
that is, the tomahawk. Here’s where they shot
her ten times in the chest. This lower ground
is where the river ran. She found the cup
with tea still in it when her daughter drowned;
they dragged the pond and brought the body up.
Although the mission burned, they did unearth
some pieces of Narcissa’s willowware.
This mannequin reveals her tiny girth,
and this is how she would have worn her hair.

The hilltop monument has glorious views.
But do make sure you’re wearing comfy shoes.

About the Author

Rhoda  Janzen

Rhoda Janzen is the author of a poetry collection, Babel’s Stair (Word Press, 2006), and has contributed poems to such journals as Poetry, The Yale Review and The Southern Review. She wrote the NY Times #1 bestseller Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (Henry Holt, 2009), which was a finalist for the 2010 James Thurber Humor Award and the 2012 finalist for the Lily Fellows Arlin G. Meyer Prize for Imaginative Writing. Janzen’s memoir Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? (Grand Central, 2012) was a finalist for the 2013 Books for a Better Life Award. Learn more at www.Rhodajanzen.com. Janzen earned a B.A. in English from Fresno Pacific University; an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Florida,Gainesville; and a PhD in English from UCLA. She teaches at Hope College.

Photo by Shelley LaLonde