Use Your Words: A Review of Acquiring Land by Jane Rohrer

If you are a Mennonite of a certain age, the product of a Mennonite higher education, and if your first full-time job after graduating from Goshen (Ind.) College was to work for (at the time, and arguably) the best-known Mennonite arts entity on the East Coast or even below the 49th parallel, while living for three years in Lancaster, Pa. – well, if you are all those things, you might be me. But you are not, so I will add: You might see a book “by Jane Rohrer” titled Acquiring Land: Late Poems and, knowing she had been married to Warren Rohrer, a premier 20th-century American abstract painter, and that they had lived and he had painted for many years in rural southeastern Lancaster County, you would assume the book to be full of pastoral poetry.

You wouldn’t be wrong, but you’d be some distance from right. And now “you” are definitely me.

This deceptively small book, written by a woman nearing the end of her life, who has lived more than 25 years without a beloved partner and companion (Warren died of leukemia in 1995), quietly asks you to read – and then insists that you re-read – it. It begins with an introduction by the book’s editor, Julia Spicher Kasdorf, placing Rohrer briefly into context (born and raised conservative Mennonite in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley; married at 20 to a man she met at Eastern Mennonite College, now University; in pursuit of art that led the Rohrers away from formal association with Mennonites) and ends with an interview Rohrer’s granddaughter, Willa Rohrer, conducted with her grandmother in 2009. Between these bookends are 18 poems that in a handful of spare and beautiful words and phrases describe a whole life.

Rohrer dedicates Acquiring Land to “Great-Granddaughter Mae” (“I did not think of death the day that you were born”). In the final poem, “Swing,” the poet pictures the day of her death, anticipating a reunion with Warren, or maybe God: “Will you be there when I go high / Above my ancient tree to the sky.”

The poet leaves home, the hills and valleys of the Appalachian Shenandoah, the “plain church / where the preacher sometimes grants my father a pew, / sometimes not,” and where it “takes twenty minutes in June / from the instant sunlight leaves the valley floor / until darkness falls on the faded clapboard houses.” She loses a sister to suicide (“Now we enter a terrible stanza, / an unfurnished room”). She loses a husband. She writes, first in third person, of a widow who “took short afternoon strolls / on the lawns of her memories / why, you could hold her and her whole world / in one hand” – before bursting forth into first: “I have come as my name / from that safe jail / have clawed through the membrane / that was so tight.”

And then, in the second section of poems, called “Visiting the World,” Rohrer in fact rejoins it, regaining herself and, she has said, her art through travel (according to the biography at the book’s end, after Warren’s death, Jane’s younger brother Charles, a travel agent, took his sister on a number of international trips). Here, the book’s title poem reveals one of the metaphors behind that title: “Last year I bought all the land along the Danube / Slipping into Budapest at dusk.” She reflects: “I need more and more addresses. / On a cold day in Paradise I must have some place to go.”

Traveling doesn’t mean finding only herself. Journeying recalls to the poet her father’s dying. “He said walk and I walked. / And I walked. And I am walking. / But / Comes some thought / Of virgin timber / And wild persimmons, father, / pod, / dried husk / Of random seed, / Small boat I see set down / At the edge of water / And, any minute now, / The journey weatherless, / My father.” Later, she says, “God knows I tried to run away on this ship.”

Walking or running, the travel leads the poet home – to herself, to words, to writing, to her art and how it grounds her: “Only when I anchor to that which claims me / Will I make my return / As the wave to its home in the water.”

I first heard of Warren Rohrer because a college friend, Julia Spicher Kasdorf, met for a time in the 1990s with a group of people, all significantly older than her – people I would, from my time at The People’s Place and Festival Quarterly, have called “Mennonite artists.” Writers. A painter. A historian. A theologian. A fashion designer. A group gathered for deliberate discussion of the clash (often) of creativity and a conservative Mennonite upbringing or background. Like Julia, my first awareness extended to Warren and not to Jane.

Until now, the only poems of Rohrer’s I had read were in the 2003 anthology A Cappella: Poetry in Mennonite Voices. Without that, I likely would not now be reading her as “a Mennonite voice.” Acquiring Land has only the barest of references to anything of church or God, and nothing that anchors it to Mennonite except possibly the one phrase “plain church.”

So many years from college and from that first job in Intercourse, Pa., my view of what it means to be “Mennonite” or “artist” have altered – evolved, I hope. What I hear now in the words and voice of Jane Rohrer is a woman looking back over her life and putting it on the page to make some sense and beauty for herself and perhaps for a reader as well.

If you are a Mennonite writer of a certain age, you may not understand what it means to have creativity at odds with the faith in which you were raised or have chosen. If you are a woman and especially if you are white and possessed of economic security, your own or that of your family of origin, you probably won’t have seen your choices circumscribed by your gender. Even I, a generation and a half removed from Jane Rohrer, didn’t experience that firsthand.

But let me tell you there is much to learn from her, especially about putting an entire life – an entire world – into a few pages that etch the words in granite, or maybe “the eternal limestone fields and the Virginia sky.”

“Let me know how I can help” are Grandma’s closing words to granddaughter Willa at the end of Acquiring Land. Although Mennonite women have no corner on this offer, it certainly resonates with what many of us have been raised to expect of a good daughter, a good wife, a good Christian.

Jane Rohrer was raised in that context, and she may or may not own the descriptions. No matter either way. She can help, and she does, whether you’re just starting out, in your 40s or 50s as Rohrer was when she began to publish poetry, or over 90. Follow her lead. Use your words.

About the Author

Melanie Zuercher

Melanie Zuercher is a graduate of Goshen College and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. She currently works at Bethel (KS) College as a writer and editor, and has spent her entire writing and editing career at Mennonite institutions, including Good Books and the General Conference edition of The Mennonite. She lists Appalachian Kentucky, her childhood home, and Haiti, where she spent a term while a student at Goshen, as spaces that have strongly influenced her life.