Writing, Interrupted

The poetry of Christine Wiebe is in piles on the table. There are multiple, undated versions, organized in various ways. It is as if she has stepped away from her work, intending to come back with an organizational strategy. But of course she is now ten years gone from this earth and she is not coming back to organize them, to decipher the meanings or the preferred versions. Her life had many major interruptions, interruptions by serious illness and several near death encounters.

So the reviewer is denied the authorial intent or even a chronology that allows pontifications about the arc of thematic or poetic development. There is no way to look at her poetry in a linear fashion.

I can focus on several thematic elements though, always conscious of all that I’m omitting. From time to time, she wrote humorously. More often, Wiebe used poetic compression to try to make sense of the life and the suffering that she was handed as her lot in life. Her poetry showed an eye for life and its delights but, as well, a sense of death’s constant invitation, often hovering very, very near. The invitation was not always unwelcome; it had its own seduction.

Wiebe’s poetry is alive to the small elements of daily life. The sensual wonder of wheat stubble, the cat “with quiet licks in the sun,” the silver kisses of stars call out to her for a poetic response. Creation itself is a rubbing, paper and crayon, for the poor in spirit, which is all of us, a rubbing in deepest blue and a touch of coral. In “O For a Thousand Nights,” she presents a short praise poem:

You love us with the blue of the evening,

The green that graces the gray bark of the birch.

You put us all to bed with the silver kisses of stars.

All night you rock us gently between the planets

Holding the day in check with all your strength.

Words also have a sensory delight, a heft and weight as substantial as an object. Sometimes this is passionate as in “I am hot and caught”

I am hot and caught

Firmly held in a web of wishes.

I am trying to find the reddest words

To cut myself out.

I want quick red words.

In “Be Careful of Words,” words are likened to pebbles dropped in a pond, glimmering and colorful. Words, like stones, hold the potential for movement, even when at rest, and always have the potential to stir things up.

Although I have not touched one,

They still move,

Dreaming of the splash

On silent water, the gentle descent.

They toss in their sleep.

I pause

Feel slow circles circling circles

Wait long for calm.

Wiebe acknowledges the lineage of her love of words, stories, and the silences between words and the white spaces on the page. In “Tell No Man,” the poet says that she was seduced by silence while in utero. She imagines the long Canadian evenings filled with her parents’ reading and later her father’s speech, her mother’s knitting needles clicking, her mother’s murmured responses to her father’s explanations. The child, nestled in the womb is safe and listening to the tempo and rhythm of home and a marriage, a tempo and rhythm set by the words and the spaces between words.

But, in other poems, the father and his voice are absent and it is the mother who, in “Blue Willow Plate,” prizes one pictured plate “above the rest . . . because it tells a story.” The poet knows “now who I am,” having walked “to this place in the story./There the wind will “ startle words from me like birds surprised to flight.” Mother is not only the life giver, the introduction to female silences and assents before the father’s voice but the mentor of storytelling as well, to words that not only have the weight and solidity of stones but also the lightness and lift of ascending birds.

Beyond the primacy of mother, the importance of women extends to the circle of sisters. Sometimes her take on her sister world is humorous. Mennonite baking, with the bread rising and increasing as miraculously as the loaves and fishes is the subject of “The Women in our Family.” More often, though, the poems reflect a refuge in her sisters. They are the “we” of her life. In “If I Had Only One Summer,” she again notes the beauty, the holiness of the ordinary, in the tea kettle and the cardinal. Here in this place of respite and sisters, “the ringed cat/would swirl herself round the first stripe of the sun.” They would live in this stone house by the river, “Sated with holiness, we would sleep/our nights full of fireflies flying.”

Several of her poems describe near death encounters. In one, it is one of her sisters who pulls her back from her desire to step into “a doorway/filled with orange and yellow light…” The sisterly pull is a powerful one. This counterweight to the attraction of death is echoed by another in which women, plural, bar the way to death: “I know that/women with lights in their eyes/have called me back from death./These women held my hand while I was looking/out the window. They drew the blinds./Their eyes are windows. They know the way in/and the way out.” In “Pangs of Green,” she is in groups of women, harvesting stones.

Now here is an interesting thing. This daughter of writers (her father and mother both were writers) and staunch Mennonite Brethren members, this MCC volunteer, converted to Catholicism. What didn’t Wiebe find in the MB church? What she did find was year after year a marginal recognition of her mother’s writing and talents (much of it grudging and at times demeaning). However, one could counter that even the Mennonite Brethren patriarchy pales in comparison with that of the centuries of entrenched power and patriarchy of the Catholic priesthood. But nestled within that is also a whole system of female purpose and place. Wiebe worked with nuns in Winnipeg as part of an MCC placement and came to recognize the certitude and clarity of their work for justice and healing. For her, these women could have been a powerful antidote to the invisibility of women within the Mennonite Brethren story.

Additionally, Wiebe takes comfort in the elevation of words through liturgy and ritual. In “Early Novitiate,” she and Sister Lorraine visit a monk’s abbey and “run under the stars/and the half moon to a small chapel.”

I hear the ancient voices join,

Sing about their peace.

Now I need to hear them again

As the earth grows smaller.

They sing to each other, for twenty years

They sing, and now in a river bank

Saved from suburban sprawl I hear a cricket sound the pitch

And riverbirds unhook their notes in beneficent echoes.

Wiebe takes words, as heavy as stones and as light as bird feathers, to try to name the hovering invitation to death. There may be a tendency to see her writing in cliché as by now so many have heard of death described by survivors as a doorway or a great light. Yet, as medical personnel work on reviving her in the emergency room, she sees this brilliant light and she advances toward it. She longs for it, wants to enter the doorway of light or, in another poem, the window. She writes, in the earlier mentioned poem, that “Most people who die/wake up full of praise. They saw Jesus./But I forget that part.” She immediately turns to the women, in light of the absent Jesus, who bar the way. In another poem, she asks herself,

Why didn’t I see Jesus? Why didn’t I see the pearly gate, or talk to St. Peter?

Maybe I did, but don’t remember. Maybe I am

destined for hell. But I’ve already been there.

Hell is not far away. I called myself a Christian

and I went to hell. Maybe they need some kindly influence

in those hellish parts. In those hospital parts.

She concludes one poem about death’s close invitation, “So I will wait a while longer./I was only looking.”

The sudden death of Walter Wiebe, Christine’s father, when she was young is a recurring subject. The death baffles the child that Wiebe once was. In “Children Under 14 Not Admitted,” she gives the child’s view. Her mother, her word giver, “gives me some death words/They don’t fit anyway./Take them back, Mother.” But there is also curiosity and a question. At the grave, there is “a stone and a hole/ May I move closer, mother?” This question haunts her life.

It is not only light and the promise of the end of the hellish pain and hospital stays that makes death, on occasion, inviting. Her absent father is there. Wiebe was seven and newly arrived in the States at the time of her father’s death. “Gaining Entrance” has the narrator shifting perspective from her seven-year-old self, to an older self leading the child she was back through the experience of being barred from her father’s hospital bed and from his death. She wants to see for herself at first, but then shifts to trying “a new line: I have no father” and, leading a child to through the “linoleum maze” to a bed, “I hold myself back while the child looks and touches/and whispers, ‘I have no father.’ I hold her the way Daddy once held me.” She follows this with a direct address to her mother – “Mother give me your hands for a while/ I want their memory” followed by yet another shift in perspective. She tries another tack; she announces she will tell the story, she will be Mother, and once again walks through the halls, trying to make sense of this long ago loss that permeates her life. She returns to her own identity and notes that “The gravestone is a door./He stands there blessing me good bye/yet I keep coming back.”

Finally, she ends the poem:

I’ve been standing at the door since I was seven

Studying the sign that says I am not admitted.

Even now the people guarding the door

Are Very tall in their white coats.

They have my father inside.

This passage towards death sees light, Jesus and her father beyond the doorways and windows. And on this side of such passage are sisters, mothers, and a circle of women with light in their eyes. Cardinals and this wonderful beautiful earth spinning under the silver stars and the warm moon beckon her back. The absent father is part of death’s invitation. Church theology duplicates this. The women here hold very real comfort but Jesus and Daddy are on the other side and her ailing, weakened body is pulling her closer and closer.

Wiebe’s poetry explores the richness and mystery of family and the impact of death past and death as a present, hovering specter. Who has the answer to the questions? Father, remote and inaccessible? Jesus and God, shrouded in mystery?

Words fill in the cracks for now. Words help to identify with the suffering Christ. Words mark the passage, the pathway, the journey. And words are from the Lord. She writes that “I believe you’ll send words, Lord./I trust you.” When the answers are given, “I won’t need words to fill the cracks? But now I do.” She concludes the poem “Between ill-fitting puzzle pieces,” with “I am waiting, Lord/ Give me words to speak.”

At times the poems speak of loneliness, but then respond with finding comfort in the company of wise women.

Mother was the first guide to silence and story. Beyond Mother is the companionship of women who guide her, who have the light in their eyes, who know the way. This is what the Catholics could give her – women with sure and recognized roles in the spiritual realm, at least recognizable to other women, if not to the hierarchy of the church. These women recognized the way that the sacred could permeate the ordinary. And it is in this apprehension of the ordinary, the pot of tea, and the bird song, that Wiebe participates fully in life, even in her dying.

. . . . Looking back

I see my suitcase and trace the words

That lie like stones along the way. (“I Will Pack Up a Suitcase”)

About the Author

Ellen Kroeker

Ellen Kroeker (Tabor College 1972) was raised in the Mennonite Brethren tradition in Wichita, Kansas and is a member of the Southern Hills Mennonite Church in Topeka, Kansas. She has an M.A. in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincon and taught at the University of Kansas for nine years. She currently teaches English at Taupo Language School and Montana Tech. Her articles and poems have appeared in The Mennonite, The Christian Leader, permafrost, Alaska Quarterly Review, Not Man Apart, Explorations, Mikrokosmos, What Mennonites Are Thinking, Kansas Quarterly, and Blue Unicorn. She and her husband have traveled widely, and spent eight summers in an Inupiat village, Kaktovik, located in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The parents of two adult children, they currently live in New Zealand.