This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Book review: ‘Abandoned Homeland’

In the title poem of Jeff Gundy’s Abandoned Homeland, the speaker begins with a question: “How else to describe this absurd, lovely world?” The rest of Gundy’s collection seems positioned to provide an answer — or many answers — to how we might know both the absurd and the lovely around us: through attention to detail, through metaphor, through quiet wit and profound reflection.

Abandoned Homeland
Abandoned Homeland

Abandoned Homeland is Gundy’s seventh book of poetry (he also has published four poetry chapbooks). A Bluffton University professor since 1984, Gundy was named the Ohio Poet of the Year in 2015 by the Ohio Poetry Association. Gundy should be regarded as one of the prominent voices in contemporary Mennonite literature. His collection on the topic, Walker in the Fog: On Mennonite Writing, provided a rich, groundbreaking exploration of Mennonite writing in North America.

Gundy’s work in Abandoned Homeland covers a wide range of topics, from the creative process to the natural world to the idea of home and place. Abandoned Homeland will seem mostly accessible to readers who might otherwise keep their distance from the poetic form; Gundy writes primarily in couplets, a lyrical approach that invites even the poem-adverse to step confidently into the universe Gundy has created.

That universe is richly drawn, in great part because of Gundy’s finely tuned attention to detail. This is especially true in his descriptions of the natural world. In “Black Water Snake, Cool Morning,” he begins by detailing the awakening of a snake, its “bands of muscle answer slowly” as it uncoils “at the pond edge.” The poem itself unfurls alongside the snake, the last two stanzas moving the reader from a black form, a “slow breath and flickering signals,” to the cosmos itself, the snake becoming “a black mirror open to the sky, a boundary/between art and truth, fact and paradise,/song and water, sympathy and time.”

Similar tensions exist everywhere in Gundy’s work: between the abstract and the concrete, between the mind and the body, the seen and the unseen. Rarely are these tensions resolved, and that seems as it should be. We walk through a world of unresolved paradox, a “universe that is mostly cold and empty,” Gundy writes in one poem, even though — in the same work — he provides a rich catalog of images suggesting that the universe is not so cold, nor empty, as is supposed.

This paradox exists likewise in “Further Notes on the Martyrs,” a poem that will be both familiar and unsettling to Mennonite readers well aware of the story upon which Gundy bases his poem: a child showing the tongue screw of his martyred mother, Maeyken Wens, to his brother. Here, Gundy explores the paradox at the heart of the martyrs’ stories: that despite the horror of “voices and bodies on fire,” we also “praise the martyrs and the beauty of holiness”; that we recognize as beautiful “the grieving villagers [who] sing ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’/over the mass grave . . . though we cannot clearly say why.” The poem surely has echoes of other well-known reflections on truth and beauty; for Gundy, the stories of the martyrs seemingly also memorialize the sense that truth is beauty, even though “we cannot clearly say why.”

Not all poems are weighted by such serious pondering. A strength in Gundy’s poetic sensibility is definitely the moments when his work turns toward lighter subjects or when his observational wit allows readers to see the seemingly banal anew. For example, Gundy wonders, alongside the poet Rilke, whether he could be “a great song,” but decides he might more fittingly be “a bluegrass tune with a decent chorus,” or something like one of the “wordy obscure/Dylan tunes that nobody remembers except the fanatics” or “one of those earnest dull protest songs everybody my age/half-knows, played by the equally earnest guy whose heart/is in the right place.”

Though even “Being a Song” turns toward deeper contemplation, such selections should be accessible even to those not much versed in poetry. Other poems will require a little more effort to understand fully. But this is itself the power of poetry and of an artist like Gundy. The work of reading is ultimately rewarding, as we are allowed access to the fascinating universe Gundy has created: one that is beautiful and horrible, fecund and barren — a “mutilated planet” that deserves our praise, however “insufficient but essential” that praise might be.

Melanie Springer Mock is professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore.

Sign up to our newsletter for important updates and news!