Friday, February 24, 2012

Poetry Friday: Julia Kasdorf

I discovered Julia Kasdorf this week. My initial introduction came through the online class I'm taking. One of the assignments was to read Julia's poem, "What I Learned From My Mother." I liked the poem so much, I went in search of the poet, who teaches creative writing and women's studies at Pennsylvania State University.

Julia's parents grew up Mennonite, but left the community. Her first book of poetry, "Sleeping Preacher," explores the tension of living in two worlds. She was, in a sense "working out the implications of that departure in her writing."  (See her interview with Mennonot here.) The book won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize. She has since won other awards, including a Pushcart Prize in 2004.

Read this interview with the poet, then listen to her read "Bat Boy, Break A Leg."

One of the things that appealed to me in her interview with Mennonot was this explanation of the relationship between pain and beauty.

Mennonot: What do you do with other people's stories of pain that they've experienced at the hands of the community, and your own stories? There's a sense in which I want the people who have caused that pain to be accountable for it, in the sense that I want them to know they either collectively or individually were part of causing that pain. But how do you do that in a way that's, I guess, loving? That's been a struggle for me. I don't want what I'm writing or doing to be about bitterness.

KasdorfI was really influenced in college and beyond by modernism. H.D. (the American poet Hilda Doolittle) especially. For a long time I just wanted to make beautiful objects, crystal clear. I believed you could find the right word. I sort of trivialize it now, but it was really good discipline to believe in all that. There's still a lot of that in me. I want to make beautiful things. So for me, the answer to your question is to take that pain and to make it beautiful. That's what transforms it into poetry.

So now, back to the class assignment.We were to read  "What I Learned From My Mother" and then free write, pen not leaving paper for twenty minutes using this as the jump off line: I learned from my mother how to...

This was a tough assignment for me. Many of you know that my relationship with my mother has not been an easy one. And in November she went into a nursing home for permanent care. The adjustment period has been difficult, to say the least. One of the things the online class has allowed me to do is use my writing to wrestle through the rising tension in my own struggle with this. 

Here is Julia's beautiful poem.

What I Learned From My Mother 

Julia Kasdorf 

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewing even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.

And here is what came from my free write, my own attempt to make something beautiful from a painful relationship.

What My Mother Taught Me

She taught me gin rummy and badminton,
to make Chef Boyardee Pizza
with a crust ten-cent thin.
She taught me to make my bed before
I was out of it, to clean my room,
that homework came first.
She taught me to cook. I taught her to sew.
She taught me to practice
piano, to listen, and not get caught talking.

She taught me justice, but without
mercy that makes it redemptive.
She taught me to be truthful, but
she meant her version, and it was seldom spoken
in love. She taught me that getting
your own way hurts
the ones close to you. She taught me
silence is not golden when it shuts
people out. She taught me that touch
is tender and sweet, not tenuous. She taught me
family comes first. Mine. Not hers.
She taught me to give, but gifts without
grace make one feel bought.
She taught me that kindness is more
important than the appearance
of kindness. She taught me when bitterness
takes root, you can lose your best friend.
She taught me God’s love--
 without it I may not  have survived hers.
She taught me to be a mother. Sometimes knowing
what not to do is the best lesson.

Today I sat beside her bed and read.
I held her withered hand in mine and kissed
her wrinkled brow, because I know
what it means to need those things.
She taught me that.
© Doraine Bennett

Jone hosts the Roundup at Check It Out  where you'll find lots of beautiful poetry to enjoy. 


  1. Your poem is beautiful, Dori. I love the pure truth of it, the turning inside out of your emotions. Thanks for the intro to Julia's work, too. :)

  2. Hi Dori, I teach at a Mennonite University and have close links with many Mennonite writers. What a wonderful post on Julia Kasdorf. I shared it with friends. I also submit semi-regularly to Poetry Friday as a PaperTigers contributor.

    1. I am so glad to meet you, Sally. I thoroughly enjoyed Julia's interview comments on Mennonite writers. So very interesting how our beliefs inform and transform our words.

  3. Thank you for the new poet and poems to explore, but even more, your poem that seems so open and heartfelt. I suspect no matter the relationship feelings that every one of us could write those lines: "She taught me to be a mother. Sometimes knowing
    what not to do is the best lesson." Your class sounds wonderful.

  4. "silence is not golden when it shuts people out." I love that. And what a brave poem, Doraine. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Ah, we silent types understand the difference, don't we?

  5. I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
    what anyone will remember is that we came.

    She taught me that kindness is more
    important than the appearance
    of kindness.

    So much wisdom in those lines. Thank you for sharing these poems, Dori. It takes great courage to do this...and insight, forgiveness and love.

    1. Tara, I appreciate your comments. It was not a difficult thing to write, much grace in the learning has brought me beyond the struggle. But making it public was a distinct choice that took some thought, especially when there is no intention to hurt those people that have informed the art, if art it is. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment.

  6. Late to the party this week I am, Doraine, but I had to add my thanks for your sharing Julia Kasdorf and sharing your own beautiful, hard, back-to-beautiful poem - really very moving.

  7. Wow, that was amazing....makes me want to write my own.