Eigenheim, Joanne Epp's first full-length poetry collection, is an impressive debut. Eigenheim's seventy-two poems are divided into eight named, rather than numbered, sections with each section including seven to eleven poems. Each section contains poems on a similar theme. For instance, "Catherine" contains poems about the eponymous character; "This stone, and this" is about deceased ancestors; and "Listen" consists of poems inspired by music. However, the theme of place runs throughout the book, and this is the collection's primary strength because it reminds us that we are always from somewhere--that even though we may not want to be of the world, we must be in it. The book's title is the name of Epp's childhood community in Saskatchewan and is defined in the book's epigraph as "one's own home." This sense of place is present on a number of levels, as there are poems examining apartments and houses, towns and cities, and emotional spaces within relationships. One poem begins "I tried to tell you the power of that place" (94), and this line is a fitting description of the task that Eigenheim attempts to accomplish. Eigenheim's theme is reinforced by its cover (whose designer is frustratingly not named in any of the book's paratext, a flaw in the collection's otherwise pristine status as an object, as it meets Turnstone Press's usual high standards), which depicts a layering of the lines from three different building blueprints, causing the illustration to look somewhat like a roadmap.
The theme of place has always been an important one in Mennonite literature, and especially in the Canadian stream of the tradition as writers reflect on the community's roots in Russia. Therefore, Eigenheim fits neatly into the field. It is an overtly Mennonite book, as its blurb mentions Epp's "rural Mennonite roots," and there are section epigraphs from three Mennonite writers: Patrick Friesen (17), Barbara Nickel (31), and Jean Janzen (71). Explicitly Mennonite elements in the poems themselves are rare, though. The title character from "Elisabeth" is from "Chortitza" (26), a handful of poems include some German, and there are a few church scenes, though these could be in any Protestant worship space. This light Mennonite touch works well. The collection does a strong job of being in the world as mainstream literature, but it is also comfortably rooted in Epp's Mennonite background for those who know how to read the signs. The collection, though it includes various speakers, has a clear trajectory from Mennonite-themed poems toward more worldly-themed ones, from the rural to the urban and urbane.
Eigenheim's most memorable poems are the ones that straddle this liminal space between the Mennonite country and the worldly city. "Wu's Cafe," which ends the section about Eigenheim memories called "The known world," depicts the speaker's first road trip across "Nine hours / of highway" into the city. She and her friends get Chinese food, and she saves her cryptically-written fortune afterward "just in case it really is for" her (47). The rules are different in this new place, so one must find whatever talismans for survival are available. In "Snowstorm," the speaker observes the quiet city after a large overnight snowfall from her lover's apartment. Here nature's reminder that it can still overpower the most human-stamped of places helps the speaker remember the bigness of the world as she "watche[s] the city disappear" (74). In "First night," the speaker moves into her new apartment in the "foreign country" of "Ontario" and reflects on "how places forget you after / you leave" (51). The secret to finding happiness in one's new place is to not make this mistake of forgetting. There is both homage to and lament for lost places throughout the book, but never a loss of memory.
The last two sections of the book are less compelling than the rest. Seventy-two works is on the long side for a book of poems; thus it is not surprising that the collection loses some steam toward the end. But two of the poems in the final section are also two of Eigenheim's most poignant. In the one, "In search," the speaker has always had a need to keep moving since childhood; she cannot stay in one place because something is missing (97). The tone is reminiscent of Hank Williams's song "Ramblin' Man," but better. Similarly, "Sometimes this highway," while returning to Eigenheim as its setting, does so only to acknowledge how tempting it is to explore the rest of the world. It asks "why / is this landscape so flat / unless to lure you outward / to where the road disappears?" (102). The longing expressed in these two poems for something new, even though the speaker does not know what that newness will be, is akin to Eigenheim's entrance onto the Mennonite literary scene. We may not have known we were looking for it, but once we have found it, it feels just right.
DANIEL SHANK CRUZ
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|Author:||Cruz, Daniel Shank|
|Publication:||Mennonite Quarterly Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2016|
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