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Freedom quest: Di Brandt's re-released poetry collection explores a girl's wonder and creativity.

First published in 1987, Di Brandt's questions i asked my mother launched her international literary career. The poetry collection, an influential work of Canadian and Mennonite literature, represents a bold vision of the feminine that confronts centuries of patriarchal culture.

The question is a powerful form. Perhaps no Canadian poet has demonstrated this like Di Brandt. She has made the question her primary tool, using it to "write [her]self into the twentieth century," as Brandt has put it.

To mark the 30-year anniversary of Brandt's questions I asked my mother, Turnstone Press has re-released the book in a new edition, this time with an afterword essay by Tanis MacDonald and a new cover replacing the original bright yellow frame and line drawing of a girl standing before an artwork of a female nude that is hanging on a wall.

In the essay, MacDonald writes that, during a public reading and Q& A, she asked Brandt to read her "most feminist poem."

Brandt's response, writes MacDonald, was to pick up this, her first book, and to read the poem "my mother found herself." In it, the speaker describes her mother putting "herself" up in the farm pantry, since "she didn't know what to do with her," and after her escape "listening to/ herself in the wind singing."

The moment before Brandt chooses the poem is described by MacDonald as full of feeling:

   Di looked at me with an expression that
   is difficult to describe, except I will. Di
   shot me a look that was full of asperity
   and courage and sly humour. She shot me
   a look that moved the molecules around
   in my face; she shot me a look that I am
   still feeling somewhere behind my eyes.

MacDonald's response stands as a perfect description of how Di Brandt's voice hits the reader. The emotions are raw and authentic, the story very personal. The voice is joyous, needy and needling; defiant and insistent; undeniable in the delight it takes in finding itself and its way out in language; simultaneously irresistible and impossible to ignore. The emotional power of the work has as much to do with this ostensible "mainlining" of inner experience as with Brandt's remarkable sensibility and technique--her craft.

Brandt's choice of poem also speaks to the significance of this book in her own identity-shaping, as a writer and as a woman. She says she "felt very alone while writing this book." In fact, she notes, "It took me many years to recover from the huge experience of writing questions i asked my mother and then fielding all the diverse responses it garnered in Canada and elsewhere. Everything I've written since then came out of that experience in some way."

As Brandt says, not only did the book have a major cultural impact on prairie poetry and poetics, women's writing in Canada, and the development of Mennonite writing in North America, while being acclaimed and celebrated internationally, in Europe and elsewhere, it also "created a storm of controversy among the Manitoba Mennonites and in my own traditionalist Mennonite family and peasant village community."

But it's the intimate and enduring connection between daughter and mother--the question of lineage and connection, of puzzling out resemblances and difference--that seems central to Brandt's writing and to her shaping of identity in the book. The speaker's position as a daughter appealing to her mother for help navigating the world--this first line of questioning in the journey to individuation--is also what so many readers have found compelling about questions i asked my mother.

The mother is receptive to the precocious daughter's questions but doesn't have answers. In the poem that gives its title to the book, the poet writes, "i can see my question is too much for her ... i have to repeat the whole thing my voice rising desperately...." To the question, "do you think arithmetic was invented or discovered," the poet reports the mother's reply as, "well i just don't know she says/ wonderingly i never really thought about it you sure come up/ with the strangest questions really i don't know how you got to be/ so smart...."

Her father responds more directly, and more heavily: "everything you say has this questioning tone ... when are you/ going to learn not everything has to make sense your brain is not/ the most important thing in the world what counts is your attitude/ & your faith your willingness to accept the mystery of God's/ ways...."

Questions have a lot to do with defiance, a refusal to accept things as given. But equally the question has to do with wonder, children's response and gift to the world around them.

And questioning is actually more of a "pre-form." As with the "quest" found inside the word, its energy and possibility lie in its intent: to move towards something else, to begin formulating and creating, finding a (new) path, figuratively or literally. The idea that philosophy begins in wonder goes back to Greek philosophers.

In the poem, the father is unable to see or to accept these aspects of questioning, and he crushes, at least potentially, the possibility of a new path. In her "not knowing," the mother offers something else. Her tender wonder at her own child reflects back to the child the wonder and possibility and potential within the child. The mother accompanies the young girl in wonder; entertaining the questions, she allows for a young girl's creativity, for wonder and the possibility of the question to flourish. In this momentary way, she allows freedom.

Everyone feels the pull to freedom; an artist follows that pull to her path.

Looking back on it now, says Brandt, she felt relieved to "still like most of these poems, and ... proud to have written them at such a young age--even though some of them strike me as rather outrageous now, outrageous in a youthfully flamboyant way....

"So some of the outrageousness in the book reflects the size of courage and chutzpah it took to dare to write it at all."

It was daring: a writer driven by determination and a powerful inner music to leave her traditional Mennonite community and to write herself out of the repressive strictures binding her--led by wonder and by the questions she asked her mother.
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Title Annotation:arts & culture: ARTS PROFILE
Author:Mays, Mariianne
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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