In the spacious hallway of Jean Janzen’s home in Fresno hangs a large painting, life-size but looks larger, of her paternal family: Mother and father sitting tall and straight with seven children surrounding them. Overlaid with gold, this portrait of this Russia-born family takes on the feeling of an Orthodox icon.
The son standing at the back, strong and tall, was the father my late husband Walter. The first time I saw the painting, I wanted to look and look to fathom the thoughts of each member of this family group, now immortalized in this highly stylized painting. Who were they? What were they thinking. I only met two of the three oldest sons who found their way to America-- my father-in-law and one brother.
Jean and I didn’t connect until well after Walter’s death and she and Louis were firmly entrenched in their sprawling Tudor house. I spent many nights in this home enjoying the gracious hospitality and friendship of these relatives by marriage. By then Jean was well on her way to becoming a poet and I was discovering details of my husband’s family I hadn’t known during our short marriage about his family.
In her most recent book Entering the Wild, a compilation of essays about faith, family, and writing, Jean delves into the depths of her own life to identify the compulsions that turn life into the words of poetry.
One after another, she offers possibilities for the origins of her growing body of poems. Was it her father’s love of learning? Possibly.
Was it born during the period of isolation when husband Louis was deeply immersed in medical residency and she was left to her own resources? Could be.
Was it marriage itself, which she terms “a mix of harvest and relinquishment”?
It could have come from the crossover of her love for music (she was an accomplished pianist) to poetry. Love of music was a key characteristic of the Wiebe family I learned to know. Any time some of them gathered, before long, they were gathered around the piano singing hymns learned in childhood.
Jean comes closer to answers when she first studied literature as a mature woman at the university and encountered unforgettable poets like Emily Dickinson, not hampered by restrictions on language. Jean writes about her own “slow release from piety,” from writing words expected of her to meet church specifications to be considered spiritual.
Dickinson used ordinary experiences like encountering a bee on the prairie to create poems that have nourished countless readers. She entered the wild to find her voice. Such poets and inspiring instructors urged Jean to also “enter the wilderness” that the creative life demands.
But even that is not the whole answer to the origin of her poetry.
Jean found her true voice in family stories, better still, family secrets, one of which she learned about for the first time the day after her father’s death: the suicide of her grandmother in the Russia, a source of “sorrow and shame.”
Out of that new awareness came the gripping poem “These words are for you, grandmother.”
I remember visiting with Wiebe family members shortly after this poem was read publicly and they were forced to deal with this secret now in the open. The discussion at the family gathering was intense. Why bring this suicide up now when this shame had lain buried for some sixty or more years, probably in a grave outside the fence, as it was the custom decades ago. Suicides had no place in the graveyard proper.
Yet Jean dug even deeper into family stories, visiting the former USSR to meet with uncles and families to hear their painful stories of flight, forced labor, death by starvation, and much more during the Stalinist era.
Her poetry comes out of the “roar and silences” of life, she writes. She holds stories of such times in her memory and entrusts them to her words for others to savor. Her words are always picked with love, tenderness, and precision.
Poetry is meant to be read and reread. I keep thinking of the fast forward trend toward e-books. Yet how can I hold an e-reader in my hands and turn again and again to poems I cherish to look for underlined phrases. Books of poetry, like Jean Janzen’s, are meant to line shelves. I want them to be there, always, with personal penned dedication to me, not in an impersonal hard, metallic e-reader.