Poetry in Motion: Poem and Prayer in Years, Months, and Days

June 5, 2018

Bridging secular spirituality and holy reverence with the commonalities of life, death, love, and hope, Amanda Jernigan’s Years, Months, and Days (Biblioasis) explores the connection between hymn and poem, recalling the spare beauty of Marilynne Robinsons’s novels or the poems of Jan Zwicky and Robert Bringhurst. The collection’s plain and tender phrasing is “an offering of words to music,” made in the spirit of a shared love—for life, for a particular landscape and its rhythms—that animates poem and prayer alike. Here Amanda talks about the collection's origins and we feature a video reading from the book.

 

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In 2015, I was invited to return to Waterloo County — to St Jacobs, not far from where I grew up — to do an artist residency. St Jacobs is in the heart of Old Order Mennonite country, and I became fascinated by an Old Order hymnal called Die Gemeinschaftliche Liedersammlung, probably one of the earliest books of poetry published in Waterloo Region (it was first published in 1836), and certainly one of the most read, as it is still in use in Old Order homes and meeting houses. These old Protestant hymns are still sung in the German in which they were first published, though a facing-page, literal translation now exists (it was published in 2011). I began to work my way through this document, hymns and translations, and to think about the problem of translation: not just linguistic translation, but cultural translation. What can be carried across from one tradition into another? What must be left behind? I am an outsider to this document in every way: I am not a German speaker; I am not a Mennonite; I am not even, in any doctrinal way, a Christian. Yet I found myself pierced by certain moments in these hymns, certain lines, certain postures of belief or disbelief. Each of these moments became the basis for a meditation, a tiny exploration of what could be carried across, what had to be left behind. I offered my growing collection of fragments to another of the artists working at the residency, the composer Colin Labadie, and he began to work his own translation on them, putting music to and around the text.

The organizer of the artist residency—Isabella Stefanescu, of Inter Arts Matrix—approached a local choir, Menno Singers, about the work that Colin and I were doing. Would they have any interest in performing this piece? I was very nervous about showing them the text: would they see this as the work of a heretical imposter? But the choir’s conductor, Peter Nikiforuk, liked the work, and he and Isabella ended up commissioning the piece for a premiere performance by Menno Singers. Menno Singers is a modern Mennonite choir — not Old Order — the singers themselves both inside and outside the Liedersammlung world.

When I began to think about publishing the text, I knew I wanted the book to have a lot of blank space in it: an indication of all that cannot be carried across; and beyond that, of all that cannot be said. This is a work of music, but it is also a work of silence.

 

 

Amanda Jernigan reading from Years, Days, Months.

 

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Thanks so much to Amanda for sharing the story behind Years, Months, and Days and to Vanessa at Biblioasis for making the connection. For more Poetry in Motion, click here


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