Poems from a Mennonite Grandson
Me nite Father:
Elmer Suderman Gl/sta~~Audso lphus College
Elmer Suderman is Professor Emeritus of English at Gustavus
Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, where he still teaches part-time.
He is also a dynamic preacher whose services are drawn upon by Mennonite
and non-Mennonite congregations alike. His poetry has been widely published
over many years and, as this selection of his poems richly demonstrates,
he is at his best when evoking the ethnic ambience of his rural
American-Mennonite background. Intensely interested in Mennonite literature,
Elmer Suderman is a sensitive, articulate and discerning critic who was
quick to recognize the early literary promise of Mennonite writers like
Warren Kliewer and Rudy Wiebe. He is also a skilful translator who has
translated, among other German works, the journal kept in 1873 by his
grandfather Leonhard Sudermann, one of the twelve Russian-Mennonite
leaders who came to America to assess settlement sites for the migration of
My Mennonite Father's Eyes
My father's picture hangs on our living room wall.
Not yet thirty, unmarried, he was handsome
with red whiskers, neatly trimmed,
hair carefully parted on the left.
Born one hundred and twenty years ago,
he died, my diary reminds me, when he was
seventy, May 14, 1938 at 10:05 p.m.
I was seventeen. In two short years I'll
be as old as he was when he died.
I look into those eyes that
.Io~rr.r~oafl Merlrlorlite Studies Vol.
hleririoriite Father 9 7
watched thunder storms gather in the west
but never saw Danish rockers or Gogan prints,
never saw or even dreamt of TV or jet planes,
atomic bombs, space ships,
never read Einstein, Darwin or Freud,
or Hlicklebel-l-y Fiiziz.
he ever wanted to know the world's name,
didn't know it.
He was satisfied to know simple names:
weat, woltje, himmel, raajn, kegel, pead.
He wasn't sure what a Ph.D. was:
"title docta" he called them.
I look into his eyes and wonder
how he must feel about his "title docta"
son. Concerned I think.
I look at those eyes follow me now,
and wonder what he's thinking
watching from that long-past photograph
as I read a book or write a poem.
Long nights he sees me here trying
to understand and write about eyes,
his and mine, eyes that seeing see not.
I was, he once told his friend,
who lived across the street, a pest.
His other children, he said, kept quiet,
didn't ask questions.
I wanted to know
what you called the world.
I remember seeing him shiver on cold nights:
sweat under hot sun, pace hard oak floor.
In the hutch next to his picture
the same clock that struck
the midnight hours for him
strikes for me in the middle of my night,
then one and two and some nights four
before I fall fitfully asleep
and wake up weary. He understands.
.lour-nu1 of Met717onite Studies
As I trace our strange story
bound so inextricably together
Yet so far apart, neither hearing
the voice of the other,
our eyes meet, he looking
from the photograph at me
across the silence of fifty years.
I return his look and sometimes
across that silence I still hear him
saying with raspy breath before he died:
"Dee meda kjarpa jeit too ruh."
Then once more
I stand at his death
bed, our eyes sharing the years' long look.
To Know Which Way North Is
Grandfather waited for a clear starry
night to lay the foundation in this
new world for his first house built
from the sod of Kansas prairie
to make sure the walls ran straight
north and south and east and west
using the north star as his plumb line.
He wanted to be sure he always knew
which way north was, just as he always
wanted to lcnow which was right
so he could do the right. That house,
insignificant, on that enormous space
would always steer him right.
I do not always know where
in the slcy to look for that illusive
star to which the compass points.
When I find the north star today
shine through all the smog and glare
of city lights, it often isn't
I was so sure it had to be.
It Was Lilte This
It was like this:
Father and I were
walking on the back eighty
when he said:
"If you look over there,
you'll see it,
that line our prairie makes
when it touches the sky
slicing the sun in half
and then into a quarter.
That line has swallowed up
and the glow explodes
until the dark will swallow up
The wind will shove
silence and night
over stubble fields.
over buffalo grass.
We'll walk home
in the dark."
Grandfather Jacob Becker died
before I was born. But the shoe last
he used then to pound the
into shape to make a meagre living is mine now.
hold that last and that far off
and unknowable time when he held it,
becomes a now. I turn the last
over and over and see the marks
of his nails and grandfather
who left a church, decadent,
he thought, to start a new and
purer he thought Briidergemeinde
is suddenly not long dead
but here witli his flowing beard,
quoting endless Scripture verses
from memory. I hold his last
and he is here, and my mind flits
back and forth between his time
and mine, between his world and my world
so different from his, and the past
is no longer a far away thing
at the faded limits of long gone
past years. Holding this last
in my hands, the past crowds in
on today, my day, to become a powerful
presence witli which I must deal.
Holding this last in my hand, here
in a home, simple, really, but
for him so plush he would never
see one like it, grandfather whose
voice I never heard, speaking
about what I'm told his tongue
tripped over when living
speaks to me now more intimate
than he could ever have spoken
when alive speaks, his tongue
nimble now, of baptism by immersion,
of ecstasy in Jesus Christ, and I, aghast,
embarrassed, repelled at what he says
am quick to judge. I, not wanting to listen now,
to his long-gone voice
I never heard
but hear so clearly now,
stop, think and withhold judgment,
unable at last to judge.
Merlr~or~iFtea ther. 101
Father Husbanded His Words
Father husbanded his words
as carefully as he cut straight furrows
plowing wheat stubble,
spoke eloquently in the silence
among the waving wheat we walked through
or in harvest-shared
from wet burlap-wrapped jug.
Fifty years later
hear his tenor voice singing
in a land where few streams flowed
"Iclz weiss eilzeiz Stl-om
desseil llel-l-liche Flut
Fliesst wunderbal- stille durch's Laizcl"
accompanied by the squeak of chains
and gentle motion of porch swing
he rocked on every summer evening
after he retired.
Know His Own Story?
Did he know his own story?
What dreams did he dream
as he sat there looking
out the window at Bermuda grass
he planted when he moved to town
and watered faithfully and protected
from irksome sandburrs? Did he know
that his past told a story?
When he owned a half section
of land, he said it would do.
It was enough to keep mother
comfortable after he died.
He was right. He retired a few
months before Black Friday
tumbled wheat prices
to twenty-five cents a bushel.
Jollr~ml of Meririoriite Srlrdies
Frugal all his life, he didn't
mind living on $400 a year,
his only extravagance an occasional
bunch of bananas once a month
from Wedel's grocery where mother
sent him to get a loaf of bread
and quart of milk. He was satisfied
to rock the past awake:
coming to Kansas from the Ukraine,
age eleven, working from sunrise
to sunset busting sod for others
to help his parents build their
first sod house;
homestead a quarter section
for himself when the Cherokee Strip
opened; buying in 1910 his first
model T and later a long line
of chevrolets. Did he know, sitting
there at that window that window
rocking and humming
"Die Zeit ist kurz
Mensch sei weise"
that his past told a story?
If he did he never told me.
And I asked.
I think about him often, wondering
about the stories he did not tell
so I might tell for him
stories that might be true.
My favorite English Teacher
Just a little tribute to Professor Elmer Suderman, deceased for many years now, but still remembered.
Anyone else ever have a professor tell them to ignore their assignments if necessary, and read what you chose because what you read by choice was going to teach you a whole lot more than any thing the professor was going to impart on you?
If they ever do a Rick Perry on me, and go back and look at my college transcripts, they will find that in all the liberal arts courses I took, the other English classes, Speech, Fine Arts, and yes, even Organic Chemistry, I had low grades. All except for one English course, the one taught by a fellow farm boy...Elmer Suderman.
Suderman gave an objective type test, early on, with only right or wrong answers. Since I do know how to take tests, I naturally did quite well. After that we had a conversation, and I told him how the subjective type teachers, the ones that can read your essay and give you whatever type of grade they choose to, evidently did not like what I wrote. I named the teachers, and Suderman told me that those guys were a bunch of jerks and he did not care much for them either. The conversation did not make me want to take any more English courses, but it did make me feel better about Liberal Arts in general....that there was some hope for people outside of the business and math side of the campus.
Elmer gave a talk one day about the elites in education that he had encountered, and how difficult they had made his life, as he made his journey from Kansas farm boy to a professorship at a private college in Minnesota. I googled him just now and found that a college in Iowa has a scholarship in his honor...he must have attended higher education in Iowa on his way to Minnesota. A very common and genuinely nice man.
All this talk about how ordinary Rick Perry is makes me think of some other presidents that were not intellectuals. At least not pompous professors like the Zero. Abraham Lincoln...self schooled. Andrew Jackson, frontiersman. Dwight Eisenhower, military leader. Ronald Reagan, hollywood star turned democratic politician turned republican icon.
No clue if Rick Perry ever becomes president or if he would be a good one, but I think the liberals that are bashing him so much must see that the guy is very electable. Otherwise, why would there be any fuss?
Re: My favorite English Teacher
Great story Red, I`ve only had great teachers, some, it took 20 years to stop hating but they all had my best interests at heart. A 5th grade math teacher seemed only to be extremely tough on me, she seemed to coddle everyone else, even though I was pretty good at math. She passed away this summer, one of the very few that thought that I might excel at something other than sows and plows. God Bless you, Ruth.
Re: My favorite English Teacher
Professor Suderman asked me to come back some time after graduation and visit him and let him see what became of me...I wish I had taken the time to go see him but I never did. He was a geniune teacher, one that really cared about his students.
I think almost all of my math teachers were good teachers, from high school through college. It takes a special type of person to teach math, and the skills required seem to eliminate the flakes and slackers.
Re: My favorite English Teacher
Well, I survived some very tough times, there are many bigger, a few smaller. I sleep like a baby at night, look forward to each day. Love what I do, if I meet a stranger who`s wearing a seedcorn cap I can easily talk for an hour to them about farming. I`ve spoiled my Wife and Kids, all I can say is I`m happy.