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Week 8 Brandt and “Questions …”

October 29th, 2012 by Colin Martin

Our next installment; I look forward to hearing your responses to Di Brandt’s book and its associated themes.

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21 responses so far ↓

  • Oct. 31

    In “Questions i asked my mother”, Di Brandt uses the image of a “belly” quite often. In keeping with the themes of symbolism and phallicism, I’m starting think that she may be using the image of a belly as a “counter-phallic” symbol. The first thing I think of when someone says “belly” is pregnancy. It’s big, soft, fragile, always changing and eventually gives birth to life. It’s extremely feminine and personal; I think that it may be one reason why Brandt uses it.
    Brandt first mentions her belly when she gets lost with her mother in the museum and has her first encounter with secular art. She describes a “strange feeling in the belly” after seeing some provocative paintings which leads “some deeper hunger” (11) within her. This may be the point that she starts to realize her sexuality, similar to that of a teenage boy as described by Freud. She continues to feel and experience things with her belly, “sour in my belly my / limbs heavy with aching” (30) when she is lonely and searching for truth, “the pain in us belly deep” (44) while trying to drown out sorrow in the company of a lover, and her “belly full / of tears” while her mother holds her. She also seems to draw strength from her belly, “the belly’s trembling just when you / need strength” (55) while dealing with the confusion of a mid-life crises. It’s almost like it is the object in which she uses to interact with the world.

    Justin Neufeld

  • It was the fist time that i faced a book written in questions, and i found it a powerful way to express author’s own feelings and emotions. I think its really clear in the book the will that moves Brandt to write it, as denounces her past as a Mennonite girl where female sexuality was repressed and corporal punishment was almost a daily habit. This book made me think about religion matters, as you can believe or not believe, but it’s the framework around any religion which let me puzzled. How can a religious community -which express values of fraternity, love, respect, all taken for the Bible and Jesus’ life- practice physical violence and equal rights ? Reading a Brandt’s interview she says ” our Mennonite heritage is filled with all kinds of painful and scandalous contradictions, and sensitive people growing up in that context will necessarily suffer them in painful ways”: How is this possible ? Being totally unaware about the Mennonites, Di Brandt still made me do a question if we moved forward to an human being improvement in all these decades or if we still stand still to old values that won’t never change

  • November 7, 2012

    In Di Brandt’s “Questions i asked my mother”, she is writing about her past life as a Mennonite woman. After reading a short biography on Brandt, I think her story is both admirable and courageous. I feel sad knowing how tough her life must have been at such a young age.

    In the first section she talks about asking her mother questions about things she was curious about. Not only did she not get an answer to the questions but she was also scolded for asking them. Her father wanted her to be silent and to listen to the teachings of the Church. She discusses the Mennonite way of living that did not always make sense. She talks about not being able to look glamorous or look in the mirror for more than 30 seconds. She talks about not being able to be seen as beautiful even though that is God’s creation. She didn’t understand why women were allowed to wear necklaces but other jewelry items were not allowed to be worn. She challenged the beliefs they followed and she couldn’t stop herself from asking and being curious.

    Towards the end we see her wishing that she was like her sister and was able to live like everyone else in her family and the community. More than anything she just wanted her mother’s approval and love.

    Alyssa Mitha

  • While reading a piece of work I believe that it is important to have an idea of what the author’s personality is like and to shape the idea of what their personality is like as you read their pieces. While reading ” Questions I asked My Mother” by Di Brandt, i saw her personality as being extremely curious, strong, and persistent. Her personality is one that I could connect with and from this perspective I love her work. I love the way she writes in a unique form which really forces you to think about the poetry in more depth, at least that’s how I experienced it.On the other hand however, I found her work extremely difficult to read in its entirety. I am a christian and anyone who has read this book would see that it does not shine a good light on a lot of the values and beliefs of Christians. Due to this I found myself having to put the book down quite a few times just to collect my thoughts. From this perspective her book annoyed me, but I did find it helpful in the sense that it forced me into thinking of some really important ideas and reinforced an idea that I sometimes forget and that is that there are people out there who vastly differ from me, the way I view things, and my way of thinking. This all led me to having mixed feelings while reading the book.
    While reading her poetry I found it amusing how beautifully she could connect some ideas of the bible to everyday ideas. One being when she talks about her middle name, Ruth, and connects it to the biblical story of Ruth and how when a woman named Naomi’s two sons died, Naomi was left with two daughters in law, one of which left her and the other, Ruth, who faithfully stayed with her. In the poem ” Diana” Di Brandt writes ” I clung to this story as a way of getting through the other passage from the bible which had to do with me” Pg. 17. I was really interested in this part of the poem since it conveyed the idea that Di Brandt wanted to be accepted, not cast out and looked down on. Sadly that is exactly what her father did, he saw her way of thinking as disrespectful and inappropriate and because of this he did not accept her. I found that connection really interesting. With all of this said, I feel that Di Brandt’s book offers a good story about her life, my only critique is that I am not a fan of the way she writes about some subjects that I find sacred.

  • I was fairly impressed by the book “Questions I asked my mother” written by Di Brandt. The overall theme of this book was Brandt’s character discovering that she was not satisfied by the traditions of her Mennonite background. With such a broad theme, there are inevitably many minor, still relevant, themes which help us to fully comprehend the criticism she was presenting to us.
    Brandt speaks her mind a lot, especially in the chapter titled “always the other person.” I was really impressed at the tone of voice in these poems because of how she convinced me that we were actually in a bathroom. Many of these poems were straight forward, such as the one where Brandt had to shuffle past a fat lady in order to run to the bathroom. However, I wasn’t able to understand the meaning of the rubber lady, nor the black bear.
    It wasn’t until I took a step back to try and visualize what the chapter as a whole was trying say. I was thinking that maybe Brandt never intended this chapter to be intellectual. So I tried to read these poems again, as if I was just going to the bathroom. That’s when it became obvious, and I realized that the rubber lady was nothing more than her recent memory of a pregnant woman in the bathroom. The black bear was simply the last time she was in the bathroom and realized that she was entering puberty.
    The chapter makes much more sense when if you don’t try the over think it. Brandt was presenting her character as hyper-attentive, more than the typical child.

    Raymond Luong

  • Little “i” versus big “I”.

    Feminism, a political, social and legal ideology; and a good one. Of all the ideologies out there I identify most with feminism. Yes, a man who is a feminist. There are three (main) branches of the ideology: Liberal, Marxist, and Radical. Of the three I straddle two of them, the hint as to which two is that one of them is impossible for any sane man to subscribe to. It is the sad truth that only within the last few decades have we, North American society, made any real progress towards true equality between the genders. We still have a long way to go. I can get behind just about any feminist idealism, I tend to avoid the schemes that seem overly sensitive, spiteful or just plain silly. One such concept that I can’t help but to feel is silly is phallic assignment to any and everything that could be an analog for a penis. C’mon, when they proposed the CN Tower they never said “you’ll love it! it looks like a giant dick!”. Silly. When they designed pans and pencils at no point did they think “it will be holding a dick”. Silly. Which brings me to big “I’ versus little “i”. This movement of feminist writers and poets is not one I can get behind. With all the blatant inequality still going on in the world, I cant help but to feel that this is more than a little silly. An “I” in any of its incarnations still looks like… an “I”. At no point when I am writing do I think “well here’s a good place for me to put my dick…” (Blam) I. IIIIIiiiiIIII. Nope still looks like a bunch of “I”‘s. Silly.

  • Upon reading “Questions i asked my mother” by Di Brant, I felt as though the character had a sense of emptiness in her throughout the entire book.
    As a child she had so many questions to ask that would never get answered. Furthermore she would often get reprimanded for asking them in the first place. Upon putting myself in the child’s shoes I felt deprived of love, which would lead to a sort of emptiness. Then later as a young adult, Brandt chooses to leave the Mennonite community, I think the only time someone would choose to leave a “community” is if they felt they did not fit in, and were not truly part of the group. She had to have felt as though something was seriously lacking in her life to have made such a bold and life-altering move. Then later in the book, when the character is an adult she still appears to have a sense of emptiness in her life. She feels as though she doesn’t have to arms or breasts needed to give her children the love of a mother. Adding on to that she seems to imply that it is because she lacked a mother’s love in her own life.
    This huge cycle of emptiness and lacking that Brandt describes in this book makes me feel both sad and fortunate. Sad that there are people who go literally their entire life with the sense that something is missing in their life, but also fortunate that I have raised surrounded by so much love and support from my family.

  • Reading the “Question i asked my mother” at first,I thought it is just about a little teenage girl questioning his mother about her family secret until prof break this down for us in class. I did not know that there is something called Synecdoche until i came to University. I guess i have some vocalbulary added to my asernal. The whole missionary positon is not a christian missionary, but the dark cover that happens between a couple at night. Furthermore, Brand not only talk about sex, but question each reader on his or her belief that is did you believe religion because your parent say so or on your own. These questions allow the readers to reexamine his or herself about her faith because she went outside the boundary given to her by her parent.

  • In Questions I asked my Mother I found it extremely easy within the first couple pages to understand that the people involved where most likely Amish or Mennonite. Although it never says directly that they are in fact Mennonite, nor mentions any words associated to these groups it somehow conveys it very strongly. Within the first couple pages I was already thinking of the show breaking Amish, and maybe this is what she meant or perhaps I’ve been watching too much TV. Another thing about the book that I enjoyed was the use of questions. Most books are written with answers, and so this one is against the grain. As well the questions asked have a way of working into your head, perhaps that’s part of our human nature. After hearing a question we cannot help but try to think of an answer. For that reason I find her use of questions very successful. I also find these help connect me to the book, the questions asked could be asked of anyone, or perhaps they are questions we are already seeking the answer to.

  • “Questions I asked my mother”, for me, was the most inviting as a reader. The prose, even given the stream of conscious format, was quite accessible compared to the other types of poems we have seen in the course. By accessible I mean I was welcomed into Di Brandt’s streamlined thoughts, and given a brief tour of her personal (to what extent we can speculate, though I believe the chapter entitled shades of sin had her most autobiographical accounts) which I felt I could connect to.

    The title of the book warms the reader up to the types of questions she asks her mother. Brandt describes herself as the “one who asked too many questions.” I get the sense of skepticism in her writings and questions. The biggest type of skepticism is relating to religion. She questions why, why, why, ranging from why we cannot take everything based on pure face value without personal evidence and experience to the more humorous, why bread rises. I’m only speculating on the former but I do think Di Brandt is a very internal individual who must find truths out for herself, whatever they may be to her and to what extent she accepts them. Religion aims to answer many of the questions humanity has about life and we have satisfaction when we find or realize them for ourselves, except for the believers (I use this word loosely) of Pyrrhonism. Pushing the boundaries of what we consider true or untrue is wildly and boundlessly fascinating, and I find it remarkable she asks such profound questions at such a young age. The religious inquiry contained inside the book is an extremely interesting journey on her spiritual questioning within the Mennonite community.

    I came across this short poem written by Mary Carolyn Davies that I found most appropriate for “Questions I asked my mother” and without a doubt would make Di Brandt’s feminist and Mennonite receptors fire.


    Women are door-mats and have been,-
    The years those mats applaud,-
    They keep their men from going in
    With muddy feet to God.

  • When I started reading “Questions I asked my mother” by Di Brandt, I kept noticing Brandt was referring to a group of people who were known as Mennonites though she did not mention the word Mennonite. Brandt who is also a Mennonite reflects countless times she encountered that were troublesome such as her day-to-day life of getting picked on. Also, in the book Brandt speaks about pregnancy when she mentions, “belly” in the poem. As she goes into details of this in the book, she expresses the painfulness of it and how others such as male will never experience that pain. Later on the poem, Brandt “questions” her deceased mother on how hard life is now and how she didn’t prepare her for this. Furthermore, after those two in particular parts of the poem I wondered in the end if the book is more about Mennonites or feminism?

    Daniel Feng

  • “Questions I asked my mother” was by far the most enjoyable read so far this semester. I really enjoyed reading this book as I felt that I could connect with it fairly well. I was raised in a very devout Catholic family consisting of a Mother, Father, my self and three sisters. Like the Mennonite community, the Roman Catholic faith is significantly gender biased, and I have witnessed this imbalance my whole life. In my family, my Father was the authority, and my mother was a submissive caretaker for my sisters and me. I was taught from an early age that when my father was away from home for work that I was to be the “man of the house”. I always found this odd, as I was only a boy, but I was supposed to be acting as an authority figure aver my sisters, and possibly even over my mother.

    I have since left the church, and have abandoned those views of male superiority. It never sat right with me that men should been viewed as superior to women, just as it never sat right with Di Brandt. Luckily for me, as a man it was easier to integrate into the social norm of social equality, as I did not have to fight to feel better about my self. I merely had to see women, in the way that I always knew, as equals, not as submissive partners.

  • One thing that stood out to me on first reading ‘Questions I Asked My Mother’ was the lack of punctuation. I think Di Brandt may have chosen this free flowing format to allow the reader structure the poem in a way that they think best makes sense to them.

    But as I went further into the first poem and the rest of the book, it became much harder to find the proper, intended meaning unless I worked out exactly where punctuation should have been.

    I think Brandt seems to be trying to say that though her religious Mennonite community appears to offer people an identity, there are tight restrictions that are enforced on the people which bar any form of real freedom.

    This idea is reiterated when she says she wishes the sky was still pasted on to her ceiling. She shows that although it might have seemed like her thoughts were free and that her mind was a place in which there were no limits, her life and views were all being constructed by the community and its traditions.

    So the initial ease I felt in reading the book quickly faded and Brandt portrays the ways in which her mind had been made to conform to so many societal rules and restrictions, and how as an adult, she now has a distrust for those in power. This might be an explanation for why she uses God not as he is known, but as a kind of metonymy for people in power.

    In ‘Shades of Sin,’ “when I was five, I thought” could be the first sentence, and then “heaven was located…” could be the second. The first time I read the poem, I was reading each line in small chunks and trying to make meanings and sentences from the smallest strings of words, which is why I got these two sentences. It was only at the end of the second phrase that I realized that they were the same sentence. I don’t know if this was Brandt’s intention, but the poems somehow changed their meanings each time I read them. It was annoying to find that what I had initially understood was a misinterpretation, but it helped me understand her anger and perplexity at how everything she thought was the truth turned out to be wrong.

    The lack of punctuation could also be the outpouring of all her anger.

    Now and adult, she still questions like when she was a child. The difference, however, is that when she was younger, she was inquisitive and wanted to make sense of her surroundings, asking if “arithmetic was invented or discovered.” But now, there is a constant sense of sarcasm or cynicism in her still unanswered questions.

  • Living as a Mennonite means living under the churches rules and teachings. Throughout the book, she continues to question everything that is brought out in front of her. She was very curious and insistent in finding out the smallest and absolute truth of everything. She continues to push throughout the book to find out the truths of everything being told to her, because she believed that there was more to everything and some things that were being taught to her were being contradicted with another teaching. All her questions allowed for her to find herself and understand the world as it is. Her questions were very valid and understandable, questions that even we ourselves could be questioning.

    Aingela Carlos

  • I’ve always been interested in the communities like the Mennonite and the Amish. There isn’t much information out there because the communities are closed off and keep to themselves. When I found out that Di Brandt was from a Mennonite community and she wrote poems from her childhood, I was so excited. It was a personal insight to what went on in her community. If she was still part of the Mennonite community, she would not have had the opportunity to write and publish these poems. Her poems were very heavily focused on the bible and Jesus and God. Yet she didn’t write of the bible in the conventional way which I found interesting. She referred to Jesus as her lover and sleeping with the celestial god. Something that most religious people would not dare to speak about. She had courage to write these stories and made them her own. She was very curious as a child and thus the book is called “Questions I asked my mother”. She was an innocent child that just wanted to know the answers to the questions in her head without being judged for it.

  • The first thing I noticed, skimming through the book “Questions I Asked my Mother,” was that all of Brandt’s writings did not have any punctuation. That gave me as sense of liberty; I felt that what she wrote were things that she has kept to herself for so long. Even before we started reading it and tried to understand what she means in her poems, I felt a mix of emotions already, maybe because writing, for me, was also a way of venting.

    The book is titled “Questions I Asked my Mother” but as we read through the book, I think it was quite evident that many of Brandt’s poems were about her father. The first of the “missionary positions” poems describes Jesus as having sex with Brandt’s literary self. In class, we talked about Brandt’s background as a Mennonite. She most likely came from a conservative hometown, therefore in her line about “jesus for a lover” (28), Brandt seems to criticize Mennonite beliefs about Jesus and/or the Bible (which could also explain why she does not capitalize His name). Brandt uses jesus as a metaphor in this case.

    Brandt also addresses the concept of death, the existence of a soul, and what we become after death. I saw this in the poem on page 5 when Brandt talks about the death of her grandfather and questions her family’s belief that he will rise again from the dead. Her father replies with anger saying that Brandt is always trying to figure everything out by herself instead of just accepting the teachings of the church.

    Essentially, I think Di Brandt’s book conveys all of her mixed feelings and emotions as a younger person who questions the world. Being that our parents are supposedly our first teachers, Brandt questions a lot of what she has been taught and thus she tries to find herself and her identity. Brandt does this through her skepticism about the faith and identity of her family and trying to make sense of her own.

  • After writing the main essay on Brandt, I feel as though I’ve become a broken record with Di Brandt, so here’s an attempt to invigorate some new ideas. In her poem “how come there were all those stories” (pg. 57), a sibling rivalry surfaces. The exclusion that naturally comes between siblings is the harbinger of sour emotions. But, there is also the search for differentiating between you and your brother/sister; to seek your individuality.

    Attention and love is a commodity in a household. Though there is only so much to be given and how it is distributed from parent to each individual child is usually unequal. This inequality brings “about being left out / in the cold” for one of the siblings – to be excluded from the attention. The desire to be the only one is recognized by: “one of us had / to die there wasn’t room for us both”. As a reprisal from this dark tone, the speaker invokes the desire for both to have their own “paths in this garden for two”, implying there is room for both of them to find themselves separate from each other.

    I personally can associate with the theme of this poem; the underlying animosity that occurs between siblings is very real. But, Brandt is correct in allowing a separation from each other instead of a direct relating. It harbours conflict and breeds insecurities. Finding your own strengths and weaknesses without comparing yourself to your siblings garners the greatest reward.

  • The rest of “Questions I asked my mother” by Brandt surprised me at first. The suddenly overwhelming sexual innuendos just surprised me, and also quite enlightened me. Thinking about my own childhood, after the questions of “why” and “how” have settled down, the curiosity for “sex” came. Although the poems are not just focused on the theme of sex, the thought was there. While my family is non-religious, Brandt’s family was heavily religious, and in that background, Brandt’s curiosities and question would not be answered. The “just kidding ma” on page 34 was really impressive after the collection of “missionary position” poems. In the “missionary position” poems, Brandt played with the word missionary that has both religious and sexual meaning. And the contents were both religious and sexual too. Being non-religious, I get lots of religious offers, of “God loves all of us” and “Jesus is always with you” what not. It was really surprising and funny to see Brandt writing God’s love, Jesus’ love in a literal sense. God was her father, and Jesus was her lover in the poems. Even if I’m non-religious, I am completely sure that many religious people would take her poems offensive with the sexual innuendos. With “just kidding ma” I get the glimpse of possible reactions that Brandt might have received. The poems had several meanings behind their words, and I think those complexity means that Brandt has thought about them for a very long time. “Just kidding ma” contained so much, that Brandt’s thoughts, questions, and emotions were to be stopped.

    Kihyun Rah

  • While reading and riding with the fluctuations of Brandt’s novel, I felt a certain reoccurring genre of realization that stood out from the rest of the content. Two of the poems in particular, she all of a sudden contradicts the fight against settling into conformity that is otherwise taking place. During the first (page 46), she gives way to vulnerability and is admitting that she is subject to the fairytale. She craves the “gleaming hero”, to be passionately enchanted, and an elegantly wrapped parcel of fate. She declares it a “treacherous” fantasy to humor, but I find it an extremely honest and genuine feeling that is perhaps even inherent in human nature. This reversion to an elementary perspective manifests again in a religious context on page 54. She is describing longing for the decorations in her childhood room, but also their significance as a constant heavenly presence. It illustrates the comfort and simplicity and ease that accompanied being able to rely on a consistent story and figure. A time when the whole world didn’t have to be challenged with critical thought, and a happy ending could be measured and calculated and shared with all good and loved people.
    How could it not “clutch still at [the] soul?”

  • For this week’s blog entry I’ll be discussing Di Brandt’s writing style and her lack of punctuation.

    The first thing I noticed when I first started reading “Questions I Asked My Mother” was the lack of punctuation on every single page. Yes this was completely intended, but I just found it so much more difficult to read. Perhaps this difficulty I had with reading the poems is to symbolize the difficulties she was dealing with. Being a Mennonite and not really being allowed to express her inner feelings, maybe Brandt felt the lack of punctuation made it look like she was finally free and could really do what she wanted. Or perhaps the lack of punctuation made the whole book seem like a rant and she was just trying to spill out what she had to say.

    Graeme Howard