The Outsider’s Precarious Existence: A Review of Angeline Schellenberg’s Fields of Light and Stone

By Cheryl Barkman Skupa

The title of Angeline Schellenberg’s book of poetry comes from the names of two villages—Lichtfelde and Steinfeld—in the Molotschna Mennonite Colony, which existed in the Ukraine from 1804 until the end of World War II. 

Schellenberg, as well as many other Russian Mennonites (including me), trace their origins to either the Chortitza or Molotschna colonies, which were formed when Catherine the Great invited Mennonites from Prussia as well as other Germanic peoples to the empire to farm the vast Russian steppes. There, Russian Mennonites, such as Schellenberg’s grandparents, endured the uncertainty of the last days of the czarist rule, as well as the increasing chaos as waves of the Red Army, the White Army, and the independent army of anarchists swept through the land. Schellenberg’s poems speak of this specific immigration to the steppes, then the desperate escape to Canada, just two of the many relocations the Mennonites have experienced over the centuries. Yet the book also bears witness to the universal immigrant experience. 

In the poem “Everything There Is to Say,” Schellenberg writes: 

The Siberian elms (like my ancestors) 
would not stay in one place; 
they sent defiant seeds searching
for a home on distant lawns and 
under foundations, resistant
to tugs. And every time
I tore from my wooden house
in tears, ran for the border
between fields—my shelter 
belt—everyone knows 
what the aspens 

The major themes of most CCKs (including TCKs) are prominent in this book: the search for home, the longing for shelter, and the outsider’s precarious existence in the metaphoric “border between fields.” 

Schellenberg’s poetry tells this story with a strong sense of place. We see, hear, smell, and experience both the Russian farm life as well as farm life on the Canadian prairies. It is ironic that many of these immigrants were farmers—tied to the land with its rhythms of days and seasons as a source of livelihood, yet invariably moving to a new place when faced with new waves of misunderstanding, persecution, or economic opportunity. 

Some of the poems deal with deeply human experiences of imperfect people; in fact, Schellenberg begins the book with a dedication “For all those who seek comfort in story with love for these imperfect saints.” And these human and imperfect stories are apparent in poems such as in “Threads,” where she writes, 

You lie awake, 

needlessly fingering

this patchwork guilt.

Remorse, a code

you live by; distress calls

for someone to blame.

Schellenberg evokes the poignant scene with “patchwork guilt” in place of the words, “patchwork quilt,” something I didn’t catch the first time I read it. 

Some of Schellenberg’s poems have touches of humor. In the poem, “Beckoning Hills,” she writes, “your small-town museum saves / one-hundred kinds of barbed wire / a wall of sexy salt shakers.” From there she moves to the more serious item, “the nose / from a cannon projectile sent home / with Norman Gordon’s personal effects,” and then back into the ridiculous: “recovered from turkey gizzards at the poultry plant / this display of rusty nails / white stones / and dice.” 

Schellenberg writes of . . . the things which often have fueled and continue to fuel relocation, upheaval, immigration.

When I reread the book for this review, I saw it not only as historically interesting, but I also saw it in light of current events in Russia and the Ukraine. In the poem, “As We Left They Sang,” Schellenberg writes of the troubled years of 1910–1924: the invading armies, the pillaging, the hunger, the struggle to survive, the things which often have fueled and continue to fuel relocation, upheaval, immigration. Schellenberg writes: 

The day they took him 
It was muddy. 
Children, this time only prayer will help… 
October. Black troops stronger 
than White chop off limb by limb. 
November cannons. Cossacks 
to disband the Black. 
Christmas night, give 
food and lodging for the Red. 
We had traded with the Cossacks for some sugar, 
But they took it all away. . . 
The second floor once used to store grain 
The remaining kernels. 
Things hidden. Our wedding bands. 
We lay down so we wouldn’t feel our hunger. 
Potatoes the size of hazelnuts. . . . 
Our big dog Woljshanck and our little dog Damka 
and everything dear to us stayed back. 
As we left, they sang, Jesus, go before us. 
Tears as our train took us away. 

It seems this poem summarizes in short succinct form the dark days of life which preceded a desperate decision to rip up roots and emigrate to a new country. 

Though this book of poetry can at times present an intense reading experience (poetry is, after all, powerfully condensed), it also is imprinted with the struggles and joys of a child of immigrants, intent on understanding the experiences of those who left all they knew to start over in Canada. The book is inspired by genealogical information, old love letters, notes from the poet’s grandfather’s German Bible, and her own memories. And central to these experiences is the two worlds that all children of immigrants must straddle while interacting with parents and grandparents. I read the book, in part, to understand my own family’s immigrant experience. 

Angeline Schellenberg has another book of poetry titled Tell Them It Was Mozart. You may read more about her on her website.

Cheryl Barkman Skupa grew up in Brazil, and has taught English in the People’s Republic of China. She’s also spent many years teaching high school and college English to both native and non-native speakers.

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