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Tanka Poems
Kaethe Schwehn

In Mark and Dorothy’s home, Biblical stories weren’t just read stoically from a slightly disheveled Bible. The stories were in the art on the walls, in the picture books that filled the shelves, in the ark that decorated the mantle. The stories weren’t just disembodied air. They were lamb figurines you could hold in your hand and swaddled babies you could throw at a sibling. My desire to write from the perspective of Biblical characters came, I think, from not just hearing the stories but from wanting to live inside them.

This emphasis on incarnation was also realized during my Valparaiso childhood summers when, from the ages of nine to sixteen, I participated in the Young Actors Shakespeare Workshop. Together with twenty-five other youngsters and under the guidance of John Steven Paul, I spent the hot days of July mouthing the words of Malvolio or Puck, penciling verbs beside speeches, trying to keep my cotton t-shirt from sticking to the back of the wooden chairs in DeMotte Hall. I was learning the great rhythms of the English language, but I was also learning empathy: what kind of desperation led Lady Macbeth to push her husband into murder? Why would Mercutio make jokes while he died? Why did Leonato’s love for his dishonored daughter look so much like rage?

My father and Dorothy offered me the assurance that Biblical stories were permeable, that we could enter into them. And they taught me that the stories were strong enough to hold whatever voices or questions I found inside.


Kaethe Schwehn
Visiting Assistant Professor of English
St. Olaf College


Tanka as Jacob

Tanka as Ruth*

Tanka as Mary

Tanka as Ark**

* “Tanka as Ruth” was first published inThe Literary Review in Spring 2006.

** “Tanka as Ark” was first published inA Sing Economy,an anthology from Flim Forum Press, in 2007.

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