Other Acreage by Becca J.R. Lachman
Gold Wake Press, 2015; 78 pp
Reviewed by Matthew Malmberg
Other Acreage by Becca J.R. Lachman is a reflection in the form of baked pies and Mennonite farmlands. Throughout the book we see Becca after her religious childhood, looking back on the farm she grew up on from the lands of life outside of the church. She explores her spiritual experience from the past and the present, comparing the two in a cyclic dance of self-discovery and religious conformity.
The book takes us on a personal journey, giving us an inside look on life in the Mennonite community through the eyes of someone who chose to leave. Lachman begins by giving us a description of her “Rumspringa”, the experience young Amish adults get to have where they spend time in “normal” society and get to decide whether or not they want to return to their family culture or branch out and embrace a different lifestyle. She describes her encounter with a girl she shared her Rumspringa experience with at a super market some time later. A girl she once kissed “has become what the tourists mean to capture, looks back at me as if studying art that scares her.” The contrast in lifestyle is burningly obvious, where the speaker is dressed in “city clothes and hair shorn down to inches, my body medicined against the threat of children,” the Amish girl is carrying two children. Two girls the same age landing in very different places.
We see this contrast in a much more personal way later in “Icon”, where Lachman receives a warning from her sister, worried that “I may not be doing my holy duties.” Her sister has chosen a stricter lifestyle, and because of that Lachman has become the bad example aunt, the one that “only takes communion twice a year, doesn’t know the new prayers said in unison.” Becca tries to defend herself in the next line, saying “(Saint) Francis stares across my kitchen too.” This becomes a common theme throughout the collection, where we see Becca at times criticizing her faith and her family, but struggling to maintain a spiritual connection despite the fact that she doesn’t agree with all of what her faith claims.
Not something that you hear about every day, the idea of being half in and half out of a counterculture society is rich with contradictions and obstacles to hurdle. Lachman courageously tries to find the appropriate mixture of skepticism and respect, and does well to an extent. She personifies her lust for a permanent connection to her past in her poem “Fences”, in which she describes her visit to the tattoo parlor. Asking for just the outline of an ivy leaf she realizes that her desire for a tattoo parallels her search for consistency in spirit, and that “I’m still asking for the gospel of my body to be branded with some ever-lasting faith, even just in ink.” Her insecurities are further exposed later in the book in her poem “Schooling” where she describes a Muslim student of hers who came to her for help editing a paper. The student is dressed in a full hijab and long black dress, fully comfortable in her faith in college, and Becca wants to know “how to make that daily choice in favor of her own veiled history.” Lachman finishes the poem fully aware of the similarities between their cultures, but critically realizing that despite having similar traditions, “I am not her synonym. I am no allusion.” The uncertainty in her heart is leaking throughout her poems, a feeling that is all too relatable for those struggling with a religious upbringing.
However the other side of the argument is ever present and must not be forgotten. Her poem “Tourist Brochure For Athens, Ohio”, is an expression of frustration towards the way outsiders view her community, and limit the lives of Amish and Mennonite individuals to mere attractions that can be exploited. Throughout the book lies a series of poems involving one Saint Francis and the many situations he gets himself into while being a saint. We see him work at the Columbus Zoo, buy a Burrito Buggy, appear at the scene of a crime and even hand out strawberries. The poems put us in the perspective of a wandering Saint caught trying to find the light in everyday situations, both good and bad. The poem “Wait” is a response to Psalm 27, a faith poem that starts “I have seen things shine. Most days, this is enough: my escape route more grace than gravel.”
Jumping back and forth between being faithful to her upbringing and trying to find joy elsewhere creates an ongoing struggle within the pages of her book. Layered among counterculture descriptions and explorations of different acreages lies a book about a woman’s search for acceptance and closure in a modern world. The book admittedly takes on a lot, a soul search from an Amish/Mennonite culture is not something that many people can relate to, but trying to break free from the past is a universal struggle, and it is there than Lachman thrives. Lachman has weaved together a journey, and the end of that journey is on that only she can truly understand, but that we all can enjoy.