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Review: Boy by Victor Enns - Journal of Mennonite Studies

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Monday, September 9, 2013

Filed under: Reviews

By: Jan Horner

Victor Enns’s latest book of poetry Boy is a work of memoir. The photograph of his family that illustrates the cover page invites the reader to understand the book as personal and autobiographical. Boy takes as its territory that period of childhood from the moment of first consciousness to beginnings of adolescence where one’s life is very much circumscribed by family, school and one’s local community.

The poems take the form of sharply focussed moments, events or vignettes, most no more than one page. They convey a sense of looking back, and of being able only from the distance of adulthood to put into words what was barely understood or impossible to face at the time.

Boy seems to run on two energies: the sense of constraint, rules and boundaries and with it strong feelings of sin and failure; and a sense of desire that encompasses both sexual and intellectual curiosity—a desire to cross over the line. The boy in the book like Victor grows up in Gretna, a small, remote, religious town by the Manitoba-United States border. Books are the boy’s escape. He also lives vicariously through his glamorous older sister who goes to university in Winnipeg and seems to be able to do all sorts of free-minded things like go out with boys of other faiths and read forbidden books.

The poems in Boy progressively move outward from physical dependence on the boy’s mother, from his father’s garden to his father’s house (with its many rooms), to school, and the community and his eventual departure from Gretna. The book is full of references to God, the Bible and sin, especially in the early section. However, this language is most often undercut with scepticism and humour, as when he echoes John in “Learning to Read”: “in the beginning/all there is/ is blur”, or more pointedly in “Salvation”: “I knew early on, my Messiah/ was the word….” where he continues

… I read
my way out of place
as small as the eye
of a needle and as full
of itself as a bag of dirt

Ironically or perhaps understandably some of the most lyrical and compelling lines in the poems have the resonance of the Bible and hymns to them as in “The Golden Hour” which ends with “my breath calls water birds to this dry land” or when he describes the well as being “deeper than my father’s soul” or when he refers to the juice of raspberries as  “sweet as the sin of television”, or more ominously when the boy remembers his Bible verses and “the fear of men/ on the water.”

The series of poems from “Beggar” to “The Shoes of the Fisherman” deal with the boy’s experience of sexual abuse and its aftermath. They bring out the boy’s sense of abandonment, which he understands as the consequence of previous sins, even if the speaker from his adult distance is able to joke “but here is where/ we could really use/ a goat”. It is clear to the boy that it is his mortal father not God who comes to rescue him when afterwards he rows too far out into the lake and can’t get home.

I really enjoyed the early poems that deal with the house, its garden and hayloft and the rooms in the house. It is interesting that the boy never describes his own room until much later when he claims the rec room in their new house as is own, as if he does not differentiate himself from his family and sees all the rooms as his.

The portraits of the mother and father in these early poems are very strong. In particular “Burn the House Down” conveys the strong connection the boy has with his mother, the desire he feels that seems to consume her in flame, and “Summer School” which evokes the quiet companionship he could have with his preacher father. All of the sister-muse poems are wonderful. “Johnny Cash”, one of the longer poems, unfolds the strange religion of a wild and seemingly independent Alberta cousin in comic style: “let’s thank/ God for shotguns/ and Johnny Cash.” Enns’ poetry fights any lyricism that one could associate with his religious upbringing by using humour, slang, lean lines and even at times prosaic language. In Boy he succeeds at recreating a sense of time and place about which he has complicated and conflicting feelings.

Jan Horner is a librarian and poet living in Winnipeg.

Jan’s review appeared originally in the Journal of Mennonite Studies.

URL: victorenns.ca/two-views-of-boy-2/

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