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Review: Boy by Victor Enns - Rhubarb

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Monday, September 9, 2013

Filed under: Reviews

By: Angeline Schellenberg

Victor Enns’s fourth poetry collection paints a picture of a rural Manitoba boyhood in a time when TV was new and boys could bike across the U.S. border for a swim.

 From the disconnection with a god-like father (“it’s only / work / will bring me / to him”) to affection for a sister who is the “Most beautiful girl / in town. Until tonight, / when / she catches the train,” Boy explores relationships through the eyes of a bookish child. The themes of awakening sexuality and questioning of faith resonate throughout the eighty-six-poem collection.

Beautifully capturing the love-hate of home, Enns describes his hometown, Gretna, as “a place / as small as the eye / of a needle and as full / of itself as a bag of dirt.” Even after he leaves it is “still the place I dream from / where it’s always summer.” An appreciation for his surroundings, infused with a mix of biblicism and scepticism, comes through in lines like “There are more lakes / in Manitoba than God / can count.”

In addition to the ubiquitousness of his father’s Bibles and sermons, Enns’s German Mennonite heritage shows up in language—“vacation such an English word,” “he may be French, or even worse,” and Mama ich will rein!—and in the heavenly taste of white verenika and farmer sausage. Enns’s speaker finds salvation not in the Mennonite church, but “in a brown envelope /from the University of Manitoba / extension library.”

The opening poem, entitled “Guilty,” introduces the agonizing journey of distinguishing oneself from mother: “I know I am on the day I learn to say mum. . . . My teeth mark her breast.” Boy goes on to define manhood as a painful rite of passage marked by the “loss of consciousness” and the desire to “play with fire,” a place one must earn, “but cannot hold.”

Despite his self-conscious vulnerability—“American boys, just before / Vietnam, leave slight / bruises on my ass / with the echo of the snapping towel”—holding himself up to his beloved sister’s suitors, Enns’s farm boy passes, finishing the row for her fiancé who found, “compared to biblical tests / picking raspberries isn’t much, but it’s more than he can bear.”

In contrast to Enns’s previous collection, Lucky Man, which is elevated by the heartbreak and complexities of divorce and parental loss, Boy returns to a simpler age, offering the reader less formal variation and fewer surprising dives into the devastating or metaphysical. Lucky Man’s beauty and transcendence, in vivid images such as “the black pearl a teardrop on your chest” and “She is three storeys / closer to the neon cross, / the nurses have opened her blinds,” don’t appear in equal measure. Some of Boy’s exceptionally short poems, like “Escape Artist,” “Raft,” and “Sawatzky Takes a Picture,” should have pushed on, as they hint at profundity without fully satisfying.

Clear titles, reading like snapshot captions, set the tone for each piece: “Doctor Boreskie gives me a needle in the ass,” “Getting my hair cut,” “I dry the dishes.” Simple sentences broken into short lines fit the vernacular of a pubescent boy like a baseball glove, but Boy would have more to offer had it brought the mature Enns’s insights to bear. One wonders how his hope that girls “will / show their underpants / to the end of the world” and the realization that “no friend’s mother / makes me hard” would be nuanced.

The final poems about rape at the hands of a man with a fishing knife humanize the speaker, making his adolescent triteness more palatable in light of stolen innocence. These painful passages elicit Enns’s most powerful wordplays: “He solicits / my confession, / puts me / in a corner / with my pants / down,” and the conjunction of “knife and prick”—two weapons, the latter more cutting. His biblical allusions, “I fall back to Bible / stories, I think /Ok God, I know” and “we could really use / a goat,” artfully weave primordial man’s awakening sexuality and the beloved son’s sacrifice into his experience.

As a woman with a thirteen-year-old son, I was prepared to embrace Enns’s Boy, but he remains aloof, unsure of his own lovableness. I expect male readers, who recall a time when they too were more absorbed with sticking beans up their bums than levelling decks, may appreciate this invitation to step back to a less responsible time.

Angeline’s review appeared originally in Rhubarb.

Angeline Schellenberg is a poet, copy editor, journalist, and disabilities activist living in Winnipeg.

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

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