The Bull Calf

Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism

Ordinary Hours by Karen Enns

Reviewed by Roy Geiger

Karen Enns

Ordinary Hours. Brick, 2014

71 pp.


Ordinary Hours is Karen Enns’s second book, published between That Other Beauty (2010), a nominee for the Gerald Lampert Award, and this year's Cloud Physics (2017). This new book can be discussed from a number of different angles, including the Mennonite migration from Russia, the vividness of the past in the present, often figured as an “echo,” the working and re-working of images of absence and presence and of the contemplative moment, the various dimensions of “ordinary” in the title (as Enns witnesses, “The spirit floundering and being saved / again and again in the ordinary hours” [32]), or the influence of a previous generation of poets, with Jan Zwicky acknowledged directly. However, I was most taken with Enns’ understanding of physical work and empathy for and awareness of working men and women.

Her settings for these poems, which show some of Enns’ persistent themes and concerns, are often rural and often based on her southern Ontario Mennonite upbringing. Take “To Walk into That Beauty,” for instance, where she compares understanding beauty to the way a particular man, coming in from the heat of the fields, enters the barn “raw and squinting, / measuring the dark, / knowing where everything is” (59). Enns knows the cost of this act and this knowledge: it is “a matter of fidelity” (59) to what must and will be done. Beauty, she suggests, can be discovered in purposeful commitment to exacting effort and work, both of which Enns treats with respect and appreciation.

Enns also includes several poems that arise from conversation with workmen, including a mason come to repair a chimney. The mason is a man from Holland who survived WWII and who comments how she, too, “must know / all about it: refugees, displacement, fear, / how cold the winters were” (24). The connection to the past, typical for Enns, hints at calamity and shadow and adds poignancy to the mason’s complaints about not seeing his grandson, while she notes that storytellers who told her about displacement were

          ... just a little older than this man,

          who takes another load of bricks up the scaffold

          to the chimney where he fits them

          side by side and spreads the mortar over them

          to last, he says, as long as I live

          and longer still. After that, he says,

          who knows? (24)

We’re invited to take the self-conscious humour at face value and we note Enns’ characteristic finding in the everyday, with this apparently toss-off comment, a resonance of what can be faintly apprehended but not really put into words.

Several poems give a young girl’s perspective of working adults. In “Sisters,” two girls observe men handling carcasses of recently hunted deer. In this poem, Enns compares the girls’ complex responses to “an enormous forming burl” (56), as if memory of what they see will be grown over but remain as something obvious and describable but, again, difficult to pin down: “Something about nakedness and force, / shame and pity, wilderness and men / and work and certainty” (56). A burl, of course, in the right hands, can be worked and polished to show unexpected patterns, as Enns does with what would appear to be memories of startling experience.

In the poem “Restraint,” again from a young girl’s perspective, we see several groups of cherry pickers in from the orchard early on a hot day “before the sun / scalded the tractor hood / and scorched the barn door handles / making them too hot to touch” (62). Here Enns catches the relief of several different groups of hired workers as they break from work and with language alive to the situation’s ripe physicality, describes a kind of rural idyll, from a perspective somewhat knowing but somewhat innocent, too. A Polish woman “takes her shirt off in the heat / to fan herself while the northern men...turn their faces to the blue lake / out of gentleness” (62). Italian women laugh, “one / showing her gold tooth like a flash of thigh” (62). Meanwhile, in from thinning peaches still on trees, “the men from Jamaica / dream in deep shade / after their singing” made “the light-haired girl listening / from the back of the pickup...feel like dancing” (62).

Work, then, is one of the sources of the rue and wonder that Enns finds in the ordinary rhythms and surprises of daily life, conveyed, as we see throughout the book, with images that are sharp, sensuous, and alive, tenderly perceived. In the “Ladder” section from “Suite for Tools,” we read this:

          My father handled a ladder easily,

          set it firm against a sturdy branch

          and clambered up as if he’d never stop,

          the top rung nothing to consider

          on his way to open sky,

          the fruit tree incidental. (51)

Here we see much of what distinguishes Enns’ book: a deft characterization and the clarity of the writing progressing with certainty, like her father on the ladder, to someplace and some moment surprising and inevitable. This is work worth reading.

Roy Geiger is a college English teacher. He has published poetry and fiction reviews in journals and the daily press.

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