Because: A Lyric Memoir
(W.W. Norton, 2018)
Among the many shocks and felicities in Joshua Mensch’s Because, one of the best is his way with a semi-colon. The punctuation provides the text’s closest thing to a break, amid its onrushing recollections of sexual abuse and psychological bruising, right through the middle-school years at the hands of a devious family friend who was finally, flamboyantly busted. A coming-of-age plus comeuppance, the story has a natural momentum, yet is enhanced by a unique presentation, as things unfold via two-and three-page bursts of what has to be termed poetry—all of it, first to last, devoid of a full stop.
Because begins with three such poems, each a brief run-on ending in a semi-colon. This trio has a title, “Don:” the name of the predator, an old college compatriot of Mom and Dad, nominally married and a failed academic. Also, these openers keep their poetic lines short, most landing hard, like the text’s title, on the second syllable. Otherwise the rhythm is irregular—the point of this introduction being to re-conjure the spell cast over the narrator, identified at once as twelve and only later, occasionally, as “Josh.” Hunkered down in the man’s cabin on Cape Breton Island, the wife off in her own “retreat,” he and Don practice woods lore; we will soon discover that, out here, the man runs a kind of “Indian” Camp—boys only and clothing optional. Also the opening triad includes a scene of reading The Iliad aloud, and the ancient war-chant seems the perfect accompaniment for a kid running a gantlet. The ordeal is made explicit in the triptych’s finale, when the host shows “dirty movies/ to inspire me/ to try harder.” Not for nothing does this initial set end with a vision of “endless falling.”
In other words, the text first establishes the essential power dynamic: the advantage taken of a boy’s admiration and desire to grow. After that the poems settle into memoir proper. The next brief set, a five-some, establishes that the affair ran five years, ending in ’94. Over the rest of the book, things proceed from early to late, from fascination to unease, to the Royal Canadian police getting involved. The conclusion too stays with the sequence, fingering sore spots. If the victim comes to terms, it’s not until the turn of the millennium, and when he first shares his pain, though he enjoys a certain liberation, he “can’t stop laughing,” in his mind’s eye the stuff of Iliad and “Indians” turns more horrifying; it’s like The Lord of the Flies:
... the image
of a boy in a loincloth
covered in war paint, holding
a spear in one hand...;//
because there are others
in this picture, boys whose faces
are obscured by paint ...
The staggered form, here, is the same as for everything after the opening trio. Those poems had a justified left margin (rigid and upright, perhaps?), but everything afterwards swaps off between longer and shorter, the latter indented. Throughout, brevity remains the rule, and though most lines still bear that second-syllable stress, the rhythm easily adapts for conversational shorthand. These include both the adult’s chilling code, like “Don / insists we lie naked together / for shared bodily warmth,” and a boy’s doomed wish for friendship with no strings attached: “we promise each other / we’re totally gonna / hang out this year.”
Overall, the structure and rhetoric reflects the hems and haws of a search for understanding: how could this have happened? And gone on so long? Because:
enough it is morning,
there’s a fire roaring in the stove
downstairs...; // because this is
the best place in the world
during the day when things are normal,
a wilderness without
judgment, only the usual dangers,
Mensch’s “lyric memoir” has a number of settings, even a scene in Times Square, but the reading experience never feels far from the untamed woods of Cape Breton. The wilderness and what it can mean for the young, the ancient ritual of vision quest, offer a glimpse of health even in the distorted mirror of this boys’ camp. As for the abuse, it is never glossed over; Mensch wastes no time getting to the first uncomfortable details, and later he tracks Don’s increasing demands. Nonetheless, this ugly rising action finds a parallel in the woods at sundown, “growing denser and scarier,” and out here, the moment also conveys a special comfort:
....the sky breaks
into colors more beautiful than any
I’ve seen before;...
A similar kind of vision comes at dawn, “because the birds will not wait / for the sun to grace the trees / to flood the forest with their / cacophony.” The grace of such good company, indeed, might be what the narrator seeks with his recurring clause “because the room is…” Those words kick off each new poem, and often “the room is not a room.” Rather, it’s “the cabin / of a plane that carries / me to him,” or even “a phone call, / the principal at my school / has concerns.” What these spaces have in common is intimacy: unexpected, prickly, weirdly hatched. In creating this strange closeness, the recurring device provides a stinging rejoinder to the question that hangs over the whole text, namely, why poetry? Why not another abuse memoir in prose—reeling in another fat advance? Because certainly delivers the goods, a damning report for Child Services, but it has as well a subtler purpose.
Don, in pretending to school young “Josh,” has him read Plato on poetry, then poses a resonant essay question:
- What wisdom does
poetry express that plainspoken
through logic deduce?
The best answer may come in the closing pieces, with their combination of healing laughter and continuing savagery. One of those final “rooms” is the bench on which the grown narrator and his father at last hash out the awful business. A good talk, but it comes in Vienna, far from where Mensch grew up and close by his current home in Prague (also a visual artist, he edits the literary journal BODY). Under the circumstances, it’s hard not to think that the adult poet prefers to keep his distance. Maybe—but distance is more the father’s thing; he “probes for clarification...// like a scientist.” The son, meanwhile, stumbles on an insight into Dad’s thinking, something he can’t speak of yet sharply illuminating. Once more he achieves fresh intimacy, continuing to go deeper, like a sentence that never ends.
John Domini’s latest book is MOVIEOLA!, linked stories, on Dzanc. In early 2019, he’ll publish his fourth novel, The Color Inside a Melon.