Poems for a Girlhood, it’s subtitled. But it’s actually for girlhoods. For the author’s. And Reena Virk’s.
At least, for what of Reena Virk’s girlhood is known and what can be imagined. She was murdered on November 14, 1997 when she was fourteen years old.
At least eight teenagers participated in her death (two were charged and sentenced), which followed considerable social torment one violent attack which preceded her murder.
Soraya Peerbaye begins the collection with “Search”, a series of poems following Reena’s death. Although the injuries to her head were determined to have been lethal blows, she did survive the beating, but the her assailant(s) drowned her.
From “Tide” to “Autopsy”, the poems consider the discovery of her body and the examination of it, the latter with words arranged like bruises across the page, the former beginning with an unanswerable question: “Would I have seen her?”
“No search. Eight days.
the moon returned, made chalk tracings around her shape.”
In “À pleine gorge”, readers visit the landscape in which her body was discovered as well as the landscape of her body and her injuries.
Reena’s body was discovered, only partially clothed, in Gorge Inlet, Vancouver Island. The wordplay surrounding the term ‘gorge’ is also wordpain.
to lift pebbles from a girl’s throat.
-What do the pebbles tell you?
-That she was alive when taken into the water;
that she was pressed face-down in the Gorge,
that it became
that she had to be more brave….”
“Stones” is a key poem in the collection because it builds upon other verses (like the one which talks about the measurement of the pebbles found in her mouth, measurements usually reserved for baking recipes) and the accumulation of details contributes to a slow-building horror of understanding (and, simultaneously, the absence of understanding).
The section “Who You Were” reveals some of the painful girlhood moments in the poet’s life, the feelings of being an outsider, as in “Safety”:
“A violet bruise spreads. The girl I don’t want to be floods back through the saline drip, the bit of boodly backwash in the tube. When the nurse gets up to go I do not look at her; her image through the sac hooked to the metal stand, inverted, miniature.”
What we do not look at, what we avoid: these are important matters. Also, what do we see as an inversion. How is our perspective altered when we are overwhelmed by isolation, by the sense that our own skins are not sufficient housing.
“Tell” contains a number of italicized bits, which are pulled from trial transcripts (one person charged had multiple trials) and the poet’s notes from her occasional attendance at court.
She explains in the notice at the back of the collection that sometimes this results in a collage-like presentation, but she has taken “care not to distort meaning”. She also writes: “The testimony may or may not be true; I have cited statements that were contested, contraicted, and in some cases recanted.”
Because this is at the heart of the collection: the question of what is true, how we search for truth, how we trust (and do not trust), what is told (and what is buried beneath the layers). It’s a question left unanswered.
“I could feel something slimy
on my hands, between my fingers
from when she fell into me”
Reena’s skin stands out against the white linoleum of the convicted girl’s kitchen floor; her step-mother testified that there was no mud there the following day (offered as evidence that the girl could not have played the role she was accused of playing in Reena’s death). “Clean” is one of the shortest verses, but also one of the most powerful.
The final segment, “The Landscape Without Her” strives to place the event, to root it within a broader context, whether time or place or experience, but of course it remains dislocated, understanding evasive.
“Her face, down-shadowed
from upper lip, chin, to soft underside.
All the tremors of
words, swallows, inhalation,
giving her away. How she
wanted to be chosen –
hirsute, dark – as she was.”
Reena is chosen, here on the page. And her murder has inspired other literary works as well, including some cited by Soraya Peerbaye (Heather Spears’ Required Reading, Joan MacLeod’s The Shape of a Girl and the edited anothology Reena Virk: Critical Perspectives on a Canadian Murder, which was edited by Mythili Rajiva and /Sheila Batacharya).
Tell is a provocative and bold work with as many layers as the riverbeds and biways its verses inhabit.