canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Required Reading. A witness in words and drawings to the Reena Virk Trials 1998-2000
by Heather Spears
Wolsak and Wynn, 2000

Reviewed by Joanna M. Weston

Reena Virk was invited by a group of teens to the Gorge in Victoria, B.C. There she was savagely beaten. Most of the teens left and she managed to cross the wooden bridge on her own. Two fifteen-year-olds, Kelly and Warren, followed and drowned her in the Gorge. These two were tried and convicted of murder in adult court. The defendants are very present to Heather Spears, in her sketches and her poetry. But the court itself, lawyers, court officials are also there, reading, watching, listening, or bored – they are part of the atmosphere, part of the experience that Spears portrays.

The pathologist is required to read the injuries to the body of fourteen-year-old Reena Virk, ‘her hands/ move in, but as if they were/ attached to her like tools, metal or silicone,’ and Heather Spears has provided the same dispassionate evidence of the trial. She most truly witnesses to the testimony but also to the emotion of the courtroom.

Her poetry and her sketches take us back to Reena Virk’s death, forward to the courtroom, and beyond to the questions that will be asked – of school bullying and teen violence. The work or works is one of varying depths in time and space. The reader moves from the immediacy of the courtroom – ‘I think if I spoke/ to her once I would become her/ it’s that close …’ then back to the unhurried time before Reena’s murder – ‘Reena’s grandmother/ has a small embroidered stool/ … it came from the Old Country/ it is innocent …’. It is only by searching online that the tale of Reena’s troubled last years become known: her search for recognition by her peers, role as victim at whatever school she attended, close relationship with her father; progress through foster-care to reconciliation with her parents. These are aspects of the story not given by Spears: her concern is with the trial, the court, the defendants and the witnesses. Reena stands always in the background of the poems and as an invisible shadow in the sketches.

Spears is, as she says herself, ‘as impersonal as I could make it but it is personal.’ In her poem ‘Kelly then’ she wonders what she was herself at nearly 15 and remembers ‘can I even remember/ …healthy sleep and my eyes/ opening into the next day/ with or without residual fear?’ She is another layer of time and place to the understanding of the beating of Reena Virk, a pair of eyes trying to comprehend brutal murder. The reader becomes an onlooker in the courtroom, a witness to the trial.

The real onlookers become known in the immediacy of their self-importance. The witnesses parade before us ‘Tall, plausible, the one/ who did not implicate himself’. The defendants, Kelly and Warren, become real. Warren, ‘so small/ only his head is visible/ rides over the gate’. Kelly now ‘is different of course/ almost a woman … low-key glamour and gloss her hair/ nicely cut swings to hide her look/’. They are still in their teens at the time of their trials. These two are the focus of the poems, of the sketches, which are inexorable in detailing expression and posture. The picture of what happened is built by poems about the police diver and his quoted testimony and by the recording of the pathologist’s evidence as straightforward and clear as running water.

The overwhelming testimony of Spears’ poetry takes the reader inevitably to questions of callous violence, questions being asked online and in classrooms. This is more than the required reading of a body: it is necessary to ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest’* this book and consider seriously our society and the teens who will make the future.

[*from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, Collect for the 2nd Sunday in Advent]

Joanna M. Weston: born in England; married to an accountant, Robert; 3 sons, one daughter-in-law, 3 grandchildren, two cats; has a green thumb and an enlarging garden. M.A. from the University of British Columbia; appears in several anthologies; published in Canada, U.S.A., U.K. etc. for the past 15 years in magazines such as CANADIAN WOMAN STUDIES, CHIRON REVIEW, DANDELION, ENDLESS MOUNTAIN REVIEW, SPIN, WRITER’S OWN MAGAZINE, GREEN’S MAGAZINE, etc.; reviews poetry. chapbooks: ONE OF THESE LITTLE ONES, 1987; CUERNAVACA DIARY, 1990; SEASONS, 1993; ALL SEASONS, 1996 (2nd edition 1997).







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