Brett Enemark, who grew up, as I did, in Prince George, B.C., died in Vancouver in March after a stroke. About 15 years ago he began to experience recurring brain tumors, and he suffered through six major brain operations to remove them, or to try to. Eventually, the tumours resulted in seizures and the loss of much of his language—or at least his ability to control his language.
That makes it sound like the last decades of Brett’s life were unpleasant, but I don’t think they were either unpleasant or unhappy. During that time, he married, he and his partner adopted and raised two kids, and he became a fulfilled human being, which he sure as hell wasn’t earlier in his life, when his health was good and language was abundant and easy.
Even though Brett and I grew up in the same small town I didn’t know him while we were living there—I was four years older, and in childhood such gaps in age don’t get bridged. But I knew his family, and his older brother Tex was a contemporary of my older brother, and someone I admired from afar. Brett’s father, Spike was something else again. He was a force of nature, one that was sometimes terrifying and sometimes comedic. Spike was a very large man, good-looking, and the perpetual—and never successful—political candidate for the Liberals, who had no natural purchase on the realities of living in Northern B.C.. Spike also had the sort of looming physical presence and vitality that made you wonder, when you were around him, if he would open a door or shatter it into a thousand fragments with his fist.
I got to know Brett only when he showed up on my doorstep while I was in my early twenties. I was a student, and then graduate student, at Simon Fraser University, an ambitious poet, a married man whose wife just happened to be a better poet, and generally speaking, I was pretty much an asshole. Not exactly surprisingly given our point of origin, Brett was intent on having me as his role model, which even through the fog of being young and unreasonably full of myself, I recognized wasn’t a very good idea.
For a few years he persisted in using me as his model despite my misgivings. He easily learned what little I knew, and adapted his own version of bluffing his way through all those things neither of us had a clue about. But a lot of what worked for me didn’t work for him. He was sweeter, and he was more gentle, both in his perception of things and his treatment of others. People sometimes took advantage of him, or otherwise kicked him around—as I probably did myself.
At the time I didn’t think that Brett and I shared much except our backgrounds. Yes, we shared an ambivalent love of Northern B.C., and the similarly strong fathers we absolutely and brainlessly needed to resist. But our temperaments were fundamentally different. I was aggressive, quick-tempered, and judgmental; he was circumspect, sentimental, and slow to anger. In retrospect, though, there were more similarities than I recognized. We both had older male siblings who made us feel incompetent and to whom our bullying fathers compared us; there was our need to learn everything from scratch; and the common instinct to bluff our way through the practical side of everyday life until, by trial and error, we acquired the skills we didn’t naturally have.
When you’re young, one of the most efficient ways to learn is to imitate, so who and what you choose as models, and what you do as imitation are crucial. Chief among the poets Brett chose to imitate was Charles Olson, a man more gigantic and charismatic even than Brett’s father, Spike. It was also the post-Maximus 1-22 Charles Olson he imitated—the Olson who’d ingested enough LSD and booze to addle his faculties without disabling either his mouth or diminishing his charisma.
For a time, and it might have been a few months or a decade, Brett became a miniature Olson-by-the-Nechako, which would have been hilarious if half the rest of his generational cohort—me included—wasn’t under the same influence and thus unable to help correct the descents we all made into the fatuous.
I suspect that Brett was among the first to figure this out—and among the least able to process it. What followed was a fairly long period in which he appeared to lose both his confidence and something of his compass. He seemed alternately uneasy about or angry with his life, yet without a clear sense of the causes, or how to resolve the anger.
This went on for at least a decade: through one very bad relationship in which Brett was the helpless victim, through a number of career moves that went sideways, through an engagement with the radical left during its post-1968 moral atomization and cognitive sclerosis. Somewhere in the middle of that, I lost track of him, or wrote him off, or some other inexcusable behavior that causes people with natural bonds to lose one another.
But it turned out that Brett was both a resourceful and curious man, and in hindsight, these qualities won out. He tried other things, learned other things—lots of them. And somewhere in the 1990s, his luck changed for the better: he hooked up with Candace Parker. They made a life together, and from all reports, it was a consistently good and sweet one, despite Brett’s health problems.
I wasn’t a witness to any of this. I left the west coast in the early 1990s, and Brett wasn’t among the people I saw when I returned for visits. Before that, there had been some yelling during his engagement with the radical left, and I guess I hold grudges. By the time either of us was ready to move beyond our differences, Brett’s language was scrambled, and it was too difficult, across the time and distances, to renew our conversation. He did send me some fragments of the novel he wanted to write, and it wasn’t hard to figure out it was going to be beyond him.
That wasn’t all bad news. He’d found other ways to live and learn and express himself, and so the things he figured out about being a human being weren’t lost. They were, I was able to detect even from this distance, visibly applied: things about fathers and children, about men and women, about sweetness and gentleness. Brett found ways to elude his natural fate, the one in which we simply become our fathers and mothers and repeat, out of perversity and laziness, all their mistakes.
To have avoided that, is, in itself, a life worth living. Brett Enemark managed quite a lot more than that.
Toronto, October 10, 2017 1200 words