Ever-Leaving/ Ever-Present: Poetry & Revolution in Catherine Owen’s Riven.
Updated: May 31, 2020
By Karen Moe.
Photography by Catherine Owen & Karen Moe.
It says on the back of the book in the blurb from Michael Dennis: “Catherine Owen doesn’t seem to be able to write a bad/ boring poem” and I most certainly agree. Having been intimate with her work for decades, I know that she not only doesn’t seem to be able to write a bad poem, she has the ability to write some of the best lines of poetry in the English language being written today. Like in her poem “Beseech”:
“Prolong me along the estuary/ where the cataclysmic wildflowers, all their poppy-joy-vermillion/ smitten in pointillist manifold burgeon.”
I stop. I cannot read any further. Two of the first lines of the book are verging on too much beauty already. Wildflowers are cataclysmic when experienced absolutely! One cannot explicate this line. I just tried. Attempting to explain perfection is pointless. It just is: everything. The alchemy of the poet makes no more necessary even though there is so much more to come; even though so much has already happened. I am smitten. I am prolonged.
At this time of the authority of the linear, of progress, of short-term thinking, of miniscule attention spans, poetry is the revolutionary form of writing—of art. People so often say: “I don’t like poetry. I don’t understand it. It takes too much time.” Poetry calls to us, it commands us, it beseeches us to slow down as it guarantees no immediate consumption. At this moment in history, where we still, maybe, have the opportunity to go one way or the other—to some sort of salvation or to certain devastation—we need poetry, we need the poet, more than ever.
In her latest collection, Riven, British Columbia, Canada’s mighty Fraser River is both Owen’s comfort and her confounder. Beginning in the Rocky Mountains, the river rages north, west, then south through its canyon until it reaches the Pacific. With its unending arrival in the Fraser Valley, the river extends two broad arms, a relentless rhythm of water, where “[a]t dawn/ the river’s currents are dark as ice floes and they never cease.”
“It is the longest river in this land,” Owen introduces her protagonist. “[B]readths and depths beyond the tributaries,” beyond our ability to fully comprehend, apprehend, know. She begins her journey with a proclamation of the inevitability of the ineffable: “[l]iving by the river is never close enough.” She calls upon this beyond, her river-muse, that pulses through our everyday; and yet, as is essential in the muse/ artist relationship, the poet admits defeat from the start:
"No, even if I were shy, wild Tom Thomson with his colour-hyphenated/ boards and cast- iron legs camping by Canoe Lake last summer/ in wartime, I wouldn’t be able to capture the particular, ragged/ wonder of this beautiful, polluted river moving in all its histories/ past us."
Stirring up language and the reader’s psyche, Owen is in love with juxtapositions, compositions of opposites that have become invisible because they are everywhere. We stumble, future-bound, through our lives; we don’t notice what should be opposite, what used to be so, what we have crushed together by obliviousness and neglect. In the poem “Fraser River, Thanksgiving 2011,” Owen begins her exposure of the violence of human neglect and the beauty that can still be found as the poet celebrates the inevitability of nature’s irreverent return:
"Thick winch of ripped rope at the base of a rusted bolt;/ beside it, a skimpy alder sapling,/
all sprouting from a relic of fallen log, saw marks chunked with dirt/ & clover. These the juxtapositions I live for—even the meagre beach/ is rich if you like ruins, not of the Thermopylae variety/ but simpler dregs, a wrecked mill casting its rivets and cement."
As “discarded machines … [lay] in barbaric remnants on the edge of cornflowers/ & cricket-song,” beauty is relentless amidst our attempts to kill it. As we kill ourselves, the poet witnesses and gives us back what we made and refuse to see. And what can always live without us as “geese roll in and in.”
Juxtaposition, the ‘shirring’ of apparent contradictions, defy the rigidity of the known. How can, in “The rain, machines but I remember,” a sandpiper be “plumped on a splinter”? The poet’s lexical conjuring shows us how the soft and the sharp, the miniscule and the much-larger coexist in order to free us from reductionist strictures of narrow-mindededness and separation. Even when things are construed as anomalies, all is connected.
In “A strange amber stain on the river this morning—what is it,” the poet intermingles the elements as “crows [are] surfing the light/ out to Richmond”; ducks are refuse floating on the water as they “swash like flotsam on the current”; and “the river clenches itself [as] fish bundle up in the/ mud.” One night, she tells us that “darkness [is] slitting the surface” of the river when, on another day, “the river is thick with wind.” The poet, too, as she writes, becomes a part of the world that she is witnessing as “everything holds [her] to it says— speak.” Owen writes the page vivid, three-dimensional.
In the poetry of Catherine Owen, the words are notes in musical scores. Since the beginning of her writing career in the 1990s, Owen has written in fierce opposition to her most prolific contemporaries: the language poets of post-structuralism who reduce language to the austerity of linguistic analysis. However important post-structuralism within its context of the Post-Modern was in terms of analyzing how meaning is disseminated in society, it was the death of poetry—especially the poetry of music and emotion, of deep-feeling and empathy, of what had become a dirty word by the late 20th Century: Beauty.
Owen has told me many times how poetry is meant to be read out loud, meant to be sung. In the tradition of the bard, Owen is a story-teller, a reciter, a teller of the genealogy of the language, a musician; her poetry is a state of being in love with not only the imagery, but also with the sound of the language. In many ways, for Owen, they are the sounds that communicate the meaning. However, always adherent to the politics of gender in patriarchy, Owen views the bard as male and but another vehicle for his domination. As she sings, Owen carries on the lineage of the Trobairitz.
The Trobairitz were women poets who lived in southern France in the 12th and 13th Centuries. These woman are an anomaly in the West in that they not only are the first known females to compose secular music and verse, their art was performed at court and connected to debate and dialogue. The Trobairitz were noble women who owned land and possessed powerful administrative duties and, rather than being reduced to the objects of the male Troubadours’ adulation, the Trobairitz sung their songs to men. There was also gender-play at work: in some poems both the poet and the subject are women and there is often ambivalence as to whether the poet's voice is female or male. Whether they were feminists or not from today’s definition is a moot point: these were women’s voices that were revered rather than silenced within a male dominated society and the tradition of Courtly Love that was, typically, reserved for the male artist. As Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner remarks in her article, “Fictions of the Female Voice: The Women Troubadours”:
"The Trobairitz have much to teach us about the way women poets enter into and find their place in a traditional poetic system created by male poets. Their songs demonstrate with intricate complexity the way poetic fictions play with cultural, literary and social definitions of man and woman, masculine and feminine; their poems offer valuable warnings about the pitfalls involved in generalizing women into woman."
As the majority of women artists working today will most likely attest, these are resistances and negotiations that we are far from done not only exploring, but dealing with. In the 20th and 21st Century context of the woman artist and writer, Owen told me how:
"I consider myself a modern Trobairitz because it is a female stance of singing amid all else in terms of duties (kids, work etc.) rather than the version of the male bard who seems utterly free but is actually only so as others do the vital labour that sustains him. Keeping going as a female artist in patriarchy as you know requires a tremendous effort and vision because one can so readily be reduced by guilt and shame at one's "selfishness" for pursuing one's path."
In Owen’s poetry, as in music, we can feel the resonance of each phoneme, be it chime or chop; each line is composed of syllabic jouissance as it sings as notes being played. In Riven, the lines are here ropes, there ribbons and, as with an ineffable lover, they simultaneously caress and claw. The “[t]hick winch of ripped rope at the base of a rusted bolt” is detonated by mono-syllabic whacks of short vowels and the repetition of a fierce ‘r,’ followed by the alliterated droop of a “skimpy alder sapling.” In “Who can say why or how it all blazed away,” the poem opens with lines spun of sibilance and longing: “The river has no silence in it or else it has silence but small/ You see geese in a slow trail and think it will be forever.” Strung together with long vowels, the rhythm ripples the surface of the river and we can feel the poet watching—what we can watch along with her—until, “noise inserts itself” in the form of things that always intrude: “the intercoms of tugs communicating their booms, a speedboat churning/ the waters with its wahoo cargo, dogs busting onto the beach.” A moment of grace in this cacophony of ‘t’ and ‘b’ and ‘ch’ and ‘d’ and ‘k’ re-surfaces, momentarily, as the geese lift seconds before they “rag themselves into panic.”
Throughout Riven, the poet finds allies in the blackberry vine and the tug boat. This collection of poems was written in New Westminster, a suburb of Vancouver BC that is dominated by the poet’s mighty river muse. In this frayed urban environment, blackberries and tugs are as indefatigable as both the river and the poet’s determination to witness, feel and write all.
Even in the country, pristine in their dustlessness, the blackberry bush is all punk. And the urban blackberry, mowed down as it is always growing back, the nemesis of all those of-fences-and-sacred-lawn, is thoroughly bad-ass. In “Dusk from the Fourteenth Floor: a Pastoral Elegy,” Owen sets the scene for her pastoral of the fallen and the sublime. Dead blackberries, as though they are getting ready for a round of fisticuffs, “roll up their pissed-on fruit” while “[c]ouples, gut-busted at the burger joint, waver out to their conveyances” and “volleyballers in florescent uniforms bat out a pale punctuation mark/ over the nets at the faux beach.” But the blackberry vines, with their fruit-bearing arms and taunting spikes, offer an arbor of candor as they are “bowering over cement wreckage.”
Meanwhile, the tug boat is a good-natured thug with a brawn that can “create … / an ocean” and has the power to make “the river slash itself up and around the pier.” As the poet proclaims: “No, you can’t stop me from believing in beauty” and gasps, “a blue moon, then an orange one. The apocalypse promises aestheticism after all," both blackberry and tug are her compatriots in this land of corrosion and grandeur.
Beyond Riven, in the entirety of Owen’s oeuvre, with a poetics that withstands no constraint in achieving its textural imagery, it can be argued that the irreverent blackberry vine and the up-for-anything tug are her constant companions. In “Always, on opening your eyes, you gasp,” she writes “a fierce winter sun ruching the argent waters” (italics mine). Coming from the noun ‘ruche’—a strip of pleated lace, net, or muslin—the poet hammers the luxurious ‘sh’ and ‘oooh’ out of the French ‘ruche’ into the sharp ‘ch’ and truncated ‘uh’ of ‘ruch’ in order to exploit the onomatopoeia of a fierce winter sun blasting silver, argent armour onto the surface of the river. There are no lacy pleats as in an act of ‘rucheing’; rather, the river is violated and hacked as it is beautified into the elegant silver plait of Medieval war armour.
In “Meditations by Water,” the noun ‘crag’ is activated as verb when “[n]ow mountains crag out of the cloud line.” Owen paints sonic imagery; everything is animated as her poetry sculpts the page. Again, in “Always, on opening your eyes, you gasp—” we do, indeed, gasp as we become enlivened by the “wind tipping/ each ripple inside out so the/ shimmer & grim/ alternate while the boathouse remains shadow—/ log booms arch hard limbs/ into the current and the mountain unhinges itself/ from cloud.” If we allow ourselves to be opened by the density of life and culture that language contains, everything is alive; nothing is still; the poet connects us to the real that is our world.
Perhaps paradoxically, along with her penchant for transgressing—or playing with—poetic traditions, Owen is also known for her use of historical forms. Be it the ghazal (Shall 2006), the sonnet (Dog 2008 ), a multitude of medieval forms (Trobairitz 2012) and the Vietnamese Luc-Bat (Designated Mourner 2014), she told me how: “I always adapt the form to the content and era and my own racial and sexual subjectivities.” Owen re-enacts and celebrates cultural tradition, but then, as a feminist, subverts in order revolutionize the forms to individual, female desire in the context of her—still fully patriarchal—contemporaneity.
The predominant poetic form of Riven is the aubade. Originating in the 12th Century in Southern France, some scholars believe that the aubade, which has no fixed metrical form, grew out of the cry of the medieval watchman, who announced from his tower the passing of night and the return of day. The aubade is a love poem or song that often concerns the parting or the greeting of lovers at dawn—and the tension between the two. As Owen looks forward to the greeting of a lost beloved at daybreak, the poetry is written within the yearning of “the morning that wasn’t morning anymore but evening/ always.” The welcome, as with the dawn, is inevitably always also the lament: the temporality of love, of life itself, is made even sweeter by its imminent arrival and corresponding loss. This trope of rebirth continues to sing the passing of a beloved as she looks beyond to the always-approaching evening and the miracle of yet another dawn.
With no fixed meter, the aubade is a form without form and, as such, expresses the specificity of what or whom has been lost within the fluid confines of the universality of that experience. No matter what the meter, all cultures write the aubade. At the beginning of the sequence, the lines of the aubades of Riven are moving back and forth across the page as a topography of the specificity of a fleeting instance of living and writing. They are driven margin to margin to margin as currents of dashes writing the river that both guides as it eludes. Mid-section, however, the form tightens, as though the poet is struggling to impose closure, to get a hold of transience, the inescapable of human existence, in an attempt to contain the return of her lost beloved at dawn. By the end of the section, the searching lines and their attempt at holding are reconciled: set stanzas surface, albeit written in a meter of ragged lengths; any completed closure is documented in the curation and the lives of each poem as a part of a series where each meditation is a piece of a part of a life fully felt as, in the poet’s words, “achingly beautiful.” The beauty, the ache, is the release into the knowledge that she can never really know the river, she can never fully hold the beloved, the same way that we can never fully know or keep anything at all, no matter how brutally we try.
In Riven, the poet grieves and celebrates a double muse, two beloveds: the inhuman river and the human in death, the “[b]eautiful absentee man … [and the] beautiful absentee river.” In 2010, Owen lost Chris Matzigkeit, her lover and partner of nine years, a young man whose life was cut short at twenty-nine through the devastations of childhood abuse, mental illness, drug addiction, and, finally, an accidental overdose. Since that time, Owen’s poems have focused primarily on honouring and living through grief. A year after her partner’s tragic death, she found as her paradoxical foundation, her guide, the always-leaving, yet always-present, river. The lost beloved and the river each become a metaphor for the other, a muse that comes together and moves apart like ephemeral confluences of current as each disappears and calls again to the poet at dawn.
Like all muses, the river doesn’t need the artist; it inspires through its indifference. Owen describes the muse thus: “the muse is a force that draws me from myself into another entity, in empathy and energy. Often the muse is a channel of mystery, longing, yearning and even emptiness. A muse gives me the rhythms to sing with.” The muse pulls the artist/ human from the cloisters of ‘self’ into the inherent vulnerability of all and, through the all-inclusive existential mystery, through that emptiness, the muse creates yearning, deep-feeling and empathy. And song.
In the opening aubade, the river is simultaneously metaphor and reality as it “trembles beneath the bridge and down to the mouth and then—/ it becomes salt.” Like what pulls a human towards addiction, “you cannot stop it.” The river is ever-present as it is always leaving. The poet tells us—or, rather, reminds us—“that the chronicle includes its melting.” The human and the inhuman are interwoven when she writes: “the river resists me like trying to remember him/ alive sometimes” until, the poet, river and beloved become one in their leaving as “the three of us—dead, alive, alive and the river, dark/ and past us, [are] ever-moving.”
Unlike the indifferent river, in death, Owen’s human muse no longer needs the poet. In life, his need was too much: he was a young man conditioned to want what is promised by patriarchy—especially the woman desired as something she never was, or is, or ever wants to be. When the poet first calls: "let us look at the silver river," she meditates:
"he/ not knowing who I was, ever, though traces of grocery lists, poorly scrawled letters, a slow look before sleep said much—what can it say/ really, the trees, winter-sparse on the banks and then a heron or other bird/ whose grey calm grows further & further away/ from what is built and maintained—such strange adherents of/ sticking to place, ravaging it—/ as if we could stay here forever/ watching."
She, like the river for the poet, eluded his desire. Owen writes: “don’t tell me/ this is happening again—the harems in the mind and the hurt boys on the shore— I/ can’t handle a domestic/ empire—/ did I ever mention an Easy-Bake Oven was included/ in my last testament?” But, what can it say, really, be it the so often untenable relationship between a man and a woman in patriarchy, the grey calm of the river growing farther and farther away, the human who desperately ravages in order to fail where, even when we know this is all we can do, we cannot stay here forever, watching.
Like our toxic society of dominate and keep, the young man and the river are poisoned by the same system. The main difference being that the river will always win as we destroy ourselves with our own poison. The double muse of elusive river and disappeared human are palimpsested through their mutual toxification. The poet calls to her double-muse: “Sweet disappeared man; sweet disappearing river/ I sing to you this is all I have.” In “You make me ache river with your—let me say it,” the poet mourns her river: “the way/ they’ve tortured you—you fill with creosote & cadmium—minus signs swim/ in your shallows— alongside your shores, / dump trucks line up like taxis, each allotted/ two metal handfuls —” As mutual metaphors in a dance of coming together only to, once again, disperse, the lost man is reflected in the torturing of the river and yet, by the end of the poem, the river, the inhuman, is “burning again/ with sunrise—as if it had never/ known grief.”
“When you are grieving,” Owen explains, “often waking up is the hardest part of the day. After Chris died I couldn't handle being awake for more than 10-12 hours at a time. The aubade form gave me morning hope. That I would revisit him through all the beauties of daybreak.”
At the end of the second aubade, “I have not brought you to this river for nothing,” the poet moves between the ‘you’ of Chris and the ‘you’ of the river, to the ‘us’ of all until the young man, her beloved, drifts away into third person: “that memory of him/ when a small boy, blond he was as sand/ and the eroded day, the narrative of then and then and then, it was there you see, already.”
The vulnerability of the once living man was exacerbated by a life of abuse and the imposition of the brute manhood of men who “talk shit/ spit blood” that he never could, and never wanted to, live up to. Through the binaric gendered imperative of patriarchy, he was tormented by his conditioned desire for the representation of women to be what she — as artist, as poet, as feminist — was not able to and not willing to obey. Owen confides: “he wrote — before/ his last hit — that I was his/ dark angel of mercy —yuck! — there is no subservient hope in these waters, beloved.” The river and the human converge in “fumes and ditching things on the side of the road,/ a nostalgia that makes even addiction quaint.” She rages: “we don’t all die in trucks/ by the side of the road, unnoticed for a day, as he did — but we all, —invariably, fall solo out of this world, the brain eroding/ from its narratives, stories becoming/ the kind of sand we have here.” The river that perpetually erodes is ruthless in its beauty as it fights back, silently, against its banks turning our stability into sand as it carves its unstoppable epic.
The tug and the blackberry have been with her, have been with us, all along. By the end of this journey, “blackberries are pinking somehow wrinkled fingers, [as] the tongue [is still] holding the cold/ fruit as long as it can. The tug still “passes and the river frays, splits,” but now chunks out as affectionate accusations: “[y]ou capstan. You gunwale/ …. You funnel. You bollard pull.” You “solid little spectres of a dwindling narrative.” All are streaming the certainty of transience.
And the poet asks: “Does the river need me?” Does the damaged river need the poet, the human, in the same way the damaged human did, like the damaged human does? We commit collective suicide with our foolish indifference; “the truth is our geography. Saw whinges. Click of trucks”; our hubris deludes us into thinking that we can over-power a river, that we can subdue nature with our lack.
“Does the river need me?” she asks. “[a]fter reading Steve Heighton’s line —/ the world may not need poets, but the earth does” and then answers her own question:
"no matter how imperilled nature is, this/ gorgeous tormented river — it still/ doesn’t need me … the river,/ with its dual currents, pulses past the construction/ site, through the estuary to the salt as it/ always has, while the metal claw fastens/ once more to its shoreline and my pen/ makes little dark aches on the page."
As the poet, as human, invariably fails in reading “the unreadable surface of the river” and the no longer readable dead, she succeeds in writing her hunger for “the poem/ beyond words.” Through its unity of rupture and grace, Riven shows us how “it/ is not enough to have everything—nothing will soon be ours.” Owen offers the salvation of our own vulnerability. Her poetry is a testament to the fact that: the earth doesn’t need the poet, but the human most certainly always does.
Catherine Owen Riven. Toronto: ECW Press, 2020.
About the Writers:
Catherine Owen is the author of 15 collections of poetry and prose. Her latest books are Riven (ECW, 2020) and Locations of Grief: an emotional geography, 24 memoirs on loss and place from Wolsak & Wynn, due out later this year. Raised in Vancouver BC, she lives in Edmonton, AB, Canada.
Karen Moe is a writer, visual and performance artist and a feminist activist. Her work focuses on gender, systemic violence, and justice. She has been published in such magazines as Border Crossings, ArtSpace, WhiteHot and Revista192. She is the editor and founder of the magazine “Vigilance: Fierce Feminisms.” Karen has exhibited and performed across Canada, in the US and in Mexico and has just finished her first book, Victim: a Manifesto. Karen lives and works in Vancouver, Canada and Mexico City.
For Chris Matzigkeit (1981-2010)
though lost, always present.
Titles by Catherine Owen:
Riven. (2020) from ECW Press.
Dear Ghost, (2017) from Buckrider Books.
The Day of the Dead (2016) from Caitlin Press.
The Other 23 & a Half Hours: Or Everything You Wanted to Know that Your MFA Didn’t Teach You (2015) from Wolsak and Wynn.
Designated Mourner (2014) from ECW Press.
Trobairitz (2012) from Anvil Press.
Catalysts: Confrontations with the Muse (2012) from Wolsak and Wynn.
Seeing Lessons (2010) from Wolsak and Wynn.
Frenzy (2009) from Anvil Press.
Dog (2008) from Mansfield Press.
Fyre (2007) from Above Ground Press.
Shall: Ghazals (2006) from Wolsak and Wynn.
Cusp/Detritus: An Experiment in Alleyways (2006) from Anvil Press.
The Wrecks of Eden (2002) from Wolsak and Wynn.
Somatic: The Life & Work of Egon Schiele (1998) from Exile Editions.
Books can be purchased through the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the presses.