Saturday, January 30, 2010

Catherine Owen, Frenzy

a whole city can disappear and a love

that suddenly inevitable become a smudge (“Somewhere in Toronto”)

Former Edmonton poet Catherine Owen (recently returned to Vancouver) has always been a poet more comfortable working older forms, writing poems that talk about writing, and exploring modernist structures such as the sonnet and ghazal against a rough street-level urbanity. In her sixth trade poetry collection, Frenzy (Vancouver BC: Anvil Press, 2009), Owen explores the idea of the muse against a rough Vancouver backdrop, working her poems (as former collaborator Joe Rosenblatt writes on the back cover) as a “neo-romantic bard,” and delving into Greek myth. In seven sections, Owen’s poems are constantly in a state of frenzy, agitation; constantly unsettled, yet almost resigned to such. Resigned, or are they blatantly proud? And how many poems (there are quite a few) move through their frenzied agitation into a kind of celebratory dance of nervous energy? Such as the poem “When the two characters speak at once” that ends with “had continued to fall into this perfect description / of mysterious joy,” and begins:

Hope is not a rest stop and so we kept dancing

though I can’t hold you up he said laughing

at the madness of the tightrope beneath them

the music’s net always an inch from their lips

licking at any language that surfaced

Owen’s poems want to tell us stories, relating a mixture of myths over contemporary surfaces, showing magic and betrayal on every Vancouver streetcorner, whether muses who sing out of newspaper listings, or late hotels (four poems for Vancouver’s late Cobalt Hotel, 2000-2009). But, in her sixth trade poetry collection, Owen’s poems so insist in telling us stories, I wonder what she might accomplish if she turned her gaze to fiction?

Keeping her grandmother’s obituary in a glasses case she

crosses the street against the light almost getting run over

by that stupid idea she had of telling him she read Sartre

why this loving of men who cannot (“The shades now drawn on the two box windows”)

Although I’m not sure how her section, “The Flood-Ghazals,” work as ghazals, structurally different than those I’ve seen in English-Canadian poetry over the years, from John Thompson, Phyllis Webb, Douglas Barbour, Andy Weaver, Rob Winger and others. Considering that at least one of Owen’s previous books a collections of ghazals, far closer in structure to what one would expect, are these ghazals in, perhaps, name only? Where has the flood, exactly, taken them?

Aunt Dilys

Old women often have Trollope in their bathrooms,

hidden under the Reader’s Digests, yesterday’s paper –

some journeys always stay the same, like the one where

Demeter goes to the underworld or Eurydice looks back

or Lot’s children, fleeing the sodomized city, turn

into pillars of salt or this looking upward into eyes

that have Pompeii in them and laughter like the hills

beyond Hope rolling & rolling into sagebrush and

tumbleweed and bed where an ancient tunnel begins

in the back of the mind reversing truth where the beauty

is dark and free as a pomegranate seed whose promise

is an old woman pacing lonely and fierce in her once

wild-flower passions, but alone still, reading Trollope.

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