Rivers and What They Carry – Part Two – River as Wound and Solace – The Continuing Journey Through Grief and Loss in the New Poetry Collection “Riven” by Catherine Owen

Canadian poet Catherine Owen










Come to the window — you call to me

Come to the window — you call to me — I, wanting
 		    to sleep in, to detach awhile from the beauty but, also
		    brood, and you know this so — come to the window,

you say — and it is as if the river is calling to me in its pale blue
		    voice, snow again — thin but continuous — a hunkering
		    down of mist over all those white, incomplete

dwellings, a myth made from weather — come to the window it says and
		    witness — a sun drizzle, this winter cumulus into
		    the deepest part of the river, the wonk, wonk

work of ducks, tetragon booms chained to the tails of tugs, snow in a scrim
		    to the shoreline — not much — what speaks
		    to me these days, gets me out of bed, beckons

come to the window — see — he’s not alive anymore — see, he’s everywhere —
		    some principle of energy the river gathers together, holds.

Catherine Owen from Riven, ECW Press, 2020

Welcome to part two of my series on “river” poems by two acomplished poets on either side of the U.S./Canada border. In part one I featured Natalie Diaz and her poem sequence on her Mojave nation’s great Colorado River – The First Water in the Body. This title resonates so closely to a line in the Canadian poet Patrick Lane’s great poem Last Water Song: First water is woman water. Seems appropriate for two blog posts featuring two gifted women poets.

Part two of this series is a celebration of Canadian poet Catherine Owen’s full length collection Riven deliberately meant to  echo river and also its meaning: to split apart or to cause a rift. Catherine’s river is the great western river, the Fraser that empties into the pacific ocean through the Salish Sea in Vancouver. The rift in Catherine’s life, the death of her spouse, Chris, in 2010 from a drug addiction.

The gift of this new book: to witness a woman’s refusal to succumb to grief, her commitment to heal through writing poems that map how she honours the pact of living on.

It is the Fraser, suffering its own environmental damages from logging and urban expansions, that became her comfort, her confessor as she shared her damaged heart with it day after day in early morning in the aftermath of Chris’s death. This is not a first book dedicated to the death of Chris. I featured what I could call her first “mourning” collection, Designated Mourner, published in 2014, in this blog post. Designated Mourner is one of the most riveting and compelling Canadian poetry collections I have encountered in the past ten years. And what a complement Riven is to it.

Where rage and anger boils up into the pages of Designated Mourner, rage and anger over how addiction captures and transforms an addict, there is a much more elegiac and softer tone in the grieving in Riven. And a huge difference is that the beauty and the damage of the Fraser become part of the healing for Catherine in Riven.
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Rivers and What They Carry – Part One – River Poems and River Poem Sequences by Natalie Diaz and Catherine Owen


Hispanic and Indigenous American poet Natalie Diaz

Running the Rivers with N and C
  — For Natalie Diaz and Catherine Owen

How to write the unruly, the unsettled,
words forever water, slipping past always
and never, too quick for grief, too slow
for regret, but you carry them, carry them,
anyway. The beauty, beauty, carries them.

Richard Osler, May 17th, 2020

Talk about letting the river take you. Take you. Take you. Two new books of poetry. Two epic elegiac river poem sequences in both written by two accomplished women writers far apart on their respective sides of the 48th parallel.

On the American side, the indigenous and Hispanic American poet, Natalie Diaz and her sequence: The First water is the Body from her new book Post Colonial Love Poem which I have featured in two previous posts. And on my side of the border the Canadian poet Catherine Owen and her sequence The River System in her book Riven. And in Owen’s case it is not just a sequence based on a river but her whole book. I feature Diaz and her poem sequence in this first post and Owen and her poems in part two.

It is not easy to be taken by a river. Rivers have a fierce beauty. You court danger as you enter and live in them. The river poems in these two books ache with beauty but carry danger, too. The flood forces in both of them. The grief and the beauty rushing through. And if you know the flood force of a river you will know that exhilaration, that fear in these poems. I know these far too well. The taste of them.

I have been taken by the Missinaibi, west of North Bay, Ontario thrown over, dumped and survived. And by the Nile in Uganda, grade five rapids and worse, and sucked, way, way under and kept there. Kept there long enough I began to drown or so it seemed. Then it threw me back. Then took me down again. Then let me go and rushed me far downstream.

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Patrick’s Poets – #4 in a Series – Linda Crosfield of Ootischenia, B.C.!

Canadian Poet and Publisher Linda Crosfield

I Wish I Could Tell You, John Prine

The time I saw you live
you were opening for Arlo Guthrie
but it was you I went to see.
You played them all, your glorious songs,
introduced an angel from Montgomery,
showed us the tracks on a young vet’s arm,
taught us a thing or two about long-distance love,
and I wish I could tell you
about a tiny kitchen in a long-ago apartment,
you on the turntable reminding us
to be nice to old people,
me and a boy, a long, languorous kiss
where we forgot about the other people
in the room rolling joints,
drinking wine, middle of the day,
we’d never be old like the couple in the song,
and I wish I could tell you
how the friend who told me about you in ’75 or so
died a few years back and I know
if there’s any kind of heaven
she’ll have found you by now,
be showing you around,
and I wish I could tell you
how decades later my son walked down
a dusty Mexican road
playing Hello in There on Pedro’s old guitar,
taking me back,
taking me back
like you do.

Linda Crosfield, Facebook, April, 2020

I had been planning for some time to profile B.C. poet Linda Crosfield as part of series on poets taught/mentored by the late great Canadian poet Patrick Lane when I saw the poem above on Facebook a few days after the death of the celebrated U.S. singer John Prine. I thought: that’s the poem I need to feature. But even then after getting a quick okay from Linda it has taken more time than I can believe to get this feature up and online! I have included Linda’s biographical and literary information below! I asked her to write it! Thank you Linda.
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The Great Gift of Women Poets – Another Poem in Memory of Eavan Boland (1944-2020)

Irish poet Eavan Boland. Photo Credit: The Sunday Times, 2018

Time and Violence

The evening was the same as any other.
I came out and stood on the step.
The suburb was closed in the weather

of an early spring and the shallow tips
and washed out yellows of narcissi
resisted dusk. And crocuses and snowdrops.

I stood there and felt the melancholy
of growing older in such a season,
when all I could be certain of was simply

in this time of fragrance and refrain,
whatever else might flower before the fruit,
and be renewed, I would not. Not again.

A car splashed by in the twilight.
Peat smoke stayed in the windless
air overhead and I might have missed it:

a presence. Suddenly, in the very place
where I would stand in other dusks, and look
to pick out my child from the distance,

was a shepherdess, her smile cracked,
her arm injured from the mantel pieces
and pastorals where she posed with her crook.

Then I turned and saw in the spaces
of the night sky constellations appear,
one by one, over roof-tops and houses,

and Cassiopeia trapped, stabbed where
her thigh met her groin and her hand
her gloittering wrist, with the pin-point of a star.

And by the road where rain made standing
pools of water underneath cherry trees,
and blossoms swam on their images,

was a mermaid with invented tresses,
her breasts prints with the salt of it all and all
the desolation of the North Sea in her face.

I went nearer. They were disappearing.
Dusk had turned to night but in the air –
did I imagine it? – a voice was saying:

This is what language did to us. Here
is the wound, the silence, the wretchedness
of tides and hillsides and stars where

we languish in a grammar of sighs,
in the high-minded search for euphony,
in the midnight rhetoric of poesie.

We cannot sweat here. Our skin is icy.
We cannot breed here. Our wombs are empty.
Help us to escape youth and beauty.

Write us out of the poem. Make us human
in cadences of change and mortal pain
and words we can grow old and die in.

Eavan Boland from In a Time of Violence, W.W. Norton, 1994

Last night as I began to write a blog post in honour of the Irish poet Eavan Boland I came back to this mysterious poem of hers. A shepherdess, a mermaid? What gives, I thought. Then I read a passage in her book Object Lessons – The life of the Woman and the Poet in our Time and there was the key. Images of the feminine trapped in masculine-dominated tropes. Women as figurines trapped as shepherdess, as mermaid.

And here I realized how important it was for Eavan to discover her female poetic voice and liberate the feminine from shopworn images. And here, I want to celebrate the female poets I have grown up with in workshops and retreats in my almost twenty-year journey to become a poet. To those brave and flesh and blood voices who are saying: here is what it is to be human, human in the body, soul and mind of woman. As woman poet.
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Eavan Boland (Sept. 24th, 1944 – April 27th, 2020) – Your Poetic Marvels – Poems to grow Old In. To Die In. And Now Your Very Real Death – R.I.P.

Irish poet Eavan Boland (1944-2020), Photo Credit 2015: Independent, IE


I found it among curios and silver
in the pureness of wintry light.

A woman painted on a leaf.

Fine lines drawn on a veined surface
in a hand-made frame.

This is not my face. Neither did I draw it.

A leaf falls in the garden.
The moon cools its aftermath of sap.
The pith of summer dries out in starlight.

A woman is inscribed there.

This is not death. It is the terrible
suspension of life.

I want a poem
I can grow old in. I want a poem I can die in.

I want to take
this dried-out face,
as you take a starling from behind iron,
and return it to its elements of air, of ending-

so that Autumn
which was once
the hard look of stars,
the frown on a gardener’s face,
a gradual bronzing of the distance,

will be,
from now on,
a crisp tinder underfoot. Cheekbones. Eyes. Will be
a mouth crying out. Let me.

Let me die.

Eavan Boland from New Collected Poems, W.W. Norton & Company, 2008

Eavan Boland one of the great Irish poets of her generation died yesterday, aged seventy-five. And may I add, one of the greatest poets of her generation worldwide. Boland may not be as well known as her near contemporary Seamus Heaney but make no mistake she is/was one of the great ones. Drop inside a Boland poem and you will come out changed. Hers a searing poetry of loss, love and suffering so often seen through her lens of a tragic Irish history and as important through her awareness of the importance of seeing the world through a woman’s eyes, a woman’s experience. Not a man’s.

The epigraph poem above. Oh how Boland wants to loose the woman painted on a leaf from the bounds of history. And how I do not want to imprison Eaven the same way! Not make you an object of my idea of what a woman poet is. And imprison you there. Not to objectivfy you but let you live, the hurting loving, erotic, praising woman you were. So, Eavan I will let you die. I will try not to freeze you into some lifeless portrait. I will try and let you fly back into elements of air. I will let you put out your wing, the erotic longing in it expressed in your poems, that extraordinary wing from your searing poem The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me :

The blackbird on this first sultry morning,
In summer, finding buds, worms, fruit,
Feels the heat. Suddenly she put out her wing –
The whole, full, flirtatious span of it.

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A Look Inside the Surprising Heart and Mind of American Poet Carl Phillips – A Poem From His 2018 Collection Wild Is The Wind and One from His 2020 Collection, Pale Colours in a Tall Field

American poet Carl Phillips (1959 – ) Photo Credit: The Huffington Post, 2015


To have understood some small piece of the world

more deeply doesn't have to mean we're not as lost

as before, or so it seems this morning, random bees

stirring among the dogwood blossoms, a few here

and there stirring differently somehow, more like

resisting stillness...Should it come to winnowing

my addictions, I'd hold on hardest, I'm pretty sure,

to mystery, though just yesterday, a perfect stranger

was so insistent that I looked familiar, it seemed

easier in the end to agree we must know each other.

To his body, a muscularity both at odds and at one

with how fragile everything else about him, I thought,

would be, if I could see inside. What's the word

for the kind of loneliness that can feel like swimming

unassisted in a foreign language, for the very first time?

Carl Phillips from WILD IS THE WIND, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018

I wanted to feature the gay African American poet and essayist Carl Phillips and a poem of his for many reasons. The first is to say he has just released his fifteenth collection of poems, Pale Colours in a Tall Field; second is to honour one of the most distinctive and unusual poetic voices of his generation; and third is to celebrate his skills as a teacher of poetry and poetics. I have attended two week-long poetry retreat/workshop sessions with Phillips and each triggered me into fresh new poems.

I won’t list all Phillips’s many poetry honours but just to say he is a professor at Washington University in St Louis and from 2010 to 2020 he has been the most recent judge of the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. He has also been a finalist (2014) and a judge (2010) for the celebrated Toronto-based Griffin Poetry Prize and a finalist (2011) for prestigious American National Book Award. To see a 2014 video interview with Carl through the Washington Post please click here.

The book from which the poem above comes from has been folded to the page of that poem on my desk for months. Periodically it gets buried and I forget it. Then it gets unearthed and then buried again! But last week I discovered the eco-journal Emergence Magazine on-line and found an astounding essay by Phillips called Trees. There is both an audio and print version of the poem on the Emergence site. To hear or read the essay please click here. To hear Phillips read this equisite piece of writing is to be cast under a spell that takes time to  fade!

To enter into a Carl Phillips poem is to embrace wonder and mystery and to surrender to both. The wonder of his rich language and his disarming conversational voice that seems to place him right beside me as I read. Yet in that seemingly casual voice he can throw out astounding complex and perplexing ideas one after another. And as well he can communicate a sense of physicality and intimacy especially around sexual encounters that adds a haunting immediacy to his work.

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For Now the Dunes Are [NOT] Sure – R.I.P. Glynn Irby, U.S. Gulf Coast Poet and Luminous Human

Texas-based American poet Glynn Irby. Died April 20th, 2020

Imagi 31

In a ratcheting wind,
salt grasses twist
around November roots
and the olive-hued saw palms
throb against their crowns.

For now, the dunes are sure.
Yet, as sea-foam flashes white
around their knees, the sand
sinks with each tidal flow.

Close offshore, waves rise
from the flounder-gray Gulf
and wind-driven crystals
deflect into a steel-hook sky —

while black, shadowless birds,
drift overhead, crook-winged, in rows.

Glynn Monroe Irby from Houston Public Media, April 10th, 2017

In Glynn’s poem the wonderfully rich and haunting line: For now, the dunes are sure. Now, after his death six years after writing this and with my heightened awareness of my own mortality in the time of Covid-19 I am not feeling so assured the dunes are sure. But what an important reminder to live each day in spite of…….

In 2009 about ten or so of us gathered for a poetry-as-prayer retreat I was leading on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico at Surfside Beach, south west of Galveston, just about 2 hours south of Houston. It became the first of eight retreats at this remarkable place and as I remember Glynn Irby was at almost every one if not at all of them. This big bear of a gentle man who died far too young this past Monday from complications arising from cancer treatments.

The poem above was vintage Glynn, his sonic skills in composition. Dylan Thomas a big influence on his own voice. Glynn wrote Imagi 31 at the 2015 Surfside retreat after a big storm and an unusual north wind blowing so hard it turned the tops of the waves into spume and spray. All the s sounds in the poem mimic the sounds of that wind that day outside the house where we lived and wrote for two nights. To fully appreciate the sonics in his poem please
click here to hear Glynn reading the poem! Love that soft southern drawl of his. Bless you, man.

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An Invitation to Sink Down into a Poem and Overhear a Heck of a Healing Chat between the Titanic and American Poet and Performer Laura Brown-Lavoie

Banner for the Paris Review’s regular online column – Poetry RX

If I break a leg, I’ll go to a doctor. If I break my heart or if the world breaks my spirit, I will go to a poet…… The healing power of art is not a rhetorical fantasy… For some, music, for some, pictures, for me, primarily, poetry…..cuts through noise and hurt, opens the wound to heal it, and then gradually teaches it to heal itself.

— Jeanette Winterson from her Website, 2007

from On This the 100th
Anniversary of the Sinking
of the Titanic We Reconsider
the Buoyancy of the Human Heart.

My heart has an iceberg with its name on it, I told
Titanic, so I need your advice. Tell me, did you see the
iceberg coming?

I did, Titanic said.

And you sailed right into it?

It was love, Titanic said.

And the band just kept playing? And the captain
stayed at the wheel? What did it feel like to swallow
seawater? Tell me, Titanic, how did it feel?

It felt like a hole in my side and then it felt like
plummeting face first into the ice-cold ocean.

She’s a straight talker, the Titanic.

Laura Lamb Brown-Lavoie from Alight, August 2013 in Association with Lit Slam

American poet, performer and urban farmer Laura Brown-Lavoie

The healing power of poems! One of my favorite topics. And happily there are many others that agree with me. Have any of you been reading Poetry RX online at the Paris Review? There three poets take turns answering a concerned person’s letter, describing a personal challenge, with a poem! The poets are Kaveh Akbar, Sarah Kay and Claire Schwartz. I discovered the Titanic poem excerpted above through Sarah Kay at Poetry RX last year! Thank you Sarah!

American spoken word poet Sarah Kay

Of the three writers and responders at Poetry RX I have known Akbar and Kay but not Claire Schwartz. But in a recent post during the time of Covid-19 on Poetry RX she celebrated a poem by the great Brazilian poet Adelia Prado as translated by the American poet Ellen Dore Watson. That was enough for me to feel I know her now a little better! For a previous blog post I wrote on Prado in 2014 and reposted today please click here.

I first came across Sarah Kay, American spoken word and so-called page poet, through her poem B which she wrote in 2007 . It went viral after she performed it during a Ted Talk back in 2011. A free-moving mother poem. A praise poem letter by a woman to a not-yet born child and inside the poem a praise poem to that woman’s mother. A passing on of a mother’s wisdom to a daughter and from that daughter to her daughter to be. Instead of Mom, she’s going to call me point B./ because that way she knows no matter what happens,/ at least she can always find her way to me!

Just a little more than a year ago on March 14th, 2019 Sarah responded on Poetry RX to a letter by a woman feeling the impending loss of a her lover who was moving away based on a plan he made before they met. The woman was overwhelmed by this impending huge loss and the uncertainty of what would happen to their relationship. Sarah responded with a poem from 2013 by spoken-word poet and urban farmer, Laura Lamb Brown-Lavoie. To hear Laura perform the poem please click here.

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For Easter Monday A Post from Easter Monday Six Years Ago! A God Who Eats Words – The Devotional poems of Adélia (Luzia) Prado (Freitas)

Brazilian Poet Adelia Prado

Brazilian Poet Adélia Prado (1935 – )

While writing a blog for today I came across a reference to the fabulous Brazilian poet Adélia Prado and then went searching for my blogs on her. And found this post from Easter Monday six years ago and thought too perfect, must use it again! Prado was acknowledged in 2014 with A Distinguished Lifetime Contribution to Poetry Award from the Griffin Trust which suggests her celebrated poetic standing in the world. Below my 2014 Easter Monday post:

“On this Easter Monday it seems right to consider devotional poetry – poetry, whether or not explicitly religious, that reaches out to a presence, something transcendent, something that speaks to the eternal. A poetry where the “holy”, the “unspeakable” enters in.

I realize this is a huge topic and I don’t want to get lost in it. I want to highlight  poems by the Brazlilian poet,  Adélia Prado (1935 – ) , a mystic and devotional poet if there ever was one. (Click here for my previous post on Prado in 2012.) In the title I have given Prado’s full name!

Here is a first taste of her latest poems in English. Prado, this woman described by the celebrated Brazilian poet, Carlos Drummond de Andrade (1902-1987)  as a housewife in Minais Gerais ( the province where she lives) writing verses dictated to her by Saint Francis.

Eternal Life

Half a century.
The weight of that word used to send me straight to bed.
No more. I’m gathering wisdom.
Alchemists aren’t law breakers —
sure, they’re naïve sometimes like the saints,
believing in stones, fish seen in dreams,
signs written on the sky.
Where is God?
April is reborn out in the cosmos,
in the most perfect silence.
Inside and outside of me.

Adélia Prado, translated by Ellen Dore Watson, from Ex-Voto, Tupelo Press, 2013

Prado’s second book of poems Ex Voto, was translated into English by the American poet Ellen Watson and published in 2013 year. This book is a treasure. Not just for Watson’s translations that come so alive on the page, that bring such clarity to Prado’s loose-limbed yet muscular poems, her sure-footed shifts of tone, but for the introduction by Russian American poet Ilya Kaminsky. It’s a prose paean to Prado’s craft but also a primer on devotional poetics.

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A Bewitchery of Words and Natural and Mythic Worlds – The New Poems of Nova Scotian Poet Anne Simpson

Nova Scotian poet, adjunct professor, essayist and novelist, Anne Simpson. Photo Credit: St Francis Xavier University


I go into days and nights, one after the other. A cup set down,
a scraped chair.

Outside, a coyote, tangled yelps. Moon, the way it lies

on snow. Snakebite blue.

I get up, stone.
I sit down, stone. King of morning, noon, night. Eat each stone,
spit it out.

This is what’s called normal.
It isn’t normal. It’s deathwater.

Don’t let me lose the sound of you. I’ll make a raft of your laughter.
My nose against your nose. Your tongue—
O, now it’s stone.

What have I done to you?

Anne Simpson from strange attractor, McClelland & Stewart, 2019

This poem captures, I think, some of what many of us, isolated at home because of Covid-19, are feeling. Maybe not the depth of the sense of loss in this poem but at least some of it. Maybe a sense, too, of the loss of our old selves, the hurly-burley ones racing around in our normal busyness. That sound of us.

And that question: What have I done with you? And maybe more challenging and profound, what if it’s not the busy one we miss but the one whom we left behind in our busyness. The one, during this time of quiet for so many, we may be forced to acknowledge, to confront. And normal, as not normal, as deathwater!  What deathwater do I need to spit out? The stone-cold taste of it.

And now by way of introducing Anne Simpson I need to declare I know her, the celebrated Nova Scotian/ Canadian novelist, essayist, teacher and poet, She was generous enough to write a commendation for the back of my poetry collection Hyaena Season in 2016. Okay, that’s out of the way!

I first got to know Anne at a Jane Hirschfield poetry retreat in Key West, Florida in 2015. It felt somewhat surreal to be sitting in the same circle, as fellow students, with someone, Anne, who had won the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize in 2004. But Anne’s easy modesty and understated manner made it easy. But make no mistake: as much as Jane Hirschfield is one of the most accomplished poets of her generation on her side of the border, Anne is surely one of those on our side!
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