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.

The American poet Danusha Lameris in a recent Rattle podcast mentions what she tells her students to look out for when reading a poet’s collections. To discover the “irritant” or wound that spurs the poet and the solace in the poems, written in response to the irritant or wound. For Catherine I would say the irritant would be her grief over Chris’s death but also grief for the world represented in Riven by the slow dying of the Fraser, its diminishing from pollution and urban sprawl. Her solace: the great beauty she still can see in the Fraser. And in the poems of Riven that irritant, that grief wound, sits side by side with the river’s beauty. And the glimpses of Chris and his beauty not just the tragedy of his death alone in a truck, undiscovered for a day.

You can see the wound/solace dynamic so clearly in the epigraph poem to this post. This line: come to the window — see — he’s not alive anymore — see, he’s everywhere. Yes. He’s gone but he’s also there in the river’s beauty, its sadness. The wound, the solace. You can see it in the earlier lines as well: I, wanting/ to sleep in, to detach awhile from the beauty but, also/ brood. This tension that provides the vibrant backbone for this collection. The healing wisdom that holds this collection together. This  poet’s rip-rap, a holding back of grief and a river. This solace, not salvation, as a river and grief keep moving, living, on.

At times in the poems the river and Chris become  intricately entangled. The grief of both their goings, sharp, yet the poet holding on by holding to beauty. Here from the section in Riven titled Aubades (early morning poems) these first lines of a poem:

And what if, after all this, river, I have not appreciated you enough —
which will always happen — that feeling of insufficient ability to
stop your death — looking at him in old

pictures in the light rising from the filter-through morning and saying
over & over again — he was so beautiful — as if this is part of the
pact of living on — …

Eerie, the double meaning : that insufficient abilty to stop your death. Whose death? Chris’s or the river’s. Yet, by calling to beauty this honouring of the/ pact of living on.

When I read the poems in Riven I think of the Canadian poet Dennis Lee’s lines from his poem Mystery: I want to go/ howl in the city, or smash windows, or make my/life sheer shine in this miracle ache of the world. That’s what Catherine catches so perfectly: this miracle ache of the world. The ache in this world, its beauty. The beauty in this world, its ache.  Catherine captures this, again, so well, in another aubade and her description of beauty is as terrifying as it is riveting:

...................  — beauty you said — is  about surprise
though —  and that, sometimes, is terrible as death — a veering away from the
          safe — witnessing to the difficult — the river part

solace and part a deepening of the dark animal — a poem that tells you it can be all
                   as you are erased, chemical in its loveliness, harshly pelagic,
                                                                           gorgeous with undertow.

These lines. Astonishing. The idea that beauty can be terrible as death, that the river and all it represents for Catherine can be part solace and part a deepening of the dark animal and then the remarkable switch up as the river becomes a poem and both river and poem: gorgeous with undertow. That phrase Catherine can take to the bank: gorgeous with undertow.

And here at the end of her poem One January Morning more beautifully expressed solace, hard-earned wisdom:

I can’t tell you what it’s like to accept things.
Some days, a black vellum is just peeled back from your heart

and, silly as it sounds, you are both raw and unafraid of being hurt,
coffee tastes amazing, the Chinese lantern tree glows on the balcony,

and you begin this difficult, unfinishable poem.

Catherine’s book, gorgeous with undertow. Its reminder of how we, too, can survive and be transformed in spite of grief and losses in our lives. Our lives: gorgeous with undertow.

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