The Poem Is a Lung – National Poetry Month: Poets on Poetry #3 – Catherine Owen

Canadian Poet Catherine Owen at the 2011 Edmonton Poetry Festival. Photo Credit:Tracy Kolenchuk aka Tracy O'Camera

Canadian Poet Catherine Owen at the 2011 Edmonton Poetry Festival. Photo Credit:Tracy Kolenchuk aka Tracy O’Camera

The Lung Poem

The poem breathes for you some days
It’s okay
The poem never says he isn’t, entirely,
Coming back.
The poem has too many lungs to accept
Death completely
The poem, as it sings its dirge, notices
A poppy
Opening like a soft heart in the sun
The poem
Cannot tell you with finality it’s over
The poem takes your breaths for you
Some mornings
The poem is a Lung

Catherine Owen (1972 – ) from Designated Mourner, ECW press/a misfit book, 2014

When Catherine Owen’s crack-addict spouse died in 2010 of complications from his addiction she breathed herself through her grief and loss with poems. Many of those poems became part of her elegiac collection, Designated Mourner, published last year and dedicated to her former spouse Chris Matzigkeit.

In a 2013 interview in Lemon Hound Owen says: I love how the elegiac impulse, amid the starvations of loss, can provide this generosity, this feast of forms into which the hell can flow. And what a hell Owen needed to flow through her. The hell of living with an addict who in spite of all attempts couldn’t break addiction’s grip. The unspeakable hell of his death.

Make no mistake: Designated Mourner is a walk with Owen, hand in hand, through the topsy-turvy madness of grief: its fierce exultations, raw angers and on-the-knees lamentations. But more than a walk, the journey through Designated Mourner and Owen’s grief, is a harrowing example of poetry bringing someone back from the brink of grief and despair. Of helping them survive it. And the closest Owen gets to saying this is when she writes:

The poem takes your breaths for you
Some mornings
The poem is a Lung

The poem is a lung. When it comes to describing how poetry can help us recover from the chaos and traumas of our lives, these brief lines might be the best description with the fewest words that I have come across. Here is how the American poet Ellen Bass describes how poetry helps do this:

People talk about writing as healing and of course I believe that—I’ve taught that; I’ve championed that. But writing is not only healing. I think you also pay a price to go to that place, and you have to be willing to do that. Some poems just about kill you in the process. But ultimately I do think it’s healing for me, or maybe simply necessary. Gregory Orr writes about it in Poetry as Survival, taking the chaos of our experience and trying to make order of it. Poetry allows us to survive the suffering by shaping it. We become makers, not just victims who are acted upon. And that is part of what makes it bearable.

Ellen Bass from an Interview in Rattle, Summer 2012

Owen is no stranger to poetry. She has been performing and writing poems since she was  twelve. And already she has published at least ten collections of poetry and this year there is more to come: a book of essays and a chapbook. If this is not enough creative expression she is a gifted photographer and a heavy metal bassist!

The gift of what Owen has done through Designated Mourner cannot be underestimated. By having the courage to take us inside the heart of her awful pilgrimage she will save more than just her own life. I haven’t seen her saying this: that these poems saved her life. But as she says they were the life support system that kept her breathing when the pain was at its worst. And by accounts based on what I see on-line she is living a rich and active life which included, at least a year or so ago, living with her new partner.

My hope is that  loved ones of addicts read these poems. It could save their lives. They will know they are not the first ones to feel what they feel. The agony and chaos of it. They will know they are not alone. Here is American poet Gregory Orr from his short essay: This I Believe:

Whenever I read a poem that moves me, I know I’m not alone in the world. I feel a connection to the person who wrote it, knowing that he or she has gone through something similar to what I’ve experienced, or felt something like what I have felt. And their poem gives me hope and courage, because I know that they survived, that their life force was strong enough to turn experience into words and shape it into meaning and then bring it toward me to share. The gift of their poem enters deeply into me and helps me live and believe in living.

That is why I share these poems with addicts and their loved ones at the drug and alcohol recovery center nearby where I live. In particular, this is why I share this poem: perhaps the most searing for me in her collection:


I would like it like heaven/ and would be lost

Joy Katz

the substance for which you exchanged a fantastic
everything for nothingness (its gears & dividends & switches)
I should understand shouldn’t I and how better than by
taking that sour cowardly exquisite risk you did, how.


to know the ritual you lived for at the end the call
cash passed over from pawned items you once dreamed about
then sold cut-rate for hard chunks of white mixed with soda
smoked through glass to fathom a whole world reduced to this

minimal hungry routine.


they call it blowing the devil’s dick the best climax you’ll
ever have and why should that be denied me you who were
all about fidelity choosing this most peak way to fuck up life
and all its beauties perhaps too I should follow you in such hollow

erotic renouncements, have sex with absence, with the body of smoke


Catherine Owen from Designated Mourner, Ibid


  1. Liz
    Posted April 6, 2015 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    The poem is a lung… breathes for us.
    It is also careful ear, safe place, takes what we throw at it and still says … more please.


    Thank you for this Richard.

  2. Richard
    Posted June 2, 2015 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    And again, thank you Liz for your careful attention to these posts.

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *