BC poet Catherine Owen’s writing landed on my radar last year when we both placed in FreeFall magazine’s annual poetry contest. (She took first place; I took second.) Her winning poem, called “Reincarnation Redux”, is a beautifully unsentimental imagining of her deceased spouse coming back to life in the form of a fly. This powerful poem stayed with me, and when I heard that she was publishing a nonfiction book about various aspects of her writing life, I made sure to acquire a copy.
Catalysts – Confrontations with the Muse collects 17 of Owen’s essays written over the last dozen years or so, exploring the various travels – both literal and metaphorical – that she has taken in life, in love and in her art. While the medium here is prose, Owen (who has published nine collections of verse) brings to bear many of the hallmarks of great poetry in telling her stories, including elliptical narration, analogy and a deep engagement with the sounds and cadences of language itself.
The book opens with a delightful and thorough romp through Owen’s childhood reading. (This type of beginning reminded me somewhat of John Metcalf’s Kicking Against the Pricks and Stephen Henighan’s When Words Deny the World.) Owen establishes early on that she had a profound relationship with the written word, and this played a pivotal role in not only the poetry she would write but how she processed the world around her. From there she delves into a number of her poetic preoccupations – some relatable and familiar (a family home, a plot of land from her childhood, concerns about ecological catastrophe), others uncommon and a little obscure. A large section of Catalysts is devoted to Owen’s travels through Europe to research a troupe of female troubadours called trobairitzes who were active in Occitania in the 12th and 13th centuries. While I found my interest in the subject matter waned over the course of the essays, I was always engaged by Owen’s language and her sense of narrative drive.
For me, the strongest parts of this book are when Owen dedicates herself to serving up her core aesthetics and artistic underpinnings of her poetics. I love the fact that she doesn’t pull punches or dilute her explanation as to what she feels poetry is and why a lot of it in Canada is lacking. This is taken from her 2010 essay “Circuitry: Poetry as an Energy Field”:
Too many poems are currently being written and published that emerge from an idea, a narrative impulse, a character-driven structure and little else. In other words, poems shaped by the primary considerations of prose, not poetry. Part of the diminishment of poetry’s literary and cultural viability is in this widespread adoption of prosaic modes and in the concomitant neglect of diction, linguistic musicality and form. Poets who fail to allow their poems to propel themselves to and on the page through the channel of language … are, quite simply, not just limiting themselves as artists but betraying the unique characteristics of their chosen art.
This kind of fearlessness is peppered throughout Catalysts as Owen digs deep into what poetry and the poetic process mean to her. Even when she’s challenging, through the form of a review, her baffling exclusion from a recent anthology of British Columbia poets called Rocksalt, she keeps her argument focused on fundamental aspects of poetry and what it can tell us about ourselves and our sense of place.
There isn’t a great deal in Catalysts about the death of her long-time partner, and the parts that are there maintain that cool, unsentimental distance at work in “Reincarnation Redux.” Still, one is left with the sense that Owen is a writer who feels deeply, questions everything, and channels her emotions and experience through a rigorous poetic aesthetic. Catalysts is a testament to a life immersed in poetic forms, a searching for truth through the prismatic (and often cruel) facets of circumstance and self.