By Greg Bem
Sweet disappeared man; sweet disappearing river
I sing to you this is all I have.
(from “Two Stanzas in Autumn” on page 18)
Grief looms around each corner. Down each path. Beneath the canopy, beneath the stones, across the lawn to the riverbanks, in the river itself. Grief is huge, and it’s often left out of conversation, left out of the social experience. As an often-solitary experience, grief often feels elevated and urgent in poetry. The opportunity to experience another’s exploration of grief and grieving is daunting and awestriking. In Catherine Owen’s Riven, we have just that: daunt and awe through Owen’s commitments and difficult attention to this crucial process.
Riven (defined within the book as a “a word that echoes river and means rift”) combines the poet’s tangible explorations in her immediate world with explorations of grief. The work’s concept is the ritualization of writing through the Fraser River. The work’s basis is writing through the grief of a lost spouse, who died from drug addiction in 2010. Owen’s work is monumental in that it balances a strong, Cascadian ecopoetics as examined via Fraser River with a challenging, cathartic, and human inquiry into death and loss of another human. Owen’s life and writing, as they shift from poem to poem, across moods and a trajectory of the spiritual and the practical, reflect recovery, understanding, and balance.
The poems connect with the river across time and space. Owen’s proximity to the water within the river reflects a conduit that pushes the boundaries of the temporal within poetry. While each poem feels like a new step, a new pathway, there is the persistence of the river itself:
forever happens while so near behind our window, the dark river rides the / shoreline, draws some of the land in it, then further down / what was sunk into something like commitment / is dry on the banks again [. . . ]
(from “Sundays, in the frozen construction site” on page 33)
The undefinable space of grief aligns poignantly with the river, ceaseless but wavering and textured in our conceptions and perceptions. A lingering sense of the past, a restless haunt, is present in these meditations. It is known but not. It is felt but feels unfamiliar in its newness. Each poem, like each day, provides a fractured vision of the river and of history. A revisitation that surprises. Owen’s writing is elegant though thorough, curious though cautious. Juxtapositions do not feel forced but feel adaptive and founded in growth and learning despite the shadow of pain and discomfort.
The juxtaposition that affected me the most was the imposition of reality. Owen’s push towards the river, toward a constrained, intentional artistic immersion never fully achieved as such, the world continuously occupying and imposing. Owen writes of this as Pamela Manché Pearce wrote similarly in Widowland and Phil Elverum sung on A Crow Looked at Me. Owen’s approach to the presence of the world and the disillusionment within is subtle and gestures towards grief’s relentless challenge. It is not a realm of feeling that can go away, despite distraction and interjection:
So you wait beyond concepts of waiting. I’m telling him – the grief regions are vast. I may call out hello hello I live only here now but the truth is a geography. Saw whinges. Click of trucks. The overexposed heron doesn’t celebrate quickly. Lollop of otter. Fish whipping and eh elusive option that this is not, again, a hook. Falling 1000 feet into your memory.
(from “Conniption: The River” on page 63).
The other end of contrast is the opportunity of the beauty within the world Owen is writing. Loss and presence of human and river are still surrounded by impeccable circumstances, and these sequences of imagery fill Riven with ornamentation and symbols. A fullness results and resounds. The ritual of presence fills the poetry. Line spills to line with Owen’s reiterative world-building. It is a translation of that which daunts and that which awes. It is the sprawl of minutiae based on time of day, angle of reference, and the exquisite biological and geological layers through which the images form and become complex.
In the wake of the passing, another wake.
The water does not return to itself.
There is a gleam, a density.
The sun pivots in the wound
where a white bird retires its flying.
(from “Love should not be written in stone, but in water” on page 71)
Within the construction of the image, we find the construction, subtly, of another layer of grief: that river (that riven) echoing Owen’s loss. The world is bigger than the self. Bigger than the lost spouse. There is an ecological sickness, far larger in scope, more global in the lack of nurturing and stewardship. Owen observes this in the wildlife, in the watercraft, in the pollution, in the built environment. Grief’s other face is the slow decay. It’s the intolerable, fractured steps toward environmental destruction:
Our minds can assimilate all horrors. / Is the problem. / The animals will disappear and those small, strange invertebrates; // the bees will vanish and in the well-oiled waters, fish / will surge their deaths over the sand bags.
(from “Nature Writing 101” on page 13)
It would be difficult to claim Riven a book that feels conclusive or filled with solutions. It may have solutions. It may have conclusions. But it is much larger: it goes to the precipice and knows the precipice. It approaches the chasm and knows the chasm. The investigations, the pauses and pulses—they indicate resolve, they reflect immersion and presence. The difficulty, the discomfort: these are the qualities of grief the reader is exposed to, the ones that are that opportunity we rarely, as social beings in need of healing, have.
You can find the book here: https://ecwpress.com/products/riven
Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at www.gregbem.com