Seeing Lessons by Catherine Owen is an ambitious undertaking, a fictionalized account of the life of Mattie Gunterman, a turn-of-the-century BC labour camp cook and nature photographer, who lived as few other women did then—self-sufficient, an artist at the frontier. Mattie
set up camp,
cooked the stew,
saw to the sprat somehow
keeping still for the lens, and captured the now
of life on the trail: a tent, two dogs, and a packhorse
ending up as posterity’s blurs, unforced,
unaware of significance, the film and its lengthy exposure.
By using post-modernist storytelling pastiche and reimagining to evoke a long-lost and highly regionalized era, Owen operates within a contemporary discourse about authenticity and myth- and image-making. Owen has steely control of her work; these poems are decisive and muscular. One pictures the writing process for Seeing Lessons as the exhausting churning of a hand-cranked washing machine. At points, the work feels too controlled, both the poems’ internal structures and their overall scope. Images of Mattie doing endless chores or of men labouring at dusk, I felt that some of these poems could have benefitted from more room to breathe. The precision and singular focus in each poem is occasionally at odds with the fickleness of the wild frontier landscape. Perhaps that was intentional—an allusion to the exacting nature of Mattie’s photographic work, or to the duality of an artist’s focus—how framing a selection inevitably leads to exclusion.
The first part of Seeing Lessons, “Coastlines,” is strongest: firm, and rich with place. Poems here explore distinctly west-coast imagery: loggers cutting all but the tallest tree; eating cubes of moose meat; jellyfish appearing on Gyro Beach. Catherine Owen’s eye is keenly attuned to “resilience this precarious, remember[ing] the flocks, the acreage,” yet these poems are decidedly in form and voice. The second section, “Bull’s Eye,” is comprised of Mattie’s fictional prose journal entries and letters. Mattie is not as robust as I’d hoped—it’s almost as if Owen’s poetic edge softens here. The journal entries and letters lack range in both form and mood, and this material does not push the narrative of the book forward. This section is followed by a gallery of compelling images of Mattie and her contemporaries.
The poem “Geologos” is an expansive piece that balances and embodies the elements of this volume perfectly: the rugged beauty and complexity of the land; the stamina of its inhabitants; and Owen’s mastery of language and clear love for the subject matter. Owen asks pointedly: “So what is this seeing, this fight?” This final poem, like a hike through the bush, is full of drive, endurance, and desire to surpass. “Geologos” shifts focus, pulls rank on the book: while we had been looking at a sepia-tinged reconstruction of frontier life, we were, mistakenly, focusing only on the foreground of the photograph. “Geologos,” perhaps not unlike Mattie in her time, sings of environmental degradation, loss, and change, urging us to appreciate and respect for the natural world, which has somehow endured our interference. Our seeing lesson, then, is to look—not at Mattie, but to look, as Mattie did. To go back, and await and find “those leaps / the slower world gave us” before the panorama is clearcut, overexposed.
Reviewed for Arc Poetry Journal
Published May 2012