The Bull Calf

Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism

Seeing Lessons by Catherine Owen (Page 1)


At press time: Laura Cameron is a PhD student at McGill University, where she studies Canadian modernist poetry. She did her BA (Honours) in English and French at Glendon College (York University), and her MA at McGill, where she wrote a Research Paper on the fiction of Canadian writer Lisa Moore. 

At press time: Claudine Gélinas-Faucher is a PhD student at McGill University. She is also an associate editor for The Bull Calf: Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism. Her current research focuses on the emergence of Montreal-based literary and artistic societies at the turn of the twentieth century.  

At press time: Renaud Roussel is a PhD student in the English department at McGill University. His current research focuses on contemporary interpretations of John Franklin's last expedition in Canadian literature and, more specifically, in the works of David Solway, Dominique Fortier, and Helen Humphreys.


Catherine Owen
Seeing Lessons
. Wolsak and Wynn 2010                                                                                                100 pp.

Claudine: I’m going to start by saying that, to me, Owen’s project is concerned with reconstructing the character of Maddie Gunterman who is lost to time, lost to memory and using her story to comment on several themes, and we can come back to those themes because I think that you guys are a little more aware of them. Maddie Gunterman existed, her photographs were lost, they’ve all been burnt, only few photographs remain, and so the book itself is made up of four parts. The first part contains poetry, which seems to have less in common with the later parts; the second part is prose (the journal of Maddie Gunterman); in the third part we have the few pictures that remain. In the fourth part we have poems that seem to be sometimes from Maddie’s perspective and at other times seem inspired by Owen’s poems. The fifth part is one poem, “Geologos.” To me, this is a successful project and I think that if we take a close look at the first poem of the collection, “Dislodging Socrates,” I think that the poem introduces the rest of the book of poetry and establishes the project Owen is trying to achieve.

Laura: I agree that “Dislodging Socrates” is one of the strongest poems in the volume. Of these themes that you were referring to,  we might mention photographs, photography, images, image making, and memory and what a photograph does to memory. This first poem, which is all about history and fossils, opens those themes up well. And I think that one of the questions that the book poses well is what is a fossil – like a material, a piece of history that we can hold – vs. what is a ghost or something that is in the air; and where does a photograph stand? Is a photograph material? Is it something we can save or is it ephemeral, a capturing of a moment in time? So I like the image of the owl in “Dislodging Socrates.” I like the line, “If time had a beak this would be it,” because I think that the poem and the book are about time speaking and about how a fossil can speak.. The last lines of this poem launch the rest of the book nicely, with an open parenthesis that never closes: “(or, when sweeping up after a long shift / a broom dislodges Socrates, those leaps / the slower world gave us”

Claudine: Do you think that those leaps are intended to reference what comes next?

Laura: Yes.

Claudine: Because I really do think that that open parenthesis is the gateway into the book of poetry and I think that those leaps are moments of creation or moments of poetic inspiration and that these are the steps leading to the project.

Renaud: Then do you think that the idea of wisdom, obviously very present in the first poem, is actually the central idea in the text? Do you think that she’s calling for a new form of wisdom? Or maybe that the idea of wisdom has been discarded and should be reintegrated into the way we think?

Claudine: Yes, I see where you’re going and I’m going to disagree because I think that the idea here is that – as you, Laura, set up the idea of the fossil and the ghost – I think that there’s also the idea of the inaccessible quality of either the ghost or the fossil. The fossil can’t be touched because of the glass, right? And the ghost, the former self of the owl is up in the tree, very far. So there’s something about not being able to access the remnant. But, then there is also the idea that the owl, if it does in fact represent wisdom, knowledge, that these have been fossilized in our brains, and only when we “dislodge Socrates” can we take these leaps. So that’s why I disagree.

Renaud: Okay. That’s really not the way I read it. For me, this dislodging is a consequence, and a negative consequence, of the way we treat nature today. It is related to the idea, very pervasive in the text, that humans have a negative impact on nature and that we have to return to a slower pace of life. In most poems, space gives access to time and space opens a window onto different temporalities and different human interactions with the world. Owen draws parallels between slowness and the wilderness, or the environmental time, on the one hand, and quickness and the concept of the clearing, on the other hand : in order to make space for human beings in the wilderness, we have to destroy it.

Laura: I agree with that. You’re both right to call attention to not being able to touch the fossil, and the fact that it’s in a case “flitted with children’s fingertips” suggests that our hands, literally, are coming in between or are preventing our access to this fossil and this kind of wisdom. This point might take us really well into the “Jellyfish” poems The two “Jellyfish” poems are printed in the first section of the book facing one another. One of them describes a jellyfish outside at Gyro Beach in Victoria (“Jellyfish, Gyro Beach, Victoria”) and the other one depicts a jellyfish in the Vancouver Aquarium (“Jellyfish, Vancouver Aquarium”). I think they can tell us a lot about the dichotomies we have been discussing – fossil vs. ghost, inner vs. outer, humans vs. nature.

Renaud: Yeah, but I think the two readings work really well, actually, because this idea of the fossil is not disconnected from the idea of the photograph as a fossil. The photographs in the book have a kind of ghostly appearance and function as  archival material; they are fossils. So, Claudine, your reading is not incompatible with our readings.

Laura: Yeah, I think that’s what I’m trying to say, that you are suggesting the same reading, just maybe a different way of understanding where that wisdom sits. And, what I meant to add before was about connecting wisdom to seeing, because this is a book called Seeing Lessons. I think that it is a really well selected title, because the book asks a lot of questions about how we see and how we can learn to see and the “lessons” brings in the idea of wisdom and how we can grow wiser about seeing.

Claudine: Well, certainly I think another way to segue into the Jellyfish poems is to look at the glass pane. So we have a glass pane keeping the children from touching the owl, but we also have a glass pane in the Vancouver Aquarium so I wonder if that can be either paralleled or at least compared to the photographic lens that comes between the eye and the object. There is definitely an opposition between the two kinds of jellyfish. One is not in that lens and one is.

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