Review: Somatic by Catherine Owen
Listen to the subtle melodies of assonance, the call and response of slant rhyme feeding the reader through to the turn. Notice the repetition of single syllable words, an insistent rhythm. Owen uses sound like a lure, seduces the reader with music.
The poems of Somatic are inspired by the life and work of Austrian painter Egon Schiele. Published twenty years ago, this was Owen’s first book (the author gifted me a copy at a reading we did together) and the verse is grounded in the themes she continues to explore: art, love, death, desire, and the nature of the muse.
An interesting polyphony develops as the poems accrue. Subtle shifts in voice help the poems differentiate themselves, but have the effect on this reader of too much too soon. I wanted to dwell for longer with some sounds, rhythms, rather than following “their fine disturbances.” (42) Maybe it’s just the collection is short and no dominant voice develops fully. Still, if there is a through line, it is of distance, the poet-observer, Owen conscious of the humanity of the artist and of his subjects, the viewer and viewed, “the white brushed so lightly / around the brown / was done to suggest spirit, / the body’s other skin.” (34)
Owen’s interpretation of Schiele urges a drawing close of the dark, sexual, and for whatever reason ‘forbidden’ by society: “to take the darkness and draw / it ever deeper.” (41) The sexuality in the poems reflects Schiele's art, the times, and the character, but it also points to empowerment through sexual liberation and the freedom of living outside societal norms. Schiele paid a steep price when he was jailed for public immorality. He was never the same after:
With twenty-four days, your self-portraits
changed, the eyes no longer flaunted
a haughty pose of youth but become pools,
disturbed by stones so huge that ripples
bellied out over the surface, blind and unceasing.
“Prison, Neulengbach, 1912” (46)
There’s that music again, delivering the tragedy of Schiele’s life and the intense beauty of his art in equal measure. The narrative is black but the buoyancy of the language ensures accessibility to darkness. Somatic stands as a testament to the dangers of the rebel life and of non-conformity, and at the same time, prophets the necessity of following one’s truth, whatever the consequence.