Poetry isn’t merely a cousin of music; we tend to use it in the same way. There is music made for dancing, for driving with the top down, records that amplify a certain mood or lift us out of one, tunes that express our experience in ways we cannot quite achieve ourselves. Some stuff we’re glad we never hear outside of the grocery store. And there are things we listen to that we find intriguing, challenging, resonant, even if we don’t necessarily like the whole album. Frenzy should be on the shelf somewhere among these last. Its title is more suggestive than defining and its central subject and theme (poetry itself and the objects and events that inspire it) moves forward and back between the fore- and background.
Catherine Owen is a photographer, musician and performer as well as a poet, and comparative parallels with those arts are appropriate: a photograph, whatever it is intended to depict, is a product of place, moment, perspective and composition, and if any of these falls too far outside the experience of the viewer he may lose his grip on the image. A musician may play an interval that makes no sense to the listener’s ear yet resonates in his chest or in his feet.
Some of the opening “track,” the “Flood Ghazals,” seems impenetrable. Not incomprehensible, necessarily, but loaded with personal idioms and perspectives so peculiar to the poet as to speak in a language in which few others might expect to be fluent. Yet it contains lots of cool tones and catchy riffs. Some of the pieces are, on the other hand, clearly rendered and immediate. “I have let them be raised by drag queens I have started/ rock bands with masochists all the while saying to them/only stunted trees this far out and all the kayakers/ bright spots in the foam.”
“agitate” is an enthralling little suite, played in sixty-four polyrhythmic triplets. Lyrics may slide by on the first or second hearing; imaginative riffs go unheard (as they sometimes will in a noisy club). The song-like structure of this cycle’s form keeps it in a captivating groove though, and you can’t help but dance. It hardly matters if you can’t exactly whistle the tune or tell what it’s about at first: you’d be happy to listen to it again.
“One Week in Her Life,” set out as a daily journal of vignettes, “Cobalt Moments” as a “bar band on the road” diary, “Opposite Angel’s” – an Industrial/Punkabilly bridge between “Moon River” and “Ballad of a Thin Man”: these are interestingly original variations of recognizable themes, catchy tunes to balance the more challenging excursions. The reprise to “Ghazals” at the end helps lend structural coherence to the whole.
Frenzy is an interesting “album.” Owen plays with a tonal consistency that brings unity to her stylistic eclecticism: from shred-metal to lyrical ballads, bombastic prog-rock to acid jazz, even a bit of old school funk. But don’t pay too much attention to the liner notes. Poetry is like music: you have to actually listen to know how it sounds.
Neil MacRae is a poet and musician from the Maritimes who has made his home in Hinchinbrooke, Quebec.