Of Cartywheels & Autopsies: the poetry of Christine McNair & Catherine Owen

Of Cartywheels & Autopsies:

the poetry of Christine McNair & Catherine Owen

Review by Mark McCawley

Notes From A Cartywheel,

by Christine McNair

AngelHousePress, 7×8.5, 24pp, $5.00 (CAN)

published, November 2011

AngelHousePress is an Ottawa-based micro-press founded and published by poet and writer, Amanda Earl, in 2007. Although Earl first began AHP as a vehicle to publish her own work, she soon discovered the “thrill in publishing raw talent, ragged edges, rule breakers.” Indeed, no two AHP titles or side projects of Earl’s — Bywords, Experiment-O (an annual PDF magazine that celebrates the art of risk) — are bound to share the same poetic trajectories. Which brings us to the two AngelHousePress chapbooks at hand.

In the seventeen poems which comprise Notes From A Cartywheel, Christine McNair functions primarily as an experimental language poet. In the suite of “Cartywheel” poems numbered simply “one”, “four” through to “twelve”, the poems act as spokes within a central language wheel. Not only are the poems cyclic allegorically, McNair plays upon the internal qualities of language to further this metaphor.


a cloned involution
unlaced violin onto
calved lotion union
unlaced volution on
unclad voile notion
nonactive loud lion
invocation dull one

lilac devotion noun

colonial devout inn
continual dove lion
lunatic loved onion
contain unloved oil
a lucid violent noon
a novice dull notion
an uncool violent id

McNair reduces language to its component parts by rearranging and juxtaposing reciprocal and competing meanings and images both within each poem, and from poem to poem within the overall suite.

how to say sweetheart

curve sharp curve curve
sharp sharp curve curve
curve sharp

bend blade bend bend
blade blade bend bend
bend blade

snake weasel eel eel
tiger honeybee eel anteater
rat tiger

dot dot dot dot
dot dot dot dot
dot dot

Almost as if to create a counterpoint to this cycle, though, an irony to all this movement and motion in McNair’s poems, of opposites in collision, is her use of the prose poem. For instance, in “untitled” McNair removes the more conventional signposts of narrative so that once again the reader is dependent upon language for direction and meaning:

She wakes up from these dreams laughing, every time, and doesn’t know why. She bites her fingers to keep from sobbing.

Steve Kulash & other autopsies,
by Catherine Owen
AngelHousePress, 7×8.5, 24pp, $5.00 (CAN)
published, May 2012

In contrast are the nineteen lyric poems which make up Catherine Owen’s Steve Kulash & other autopsies. Owen could not have chosen a more appropriate word with “autopsies”: from autopsia, a seeing for oneself. That is what Owen does in her poems in this AngelHousePress chapbook. She explores the underlying themes, conflicts, and traumas of every day life. In the title poem, “Steve Kulash, Taxidermist” Owen suggests “Nostalgia is unethical./If this is finally the end of my childhood” when the taxidermist on Kingsway shuts down. “Memory has an immoral tinge./It wants its cold beasts to worship.”

But don’t be led to believe these are merely a cycle of poems surrounding darker themes of death, grief or loss, either. In the suite of three haibun, Owen uses this 17th century Japanese form (much as she used the Ghazal in Frenzy) to meld the quotidian with the extraordinary. In “Haibun for Three Places We Didn’t Stop: Cut Knife, Esterhazy, Minnedosa”, the boredom of a metal band’s road travels across long miles of prairie is punctuated by brief instances of epiphany:

We make up haikus
as we drive, syllables long
miles on our fingers

Still, one cannot help but notice the recurrence of grief and longing as a paired theme in this collection. As in “2:22 a.m.”:

How still we are silken, ravaged, as the moment we first met,
strutting in that field of tongues, piled high with signifiers.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
The clock has little red boots on, never apologizes.

To order AngelHousePress titles, visit their website at: http://angelhousepress.com

Posted on by urbangraffito Posted in Chapbooks, Fresh Raw Cuts, Review

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