A Sound Withheld

  • Catherine Owen (Author)
    Trobairitz. Anvil Press
  • Dennison Smith (Author)
    Fermata. Quattro (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Paul Watkins

Dennison Smith’s Fermata and Catherine Owen’s Trobairitz are two poetic texts significant not only for the sounds they make, but for what they withhold. For all the cacophony and multivoicedness sustained in each text, there are plenty of moments that give the reader pause. Fermata (a lyrical text of Zen-like suspension) and Trobairitz (a text that weds twelfth-century troubadours and their female counterparts, the trobairitz, with twenty-first century metalheads) are worlds apart; yet, both texts resonate with silences, shift between suffering, love, and desire, and combine and reclaim traditional materials with the alchemical power of the fearless poetess who conducts language at the centre of each narrative. Both Smith and Owen find innovative ways to write poetry, particularly within traditional models, as Smith’s Fermata searches for voice from nothingness with the “need to speak anew. / Whatever cost” and Owen’s Trobairitz echoes Pound’s maxim to “make it new”: “a dark finish, hears it new.” These are two British Columbian writers who know how to challenge convention, providing pause at the threshold of new possibilities.

Smith’s Fermata—a title that refers to the hold in musical notation—is a work of careful listening that brings attention to the muted understandings of our daily lives. Fermata weaves lyric poetry, fiction, and prose together with various pauses ( ) that serve as markers for reflection. Fermata is influenced by the Buddhist ebb and flow of all things, in which suffering (“Rediscover the depth of suffering respected in us all”) and nothingness exist within a kind of being without a single essence. The poet’s improvisational identity is defined through polyphony, as several melodies combine in an often playful mode. Undoing is chiefly a doing (or un/becoming) in Fermata: “undressing I wear myself loosely”; “I am unbecoming”; “the pulse of becoming burns in the gaps.” Such aphoristic—and often aporic—thinking grounds meditative poetics in an ecosystem dependent upon change: “I devised a beautiful ecosystem, / but I did not make allowance for change.” Change is a constant in Fermata, but so is stasis and repetition as poems (including titles) often repeat and rework themselves like mantras. Suiting the elemental imagery in Fermata, Smith employs the couplet with contrapuntal effect, which nicely fits with the French meaning of the word: two pieces of iron hinged together. Various musings are hinged together in Fermata as the text winds like an arroyo to arrive/arise where reductionisms of love, gender, and desire hold no water. The poet withholds much of herself in order to surrender and find voice, song even. In “Monologue of the Lover” she states: “We must never become so / civilized that nothing sings.” Like a restless body, the poet wants to be as fundamental as art. In order to become so, she must withhold a lot, until her own sound in “Loon,” like the aquatic bird, becomes suspended presence:

Sound, an opened thought.

Sound, a word for itself.

Owen’s Trobairitz also withholds much, but unlike Fermata, its sound is brasher, has more bravado, and is less lyric but with more lyrics. In Trobairitz we are confronted with a collision of traditions and eras. The traditions of heavy metal and troubadours (performers of lyric poetry in the High Middle Ages), despite their “maleness,” challenge convention, class, religion, and genre (section three is aptly titled, “The Medieval Names of Metal”). Owen unapologetically merges metal and troubadourian lexicons, often working in traditional verse (couplets, tercets, a single comjat: the traditional canso form); strategically, she traverses masculinist convention through her own gender meandering, crossing borders, like song: “it is the androgyny in us who sings, / the one who will not be confined.” Given that only around 20 pieces of the trobairitz tradition survive, Owen’s work is also an act of recovery, remix, and homage. Her love of heavy metal music (she played bass in various metal bands) is readily apparent, as she highlights the poetic possibility of metal. Metal is not usually conceived as having a poetic phraseology—as jazz or hip-hop often are—nor is it engaged with as seriously as other music genres (Rolling Stone’s Top 50 list of 2013 did not include a single metal album). And yet, as I travel through the metal-toned medieval world Owen envisions, the long struggle for women to belong in (even as they shape) male-dominated traditions (and the historical potency of misogyny) made perfect sense through the medieval/metal hybridization. The opening section, Cansos, referring to courtly love poems, a form that opposes the more conventional and chauvinistic pastorela, was particularly captivating as the text engages in the trials of love, desire, coitus, and suffering (“How little we have learned to suffer”). The glossary proved useful in dealing with the medieval terminology applied throughout. And for all the intensity of Trobairitz, there are plenty of moments where much is withheld, where silence (which “has become a season”) gives us pause to contemplate the lacunas of history, recovered through the androgyny of all musical performance:

For me there is no hearth and no

silence but serving as witness to love
and its holy music.

If Fermata’s poetic symbol is a loon, Trobairitz’s is an electric bass. Smith’s Fermata and Owen’s Trobairitz sound and withhold much; they not only underscore how art is often sexed, or overly contained, but they also remind us of the musical resonances and silences that ripple through all of us—across time and gender—if we are willing to listen.



This review “A Sound Withheld” originally appeared in Tracking CanLit. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 220 (Spring 2014): 181-182.

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