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Designated Mourner

by Catherine Owen

Catherine Owen’s new poetry collection is a record of grief chronicling the author’s experience of bereavement following the death of her spouse. In the vein of Carol Ann Duffy’s Raptures, Designated Mourner tenderly surrenders Owen’s emotions and vulnerability to the page.

In “Lung Poem,” an apt introduction, the speaker tells us that poetry is like borrowed breath from a ventilator, yet it endures because it “has too many lungs to accept / Death completely.” The poem does not wallow in sadness, but finds solace in subtle beauty; it becomes an aid to living, like a bandage holding the self together. 

Owen struggles with finding a balance between preserving old memories and making new ones. In “Complicit,” the reader feels the pain that radiates from Owen’s lines: “and you, a beautiful one-time-only, / poisons captive in your brain, then from your truck’s cold cage, / your heart wrecking itself.” Like Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking, Owen looks to the grief of others to make sense of her own uncharted feelings. Wisdom acquired through loss appears in the epigraphs to a number of the poems, such as a quotation from Eavan Boland’s “The Pomegranate”: “If I defer the grief, I will diminish the gift.”

Fittingly, the collection ends with the lyrical “Shrine,” which concedes the disconnect that exists when one lives among the dead: “A part of me feels too usurping, ill-bred / To think I can sit with the gone without cost.” What is the cost, exactly? In an earlier poem, the speaker tells a lover, “if you took a photo of / the inside of me … you would see ghosts.”

These ghosts live inside photo frames and fragmented memories, but remain intangible, just beyond the grasp of the living.