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Somatic: The Life and Work of Egon Schiele

by Catherine Owen

Young Vancouver poet Catherine Owen has taken on a formidable task in choosing the work of artist Egon Schiele as the subject of her first major book. Holding up the mirror of poetry to a painting can multiply the dimensions of both the artistic work and the literary response, or it can reduce the poem to a poor reflection of the subject of its gaze.
One of the common failures in attempting such a project is to dwell overlong on the physical descriptions of a painting. Owen avoids this pitfall by engaging with Schiele’s work in a variety of ways: musing on the lives of the models, imagining how the artist is expressing his familial relationships, incorporating historical context, and allowing elements of a painting to inspire lyrical visions.

Like Schiele’s work, Somatic has sensitive splashes of colour and sudden, sexual twists of line that invite a deeper look. This is especially true of the exquisite endings, as in the strong poem “Seated Nude Girl, 1910”: “The painter unzips his canvas, / his dark mind bulges towards you.”

Somatic resembles Schiele’s work in the writhing sinuousness of its style, but lacks his rawness and contorted passion. Occasional awkwardness of phrasing – “his rides ahead, ovoid carrot, unattainable” – and ungainly metaphors – “ribs are farmlands / where martyrs plant, / rows of rock and skin, seeded / by lungs” – make some of the poems seem forced. This may be because it is more difficult to apply poetry to a chosen subject rather than to let poetry invent its own subject.

While Somatic in some ways fails to match the mastery of its subject, it does flash lucid surprises of language and image that provide illuminating perspectives for the art aficionado, and that demonstrate the seriousness and promise of Owen’s talent.