Snow Melts First in the Middle of the Slough reviews

Herizons, Winter 2020

Review by Denise Pauls

The word “slough” conjures up images of a stagnant pool and a desire to avoid the inevitable murkiness that lies within. Choosing avoidance in the case of Stewart’s work, however, would result in missing out on a light that fights its way into the darkness and reveals a world of words teeming with life.

In her debut collection, Snow Melts First in the Middle of the Slough, Catherine Stewart dives into the ancient past, travels the road of earlier generations and boldly revisits her own childhood. Fearlessly, she dives deep, tugging at the reader to consider: what life without reproductive choice looked like; the difficulties of leaving one’s homeland; living close to poverty and the challenges of parenting while isolated in a harsh environment.

Stewart grew up in a family of six near the town of Washout Creek, Alberta. Her family lived in a valley between the Purcell and Rocky Mountains where the Spillimacheen and Columbia Rivers meet. In these poems, she wraps difficult topics in vivid descriptions of the landscape and its inhabitants. Stewart’s degree in science, her role as a parent and her enthusiasm for the outdoors are also evident in this collection.

It is not uncommon to look back to find meaning in the present, and Stewart begins by looking back 500 million years in her opening poem, “Burgess Shale Fossils.” She travels through the generations before her birth and the “stories” she tells, although not our own, sound familiar. In the poem “Orphan,” the refrain of “Mother, Not Mother” and the line “tasked him to find a willow switch, the shape of his disobedience” grabs the reader’s attention and is simultaneously unsettling.

Stewart depicts childhood as a time of free-wheeling discovery and near-disaster at every turn. Parents are neither hovering like helicopters nor plowing possible dangers out of reach. They are ill-equipped, it seems, to manage their own demons. In the poem “In the Parking Lot Outside the Bar” she writes, “we went all day without food or drink, but our horses dipped their nostrils in our imaginary streams.” Stewart captures the imagination with an unexpected collection of themes.

Read as a whole, the delicate strands of the varied topics do not obviously hold together. Thoughtfulness and time reveal the complexity, honesty and vulnerability gathered within this work.

— Denise Pauls

The Columbia Valley Pioneer, June 5th, 2019

Interview by Lorene Keitch

Spillimacheen native Catherine Stewart is coming home, a box of books in her trunk, to share her poetry with a local audience.

She has not lived in Spillimacheen for 30 years. But her childhood spent outdoors, making root-houses and caves for her troll dolls, drinking water fetched by her mother from a creek a driving distance from her house, the draught of the outhouse through the winter chill, have stuck with her through three decades of living on Vancouver Island. Her childhood was framed by the Rockies and Purcell Mountains, where she roamed the Valley with her siblings and friends, or lay amongst the reeds, listening and studying the clouds. She had a small garden patch, where she remembers growing strawberries and radishes. She went to school in Spillimacheen, then Edgewater, then on to David Thompson Secondary School.

Snow Melts First in the Middle of the Slough, Ms. Stewart’s debut book of poetry, is firmly planted in the roots of her childhood home.

“I live so far away from Spillimacheen,” she explained. “Once you move away, everything is nostalgia. So I wrote without even thinking ‘am I going to publish this at the end’. I just wrote it to release everything that was dammed up inside of me I had to say.”

Ms. Stewart took a meandering, lifelong journey to becoming a published poet. She first found a love for poetry as a child.

“The first poem that ever made me feel good about writing was in grade 5,” Ms. Stewart said. Her grandmother was a big fan of literature, and one of her grandmother’s friends was an English teacher. They read a poem Ms. Stewart had written about school.

“This friend of hers said ‘oh, that’s such a good poem’. It was so nice to hear something like that, it inspired me to keep writing.”

At 18, Ms. Stewart left Spillimacheen to pursue an education and career in science. She landed on Vancouver Island, where she has lived ever since. But at the age of 50, she returned to the classroom, earning a Bachelor of Arts in writing at the University of Victoria, followed by a Masters program at UBC. There she accumulated education, advisement, and validation. Before the university program, she said she would write, but “never be quite happy with what I’d written.”

Going to university connected her with other writers, gave her a boost as an artist, and immersed her in the world of poetry.

“The trajectory of my life is what gives me stuff to write about,” Ms. Stewart reflected. “I remember my grandmother saying to me once, ‘you’ve got to write what you know’. Yes, you can do research. But there’s a kernel of what’s inside of you that ends up in everything you write.”

The choices she made have led Ms. Stewart to a life she absolutely loves. She talks of kayaking alongside orcas and camping on wild empty beaches. Her daughters have grown up with the sea salt in their hair.

“I like the life I’ve lived and the experiences I’ve had, and I recognize it’s probably what I needed, to learn the lessons I had to learn in this lifetime,” she said. “I think that wisdom is something that is gleaned from the path we’ve taken. A different path, a different person.”

Poetry to Ms. Stewart is like painting a picture.

“I create this image so everyone else can see what it is. That’s what I like about poetry, you can create a whole story,” she said.

One of her favourite poems in this debut book is called “The Moth”.

“I’ve pulled together my knowledge of the entomological world – my biotech is deeply involved with entomology, and family story. It’s a poem about my mother; she was a very special, beautiful person.”

 

Ms. Stewart will be presenting Snow Melts First in the Middle of the SloughThursday, June 13th at the Invermere library, 6 p.m. She will have a stack of books available for sale ($12.95) at the event and encourages everyone to come out. Don’t be intimated that it is a book of poetry, she concludes. They are simply little stories that she would love to share.