by Jane Augustine
When "Joe 82", and similar signatures scrawled in broad felttip pen, began to appear on subway-train walls, one responded subliminally (as to "Kilroy was here" of WW II days): an intruder, mysterious presence, anonymous mind-identity is scratching at the status quo surfaces of the world, at work on some change, however minor, in the myths and monuments of the Establishment.
Taking her title from this graffiti-artist's crude creative effort, Rochelle Owens has re-written the established myths of our origins -- how the world got to be the way it is-in an 82-section Avant-garde Testament, beyond Old and New. Joe's single signature blossomed into colossi- murals, star-studded and spraygun-executed, taking a whole furtive night in the roundhouse to complete, loud telegrams to all subway riders that nothing, including subway cars, is as it was in the beginning, but is overlaid with imagination and invention, accidents and caprice, multiple allusions -- all filters through which facts take on meaning. Everyman/woman (Joe) his/her own Creator is re-creating the world because the old myths no longer explain enough of our experience. At the same time it has been forgotten that those myths are not absolutes of reality but constructs of words, venerable but not necessarily true.
In The Joe 82 Creation Poems Owens is not only re-editing and redacting biblical scriptures but is engaged in the more profound process of re-vision, actually "seeing again", constructing a new vision of human experience, this time not externally viewed sub specie aeternitatis, from God's point of view, but from the erratic perceptual-conceptual ground of consciousness within individual human beings.
Self-awareness -- the knowledge we have of tfie degr'ee to which reality "out there" is shaped by, and shifts boundaries with, the mind "in here" -- is a major aspect of this "re-vision." A contemporary Book of Genesis must start from within; this is the first major premise of Owens' work. (It is also central to the process of writing poetry.) Nevertheless, through these subjective means is revealed the basis of reality which carries objective weight. The details of any one person's experience will fall arbitrarily-there are accidents-still, out of this randomness certain fundamental patterns of living emerge.
Randomness, here embodied in disjunctive associative leaps and tonally disparate word-choices, as well as the scattered form of words on the page, also reveals a second major focus of Owens' "re-vision" -- the fact that the materials and theories of science and technology have become permanent elements in the contemporary world-view. Molecular theory in physics, the atom bomb, chemical pollutants are not casual additives to our experience but part of the immediate bedrock of our survival.
But the third major re-focussing of biblical mythology which Owens undertakes is, I believe, the most important because the most radical. She overturns the basic point of view of the writers of the Pentateuch, the patriarchal point of view, which sees the world through male eyes, with maleness assumed to be the full and true condition of humanity, the order-giver, and the norm for human behavior and response from which all value systems and social organizations spring.
Part I of Joe 82, Magnetic Flux, begins (in the first eleven poems) of necessity behind the eyes of Wild-Man, the primal Adam-Christ-masculine" psyche, because this male perspective is a ubiquitous "given" of contemporary consciousness. Wild-Man's initial attributes are those of white western-civilized gentle-men: interest in violence, mechanization and entertainment; addiction to self-importance, bewilderment on meeting his primal counterpart, Wild-Woman, who is born in the twelfth poem. Here Owens introduces the new overarching vision of the whole poem-series: the androgynous principle as primal and fundamental unity, overriding the dichotomy which the Patriarchs introduced into Judaeo-Christian theology and society. Since dichotomy leads to hierarchy-separate is implicitly unequal-the seeds of racism, sexism and war were disasterously'planted.
It is impossible to create a contemporary mythology or world-view without taking into account these facts. It is equally impossible to tolerate them, or accept them as inevitable, because ultimately no human being can survive under them.
So Owens has created a non-hierarchical worldview -- joyous, affirmative and above all non-dualistic, non-dichotomous. Since biological gender -- being born male or female -- is the most ingrained dichotomy human beings experience, it is the primary obstacle which contemporary mythmakers must overcome. For Owers' "re-vision" then, the key word, the most powerful descriptive term, is "androgynous."
Pure male power, as Jahweh-Wild-man's "I do MY Will" (Poem X) is the given, but in Poem XII, The Birth of WildWoman And/Or The Change, a role-reversal takes place, never to change back (and it is analogous to a change in current consciousness):
pressed the foot on the sand & He/ Became Mother wild-woman smokes His last cigar & laughsTwo other important points about Owens' "re-vision" emerge. First, she disregards the concept of time that dominates the Book of Genesis, where the creation is seen as a series of events in sequence (leading to Abp. Ussher's absurd literal chronology-misunderstanding) and substitutes a much more "real" view of time -- it is a subjective imposition on the flux of happenings in an attempt to control them. Actually, events are as random as nuclear particles in a molecule. Their limits are the limits of consciousness itself. The events in these poems,lie outside of time and space, and outside of cause and effect-in short, the arrangement of words that we have agreed is "logical" is shown to be arbitrary, hence free for creativity.
Secondly, Owens does away with the Old Testament emphasis on Original Sin, which renders hopeless the human attempt to stay alive. (And incidentally rationalizes the abuse of natural resources since they are not seen as basically good already, but as merely material for "improvement.") It was inevitable that once the Patriarchs had become imbued with the concept of male superiority-resulting in the downgrading and mistreating of women-they should conceive of God as superior to them, disdaining and mistreating them. As a subjective state the sense of being originally sinful is impossible for either man or woman to bear. But Owens undercuts and destroys this dualism of "high" and "low". She sees the fundamental condition of humanity as good, cellularly good, to be responded to with joy. And the natural world is good in the same way, as perceived extension of that human condition, the boundaries of "inside" and "outside", metaphor and referent, not being always distinguishable experientially.
This androgynous vision is, I believe, an expression of Owens' feminism. Since the feminist movement has risen in response to hierarchical patriarchal principles, feminists especially feel the need for a new world-view based on some other set of principles. It is an immense task, and feminists' initial efforts move in three hard-to-reconcile directions. One direction can be described as Amazonian separatism: construct a world-view without the expendable male. The problem here is that men exist; as data they must be accounted for. A second direction can be identified as Jungian dichotomy, or Manicheism: male and female, yang and yin are cosmic and eternal principles embedded in creation like day and night, light and dark. The problem here is that the final step of unification which Jung envisioned is usually not made, and the disvaluing of one principle -- invariably the "female" or "dark" -- continues unabated under its rationalizations, pedestalism, feminine mystique and other manouevers which leave patriarchy actually intact.
The third direction of feminist thought is the one which Owens' thinking and writing best fits into-the androgynous, which is both male and female, crazy and sane, physical and spiritual, coherent and acoherent, because that is the all-encompassing vision, incorporating and using properly all the data. Wild-man and Wild-woman are not like male and female as we now know them, at least not after the initial poems. They think each other's thoughts and become mirrors and catalysts for each other's experience. If Wildwoman seems at times more energetic, wiser, closer to earth and associated with peace and clear vision, it is because these qualities are more humane and must take the place of the current partiarchal principles. Historically, in the present situation, women are the bearers and guardians of those qualities. But Wild-man and Wild-woman do not represent any set of principles or polarities limited and rigidified by the language used to label, indeed manufacture, them.
They do represent the multitudinous nature of real' human experience, which is necessarily filtered by the gender of the experiencer, but is in no way limited by that gender. These limitations have been imposed solely by myth, history and language with their artificial categorizations. Therefore it is necessary to find, as Owens has done, new language that will de-categorize and free human nature into its fullness.
The final poem of Part 1: The Fire Clay, begins:
IT IS THE WORDING 3 justice/ it sweeps the Heaven earth the land is forced to eyesight (reality)This summary of the poet's attempt to explain, clarify, rejuvenate the biblical and theological landscape of our time is analogous to the Johannine revision of the Genesis crea"in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." This much-discussed phrasing of the doctrine of the Logos tries to state the nature of the relationship between the Creator and His Creation. We, now recognize that as the relationship betwten the dancer and the dance, and between the poet and her poems.
Throughout Joe 82 biblical words and phrases -- praise, alleluia, selah, Shekinah, holy -- are interspersed with Owens' invented counter-terms -- Dom, water-bright, yowl-dog, LaLaLaLa. The depressing themes of the Pentateuch are replaced with laughter, energy, singing and dancing and a rich landscape of trees, plants, grass, metals, engines, stars. The original human condition is defined as creative explosion, energy moving out, which is inherently pleasureful, rather than the negative, state of mind which gave rise to Old Testament legalism and judgmentalism. In Poem LXVI Wild woman says:
I embrace the conduct the function of original nature the desire of looking on this gold fluidThe "substance, of life is a "gold fluid" which "has irrigated" the world:
What a flood the 2nd time.The first flood destroyed the known world; this one rebuilds it. Here we see a traditional activity of biblical cornmentators -- to move from Old Testament foreshadowing to New Testament completion, here from patriarchal violence/ destruction to androgynous creative fulfillment.
In the fourth and last section of Joe 82, Owens moves on into the personal psychological aspects of this re-written theology. The doctrines of the Patriarchy and the view of God as Father are linked to one's individual experience of one's own father. A kind of fourth dimension is thus added, re-interpreting creation and creativity in terms of the poet's personal sources and resources. (She has dedicated this volume to her father.)
Theology and history, therefore, are not left as distanced intellectual disciplines but are seen as an integral part of everyone's private life. The myths of our time only matter as they are internalized. Knowing this, Owens has undertaken not only the creation of this androgynous re-vision of the word/world but also has attempted to press it into the depths of our psyches where it must take root. We cannot go back to the old dichotomies. The revolution of androgyny has already begun, and Rochelle Owens is its prophet.
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Copyright © 1975 and 1996 by Jane Augustine.
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