Review by Maureen Owen
Writing this review was on my mind when I walked down and into the office of one of my co-workers. I'd been studying Rochelle Owens' poems and thinking about them like mad. I had the advantage of hearing her read on several occasions and having been fascinated for years by the primordial energy and underlying apocalyptic motif in her voice, I was hearing her live even as I popped into my friend's office. There on the wall behind his desk was a xerox of a collage that said "DESTROY THAT WHICH BORES YOU!" in twenty-four point Futura Bold Condensed. The rest of the text, with lines like "... alienated voids who hang their brainwashed heads out to dry on every occasion only to find them burned out by the routines they insist are practical and responsible ..." and the collage of tangled images, from the well-known hands advertising Palmolive diswhashing liquid to a morass of video plugs and wires, was an immediate cut into the poems ricocheting off the sides of my mind. The collage was from an AK Press book, Ecstatic Incisions: The Collages of Freddie Baer (the text for this one by Jim Gilman). I thought this is so much what Rochelle Owens is about. Certainly no one could ever accuse her work of being boring. In fact, a central theme of Ownes' work could be identified as that courageous "Jeanne d'Arc gallop" into and against the barricades of boredom.
One can almost see her armor glinting in the sun and feel the pounding of the hooves in each poem, with Owens charging out anew across the rugged turf of that field. One feels an almost mystical violence in her approach to claiming a rescued hill or to charging and/or changing what Susan Smith Nash calls in her definitive introduction, "the structure and form of patriarchal discourse." This discourse is really a cultural criticism, an uprising against a staid and conservative definition of what one should be and how one should feel about things; against that pragmatic violence that exists couched in language. Owens' refusal to compromise or acquiesce to the political grammar of the status quo is a testimony to her commitment to challenging the platitudinous definition of an individual's own experience of life (or of the world at large) that the Powers That Be have laid out for us all. She is constantly questioning how poetic language configures in that quest of gaining knowledge, and any apparent confusion she raises in the reader is actually a creative matrix. She casts aside the dogma and commercialized Hallmark Card aphorisms and goes cold turkey on the agony and delight of living in this century, complete with the pain of awareness, the violence of critical change and the unabashed passion of being. Susan Smith Nash reminds us of how even the imagination can fall prey to internalized authority figures; and hand-in-hand with that, how tragically simple it can be for us to slip into deadening conventionality. But Owens refuses to let us go. She is not the silent mirror on the night stand, more the Shaman-genius exploring deeper realities in the psychic realm. She reaches down into the living, breathing mythical core and pulls up the forces of chaos, spitting and kicking; she gives us back the hungry power of our own imaginations.
This is a book of poems to burn a hole in your pocket, to wake you in the dead of night like a scream, to make what you thought yesterday seem absurd, to snatch you up playfully and inspire an assailant on those battlements on the other side of that messy turf. From "A Sandworm Emerging': "I remember the woman/ in mutton-sleeves who/ breathed scalding steam/ The rare earth she walked/ Passion, laughter angular jaw, sufi smile/ Eyes of Mona Lisa/ She meditated on fuel/ shortage, a way to/ lighten the load/ Would you spend money/ on a ruptured camel?"
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Copyright © 1996 by Maureen Owen.
Light and Dust Mobile Anthology of Poetry.