Pat Nolan Revview of Maureen Owen's "Imaginary Income"

Imaginary Income
by Maureen Owen

Review by Pat Nolan

Maureen Owen's strengths are obvious from the very first reading. Depth and clarity of expression, swiftness of verse, effortless, confident lyricism, honesty of emotion (not sentiment) and perception all qualify the poems of Imaginary Income. Her truth is found in the everyday, a disarming epiphany of the mundane. "I fold the blanket to end winter" she begins a poem, understanding the power of words, as well as the intrinsic nature of ritual. Something this simple and strong and intuitive leads into a maze of concerns as diverse as Cezanne, clocks, and the Babylon of the confined. Owen, at the center of her universe (the poem) extracts a subtle irony. It's ambiguity is the source of what is to come next, a quickstep heel and toe song and dance of exuberance.
       Cezanne said 

       each part was as important as the whole (so) I 
       bought a clock because it had Mexico (stamped) on 

       the back

"Talking to distract the listener, or Hanging out with the Beloved equals a festival" rests, as do all of Owen's poems, on its many individual parts, its weave of past and present. It is as Philip Whalen said, "A continuous fabric (nerve movie?) exactly as wide as these lines." These poems offer a quick refreshing dip into an original poetic consciousness. They are fluid, delicate yet rough, passionate yet calm.

Owen's artistry is clearly evident in the shorter poems such as "No on ever eats the last of the grapes" where she can display her keen-edged humor and deft precision.

       the Way   the egret and the fish meet in
       the sky   tide & rocks hold conversation
       wet greens from wetter blues
       I am not the spellbound water skier
       being lunged at random!

       tho I notice I've written my list of ways
       to get through the day
       the vocabulary card called    "dregs"

These shorter poems are contrasted throughout Imaginary Income with longer poems whose sustained lyric lines and accrued complexity of repetition and variation propelled by sprightly language rolls off the tongue headlong into the realm of music.
     was the reason he called the reason he called for was that the reason 
     you find a line to answer the phone in the darkish kitchen 
     children are calling      they say here is how much money I need 
     at some time or
     gradually you stop talking to him about it     you talk to no one 
     when the phone rings it is children      never him and you are relieved 
     the children fill you with light 
     was he doing all right      doing all right 
     it was then she found she liked organizing & constructing 
     she put the various together and felt stronger 
     she did it alone now she was


Maureen Owen's work has always been unique, and unusual in its look; the poem moves across the page mimicking a player piano roll in the way it triggers the synapses. To read her poems is to play her melody. She can be compared to Bonnie Raitt in that she has a strong confident voice with earthy overtones In some poems she echoes that pervasive American folk style, the blues, and blends it with classical lament.
     I said   "sometimes you don't know you
     don't know     & so you don't know that you
     don't know"   Abstraction can give you 
     a grace that allows you     to complain

     ("the bitter complaint")

Owen's use of "narrative" titles as an introductory element for some of the poems, going beyond simply naming the work, is a device also familiar to Chiang K'uei, the Southern Sung tz'u poet. The title, rather than serving as a nameplate of identification, becomes a door, an opening to the verse that follows. Chiang K'uei's prose introductions to his poems were often quite long and elaborate but his innovation did transform the Chinese lyric tradition. Owen's are more caption-like and bristle with a remarkable, incisive wit. They are her own innovation and offer up the hope of transformation. For instance:
    Dashboard Idol

    Imbecility differs from idiocy.    In idiocy the mind
    is not developed;     in imbecility it is imperfectly
    developed.     Idiocy is absence of mental power;
    imbecility is feebleness of mental action.   See Idiot
                                                       story of
     watch the swimmers intermittently decapitated &
     reinstated   decapitated & reinstated    whole
     headless    whole headless

Through these openings, the poems are accessible though certainly not a walk in the park. Owen makes demands that are conceptual as well as syntactical, emotional as well as literate. She segues from one molecule of sense (or "no"-sense) to another with the practiced ease of an all night DJ. The domestic, the ordinary, the daily grind of dust to dusk have their tediousness stripped away to reveal the raw golden light of enchanted moments.
     one night.    Starry.    a young woman trampled
     clothes    in a stream    no ordinary laundress
     she or I    to be bending
     at the waist     as night is elegantly bent.

     ("tall white & densely fluid")

The poems in Imaginary Income strive for a reflective epiphany, a process of revelation arrived at with an off-handed and roundabout ease that is characteristic of Maureen Owen's work in her six other collections of poetry including Hearts in Space and Zombie Notes. Suddenly, you are there, transported on the wings of an evocative imagination, in a world that is enduring, maternal, endearing, sensual. The problem with Imaginary Income, if it can be viewed as such, is that its 47 pages leave the reader wishing for a more extensive sampling -- it is a case of half a loaf being better than none at all. But ultimately, the poems in this slim volume are works of easy assurance and expressive clairvoyance with a tart quickness that closely resembles Dickinson's epigrammatic reflex. Owen's is a distinctive voice well worth hearing.

Copyright © 1995 by Pat Nolan.

First published in Poetry Flash, June, 1992.

Click here to go to selections from Imaginary Income .

Light and Dust @ Grist Mobile Anthology of Poetry.