by Rochelle Owens
(Contact II Publications,
Box 451 Bowling Green,
New York, NY 10004

Review by Barry Silesky

The 11th book of poems by this poet and playwrite is a series of related poems -- really a single long poem -- exploring the poet's personal history and shaping it in the context of myth. Line by line, image by image, it is an ambitious work in design and invention. The texture is surreal, "A fragment catalog paste-up/of the 20th century/a time lapse/a naive father allegory" intertwining several motifs which don't coalesce into the kind of popular unified statement we see in much current poetry, but instead are held together by recurrent themes and the considerable power of voice.

It is an exploration of sources, where the persona is by turn "the woman as wrongly treated/as the Nez Perce Indian," "the lonely poet" who "speaks into the darkness/in the voice of W.C. Fields," "The tramping American/revolutionary," W.C. Williams' Flossie, at least indirectly Williams himself, "a whore/wearing a hat with oriental frankincense/and money tucked/in the seams/ ... a singing sailor in jail ... /a poor cowboy," and "Hamlet of Brooklyn"; in short, the Whitmanesque American Everyman, 1980's version.

Owens resists Whitman's penchant for the grandiose, however, preferring instead a rhetoric that takes into account the complexities of experience, and renders them convincingly. For her, poetry is "the essential nucleus/of the sphere of human/existence"; and not surprisingly a central aspect of her experience is her relation with language and imagination: "The text is behind/the revolution/desperate with imagination/eyelids, the bodily organs,/analytic, figure-making/The solid family-tree." The ongoing work is the difficult coming to terms with the sprawling landscape these elements inhabit: "My voice is a prolonged/ muscular twitch thick/as an elephants trunk/When will I develop/into a form?"

There's no real answer to that question, nor any resolution to the difficulties the poem engages, except the poem itself. It can be a frustrating condition; but that, as they say, is life -- which is what the best poetry always is. This is genuinely interesting and challenging work; it deserves more attention than it will probably get.

Go to
& selections from I Am the Babe of Joseph Stalin's Daughter
"Part 3: Fire Clay"
from The Joe 82 Creation Poems

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Copyright © 1996 by Barry Silesky.

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