THE EARLY POETRY OF ROCHELLE OWENS

by George Economou


The first Rochelle Owens poem I ever read was published in Yugen, 6 (1960):

GROSHL MONKEYS HORSES

Pius 12 (Nahautl) pippin.
Common Bot. Stop talkin!
(Peep) Earliest (mastic tree)
Wrestled christ chinese
Knuklebone (Mees) any
Groshl Monkeys Horses
Abt. 25 miles up (full moon)
Zauschneria hanj-
ing

Forth 70 obs. (Honigcumb)
Suck respect and english
Man huggah-homo-greek
Names and heb. hypop.
Jambey zhak-me-no caucus me-
Yawcus mother MOTHER
HYStrix ANNA Bl- Bl-
Bi-

Two things struck me immediately: that it was one of the most unusual poems I'd ever seen -- a rather obvious conclusion -- and that it was the result of careful and deliberate composition, in other words, the work of a highly disciplined poet. This was not so obvious a conclusion, if one considers that the temptation to rely on an easy automatic writing type of orientation (out of dada and surrealism) for explaining any poem that didn't make sense in the usual ways was considerably stronger then than it is now. I don't mean to sound self-congratulating about my reaction to the poem, although I might be so in terms of some of the extraliterary results of my interest in it; for on the basis of this poem I met and asked Rochelle for work for Trobar, the second issue of which Robert Kelly and I were then planning.

She responded with a generously packed envelope of poems, including "Humble humble pinati," which appeared in Trobar 2, and many of the poems that were eventually printed in her first book, Not Be Essence That Cannot Be (New York, 1961), which Trobar published simultaneously with Paul Blackbum's The Nets. The poems confront the concreteness of language as their first concern. If one of the orders of the day was "no ideas but in things," then the things were to be the words themselves. Not that there are not other qualities of interest in the poems -- I am speaking here of the primary power her grasp and handling of semantics and sound give them. A reading of "Humble humble pinati" (out loud, please) brings out its affinities with musical composition, a verbal sonata that, like the great Elizabethan sonnet sequences, also betrays a story of eros without actually bothering to tell it; but most of all the poem draws us into its own special, underivative world that is made of, stands on, the poet's sense of language. This and the poems in Not Be Essence That Cannot Be come closer than any other poems I know of to offering their own language as their "objective correlatives."

The poems in Not Be Essence, now that Eliot comes to mind, would make life difficult for his restrictive theory of three voices of poetry. Familiarly classifiable as lyrics, they make their references through arousing the reader's awareness of the energies of words and their dispositions, in the classical rhetorical sense of arrangement, as, for example, in the poem "(Bom) Only Checkerberry" (note the mild parenthetical suppression of the apostrophe).


       (Pukist)
        Behold!
              (Winter)
              (Winter)
       Ned.
       Dog.  Nigra.  Boodle
       Dulia.  Pungent.  Pelidna dum
       dum.  Work
       Mediterranean
       Mediterranean
       Gloominess
       (Pagouros)
       Crasy Shakespeares
       Midsummer
       Jynx
       Past and wrong
       (Bom) only checkerberry
       Yields shits (cucumis)
                     (Winter)
       
                       (Winter)
       Spicy red berries (winter)
                           (winter)
                           (winter)
       Wart hog joy.


But the references finally return to the text itself where their coherence and relevance are justified and assured. It is exactly this self-sufficiency that we tried to convey in the monolithic cover design in which the words
NOT BE
ESSENCE
THATCAN
NOTBE

were cut out of a single piece of cardboard with each letter and line adjoined to those above and below them. [A reproduction of this cover may be found reproduced along with the book in Light and Dust Poets. Ed.]

This title aptly represents the hermetic (in both senses), abstract yet concrete and sensuous qualities of the poetry, the tendency in many of the poems to be concerned with being rather than becoming, and the dynamic effects of setting words in startlingly new relationships.

The title of her second book, Salt & Core (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1968), accurately announces a new subject matter. These poems unequivocally draw from the world of becoming for topic and theme, and while they deal with a range of concerns (which, as the title suggests, are ftindamental), they now make those concerns a primary factor in their process. Persons, events, art, and ideas are welcomed through the doorways of new poetic modes and devices: narrative for Rochelle's adventure aboard a Destroyer in "I Am Very Excited," or for the story of the Polish Rabbis' visit to Masada in "I Don't Know What"; the dramatic in the monologue "The Power of Love" from the play He Wants Shih, and in the personae of "The Beards," which, along with "Between The Karim Shahir," explore the poetic uses of anthropological sources; and the meditative in the sequence "The Darkness & Narrow." Literary allusion and contemporary events come together in the apostrophe to General Westmoreland in "Infemo Poem" and in the devastating "For, Befiold The Day Cometh." Poems are addressed to a variety of individuals and others deal with literary and political questions.

Still the continuity between these two early books is strong. For, as her interests turn to different subjects-and this is ever true of her work -- Rochelle Owens continues to commit the forms and referents of her imagination to the unique quality and integrity of her language.


       ZTRAWBERRIES MIT KREAM 

          the "forest folk"
          O out-of-the-way
                     folk
            so fascinated
          a-patch-of-ground
                     folk
       they began producing
          blessed
                 berries
                        chicken &
                          cattle
          animal domestication
                   3000 b.c.
            out of the maglemosian
          bog
               come fish-hooks
                  axes spears
                     harpoons &
                        clubs
                piddles paddles
               (they did a lot of fishing)
                               what a time
                        for a revolution
                               in southern
                                    russia!
                       kaukasus shmawkusus
                              pass the pirogen
                                         you
                                    kommunist!


It is, finally, a poet's language which embodies the work of the intellectual and sensible faculties. In her two more recent books she has investigated still newer subjects and has expanded their modes of treatment. The powerful personae who dominate the work in I Am The Babe Of Joseph Stalin's Daughter and the mythic Joe 82 Creation Poems each advance her poetic vision. But they achieve this in a comprehensive way, augmenting and enhancing rather than excluding or outgrowing the achievements of the earlier work. As the subjects of her poetry become deeper and more complex, her language continues to meet the new demands imposed upon it. The early poems show the bases of her steadily developing achievements, a major accomplishment in our poetry, and she has done it without ever reminding us of anybody else.


Go to
Poems:
NOT BE ESSENCE THAT CANNOT BE
& selections from I Am the Babe of Joseph Stalin's Daughter
or
"Part 3: Fire Clay"
from The Joe 82 Creation Poems

Return to Contents Page for Rochelle Owens

Return to Light and Dust Poets.

Copyright 1975 and 1996 by George Economou.

Light and Dust @ Grist Mobile Anthology of Poetry.