by Rochelle Ratner

In Rochelle Owens' work-in-progress, The Joe Chronicles, she creates primordial archetypes who are ironically innocent from knowledge of their own perversions. As one can see from reading I Am The Babe of Joseph Stalin's Daughter (her 1972 volume consisting of short poems in various personae), Owens views the primitive mind as directly opposing the highly political consciousness which informs much of her earlier work. Three volumes of The Joe Chronicles were published in the 1970s: The Joe 82 Creation Poems (1974), The Joe Chronicles, Part 2, and Shemuel (both 1979). In a prefatory note to the first volume, Owens says:

Written in four parts, The Joe 82 Creation Poems recreates the tragic, joyous, and complicated journey of a mystical consciousness through the world and time. Within its structure -- based on a "free" juxtaposition of events -- Wild-Man and Wild-Woman, the two personae who embody physical and spiritual nature, reveal the primordial and multitudinous levels of human experience.

This first volume acts primarily to introduce the archetypes, usually from a third-person perspective. Their innocence is presented from the opening poem, "The First Footsong of Wild-Man", which begins: "self-knowledge / naturally / is to put a sword / in the / middle of yr heart". The next two poems, portraying Wild-Man at Christmas, indirectly juxtapose the birth of this Antichrist with that of the Savior, a connection picked up at various times throughout the sequence. Wild-Man and Wild-Woman continually question the nature of things around them in their attempt to arrive at definitions:

                                O side by side wild-man rocked
                        hisself & swallowed a fruit or a flower
                a thistle, clover & a vine, a this meat or that
        fish, a that water & this wine, all the nature of
                  nature        He SAW     in his trance
                                it swirled
                                in his spleen
                                it whirled
                                in his gut
                                it skipped
                                in his blood
                                it whacked
                                in his fat
                                it shook in
                                his lymph
                                it stank in
                                his piss
                                it laughed
                                in his grease
                                it jumped in
                                his pus
                                it kissed his
                                marrow &
                                grimaced at
                                his sorrow
                                it sneered
                                & howled
                                at the origin
                                of the world
        & so on & so forth!
                                            where is the wealth?
                           is it a moth?   my body Act?    my own
                    strange light?   my hair?   my food
                in my Holy Digestive Tract?   my peacefulness?
                                   my snot?   my sighs
                                my eyes?   my spit?
                           my          all         things      my
                        pure self?

Also an accomplished playwright, Owens shows her sense of action in the motion of the poems on the page. For her, the creation of a voice means that the new voice must be free to wander about, with each persona's impulsive character demonstrated in part by his or her mobility. Lines weave back and forth, for brief periods becoming regular, as in the end of the whirling dervish ceremony, where the speaker is centered on his own ground, the voice almost tender compared to the hard-edged and often erotic images which began the poem. It's the tender moments in these poems, or certain whole poems, such as #35 or #47 in The Joe Chronicles, which I feel show Owens at her best:

The Noah's ark
of your bones
pleases me

I remember first
your nose-jewel

like the ruby rain blood
of the crucifix

sit across
from me

& the heart
will tremble

from the grin
of king lugalannemundu

(From #47)

Individual lyrics mount to form a narrative whole through a careful repetition of images. Owens' use of imagery is so casual that we often don't realize how startling her perception was until the same image repeats in a slightly different fashion several pages later. She frequently avoids using sentences, grouping words in somewhat wild (but not random) juxtapositions. Phonetic (mock-ancient) spellings and line breaks in the middle of words seem arbitrary and add to the confusion, but the voices of the personae transcend them.

Book One introduces "Wild-Man" and "Wild-Woman"; the next two volumes move the personae into a somewhat higher consciousness, the archetypes made flesh. He is transformed into King Lugalannemundu in Book Two and she becomes Shemuel in Book Three, both personae molded on biblical figures. Here we are set squarely in the civilized world of pride and ownership, of man imitating God. In The Joe Chronicles man merely followed nature; now there is a knowledge of mystical traditions: Kabbalah, alchemy, homeopathy, Egyptian and Babylonian creation texts, the Old Testament, etc. Owens is relating an esoteric shorthand that the reader could easily overlook, as in her continual use of the phrase Evil Yezer (her translation of the Hebrew yetzer hara, or evil impulse) which she says is "just killjoy Frightening us". Even without a complete understanding, the poems have an increasing power and a very definite humor.

The final part of Book One brings an unexpected digression: the death of the Father, and the beginning of Knowledge. The innocence gone, this section approaches grief, albeit still from the primitive perspective. The theme will be picked up only slightly, at the beginning of the second volume where King Lugalannemundu notes that "today/I Am A Man" (shades of the Bar-Mitzvah declaration) and later in the same poem: "Not for a while have you/Stopped Sucking/the tits of the Angel of Death". In a creation sequence, such as this is, it is hard to escape the implication that this imagery is meant to represent the symbolic death of God. But it does not seem powerful enough; the concept of Father as human is stronger. The one poem which attempts to relate to "a primitive/Name/Elohim" is weak compared to poems which surround it. Also, there was no acknowledgment of a God-figure earlier in The Joe Chronicles; Wild-Man seemed to work under the assumption that he created himself.

Both King Lugalannemundu and Shemuel are reasoning creatures, even if their reasoning is at times more ironic than was their innocence. King Lugalannemundu is from "a good class", linked at one point to the biblical King David. He is a Christian boy or a prince from Guyana, born for the joys of this world; he loves carp and red beets. We see him courting various women -- lover and poem joined by the desire to transform him (and at the same time themselves and each other). The poem is the breath in his throat. But above all this is a man, any man, in search of himself:

                           I affirm God          
      or a Peacock with a mark
                Even birds sow Wild Oats
                                in Public Schools
                                without Any snobbery
        Sometimes I bounce
        With High Praise, the best
        clothes alter my course
        one word Makes Me Poetical
        the first line of My
        Self is a Heavenly trumpet
        to the atmosphere the
        Strength of a ship lying
        against peril the stomach
        of earth Ripe & the last
        punishment Single-handed
        a meat-axe in the dark
        like Shakespeare Hungry
        for New words & the Same
        old King Lugalannemundu
        a good fellow a rhyming
        hyena doing one thing &
        Saying another.

King Lugalannemundu is a sexual deviant, "making woo" with animals, men, and all sorts of women, but even in these deviations he emerges as the ironic innocent (one thinks here of Owens' masterful play, Futz) . In the final third of the book, King Lugalannemundu falls in love with a Greek woman at the supermarket, who turns out to be Demeter. The last four poems are in her voice, and she chooses to end on the triumphant note of having deceived this believing king.

It is perhaps Demeter in another incarnation, the wise peasant woman (in Book Two she was the broom-maker's wife), who speaks as Shemuel in Book Three. Presenting an even more marked contrast between the biblical period and the present day, Shemuel is the queen and temple prostitute whose shrine is Woolworth's. The book's refrains are "he hit her & she hit him", depicting the violence of the working-class, and the plight of the brutalized, often pregnant, woman. Shemuel, though, is far from defenseless.

Owens never lets us forget that she's a woman in the midst of 20th century America. This works better in some poems than in others, and on the whole is much more natural to the poems in Shemuel than it is in The Joe Chronicles. While many of the poems in this volume are in the third person, it is the poems directly from Shemuel's lips which stand out for their lyric qualities. Her voice is more memorable than was King Lugalannemundu's in Book Two, perhaps because Shemuel is the latter of the two books, or because the female voice has forced Owens to speak more directly in a rhythm approaching her own voice.

It is only in Shemuel that "Joe" is given a concrete (if temporary) form -- he is G. I. Joe, the American hero. So we see that Owens, despite the extended persona, could not avoid political issues for long. G. I. Joe is a superb choice, considering the brutality which forms the structure of this book, and the whole concept of Wild-Man and Wild-Woman made real. Descendant of the Hebrews, these two aboriginals live in modern America side by side with the idol-worshiping men from Uz and the children of Ishmael. ("Joe's city is new york," she tells us in #64). In describing the city without God, and in attempting to warn the people to change their ways, Shemuel becomes the prophet. "Make my poems into prayers," King Lugalannemundu says. For Owens, one cannot be a poet unless he is also a psalmist or holy singer.

The Joe Chronicles are far from completed, and they have increasingly opened themselves to the influences of the current time. Owens herself has physically left New York City, and the movement through time and history which her personae have already established should permit them a parallel mobility. It will be interesting to see how they (or their descendants -- as King Lugalannemundu and Shemuel are descendants of Wild-Man and Wild-Woman) will reflect our times, and establish themselves in their preordained roles, as the volumes continue. Owens is slowly but surely developing a major work in several volumes of the nature and scope of Pound's Cantos or Olson's Maximus.

An earlier draft of this essay appeared as a chapter of Trying To Understand What It Means To Be A Feminist by Rochlle Ratner, Contact II Press, 1984.

Go to
NOT BE ESSENCE THAT CANNOT BE & 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 © 1984 and 1996 by Rochelle Ratner.

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