by Susan Smith Nash
By incorporating exaggerated characters and situations, Owens creates an apocalyptic narrative that is truer to its biblical antecedents than the previous examples. Her characters resonate with images of beasts first depicted in the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, and Revelation, and then echoed in the sacred art of the early and late Middle Ages. As in earlier times, Owens uses the apocalyptic narrative to criticize human nature, cultural beliefs and mores, and societal institutions.
For Owens, apocalypse is primarily an unveiling and a stripping away of the twentieth century's glossy technology and fey disguises. Owens' poetry and plays provide a revelatory look at the basic human qualities that have been hidden or masked. Often grotesque or hideous, Owens' representations of the mixed nature of the human being -- the primitive mixed with the modern -- draw upon many traditions, including the Classical, the Etruscan, medieval illuminated manuscripts and the apocalyptic imagery, in order to create characters that connect with the unconscious of the readers or the viewers. Owens reflects upon the early years:
Owens has characterized her later poetry as explorations of the various configurations of consciousness that flow through time and space. This is especially true of the Joe 82 Creation Poems, and the LUCA: Discourse on Life and Death series, about which Owens said in an interview with C. B. Coleman for the Theater magazine of Yale University:
Owens is interested in the interaction of cultural personae and the production of art, particularly art which seeks to represent the dualities and complexities of the individual. Modernist and postmodern art contains an interwoven fabric of primitive, archaic, historical, and cultural fibers. The artist's task is to lay bare the fabric and to identify the various components to see how they interact and weave themselves together.
The Joe 82 Creation Poems and The Joe Chronicles, Part 2 exhibit these qualities -- complex meshings of the mythical, archaic, primitive, historical, and contemporary. Her other works, including the translation of Liliane Atlan's The Passersby, contain the same capacity to lay bare the complicated, interwoven threads of the elements that comprise postmodern literature and art. Earlier collections of poems, Constructs, How Much Paint Does the Painting Need, and W. C. Fields in French Light concern themselves with revealing how technology and "progress" have brought about the mass extinction of oppressed groups, the Nez Perce Indians in the American West, and the Jews during the Holocaust.
In "Muz-Muz," an experimental piece in which she discusses the various types of apocalypse along with their implications, Owens writes "apocalypse, revelation -- to uncover. The idea is embedded in diverse cultures including pre-Columbian America and the ancient Mediterranean." Owens examines apocalypse in terms of its psycholinguistic effects and functions. According to Owens, apocalypse is, among other things, a mental construct which allows the human mind to consider a transformational process that contains "la jouissance" and it activates the unconscious. "La jouissance" denotes a flow of energy, joy, and spontaneous artistic inspiration. "La jouissance" can accompany apocalypse, since apocalypse contains a liberating, anarchic energy. Further, apocalypse signifies a narrative which implies historical certainty because the progression of events is clear.
Owens reproduces the energies of apocalyptic transformation through a similar process. Her overall artistic project involves testing the boundaries or limits of linguistic representation to see how it is that poetry can articulate the condition of apocalypse that she describes -- altered, heightened state followed by firm grounding of form. The form is the apocalyptic narrative, and it involves the history which is described in biblical texts. "Basic elements will combine and form new entities. The code of our flesh is hallucination and exaltation. The theme of disaster will set your teeth on edge so you can chomp ambiguity in half -- right and wrong." Owens contends that apocalyptic change requires "hallucination and exaltation" -- in other words, a heightened state, a combination of psychological and linguistic alteration which sets into motion the apocalyptic narrative, which involves a New Jerusalem. In this case, the heightened states -- indications of "la jouissance" -- construct the building blocks of a new world.
Owens' translation of Liliane Atlan's The Passersby is in many ways an expression of her interest in the psyche under siege, and the mind's breakdown into multiple, disparate parts. The result is a polyphonous collection of voices. In LUCA: Discourse on Life and Death, Owens' long, continuing cycle of work, Native American tribal customs are juxtaposed with Leonardo da Vinci and Sigmund Freud.
Of her plays, Futz is Owens' best known and widely produced. She began writing the play in the late 1950s, while working at Sotheby-Parke Bernet in New York City. Although the 1950s are now sometimes considered a time of tranquillity and middle-class calm, Owens and other writers were questioning a society that could produce, simultaneously, the "Man in the Grey Flannel Suit" and the atom bomb. By day, Owens worked at one of the world's most prestigious auction houses, but by night she drafted Futz.
The actions of Cy Futz and of Majorie incite the people of the play to violent extremes. Cy's love of the pig, Amanda, horrifies the townspeople even as it brings to the surface rage and disgust. At first, the rage seems to be directed at Cy's violation of a taboo. Later, however, one suspects that what makes Brother Ned tell Cy "You make my brains red!" is the fact that Cy's actions arouse a primitive blood-lust to kill any male who has dared to love a female pig (or woman). Cy puts into words what is often felt but left unexpressed when he tells the warden, "Why don't you kill your wife and kids? You know you're unhappy."
Drama provides a unique opportunity for the audience to explore how they relate to the world, other people, and to their own deeply suppressed "shadow selves." Drama also functions with that part of the audience who is always under construction -- with psyche and sense of self under constant melting and recrystallization. Revelation can occur by means of mimesis (imitation), by creating a "speaking picture." The work of art must imitate life to the point that it represents not only the appearance of the thing, but also the underlying reality. Thus, in an apocalyptic narrative, the speaking picture may reveal the essentially depraved condition of humanity, as well as the reduced circumstances in which they live. The work of art must imitate the acts of individuals. This is especially applicable to drama because it creates an opportunity to posit causal relationships and extrapolate or apply them to one's individual life. In imitating the acts of individuals -- how they interact and behave toward each other -- the drama reflects the options that individuals have for their own lives. It also suggests a lack of options. In the case of the apocalyptic narrative, the way it is played out on stage may suggest how the narrative itself plays a deterministic role in the consciousness of individuals, and how the people whose minds are influenced by the apocalyptic narrative find themselves almost unwillingly following the progress of the narrative. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In addition to making clear the relationship between God and humans, and prophesying the end of the world, the apocalyptic narrative reveals to individuals the true nature of the divine. An apocalyptic revelation of this sort occurs in Scene 11, when Cy Futz says, "Warden, you look like a bad drawing of God." At this moment, the play is revealing something about our culture's notions of God. God is likened to a warden, and thus it follows that it is a part of our existential condition to be trapped in a life (or a body) that is a prison to us. We are limited by our mortality, but more so by the cruelty and animality of the subsurface essences we try to disguise with false fronts and veneers of civilized pseudo-bourgeoisie.
Cy Futz exemplifies what happens when the man has his most profound wish gratified -- he finds a passive and non-threatening way to palliate or appease his hunger for the perfect woman. Amanda, the sow, possesses lots of tits, lots of procreative ability (although Cy Futz realizes he can't satisfy her by impregnating her). At this moment, Futz represents a prototypical man who is at his purest essence and most primitive. For Futz, Amanda is better than any existing woman because she, a pig, is cleaner than women, and better endowed. In Scene 5, Futz says, "Flahfy Amanda ya faymale! Four ugly legs yu got, Zeus wat hams. Lucky luck I'm in love with you otherwise you'd be hanging in my pantry." Thus, the only thing that saves Amanda (or any woman) from being completely devoured by the man is his love for her.
Ironically, when a woman is the passive attendant -- the complement -- to the man, it is difficult to imagine how or why a total destruction, or an Armageddon, could possibly occur. Subordination seems to preclude the possibility of an apocalyptic end-of-time Armageddon scenario. However, the women of Owens' plays exert a powerful influence, primarily through their willingness to break the rules of polite society. For example, in Futz, Majorie says "you stink" in a rude manner which is not well-received by the men in the play. No man in Futz wants to hear the truth from a woman. The options are two-fold -- either no one listens, or the words are contrary to the way men would prefer to see things.
The Joe 82 Creation Poems, published in 1975 by Black Sparrow Press, is divided into sections: "Magnetic Flux," "The Enfolding," "Fire Clay," and "Basic Information." The overall structure of the work maintains a balance between the basic elements of life and the processes of becoming. The impact of the separate narratives is apocalyptic since The Joe 82 Creation Poems propose an alternative, subversive vision of the history of the world. In an introductory note, Owens writes, "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." The history of Wild-Man and Wild-Woman includes the end as well as the beginning, and it involves the cycle of genesis, total destruction, and regeneration which forms the crux of the apocalyptic narrative. In addition, Owens' emphasis on revelation fits the apocalyptic narrative's function to uncover, unveil, and reveal.
"Part 1: Magnetic Flux" opens with the emergence of an archetypal primitive man, "Wild-Man." The first poem in the section, "The First Footsong of Wild-Man," displays the destructive energy which comes to characterize the collection:
O give me a new good mechanical gadget so that I can plunge it in yr ViOlEnT heart!_The "free juxtapositions" of The Joe 82 Creation Poems suggest an incantatory, even shamanistic energy. The Wild-Man speaks in a dramatic monologue that entreats the reader to participate in a celebration of primal energy: "O sing Hanoi Haiphong!" The unusual typography and arrangement of the text on the page adds to the sense of free-flowing, creative energy.
In "Wild-Man Eats Christmas Cake," Wild-Man's actions cause the reader to question the intellectualized notion of heroes and heroism:
Weapons do not break him / HERO heaven? Christmas cake. the single moment of passion is superior to dead 'time'Owens' poem is apocalyptic in a linguistic sense -- her use of language and form reveal and unveil how language functions in denotative as well as figurative ways. In this work, linguistic apocalypse is necessary in order to fully appreciate how the poem interacts with the concrete world to make meaning and/or subvert conventional meanings.
Wild-Man eats Christmas cake & thrusts a lit candle at the sky. He screams: "He is alive!"By interjecting the presence of death and completing the old, corrupt world's decimation, apocalypse creates a dual view of world history -- life and death. Owens also juxtaposes the sacred and the profane, Satan and the "baldy angels:"
"Wild-Man on a Monday Night" I am That I am / wild-man taught wisdom & shared his bed with All. He hewed down a cross in his head. For we are to urges as Satanic lips / caress baldy angels.Perhaps achieving a state of "hallucination and exaltation" involves a mystical consciousness, and a willingness to accept the existence of transcendence.
Owens' apocalypses present to the reader or the viewer a method of connecting mind and body in order to divine certain truths about the way external reality and internal impressions, mind and body work together to develop a system of knowledge. Among other things, Owens calls into question the privileging of priests who claim to be the only ones capable of ascending the great mystical mountains to bring back wisdom tablets. In Owens' world, each individual is capable of going to the mountain and connecting with primal energies. Owens demystifies the priesthood while she sanctifies art and artistic activity.
In "Wild-Woman Beholds the Sea's History" primal energies are revealed as the wild-woman becomes one with nature when she consumes it and is transformed in the midst of dancing and dervish-like activity:
devouring the mountain & dancing when all the singers, the shell- fish, the organs of speechPart 1 closes with a sense that there is a new world and a new source of energy and primordial forces. The energy is creative and procreative, and it underpins the entire universe. In Part 2: The Enfolding, the procreative energy is mixed with destructive energy, as can be found in "Wild-Man In The Fascinating Forest":
The bang of lightning does violence to the birds! it Shatters s h a t t e r s Shatters the Holy skulls!The persistence of the primitive in our daily life may either doom us or save us. In this realm, Owens draws on two separate traditions. The first is the notion that the primitive cannot be expunged from us and that it will ultimately lead to our demise because we are too technologically advanced for our own good. This familiar theme has at its base the idea that human beings have a built-in urge to self-destruct.
Our innate, primitive drives may save us. The idea of salvation through a return to shamanism reflects a belief that it is important to nurture the primitive, unchanging parts of our psyche because they house the survival instincts. This also is a familiar theme in the twentieth century and it can be seen in many works of art, especially those which represent worlds untouched by industrial age technology. A good example is Paul Gauguin, whose paintings in Tahiti celebrate the possibilities of color, composition, and form in utopia, but, as in the case of his painting on the Marquesas, are underlain by an awareness of death and decay. The juxtaposition of growth and decay is found here as well, as in "Wild-Man Talking On the Nature of His Form:"
seeing the soul / twisting / the soul like false it was false / topped with poisonIn Part 2, the poems' high energy, dervish-like frenzies, and slashing, visceral wit often make an appeal to the reader to recognize that the rituals and rites we engage in are holdovers from a less technologically advanced time. A return to the so-called primitive -- to the shamanistic -- suggests that at the end of time, deliverance is possible by abandoning modernity.
Part 3: Fire Clay contains poems that recreate transformational, metamorphosizing energy. The form is apocalyptic in that the action brings about change. In "Wild-Man and the Peeking Into a Cloud," Owens creates a dialectic. The arrangement of the poem suggests high energy through its shape: a vortex or a tornado, while the language is that of a vigorous dramatic monologue:
the gaze the vision the pall the sleep the truth the clouds the ivory the virtue the dubbed the sub- stantial the word the place the marking the movement the ideal the age the decline the new the strength the year the law the jaw the five the mean ing the fires the quicken ing the narrow the hole the heaven the smell the eyes the soul the Ocean the eternal the biting the it is beyond us.Because a tornado is capable of destroying an individual, and human effort is often devastated by natural disasters, the reader is forced to consider that the voice -- the persona or presence -- in the poem is at risk in her or his environment which is portrayed in the poem concretely, in the middle of a funnel. Owens' poem reproduces the experience of being thrown into a dangerous and complicated world, where natural forces -- whether they are comprised of weather or of human passion -- have the capacity to place one's very existence in jeopardy.
The wild-woman and the wild-man of Owens' poetry define themselves as humans through their emotions, as well as their blood-ties to family, which often determine the roles that the individual clan members play. Like a scorpion crawling up from a nuclear test site as the lone survivor of technologically-driven devastation, so crawl the primitive lusts, hungers, rages, clan alliances, cultural beliefs and attitudes. Indestructible, they poke out from the rubble of a highly technological world. These subsurface emotions exist, despite all efforts to conceal them beneath the accoutrements of so-called social progress. The end of the world is always just around the corner, and constant disasters and plagues serve as constant reminders of the horrors of awareness.
"Wild-Man and the Overhearing of Disasters" O Epidemic O Earthquake O Fire O Flood O Eruption O Storm O Cyclone O B U B O N I C P L A G U E!Given the inescapably primal nature of the unconscious and its often savage dominion over one's actions, it is extremely dangerous for human beings to possess technology by which they can destroy themselves, others, or the entire planet.
where's Rome? fire! where's plague? jumping hot! what's a shock to the human system? The Black Death! what's an Atomic disaster? Hiroshima!Owens suggests that primitive elements remain within the human psyche. However much the postmodern individual would like to deny it, primitive lusts, urges, and instincts have shaped the identity as well as the destiny of the human race. The ability to create technology will always be subsumed to these primitive qualities, and that is precisely why it is so dangerous that humans possess such advanced technology.
Part 4: Basic Information contains a series of poems that center around fathers. In it, the poem, "Kaddish for the Father" mourns the loss of the father:
the activity of the whole striking/ Pure Death thrust Father taken Up in his work The Time Of My Breath the father's Power is another a sharp breakThe Joe Chronicles, Part 2. Published in 1979, The Joe Chronicles, Part 2 concerns itself with "the multitudinous levels of human experience and the totality of the world." As in The Joe 82 Creation Poems, this work involves the unfolding and cyclicity of human history. The total destruction of the world is depicted, but the devastation is not final. Regeneration follows apocalypse. The entire process reveals the nature of human beings and the bundles of primary core beliefs that form them. The Joe Chronicles, Part 2 is largely the history of King Lugalannemundu, and his history metonymically represents the history of the world.
King Lugalannemundu participates in the creation and re-creation of the world: "I go Anywhere here my / tribal chant / it arranges the COSMOS / the origins." King Lugalannemundu is a Dionysian character, whose energies are in harmony with nature. He takes pleasure in participating in the world's energies: "the world / beginning again unashamedly / by the Earth's Crust this / joye."
In "A Guyanan Princely Hymn, Also / Greek Silk Socks," Owens illustrates, through the persona of King Lugalannemundu, that primitivism lies beneath both twentieth-century Western and primitive tribal mindsets. This phenomenon also occurs in the opening poem of the collection, "Book of King Lugalannemundu / The Course of the Blood" where the arrangement of the text further suggests that the two identities, the tribal and the postmodern, possess aspects in common. On the left side, the primitive mind contemplates its nature, while the postmodern mind seeks also to define itself:
I've been pondering what do you mean a pacifist? on the quality of my a pacifist interiorization Bertrand Russell what may be suggested? is basically give it to me in a nutshell. ambiguous i ain't afeered o'anything what d'ya look for yu might repeat a white dog & a black dog singing along with claude-levi?In the end, the two parallel voices come together. Although the concerns of the book are far-reaching, which might lead the reader to expect a weighty, rather stodgy tone, The Joe Chronicles, Part 2 is often farcical, absurdist, and nihilistic. Owens does not hold out much hope for humanity; in the end everything returns to dust: "The Foot / of the bird / crumbles to dust / organized space & time."
Owens' work often contains half-human/half-beast transitional creatures whose mixed nature helps the reader or the audience gain a broader appreciation of the complex, paradoxical composition of the human psyche. The traditional iconography of apocalypse reinforces these themes: The Whore of Babylon, Antichrist, Dragon, etc. have both human and animal qualities. The women in The Joe Chronicles, Part 2 possess both human and animal identities. In "Lugalannemundu, He Sends a Letter," Owens suggests that woman is often thought of as the origin or provocateur of dehumanizing forces:
Dear Dehumanizing Dear Woman what is good? Look! Spread the contours of the brain backward O Fish when will you find God?While it is apocalyptic, Owens' work does not strictly follow the form of other apocalyptic discourses, such as the jeremiad. Instead of painting a grisly picture in order to terrorize people into repenting, Owens employs "Epidemic, Earthquake, Bubonic Plague" in "Wild-Man and the Overhearing of Disasters" to heighten the impression of a highly-charged and transformative state of being. Although epidemics, plagues and natural disasters are terrible events, in Owens' work they are accompanied by a sense of anti-authoritarian glee. They encourage the reader to question the status quo and to avoid paralysis and intellectual stasis at all costs. In this universe, plague and disasters are a necessary component of the rhythms, evolutions and changes of life.
In many ways, the apocalyptic components of Owens' work comment upon the nature of gender relations, cultural history and evolution. In Owens' work, there is a pronounced anti-Darwinian, anti-evolutionary, anti-positivistic stance, wherein Owens maintains that humans remain fundamentally the same. She counters the Darwinian notion that evolution and change occur in a gradual, linear manner, and that the species or organism undergoing change always develops more complexity. According to Darwinian evolutionists and anthropologists who follow this model, the human species has continued to achieve progressively higher levels of intelligence. They do not admit the possibility that the human species may "de-evolve" and go from a level of high complexity to a lower one. Nor do they admit the possibility that the human species, despite accomplishments in the areas of technology, has not evolved in mentality. In contrast, Owens suggests that the primitive human and the modern are one and the same. The human has not evolved, except in the capacity to effect technological changes, and the mental development has not followed a positively unfolding linear progression. As a result, humans' behaviors, attitudes, and sense of self are unevolving and unevolvable components.
Owens' writing contains a strong component of apocalypse as revelation or unveiling. In this case, the narrative functions to propose an alternative explanation for what is commonly taken to be truth. As a result, the unveiling in Owens' work is often a debunking of previously held moral, ethical, or philosophical verities. More often, the apocalyptic narrative is an exposure of evil. Thus, the apocalyptic narrative tells the reader that there is something besides what manifests on the surface. Appearances deceive, says Owens, and her poetry and drama go on to explain why and how.
Owens portrays human nature in a downward spiral which results in the collapse of humanity itself. While this may involve a bestialization of the individual in the face of conflict and internal strife, what usually occurs is a gradual diminution of the character's capacity to behave in a human manner. The higher nature of the human being is compromised to the point that the individual begins to act in more animalistic and thus degrading ways. Yet throughout Owens' work is a glimpse of hope. The hope arises from having the truth about human nature and culture unveiled. It also arises from the rebellious, anarchic energy in Owens' work. The hope that Owens offers is that if one "talks back" then one can be saved. In Owens' world, deliverance comes when one is able to join in and participate in her ribald, sassy satires and parodies.
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Copyright © 1996 by Susan Smith Nash.
Light and Dust Mobile Anthology of Poetry.