Elinor Nauen Review of Maureen Owen's "American Rush"


American Rush
by Maureen Owen
Talisman House, 1998

Review by Elinor Nauen

If you've been really busy and/or have sort of forgotten why you like poetry, pick up Maureen Owen's American Rush. Its 2 years worth of Midwestern-optimistic-rueful-despite-everything poetry will disarm you as "fast as a kick in the trigger finger. What's here? Raising kids, love gone sour, clothes and food and. the condition of women, literature, Japanese and Chinese poets, driving around, the prairie, her daily life, Blake, hugs, birds. Fresh from beginning to end. Owen's learning and vocabulary are precise: like a batter letting a pitch go by that just misses the plate, you want to call "good eye, good eye!" In "Days & Nights," she describes a painting as not by Ni Tsan "practically all brush & hardly any inkwash" and more in the milky monochrome style of the 14th-century master Shen Shih-ch'ung. And then she does a characteristic Cary Grant pratfall; "The Pavilion of the Luxuriant Trees where / two figures    discussing on a balcony seem to be immersed / in a pile of Necco wafers." Owen often throws up her mental hands and throws in the towel- but with it a jab: "only the whippet / understands me only the parrot    and maybe/the comet who knows what it means / to be perfectly in orbit    and still crack up / just because something gets in your way just because / something else    didn't know you were coming/ forgot to move    or couldn't and there you were / spinning around each other for a moment then / flung out again quite breathless and puzzled." Although her poems are rarely obscure or convo- luted, you can't glide through without paying attention; Lines like "T or t ing" (in Halloween costumes) and "It's Steel shades shaded tin" must be read carefully. A signature Owen technique is her idiosyncratic use of the exclamation mark, It can serve as a comma or pause ("Often the simplest words! only take you to the edge") or question mark ("Can I be on the street again!"), as well as emphases of every shade of irony, exuberance, whistling in the dark courage, silliness or dismay. There is probably no other poetwho uses them better or more frequently; from the first line of the first poem "That's it!," only a couple dozen poems in this 156-page book are minus at least one.

What makes one poet a "genius," and another, just as good, over- looked or underappreciated? I had a professor once who said Pound was great because the Cantos took the whole world as their subject, while Paterson was mediocre because it focused on just one town. Owen, like Williams, sees heav'n in a grain of sand, not to mention Hell, Minnesota and a bunch of stops along the way. Is it her light touch? Which doesn't mean she's not deep! As she writes, "It's / another exam- ple of     Just because you're funny ............ / doesn't mean you're joking." Her (false) modesty? "[A]nd all my life I've answered 'a little' / when what I really meant was 'a lot."'

As with many poets, it's hard to pull out lines that represent her without shredding the poem, although there are plenty of bon mots ("Remember when the word moonlight meant    romance     & / now it just means holding down two jobs") and swell descriptions like "buttercups of crepe de chine" that she dashes past and lets us go back and pick up for ourselves. Her titles give almost as much a flavor of her work as lines: "Ode to Asexuality," "Poem to Piss Everyone Off," where she sensibly kicks Gertrude Stein out from under, "Frogs Ringing Gongs in a Skull." American Rush is not missing any or many greatest hits, but of course like any good "selected" it should - and will - send readers back to Maureen Owen's other books for more.

First printed in The Poetry Project Newsletter

Copyright © 1998 by Elinor Nauen.

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