EROSION'S PULL by MAUREEN OWENJOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN Reviews
EROSION’S PULL by Maureen Owen
(Coffee House, 2006)
Not long ago we were listening to some Black Uhuru. I turned to Sam and said, “I should have been a reggae bass player.” “Dad,” he sighed, “everybody says ‘I should have been a reggae bass player.’” A few months later I finished Pope’s Iliad. I said to Alan (poet, publisher, editor, friend), “That may have been the greatest thing I’ve ever read. Why can’t I do that?” He sighed and said, “Sorry, John; that song’s over.” So, sigh for me, too, dear reader, because I’m sharing right up front a 3rd impossibility: I want to have written the poems of Maureen Owen. In every poem in EROSION’S PULL there’s something that makes me say, “so this is why poetry”. Sometimes it’s a line, sometimes it’s a line break, sometimes it’s a “verse paragraph”, sometimes it’s the whole magilla … As Bessie said of Spike Jones in The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek”, “I love to hear him talk.” I love to hear Maureen Owen. (Yes, I know I’m reading, but I almost always hear voices when I read …) So, if you’re looking for critique, look somewhere else.
All my reasons I want to have been the person who wrote these poems are old-fashioned. Wisdom. Beauty. Humor. Love. Sorrow. Compassion. Writ large, the “so this is what it’s like to be human.” Not that the poems are old-fashioned. I’ll go so far as to say they transcend fashion. I’m reminded of Philip Whalen, in the sense that Whalen went his own way, regardless of what anyone else might be doing. And somehow left the rest of us to play catch-up (there’s a lesson in that). It’s 5 in the morning, I’m not about to wake Kathy by rummaging for sources, but I remember Ted Berrigan saying something like, “Whalen? Whatever he does, do it, too.” Not that TB ever sounded like PW, and not like anyone should try to sound like Maureen Owen, but …
Let’s get to specifics. First, the titles alone are fantastic, maybe there are other titles like them, but if so, won’t someone point ‘em out? Poems in themselves, many sprawl all over the page. Here’s an attempt at some transcriptions, taken almost (yeah, right) at random:
flaxstraw broom on a long handle or
perles Among hogges
That’s one. Here’s another:
darkness sprang the swans from the shellacked pond
a kind of plum blue gum
veins through skin
steel at twilight think milk
vapor over a soggy ground
breasts in motion in Matisse’s Goldfish and Sculpture
Here’s a third (and a good segue into the next aspect of her poems I want to talk about):
the gods are peeling off the temple walls
or a guide is usually someone who’s done this before
This poem is “for my mom”. Not “For My Mother”: “for my mom”. Owen’s poems are written in Real American Language. They’re not dumbed down (in fact I have to admit some of the time I don’t have a clue what she’s talking about); they’re not pumped up. No supposedly “poetic” language, which is often the result of the poet thinking she/he has to sound smarter/more educated/more knowledgeable than she/he really is. Of course, some might note there’s no such thing as the Real American Language. And I’d have to say right, of course, but I didn’t say that. Owen’s poems are written in a language I recognize from conversations overheard while standing in line at Some Crust waiting for my tea, while taking questions at the reference desk, while waiting for BART in Oakland, while walking around upper east side NYC, etc. If I had to give a name to her dialect I’d say it was something like post-Don Allen’s New American Poetry, with a post-beat post-New York School inflection. That’s amazingly crude. And it’s not as if she bailed out on growth and change 40 years ago. I’m guessing she’s well up on everything that’s happened in and to during her lifetime. And I believe she has at least one child: I’m guessing she’s listened to their punk skater gangsta goth nerd friends, too.
Let’s look at her instead of me; I’m bored with fumbling for descriptions. Here’s one of the most straightforward poems in the book. It’s also practically perfect in every way. [Note: in the book, line 4 breaks (or wraps) at the “the” before “sailors”):
O over every life-sized drought
or a solid interval between crenels on a battlemented parapet
or just say “no”
I can’t help you
I didn’t get up this morning
I didn’t pay my taxes on time
I didn’t return the damn video to the damn video store pick you up at the train station rescue the sailors trapped in the sunken sub
you can’t count on me
I won’t be there for you I’m not
myself I won’t drop in just to say Hi When you
need a friend forget it don’t look over here a shoulder to cry
on that won’t be me, toots, through thick & thin Don’t
hold your breath It isn’t me on that ringing phone Do you have a problem?
I won’t be solving it
I particularly like the “rescue the sailors trapped in the sunken sub”. Where did that come from? From Owens’s equivalent of the bodhisattva vow: the desire to alleviate suffering wherever and whenever we hear of it. But every now and then we wake up and say, sometimes sadly, sometimes not, today I won’t be saving the world. Best of luck, all.
There are several other poems as straightforward as this. But many take twists and turns that are rather mysterious. Let’s take a look at the first verse paragraph of
They can’t handle the day shift or
she was thinking “I could just spit”
I could get falling down substance abused
I could burn myself with a cigarette I
could smoke a cigarette I could disguise myself
as mayhem I could turn on the dancers I
could stomp out the bluffs where they press
their lips together & stare at the fat moon from
their snotty embrace O half-baked idea!
rising a thousand years out of chalk dust &
pleated yellow light I could search for the
same weather compare time to Paradise
a face in the window patient & eager
as the beloved appears to hit the road
temperature & the economy the walls of state
I get as far as “mayhem”, thinking this is perfect, this is pure genius. “I could get falling down substance abused.” Yes. And yes, in 2006, smoking a cigarette is at least as self-destructive as burning oneself with one. But “I could turn on the dancers”, etc? What dancers? Where are we? Wild guess: maybe she’s alone somewhere “on the bluffs”, a little envious of those in view in the moonlight with their “significant others.” Of course, it doesn’t really matter; the language sings us through uncertainty, something language has been doing for the last thousand years; the point is, this poem is making connections on a less “public” level than the one I quoted above.
And in some poems, the connections (or leaps) between lines are even more personal or abstruse. But I never feel far away from the heart and soul of a living breathing human (and, yes, I know, there are lots of other things poems can do, many of them of great interest and value, but this is my review, write your own if you want to emphasize other aspects; this is what I value most … it’s what I’ve valued most for 35 years … it’s likely what I’ll value most halfway through my cremation …).
In a recent blog our editor noted that several reviewers in issue number 2 engaged with back cover blurbistas. I think the blurbs on the back of this book are great. Lazy bastard that I am, I’ll quote, and when you see who wrote them, you’ll say, “Who better to steal from?” Bernadette Mayer: “… Maureen Owen epitomizes … being in 67 places at one time …”; Susan Howe: “ … words and lines map, unmap, and revamp our everyday post-contemporary geographies …”; Cecilia Vicuña: “A quest for self-knowledge so deep it hurts with beauty.” Gorgeous as these quotes are, I will not give the blurbistas the last word. That I reserve for myself. First, I will give you the end of “the gods are peeling off the temple walls”, the poem for her mom:
…. Where is the home we
& where are our pajamas
the red ones with the blue cowgirls twirling their lassos over their heads as
they ride their buckskins at full gallop they are you in the wild barebacked days
with your hair so long and black you & your wild girlband on horseback
the selves of our own history
have forgiven each other
“The selves of our own history / have forgiven each other.” I want to have written that. I want to be able to have written that. As a poet and as a person. But I’m just me. Owen has blessed us all. I won’t take that back. She’s blessed us all. This is a wonderful book. I’m glad to have this chance to say thank you. “The selves of our own history / have forgiven each other.” Would that it were more often so. Donald Hall has just been made poet laureate. He’s a good guy and a pretty decent poet. But it won’t be the world I want to live in til they offer the job to Maureen Owen.
John Bloomberg-Rissman is humanities bibliographer for the libraries of the the University of California, Riverside. That means he buys stuff with taxpayer money (better books than bombs, eh?). He has authored half a dozen chapbooks, most recently with Bamboo Books, Culver City, CA, has published recently in BIG BRIDGE, LITTER and POETRY NOTTINGHAM, and is eagerly awaiting the print appearance of his first long work, TRAVELS TO CAPITALS, which has been accepted for publication. His current project is called ZHILI BYLI, which, when complete, will consist of 100 parts; he's currently up to part 40.