Thursday, August 24, 2006


J. CSIDA Reviews

EROSION’S PULL by Maureen Owen
(Coffee House Press, 2006)

"When a great adventure's offered, you don't refuse it." That was a quote from Maureen Owen's masterful book AE (Vortex Editions, 1984). The statement is Amelia Earhart's, but it could serve as Owen's own motto; the inscription on her homemade coat of arms; her text tattoo.

She was raised as a Minnesota farm girl, and then a California race track kid. High school and college, then on to Japan to study Zen and give birth to two sons. Then writing, editing, and publishing books in New York City, balanced with country life in Guilford, Connecticut. She returned to Manhattan to help run the St. Marks Poetry Project and was living in the Twin Towers' neighborhood when two 747s shook her world on 9/11. She now resides in Denver, works for a publishing company, and teaches at Naropa University. If she was an athlete, she'd be an Olympic Heptathlon contender.

With the publication of Erosion's Pull, her tenth book, the reader feels fully the author's exuberance in the freedom of her work. The poems go where they will, each taking the shape of its individual spirit -- words often separated by the variable spaces of the poet's thought-breath. The book commences:

I think of Black
when he was
pulling a cab

under a lamppost
his dark harness gathering flakes
a jet horse becoming white                powder

a dark horse

If Maureen Owen was ever a "derivative" poet, any evidence of that was long gone when I first heard her read in the 1970s. Nevertheless, Owen could, at that time, be considered one of the "St. Mark's Poets" -- due to her association with the Poetry Project that headquartered (and still does) at the Lower East Side church. But the St. Mark's gang spoke with many voices -- almost a Babel of tongues. The natural and immediate inheritance of the young St. Markers would, of course, be the work of the Beats. Ginsberg and Corso were part of the action until their deaths -- and their unbuttoned lives and openness to experience were attractive to the younger poets (this was not a group looking to get published in The New Yorker or Antaeus). Still, the young poets had to find their own way and make it new.

And, of course, the Great-Grandfather of the Beats was Whitman: expansive; celebratory, sexually candid and unembarrassed -- both connected and removed by a century from the St. Mark's world of the Civil and Gay Rights movements, Vietnam, and the triple assassinations.

But there is a figure in American letters who truly influenced the St. Mark's poets -- consciously, unconsciously, or just osmotically -- And this was the Doctor from Paterson, William Carlos Williams. I say this because Williams threw down the gauntlet long before Maureen or Bob Holman or Anne Waldman or Janet Hamill were born. Long, long ago Dr. Williams challenged the pervasive and (to him) sinister influence of the British tradition and its principal metric, the Iambic Pentameter. In its place, he put forth his notion of the Variable Foot (VF) -- a metric flowing from the natural and manifold cadences of American speech. In Williams' own work the VF worked wonderfully. Ginsberg and Paul Blackburn and even the Hartford mandarin Wallace Stevens hailed his achievements. But his way was not that of the Beats. For all their Modernism, they couldn't shake Shakespeare, Shelley, the Troubadours, or the miracle of French Symbolism out of their poesy.

So here I come back to Maureen. With no waving of the Stars and Stripes or any politician's patriotic gore stuck in her verse, there is no more American writer than the cosmopolite Ms. Owen. Before leaving Williams though, I want to quote one of his beauties, "Danse Russe." The poem describes the poet alone and active in a room while his wife and child and housekeeper are fast asleep in the early morning. In singular privacy, the Doctor dances naked before a mirror and sings softly to himself. The poem concludes:

If I admire my arms, my face
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades

Who shall say I am not
The happy genius of my household?

Now it's none of my business if Owen indulged herself in a similar way while the husband and kids were in dreamland, but I'm lucky enough to know from our acquaintance over the years, that she is indeed the once and future happy genius of her household. Forget about poetic theory, it's that personal quality that links her with Williams in the Pantheon of American poets. Here's a quote from Owen's wonderful book Zombie Notes (SUN/1985). The poem is "Winter is so punk". The lines unforgettable:

Remember when the word moonlight meant romance &
now it just means holding down two jobs

That is so Mo. The truly indefatigable, hard workin' woman who writes deathless verse between day and night jobs and alchemizes stress into laughter. Who walks on the dark side and comes out smiling.

On Susan Howe's WBAI radio show in the 70's, the interviewer asks Owen about being a poet while raising children on her own. A close paraphrase of the answer goes like this: "Oh the kids are great! Just when you're alone in the bedroom -- sitting there in despair and thinking about committing suicide, suddenly someone bursts in and shouts "WHAT'S FOR DINNER !?" This says much about Owen's own artistic persona. The Anti-Poete Maudit. Not that there's anything wrong about being Baudelaire or Verlaine, But they didn't have to get the macaroni and cheese on the table. Perhaps that lack of the necessary is what was at the root of their discontents.

Between then and now, Maureen has kept at it like the Green Lantern flying through time. Hearts in Space in 1980. Her great and very beautiful book on Amelia Earhart, AE in 1984, Zombie Notes in '85, Imaginary Income in '92, Untapped Maps in '93, American Rush in '98, and now the triumph of Erosion's Pull (with its dazzling cover painting by Yvonne Jacquette).

In Erosion's Pull, Owen truly is at the top of her game. All her imagination's magic is at her command. She can wax lyrical, switch rhythms on a dime, and rock and roll all night. The Waltz, the Lindy Hop, did you say the Watusi? -- all one to her. After 87 pages of the best roller coaster ride since the Cyclone, the poem "After W.C.W" appears on 88. It's a great riff on Williams "This is Just to Say". The confession of a household plum thief who asks absolution with the final four lines:

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Owen's update reprises regret over her own kitchen raid but takes her poem to spiritual and astronomic places while admitting (cheerfully) to domestic misdemeanors. The second stanza begins:

Forgive me Excuse me
               I drank the rest of the champagne
it was still bubbly

seven well wrought lines later Owen says:

I had to light a candle to
the virgin in her prime
               by now she was to me like
a suspect in a mystery

                              catching atoms

from the solar wind a treasured smidgen of the sun

never mind
the champagne was cold
& full of tiny spheres


J. Csida is a writer of both prose and poetry who works for the Goshen Public Library and Historical Society. He resides in the Hudson Valley region of New York State with his wife, the poet Janet Hamill.


At 11:56 AM, Blogger EILEEN said...

Another view on EROSION'S PULL is presented in the previous review by John Bloomberg-Rissman at


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