The Long Poems of Rochelle Owens
A Fragment Catalog Paste-up of the 20th Century
written in the form
of a collective
or a mass-biography
is a study of an individual
in conflict with society
The heroine of the story
emerges first as a bizarre
figure whose goal
is to transform herself
into a poet so that by
asserting her courtliness
she can win a place
This article was first given as a paper for Experimentalities, a conference at the University of Adelaide, 17-18 September, 2015. — A.J.C.
Rochelle Owens has a website at http://rochelleowens.org
twentieth and twenty-first century North American long poems / expansive women’s poetry / poetry and experimental form / social poetics
The long poems of Rochelle Owens have been little explored within the developing field of studies in modern and contemporary expansive poetics. Owens’ long poems present a reworking of the epic tradition. They construct a social subjectivity where voices, tonalities and subject-positions are legion. Varied in genre, style and form, they are incantatory, intersubjective, modern, ancient, monodic, lyric and choral. Professing a ‘kaleidoscopic’ sense of form, these long poems rework the details and capacities of the page, unsettling modes of reading and writing long poems, and reanimating contemporary practices of sustained reading.
Reading Owens Today
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The long poems of Rochelle Owens join Anne Waldman’s The Iovis Trilogy and Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts as some of the major long poems of the second half of the twentieth, and early twenty-first centuries. The breadth and volume of Owens’ use of expansive poetics since the 1970s makes the scarcity of critical work on her work surprising, especially given the remarkable continuation of the long poem well into the twenty first century not only in the USAmerican context, but in other literary contexts and hemispheres.
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To say ‘North America’ is, of course, now fraught: for no longer is the epic a thing of Nation-State or of Empire. Rather, the USAmerican long poem can be considered in the context of the Americas; it is firmly transnational, global, oriented across multiple hemispheres and continents. We might think of the long poems that have jutted their way into the twenty-first century as world poems.
Owens’ long poems and the worlds in which they appear help us map the continuation of the epic into the twenty-first century, now in a feminist mode, transformed and transmogrified and with a different freight of characteristics.
Reading Owens can, I think, broaden the scope for future criticism on long poems and for poetics. This inquiry, at least in part, emerges out of research into techniques and forms of the postmodern long poem, various unresolved historical problems and questions, and some interest in how the long poem has fared more recently and how it might (or might not) continue to fare for contemporary poetics.
Because Owens writes very much within the epical tradition at a time in which the Olsonic field of the page, with its bricolage and broken striations, has become very old hat, and because she writes very much in the experimental tradition, there is much to grapple with on the level of both literary surface and cultural depth, much to answer in terms of either her reworking of, or departure from, this tradition.
For USAmerican readers: I read these works from across a large ocean (I am Australian, or more precisely, Asian-Australian) working in the field of expansive poetics. I have paid attention to Owens’ contexts (the multi-hemispheric tradition of the long poem in [mainly] the Americas, 1961-2011), and the poetics of these texts. Recently I acquired a good deal of the Owens oeuvre in Berkeley’s Small Press Distribution warehouse, happily covering some gaps and providing a fuller picture of her work.
Born 1936 in New York, Owens is probably better known as a playwright than a poet. She has produced a number of classic avant-garde plays, perhaps most notably Futz (1962), Futz and What Came After (1968) and The Karl Marx Play (1974), all of which are situated as monumental avant-garde plays of the Off-Broadway movement, and all of which went through multiple productions and achieved international success. Futz was made into a feature film in 1968, and is readily available online. A 1969 production of Futz at Toronto’s avant-garde Theatre Passe Muraille gained notoriety for causing obscenity charges against the entire company. The charges were later dropped.
Owens is, or has been, associated with the ethnopoets, and if she is, in fact, classed an ‘ethnopoet,’ she is one of few women to be included in this loose nexus of (mostly male) affiliations including Jerome Rothenberg, David Antin, Armand Schwerner, Nathaniel Tarn and Dennis Tedlock. The poem ‘Hermaphropoetics’ / ‘Desire’ curated by Rothenberg appeared in Jacket2 in 2013, including a note on the then forthcoming Selected. Link: https://jacket2.org/commentary/rochelle-owens-hermaphropoetics-brown-dust. The ethnopoets began experimenting out of the 1960s and through the 1970s and 1980s, and their concern was for the origins of culture and cultural systems, the origins of language, and for a poetics of ritual (sometimes live, performative) and carnality in conjunction with these cultural aims.
The ethnopoets also maintained a poststructuralist insistence on the importance of disjunction verbal and syntactic surfaces and referential decentering, at the same time as staging a mythopoetics that would both surmount, and intersect with, these textual aims. These contradictions are present in the ethnopoesis of Owen’s work: how mythic and shamanic ambitions come through the scattered field of the page.
This article will provide preliminary readings for the vast body of work that constitutes Owens’ experimental long poems. The aim is to first of all situate these large-scale works as long poems, and further as experimental long poems, before differentiating within this the kind of expansive poetics Owens’ constructs.
I want to first determine the historical, cultural and social location of these works before pointing towards ways in which her writing can, here and now, inform contemporary practices of inventive reading and writing.
Several things I have not had the time to adequately cover. For example, future research might situate her practice in ethnopoetics as a nexus and an institution, with its ideals and materials, its networks of exchange and affiliation. Future research might further attempt to unpack the several books which select shorter poems, like her first book Not Be Essence That Cannot Be (1961), Salt & Core (1968) and I am the Babe of Joseph Stalin’s Daughter (1972), linking the long and the short poems. Scholarship might take to a comparison between her plays and her poetry.
However my focus here is confined to her sequential and modular expansive poetics, coextensive with her poetics of culture. These long works have that sense of capacious volume, that long-poem-curiosity for the epical relation to origins. Oftentimes I have had difficulty understanding Owens’s treatment of culture, ethnicity and the raced subject. Does a cosmopolitanist poetics confront power structures, or reinforce them? I think, however, that this difficulty in Owens has manifest in ways that are productive of knowledge in and around cultural poetics of an historical era.
A poet like Owens deserves critical attention despite, perhaps even because of, her sometimes zany corporeal poetics and the cultural questions it raises. By investigating an unexplored aspect of Owens, her expansive poetics, her sense of modularity, sequentiality, partition and continuation, some of these cultural strands I hope will come more closely into focus. How the long poem has the capacity to critique culture through expansive form is crucial to this (and nor should the burden fall solely on the long poem to provide a model for culture, even though it might opt to envisage the utopic).
Discussions of Owens’ work have occasioned discussions of dynamics of neglect, recovery, recognition and reception: peers of mine have wondered why her work has not developed as strong a critical following as many of her contemporaries. One reviewer has claimed that Owens’s lack of ‘academic’ ambition has led to a neglect of her work (See Weinstein 290). But this can only refer to a certain understanding of what ‘academic’ (in the pejorative) means, not if we are talking about critical and poetics-based analyses of her work.
If one goes on her publication record alone, there’s absolutely no doubt that it’s a sustained output. Every decade since the 1960s at least three books are published, disregarding an assortment of chapbooks. And her books now will routinely include the bionote phrase: ‘A central figure in the international avant-garde for fifty years.’
This kind of claim has not been taken up (yet) by criticism on the international avant-garde. Despite the fact that she is undoubtedly a central figure in international avant-garde theater for over half a century, to my knowledge, no academic journal article has yet been written on her poetry, and no monograph.
The recent publication of Out of Ur: New & Selected Poems 1961-2012 by Shearsman introduces her work to a larger readership, but as the economy of a Selected requires, Out of Ur puts an emphasis more on single poems than longer sequences. The New & Selected does confirm the difficultly of assigning any one stylistic tendency to her work, showcasing her variability across sequences and forms, her flexibility in approach to concept and narrative.
Owens has published an extraordinary number of long or lengthy poems, rather than one totalising life poem. The narratography of these works means the notion of ‘life poem’ does not apply. Given the number of extended works Owens has written, and given the modularity and the vastness of their subject matter, Owens might actually be the most prolific twentieth century writer of the long poem.
The bulk of this article will isolate what I perceive to be two major groups of books that appear throughout her oeuvre as long poem works, or works-in-progress, 1. The first series, begun in the 1970s, the Joe Poems and 2. The second series on painting, particularly the Discourse on Life & Death series Luca, Discourse on Life and Death (2000). This latter series is developed from these studies of art and close portraits or personas that weave through the long sequence. Though these seem to be two major works, her entire oeuvre can be read as a plotting-through, or chain of interconnected books that build upon and supersede one another.
The Joe Series: 1970-1985
The first major long poem series of Owens, the Joe Poems consists of several books and chapbooks, Poems From Joe’s Garage (Burning Deck 1973) The Joe Eighty-Two Creation Poems (1974) and The Joe Chronicles II (1974) both with Black Sparrow Press, by then a ‘big’ small press, so to speak, then Shemuel (1979), and a projected choral work, The Joe Oratorio, that did not seem to ever materialize, but that is mentioned in the book jacket to The Joe Chronicles II.
Constructs, a 1985 chapbook, further explores the Joe character in a series of prose fragments which she considers ‘watercolors’ (the beginning of a larger preoccupation with painting that paves the way for the later ‘Discourse on Life and Death’ series). Though Constructs could be said to sit between the two major works—right at the end of the Joe series—at least for well over a decade Owens was preoccupied with literary character of Joe.
The front matter to several of these books contain information about how they fit into this proposed sequence. A note to The Joe 82 Creation Poems announces that it is ‘Written in four parts,’ and will recreate ‘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.’
In front matter to The Joe Chronicles Part II, Owens notes that this is the ‘second installment of a continuing series of poems begun in 1970, and are about the multitudinous levels of human experience and the totality of the world.’ Shemuel bears the description ‘Imagination is generator of the word as act/event. In Shemuel the journey begun in The Joe 82 Creation Poems and The Joe Chronicles Part 2 continues to explore through patterns of force the conjunction of the old and the new, the spiritual and the physical.’
With this kind of breadth and continuation of theme and character, Owens is thoroughly engaged here in the idea, the writing and the plotting of a multi-book, experimental long poem, one in which the ‘installment’ marks a cumulative stance or vantage point from which to view both a totality and a sense of incompleteness, a vantage point to imagine what comes next. The succession of books strives toward the impossible, perhaps a totality, in a way that materializes the spirituality that lurks behind any striving toward the negated whole (a difficult assignation for the expansive poem, apt nonetheless in Owens).
Brian McHale would call this the ‘obligation toward the difficult whole,’ a phrase which captures the duty, discipline and fidelity that binds practitioners of the long poem to their projects.
For McHale, Armand Schwerner is one such postmodern long poem poet (Schwerner blurbs Owens’ Shemuel). In fact, the tonality of spiritualist carnality and shamanic wildness binds Owens to Schwerner in interesting ways, particularly Schwerner’s experimental long poem The Tablets (1968-1999).
The Tablets is decidedly hybrid with its materials (it includes, among many other things, a musical score), and is counter-Poundian (to use Alan Golding’s phrase), and uses a similarly textured language of emboldened totemic genitality and carnality, but its conceit involves a mostly singular subjective position, a male Scholar-Translator, whose task is to translate a series of Sumerian tablets. The poem includes scholarly commentary throughout, and this commentary is intimate to the poem and its reading.
While The Tablets is an epic told through what ultimately remains a single voice (though this singularity is always under threat), The Joe 82 Creation Poems is divided along an axis of gender difference, with two persons or registers, Wild-Man and Wild-Woman, a division that according to the experimental poet and performance artist Jane Augustine is there to enact an ‘androgynous re-vision of the word-world.’ Augustine writes:
Owens has undertaken not only the creation of this androgynous re-vision of the word-world but also has attempted to press it into the depths of our psyches where it must take root. We cannot go back to the old dichotomies. The revolution of androgyny has already begun, and Rochelle Owens is its prophet. (89)
In a 1989 interview with C.B. Coleman, in which Owens makes a case for both the radical feminism and the radical avant-garde experimentalism of her work, she likewise references the androgynous as a horizon beyond patriarchal culture (23). The book itself is divided into four parts, Part 1: Magnetic Flux, Part 2: The Enfolding, Part 3: Fire Clay and Part 4: Basic Information. Within these four parts are a total of eighty-two sections.
This is a common long poem synecdochal division of parts, or parts within parts. Part 4: Basic Information, breaks away from the first three in that it introduces the figure of the father (the book itself is dedicated to the memory of her father, Max Bass), and is a series of incantatory songs, including an Equinox Commandment and a Kaddish hymn. This puts the book’s ending in close proximity with Anne Waldman’s monumental feminist epic The Iovis Trilogy, which contains and critiques a gamut of male personas and characters, including her own father, disrupting the mythopoetic and psychosocial expectations of the long poem. With The Iovis Trilogy, the Joe 82 Creation Poems shares an incantatory and shamanic vocality, an archaeopoetics in which the cultural breadth of its personas and characters is again of the world, decentered and well aware of both the regional and cultural stranglehold of Empire and the godhead-patriarchs of war.
In the Joe 82 Creation Poems, the lines are a performable score for incantatory vocalities, but a score replete with broken utterances. The form of each modular section is often disjunctive, occupying the full field of the page. The size of each modular section rarely exceeds one page in The Joe 82 Poems or two in The Joe Chronicles Part II.
In this way, Owens appears to be composing by page, with the page as a kind of constraint but with horizontal and vertical vectors pulling language across and down:
Father’s Expression Into Air
Towards the Atomic century
the Alphabet driven into fire two demons
a motorized fiend
a pig’s dialogue/
1,2,3, touching the concrete
the next knife closing the
mystery of wondering &
both devils are happy.
(The Joe 82 Creation Poems, 132-33)
In the ‘Atomic century,’ the expression of language ‘into air’ moves sounds into the regulatory system of alphabetization. It might not seem so austere, particularly if two stories are told at once (which Owens will accomplish, we will soon see, using another kind of textual geometry). Note the divisions and radical graphic moves in the following section:
Wild-Man And The Influence Of The She
divides With all Temptation/ All creatures
& r w n
& g o i g O growing by force, power
groin! wild woman with hanging breasts!
the bloody intensity / the dance
of veins spleen of the wedding
party / the masked Sun dragging the Virgin
woman of birds, rubbing her stomach with
& forcing her to eat
/it did haunt her/
the naked wylde birds. He Saw.
walked into the
(Joe 82 Creation Poems 56)
These might very well be wild scores, a wilderness of language in which the gendering of influence (and the influence of gender) seems to palimpsestually blot letters out. The referential center is dispersed. A 1975 symposium on Owens, which resulted in a special issue of Margins edited by Karl Young, featured a piece by Jackson Mac Low titled ‘Rochelle Reading Rochelle’ in which he imagines her disjunctive poetics to be the result of some kind of aleatoric system:
I first read a poem of Rochelle’s sometime in 1961, or very late 1960, when I read her ‘Humble Humble Pinate’ in Trobar 2. 1 was struck then by what seemed to be similarities with my own chance-generated work, especially the numbered Asymmetries I was then writing. There seemed to be extreme disjunctions between lines and even parts of lines. There seemed to be no continuing referential center. I even surmised that she might have used a nonlogical, nonsyntactical, or even an aleatoric system to make the poem. Tho there seemed to be emotion involved, it seemed continually to be broken and interrupted, as if some collaging technique had supervened between the original emotion and the final work. It was puzzling. (83)
Mac Low goes on to contrast Owen’s outbursts of emotion, anger and fear to his own work for which ‘Very little personal emotion was involved’ (83). For Mac Low this impersonal approach was an oddity, given his association of the aleatoric with decentered (nonegoic) and notational poetics. An example of what Mac Low calls the absence of a ‘continuing referential center’ can be found in Part II, where the disjunctive patterns form unconventional axes on the page, or gather around an absent central axis. The section is titled ‘King Lugalannemundu Also From The Cruel Cube Derived And / Or Betrayed’:
This WordPress version of the same poem is typed into a two-columned float.
sitting on a hill
sees Fallen down
a person and her palm o’
the hand holds a
collection of elements
she sits on the
throne, her yellow
names in healing
the earliest hope
of some undetermined
Ice which lies
combined and laid
across the surface
the people remember
the committed junk
the borne up
in midday on all
fours that myth
plucks its skin
(The Joe Chronicles, Part II, 30)
This complex passage spatially sets out, or up, certain geometries of divided attention. That is, the eye-ear can trace its reading vectors in multiple ways. Going ‘across’ from left to right columns is sometimes possible: ‘Thessaly’ and ‘idolatry’ carry between the columns, likewise ‘animal / shrieks’ would meaningfully be read together, and if so go against the oxymoronic ‘noiseless / shrieks.’
Other times this non-normative pattern is foreclosed, enforcing a separate attention for each column or voice so that mythic elements are told in succession: the eye might, but is unlikely to hear ‘her yellow… Noah’s Ark.’ Poems like ‘Anthropologists at a Dinner Party’ (in How Much Paint Does the Painting Need) are divided into two columns or axes, again suggesting a double voice or split subjectivity. In this poem the elements are juxtaposed (arguably) to challenge the anthropologist’s authority. Another poem that doubles its registers is ‘ME HOGGISH (HOD)’ in Not Be Essence That Cannot Be:
This WordPress version of the same poem is typed into a two-columned float.
Ducs ME hog
To two untied
At the bitter
Of bean door-keeper
On the water
Not lay by with
How to read is uncertain: should one read the left column first before moving to the right, ‘Of axis’ or off-axis, taking stock of lettristic drift from right to left to right? Should the reader pause, as in antiphonal reading, making their way down the page in equal measure? Even more radically, are two readers required to read sections such as these?
If two, this is a strategy that redefines not only what happens on the page but also off it (in performance, in scenes of reading). Whichever way passages such as these are read, they will require increasingly complex geometries of divided attention, and hence interpretation.
Indeed the ‘HOD’ of the title, meaning ‘splendour’ or ‘glory’ refers to the eighth Sephira of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, a force that is key to the mystery (and language) of form; hence the energetic geometries of passages such as these and their ‘Kabbalistic’ hold on interpretation. In Part 9 of Section 1, the ‘Book of Kin Lugalannemundu The Course of the Blood,’ she writes:
And Songs. ? where. My own interpretation
faythfully. ? where. My own condemnations
today. My prophecies
exult and I see myself
for the first time.
I am the woman, Say I
the book and brings together
e m b o d i m e n t
my writing helps hear
the center of Mirth
I go anywhere
(The Joe Chronicles, Part 2, 26)
A statement of subjective intent by the arranger of the book, the gapping of the letters ‘e m b o d i m e n t’ seems to lead to a centering of the subject, a ‘center of Mirth,’ but this is followed by a radical opening out: ‘I go anywhere.’ This in many ways encapsulates the question of subjectivity, difficultly and complexly, in Owens’ work. In another long poem, one that needs to be accounted for but that does not seem to fit either into the Joe series nor the next (the Discourse on Life and Death series), ‘French Light’: W.C. Fields in French Light (1986), something more centered takes place, centered in voice and in its conceptual arc. The fuller quotation, taken from Part 2, and which serves as the epigraph to this article, reads:
assaults courtly literature
The assault on courtliness
is as follows:
The American revolutionary
written in the form
of a collective
or a mass-biography
is a study of an individual
in conflict with society…
The heroine of the story
emerges first as a bizarre
figure whose goal
is to transform herself
into a poet so that by
asserting her courtliness
she can win a place
by the end of the tale
she stands as a quixotic
positive to the insistent
mendacity and grossness
of a world which subverts
(W.C. Fields in French Light, 7)
The American revolutionary, who must stand for a collective / mass biography, contrasts with the heroine, who serves a courtly function in order to enact a kind of social failure; becoming quixotic, internalising its limiting function, her downfall is ‘pathetic positivism,’ the game of courtliness. Thus the poem reads not only as an allegorical meeting-point between two States (or two ‘worlds’) founded on revolution, France and America, but also an assault on the Quixote, a figure of exceptionalism, idealism and subjectivity at odds with the ‘world which subverts courtliness.’ The chivalric narrative, which aspires to courtly love, is one in which the social mass threatens to overcome, to become the narrative. So W.C. Fields precisely is one of these figures, when seen in French light, an individual ‘everyman,’ or American ‘funnyman’ going against the mendacity of a world (America) that both courts the cult of the individual and sets up an obscure conflict between it and the ‘democratic’ socius.
That is to say, that in these passages and in the narrative development of the poem, its claims and its concepts are divided, deeply paradoxical, courting contradictions, most of all the contradictory status (or conflict) between the individual and society in the USAmerican unconscious. The recurrent place (and sonic motif) of the poem is the ‘Sacre Coeur,’ a monument against Revolution. The sacred heart, as it were, is the failure of revolution, the failure of the American revolution, even, to produce a lasting revolutionary (gender) consciousness. Most of the poem proceeds spatially just like the above, with relatively thin lines running down the page mostly without breaks, following the revisionary mythopoesis of H.D. A singular voice, if it is so, it is more choral than courtly lyric.
Another way of saying it is this. The summative congealing of these lines, their taut faceting and scale, functions to bind the thematic of the whole poem: they are, in effect, synecdochal. What becomes the text is a dissident but totalising analysis of the American subject as an anti-heroine or anti-American, the (anti-)American person as poet-heroine-misanthrope-everywoman. Still the text, or counter-text, is the thing that drives the dissonant and dissident subjectivity of the poem: she can say ‘The text is behind/the revolution’ (11).
The ‘Discourse on Life and Death’ Series: 1988-2010
Light and darkness, painterly poesis and ekphrastic poetics become central topoi for the next wave of multi-decadal long poems Owens would attempt, beginning in the late 1980s. Unlike the harsher lexical segmentivities of the Joe Poems, where the concern is more how to get inside the word, to shatter the material surface, phrasal repetition of this formal and thematic kind will continue in the later long poems, perhaps with more intensity. Still, perhaps even more so, the narrative component will drive the long poems to come. Marjorie Perloff writes a preface to Luca that situates it as an ekphrastic long poem that uses a poetic version of the Renaissance painterly technique of sfumato. Perloff further designates Owens as a ‘proto-Language poet’ with her ‘marked ellipses, syntactic oddities, and dense and clashing verbal surfaces recalling the long poems of Bruce Andrews and Ron Silliman’ with the added exception that
Owens is angrier, more energetic, and more assertive than most of her Language counterparts, male and female, and she presents herself as curiously non-introspective. Hers is a universe of stark gesture, lightning flash, and uncompromising judgement: it is imperative, in her poetic world, to face up to the horror, even as the point of view is flexible enough to avoid all dogmatism. (Luca 12)
That is to say, the Language writing comparison for Perloff is only valid to a point; there is a directness to the disjunctive surface that is imbued, slightly less introspectively, with a certain energetics. But compared to the even more disjunctive surfaces of the earlier long poems, the ‘Discourse of Life and Death’ series interrogates poetry and painting intersections arguably via more constrained syntactic oddities (that are odd still, nonetheless). The roots of the project and its painterly narrative, particularly the characters of Mona Lisa, Leonardo Da Vinci and Sigmund Freud, lie in the 1980s with French Light (1984), and the aforementioned W.C. Fields in French Light (1986), How Much Paint Does The Painting Need (1988), and extend beyond the project, potentially, to Solitary Workwoman, published in 2010 by Junction Press, her most recent long poem publication, and which is not explicitly aligned with the ‘Discourse of Life and Death’ series.
In her first new and selected poems, published in 1997, she says the project started in 1988. But the books that are explicitly associated with the project are LUCA, ATELIER: Discourse On Life & Death (1989), which was partially published in the 1994 selection Rubbed Stones, and Black Chalk (Texture Press, 1992). All of these books are subtitled ‘Discourse on Life and Death.’ A contemporary example of a running subtitle is Claudia Rankine’s transitive ‘An American Lyric.’
Owens too writes unmistakably lyrically in these books. This is a long poem lyric that is more smoothly continuous, difficult yet phrasal, loquacious rather than faceted or compacted, a lyric encased in the long poem container. Among other things, having a recurring subtitle bequeaths a kind of long poem sequentiality that is aware of bookhood as accumulation. Alongside accumulative logics, it also gives the sense of majorness, of making a statement over time.
The book jacket for Black Chalk describes it as ‘the latest segment of a major work-in-progress, Discourse on Life & Death… other earlier segments of Discourse on Life & Death have appeared in prestigious publications of experimental poetics, including Temblor and Abacus. ‘Prestigious’ experimental poetics publications situates, moreover, the work in its own poetics history, as something major in this poetics territory.
In an interview with C.B. Coleman, Owens gives a detailed description of her work-in-progress Luca: A Discourse on Life and Death and how it creates the dynamism of process and is the continual assembly, deconstruction, and re-assembly of subject matter. It has a lot of voices, multiple voices, and I feel that it is a definite evolution from my dramatic work. The fact that the work is called ‘Discourse on Life and Death’, creates the dynamics of description.
The poem is a loose personal narrative around the themes of Mona Lisa and Da Vinci. Pattern, contrast, and juxtaposition is an important aesthetic concept. Pattern finds expression in the repetitions and the integration of images into a kaleidoscopic form which deals with all elements of culture — from primitive society to modern technology, as well as personal and universally experienced reflections on history, mythology, and art. The various voices of the narrator and the characters create psychological polarities of experience.
Epical in its narratological processes, and dramatic in its polyvocal registration, the ‘kaleidoscopic’ here is how the multifarious elements of culture and character come to concatenate in form. Luca, Discourse on Life and Death can be read as an extended ekphrastic work. It critiques the Male Creative Genius, bringing to life the characters Leonardo Da Vinci (Lenny), Mona (of the Mona Lisa), her friend Flora, and Freud (Siggy), weaving them in a complex and continuous epic narrative that runs over 200 pages.
She then goes on to say, towards the end of this interview, that ‘the process of writing itself is unpredictable, immediate… inherently experimental.’ This notion of an ‘inherent’ experimentality is curious (what does it mean to have an essential drive to experiment?). Certainly in Luca the reflection on the process of writing becomes allegorical for the painterly act:
space breaks away spontaneous plague
new & clean enlarging its incessant
swelling in Mona’s posing
the thought that the model
is looking out
the maximum of distance pleasing
to Mona water compresses the easel
When reading passages from Luca the subtlety of its sonic layers combines with an imagism which can, as long poems do, offer a summative characterisation of the century in which the poem takes place while imaginatively calling up multiple temporalities from Early Modern to Modernity itself and beyond (Da Vinci; Freud; the present). Several pages later the text tunes in to a moment of incision:
Mona hearing the flap of the abdominal
cavity fibrous circles the depths
of the edge of the masterpiece burnt
on the left side
the blocked breath & punishment she
was the legitimate daughter passed
her adolescence winters are long
Why at the end of the 20th century
the laying on of hands
After this, the interpretative gesture of the paint as it is applied turns chemical; the burnt edge of the canvas exposes its surface to combustion. Mona becomes a chemist, herself responsible for thinking the arrangement of her own face as the result of a reaction (or more accurately embodied impression) and to the ‘deposit’ on a shroud. This shroud becomes a motif for the book, but more than a motif it becomes a ‘discourse’ or extended metaphor. Through Mona, Owens mounts a lyric theory of impression that approaches the allegorical:
Mona says theorizing what might be
grouped combined accumulated coded
collected the substances
onto the shroud 14 feet 3 inches long
death may be gist essence
Flora intoned without end
14 feet 3 inches long the shroud
bears faint hidden forms
Mona’s ‘slow molecular smile’ (53) thus shows up on the text as a face might deposit its chemicals onto the shroud. The shroud as textual surface solidifies in the lines:
maneuvering the text
onto the shroud one can sit wondering
in the same position thinks Mona
nailed into space
Space is, despite the positions from which we view these characters, indeterminate. Its nailing or quilting is the very maneuvering (and maneuverability) of the text, following us like Mona’s smile. Alongside narrative and characterological thematics are phrasal motifs repeated throughout that function as quilting points for the narrative, a common practice in the Discourse series.
Some of these are ‘I’m a hungry bum,’ ‘death may be gist essence,’ ‘a lira here a lira there’ (lira can refer to a Ukrainian folk musical instrument, the currency in Turkey), ‘in the space of the atelier,’ ‘the smile of Giaconda,’ ‘in a poetic mood,’ even individual words: ‘hayre,’ an archaic form of ‘hair’ (which also appears ten years later in Solitary Workwoman), ‘paysanne’ (French for peasant woman), and ‘Leo na r do’ (gapping within words, demonstrating a penchant for lexical segmentivities). Reading these motifs is, analogously speaking, a fugal patterning of the textual fabric. The theme of the shroud continues in a section titled ‘Frightened of Exposure’:
her resistance of imitation consists
embodied buried black in the museum
trusts her glance theorizing the image
a belief implanted when she was
scrutinizing the precise texts on
the face of it the portrait is a steady
logic drawing attention until scientific
studies accumulate a photographic
telling of the other things
she saw there she looked up and saw
hand-written words on the masterpiece
saw the atelier after the fire saw
whirling wrath in the space
The photographic negative again is an x-ray image of the work, to use the Adornian phrase, which is not quite an imitation, but rather a ‘mutation’ (60), closer to a molecular or chemical manifestation of the work, suggesting that the work of poetry, like the fugally-discursive patterning that so characterises Luca, is analogous to the act of transmission and imprint of the staining body and stained textual surface:
complex chemical dyes subtle color
through your light brown hayre
and how the cloth said breath in
the image sonnet sequences patterned
like the portrait of the merchant’s
The extraordinary persistence and consistency, long past exhaustion, of the poem means the key phrasal motifs will return even hundreds of pages past these. Anatomies of perspective are the long ‘sittings’ of the long poem, its notational breadth in time. The time of this series is, indeed, not up.
The most recent long poem Owens has written, Solitary Workwoman, might be considered (in both style, form and in its politics of the body), an extension of the Discourse series. Her poetry begins from the mouth of an American Hag, also Below Ground (the opening section title), out of the grave, so to speak:
This treacherous possession
of words of a HAG
a hag’s words are SEVEN
then she tightens
your black silk hood
Her life is among the ELECT
seen in SCENES of
Daily life in a rural
And then the thought
of mundane domesticity
washes over me
The siting of the American town recalls W.C. Fields in French Light, and like that poem, the cast of characters in the poem center around the hag-workwoman, a central character who could be multiple but is most often the speaking of a singular voice. The ‘solitary’ of the workwoman reworks questions of the characterology of the previous long poems:
A SOLITARY workwoman ONE who asks
nothing more from her climate-controlled
DOMAIN than that household tasks be done
And that the DOMAIN wherein dwells
the hag of patterns and sound
in her domain in the hag’s domain
LET sound be AMPLIFIED with her breath
her breath forming WORDS
This is curious because Owens’ poetry reading voice, which can give untold pleasure if accessed (there is a generous amount of it online at Pennsound), with its incantatory qualities, held notes (long and short), and its matter-of-fact violence and profanity, seems to be this voice, singularly recognizable, ‘AMPLIFIED,’ zany, uncompromising. Yet still the model of subjectivity, though drawn from a single source, ‘breath forming WORDS’ is social.
But even so the question of the surface of the text, and more complexly the question of notationality; of the transmission between print and voice, is reflexively raised:
An imprint penetrating OPENS
toward us UTOPIA six letters
DEFEAT scratching OUT mistakes
daily the words envy/sloth
these are a SMOKE of automobile
Burning tone daily saying this is
UTTERANCE pressing your lips
while the words loshon hora BLOCKS
The loshon hora, or ‘evil tongue’ refers to derogatory speech, and seems to put a blockage on the speaker. What information or gossip is passed around, that is, the social power and value of speech, is at stake. Implicit in one passage, a clue perhaps to Owens’ vision for the subject, is the role of the scholar in relation to the subject. The subject is assembled, dissembled, designed (its impact is subject to interpretation and information, one might say ‘socialised’), but the scholar brings the subject ‘down to earth’:
A scholar offers motives
MEANINGS and draws conclusions
to bring her SUBJECT down to earth
wanting to be an ally not an
A subject is assembled designed
and the IMPACT it makes on us
depends on interpretation
In perhaps the most powerful passage in the poem, Owens can be heard to show poetic subjectivity at its most discordant but delightful moment of splitting, under the pressure of multiplicity:
Neither a POETRY pure or a RANCID
verse EXPELLED pieces of a
SCROLL a scroll of multiple colors
unrolling from the MOUTH of an old
WOMAN looking upwards COVERS over
this detail splitting
splitting into SIGNS and WONDERS
signs and wonders splitting
into questions a SOLITARY workwoman
a solitary workwoman LIFTING and LOWERING
The work of expansion that makes long poem poesis so vast is, considering its history, this kind of expansiveness: the ‘splitting into questions.’ Interpretation, the work of the scholar, is never far behind the long poem poet and her unfolding poetic information. Whichever way passages such as these are read, it will always be indeterminate.
Divided attention, splitting, also manifest in spacing and gapping the letters in words, the majuscule capitalisation, the accents, emphasis, or even holding of the words, are part of this kaleidoscopic scroll of ‘multiple colors’ that rework the details and capacities of the expansive poem.
The Work of Expansion as Allegorical Time Lapse
Now that some of this historical work has been laid out (and it is of course incomplete), I want to make several observations (or discourses) that might accompany critical readings of these long poems. The first has to do with the kaleidoscopic, ‘open’ field of the Owens page. Its geometries are notably wide, Olsonic, holding vectors that are unusually extreme, or harsh, and lexical segmentivities that are sharply fragmented. We might put it in a longer timeline of the long poem: they can be said to follow Robert Southey’s defense in the Preface to Joan of Arc: An Epic Poem, where he writes ‘With respect to the occasional harshness of the versification, it must not be attributed to negligence or haste. I deem such variety essential in a long poem’ (8).
So too the kaleidoscopic toolbox of microscopic formal strategies Owens deploys accomplish this long poem ‘variousness,’ albeit with modernist means: spatially fixed axes, vectors or registers come into play. Compositional techniques — because that is what they first are — that Owens is prone to use in her expansive poetics, like splitting of the page into two or more registers or ‘axes,’ have consequences for reading (and writing) practice that are significant.
But much of these questions concern temporality and temporal capacities particularly with regard to the political and cultural horizons of gender. At this point it is apt that I make some mention of revisionary mythopoesis as both a process of poetic abstraction and as feminist strategy.
The work of comparison, as I noted earlier in this essay, is advisable. Such a strategy parallels gender discourses in Waldman’s Iovis in its attempts at a subversion of the patriarchal male / war-godhead, a subversion singed with utopic strivings that, as noted, envisage androgyny its horizon. Like Iovis, Owens’ Luca, for instance, reworks myth in jutting syntactic skips and cuts.
The final horizon for gender poetics is not a world without gender, but one in which gender is no longer worked into binary logics and is rather flattened, perhaps even ontologically flattened. The genderless horizon, more than androgyny, would cancel-out gender to the extent that gendered multiplicities take the role of subjectivity, or at least the subjectivity that Iovis constructs.
Gender poetics is, simply and truly, a question of subjectivity. The Joe poems sarcastically burlesque the gender binary and cast in-betweens and crossovers as counteracting its rigidity. Like Waldman, her poems are led by hags and heroines, models to reclaim the pejorative.
There is also the question of (gender) performance. Like another ethnopoet, Schwerner, author of The Tablets, Owens is also interested in the literary hoax and the idea of autoreferential or sarcastic conceit, the poetic arras. Comparison has been made with Charles Olson’s Maximus poems, even if slightly differently attuned to the page-scape; Owens’ page is too an unpredictable field, open to variegated line lengths, syntactic cut, thinning, blocking out and striating its surfaces.
But the role of heroine-poet as American Revolutionary and archaeologist, borne out most trenchantly in both Luca and W.C. Fields in French Light, challenge the male long poem in that the female-gendered subject is never fixed, but rather a heroine and a contradiction. In the Joe Poems (Owens at her most Olsonesque), the woman is an abstract cultural personage written into the fabric of a poetics, and poetic politics, in which the founding myth is situated alongside an apocalyptic teleology (the ‘Atomic century’).
There are other differences with the male long poems of the twentieth century, particularly in subjective configuration. The American revolutionary is an (every)-woman who is both partially responsible for the calamities of a century and, though not a utopic counterpoint to Hegemony, and not untainted by Empire, is positioned as thoroughly opposed to its workings.
For the long poem including culture in the late twentieth century, the stakes were high, and in their wake the stakes remain high. Having written some of the most sustained long poems of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, perhaps Owens’ Luca can stand at the culmination-point of much of this work, labour, and poetic thinking. To try to achieve length, to carve out capacious space in time, is a tactic peculiar to the long poem poet. The temporal element needs stressing: long poems inhabit the form for a long period of time, and not just time in composition but the reader’s time. As commitment to labour over the period of not just days or months but years and decades, the long poem both stands within subjective time and resists time; it bridges cultural changes and political styles, inhabiting, hoping, failing, beginning and starting again.
Getting beyond the patriarchal long poem is the provenance of late twentieth and early twenty-first century long poems by women. The gender projects of both Owen’s long poems and Waldman’s Iovis seek a horizon other than the M-F binary that buttresses the power relations that are.
What are the larger consequences of this study, one which only begins to scratch the surface? Having written some of the most sustained long poems of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the long poems of Rochelle Owens need to be given some more attention within the developing field of studies that is expansive poetics. My project has been, and will continue to be, historiographical, but with urgency for the work of poetics: these works need to be brought into the field and the vocabulary of expansion.
These modes of expansion are incantatory, intersubjective, modern, ancient, monodic, lyric and choral. Owens has developed not one but many means to expand and contain work. There is no one life poem here. Her long poems rather present a reworking of the epic within a subjectivity where voices, tonalities and subject-positions are legion. Owens inhabits, in her own words, a ‘kaleidoscopic’ sense of form, which reworks the details and capacities of the page, unsettling modes of reading and writing.
Owens’ long poems need to be read, in my mind, alongside other North American epics in the postmodern era, Iovis, Drafts, The Tablets, and other, participating in the same kinds of poetics, but with different strategies and narratologies. They can be read as paradoxically anti-monumentalist cornerstones for the history of North American long poems in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, epics that question the very centrifugal forces from which they have arisen.
Just as crucially is the capacity to read her works as part of an international and transnational mentality of experimentation. The characteristics of these expansive works are increasingly understood as cumulative of an array (or arras) of experimental techniques that we draw on today for our own experiments. These long poems test the limit-points of disjunctive fields, lyrical and antilyrical tonalities, modular sequentiality, extraordinary discipline and devotion over long periods of time, transformative of linguistic textures (of what can constitute the discursive layering of a poem), are boldly and avowedly experimental, and, as an unlikely term for poststructuralist criticism, totalising.
Not culturally totalising, but reaching toward a totality of the Book, a totality of multiplicities. To rehearse once again that phrase of McHale’s on the postmodern long poem, the ‘obligation toward the difficult whole’ remains at the conceptual core of all long poem projects even if these totalising aims are ultimately thwarted.
A long poem in this sense both sits in time and catalogues time warp and time lapse; a writing-through swathes of time that decelerates and accelerates, carves up and distends time. The long poem, in its multiple variables and guises, across books and through the deep axes of concepts and the superficial shifts of these concepts, persists as an allegory for a period of time, whatever length of time that period takes up. A temporal container that might stand for other, larger things, extending and metaphorising questions of culture, empire, whole decades or centuries. As collage, the allegorical long poem fragments the time of the century; to end with the beginning of W.C. Fields in French Light:
A fragment catalog paste-up
of the 20th century
a time lapse
a naive father allegory
She says: The scruples
of myself should be
the scruples of the world
the woman as wrongly treated
Augustine, Jane. ‘Androgynous Re-Vision of the Word / World: Rochelle Owens’ Joe 82 Creation Poems.‘ Margins. A Symposium on Rochelle Owens (1975): 88-9. Print.
Coleman, C.B. ‘The Androgynous Muse: An Interview with Rochelle Owens.’ Theater 20.2 (1989): 19-23. Print.
Economou, George. ‘The Early Poetry of Rochelle Owens.’ Margins (1975): 79-80. Print.
Mac Low, Jackson. ‘Rochelle Reading Rochelle.’ Margins. (1975): 83. Print.
McHale, Brian. The Obligation Toward the Difficult Whole: Postmodernist Long Poems. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2004. Print.
Nash, Susan Smith. ‘Apocalyptic Enactments in the Work of Rochelle Owens.’ Norman: Texture Press, 1994. Print.
Owens, Rochelle. How Much Paint Does the Painting Need. New York: Kulchur Foundation, 1988. Print.
——— The Joe Eighty-Two Creation Poems. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1974. Print.
———. The Joe Chronicles II. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1977. Print.
———. Luca: Discourse on Life and Death. Preface by Marjorie Perloff. San Diego: Junction, 2000. Print.
———. Poems from Joe’s Garage. Providence: Burning Deck, 1973. Print.
———. Shemuel. Kensington: New Rivers, 1979. Print.
———. Solitary Workwoman. New York: Junction, 2011. Print.
———. Triptych. Guilderland: Texture Press, 2006. Print.
———. W.C. Fields in French Light. New York: Contact 2 Press, 1986. Print.
Southey, Robert. Joan of Arc: An Epic Poem. Bristol: Manning & Loring, 1798.
Weinstein, Norman. ‘Nocturnal Remarks Regarding Selected Poems of Rochelle Owens: Eros Speaks from Northwest of Basra.’ Great Writers Occupy Golden Handcuffs Review: Anthology of the New. Ed. Lou Rowan. Seattle: Golden Handcuffs Review Publications, 2015. 289-92. Print.
Rochelle Owens (Wikipedia) is the daughter of Maxwell and Molly (Adler) Bass. A native New Yorker, Owens studied at the New School for Social Research (now The New School) and University of Montreal. After a brief marriage to David Owens, she married the poet George Economou on June 17, 1962. She has taught at Brown University, the University of California-San Diego, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette). A pioneer in the experimental Off-Broadway Theatre movement and also influential to the poetry at St.Marks Poetry Project and Deux Megots as a founding participant as well as being involved in the ethnopoetics movement, Owens is widely known as one of the most innovative and controversial writers of this century, whose ground-breaking work has influenced subsequent experimental playwrights and poets. Since its first publication in 1961, her play ‘Futz’ has become a classic of the American avant-garde and an international success. Toronto banned it, an Edinburgh paper dubbed it ‘lust and bestiality play’ but New Yorkers queued around the block when it was first produced in the sixties. In 1969, it was made into a film, which has attained a cult following. [The name ‘Rochelle’ is taken from the name of the French city La Rochelle, meaning ‘little rock’. It first became commonly used as a given name in America in the 1930s, probably due to the fame of actress Rochelle Hudson (1914-1972) and because of the similarity to the name Rachel.]