She shoots, she scores!

Maureen Owen drives and remakes the poetic line.

Feb 24, 1999 at 12:00 am

Anyone who thinks that poetry is a sweet cream frosting piped in by Hallmark or a delicate bonbon with its unique intellectual nugget crafted by frustrated academics had better read Maureen Owen’s American Rush and learn it by heart. Here’s a generous collection spanning three decades of writing – making up seven books from 1973’s Country Rush to 1993’s Untapped Maps – which overturns the bucket of clichés and splashes us with bracing wit and a clear-as-day understanding of the world.

If small press books were sponsored by big capital – God forbid – the corporate logo that could grace Owen’s book would be the Nike swoosh. The poems dart, speed on with a rush that is at times exhilarating, pratfall funny and kick-ass sharp. In your eye! – the language slams, inventing its own phrasing, long muscular units and that characteristic spacing which drives the line across the page and – before the referee has time to yell "Traveling!" – she scores, lyrical yet plain, hightop American self.

The manic, high-speed quality one hears in some of these poems lends them an instantaneous presence, a being-there which guides the reader over the chasms, the non sequiturs, the quasi-surrealist constructs and the sundry private codes familiar to the writing practice of the New York School. Not a small portion of our reading pleasure resides in Owen’s first-person narrating voice, which folds the imaginary unto the real in a deft gesture which plays at being both sincere and theatrical, as if she were wearing a mask that spelled "I."

What accounts for the distinctive structure and zany humor of these selected poems is their accretive economy which rests on a sort of ebullient accumulation of language whose promiscuity is not explained or justified – as if the poet were a practiced stuntman cascading from line to line before jumping off the deep end. It is precisely between hoarding and expenditure, between presence and absence, that the dialectic of writing not only takes place but receives its significance. The intensely material, original world of baby spoons, Panama Canal, Minnesota stars, Saran Wrap and velvet pantaloons has gone bye-bye, and all the exclamation points and gerunds couldn’t keep it from decamping – yet their indelible, fiery trace has drawn a space where the poem lives on, adrift and shiny, holding its own extravagant session:

Lest I misrepresent Maureen Owen’s oeuvre by overemphasizing the sexy energy, the stomping, goofy levity, I must revise this account. American Rush is also marked with a fluid serenity some might be tempted to call Zen, which speaks with the quiet urgency of Japanese ink scrolls or the scalloped luster of wild purslane and ash juniper.

Maureen Owen who incarnates a whole panel of identities – poet, activist, teacher, publisher, mother, lover – rolled into one, has produced a poetic body which traffics in complicated and ever-changing issues having to do with gender and writing. Hers is a tongue, edged with drive and boldness of movement, which not only redesigns the shifting margins of modern poetry but demands we "construct a route of passion" and stand up for the possibility of song.