News from the Van Allen Belt
New and Selected Poems, 1961-1996
Luca: Discourse on Life and Death
No two poets could be more opposite in nature than Rochelle Owens and Karin Lessing. Owens is manic, hysterical, a plunger into abysses of the mind and emotions; an anarchist, a primitivist, someone whose most ardent wish is to reunite the powers of primordial human nature, with all its blood and gore and cannibalist desires, to that airy, rational, goody-two-shoes ego in us, and so end the further separation of body from soul begun in the Renaissance. Lessing is cool, reserved, an observer of small details, who writes at the quiet end of Chopin’s etudes and preludes, who is reluctant to finish phrases for fear the idea would sink the weightless music of her thoughts.
And yet both poets are out there circulating out of the range of most American readers, in a Van Allen belt of literacy which the common culture refuses to visit or even to acknowledge. The truth is, we need their voices, to remind us of the depth and range of human nature, how much larger it is than we allow for, and how high we could go in our thoughts if we could let go of shopping malls and forego the burgers and fries and TV once in a while.
Owens could have prepared us better for the atrocities of September 1l, by reminding us that when some of our energies become unresponsive to the needs of the larger world, we should expect some violent revolt by invisible hands. She has told us in all of her many books that anything that verges too far in one direction gets lost, gets out too far and begins to lose its way, can even die. Her entire critique of America is that we are on some arctic trek into the final limits of ego expansion and have left behind common sense, wild nature, and a healthy dose of realism concerning our animal passions. Left behind as well are all those cultures we don’t know the languages of, religions we don’t practice, values we don’t care about, and inequalities we blithely ignore.
Owens is now in her sixties and has been writing prolifically since the late 1950s; she wrote some intriguingly different poems that were picked up by the early “Deep Image” poets, who edited a magazine called Trobar. The deep imagists, who included Jerome Rothenberg, Clayton Eshleman, George Economou (Owens’ husband), Armand Schwerner, Robert Kelly, David Antin, and Diane Wakoski, were following Jung’s idea that our imaginations were part of the collective mind across time, and that this part of us didn’t evolve or change, but remained essentially primitive and animistic. The rhetoric could get messy at times, but the rewards were an American language that had never been seen before, a mixture of magic realism and Salvador Dali landscapes.
Luca: Discourse on Life and Death (2001) takes on the subject of Leonardo da Vinci (called Lenny in the poem) as the essential Renaissance man, and the making of his painting, Mona Lisa, which involves not only Mona but her friend Flora, and Flora’s six-year old son. Other figures include Luca, Lenny’s mentor, and the later entry of Siggy, or Sigmund Freud, who will analyze Leonardo’s genius and latent homosexuality in cold, clinical, largely destructive terms. Leonardo is Owens’ vehicle for studying the Renaissance mind, with its faith in science and its destructive urges–the festering cadaver of a woman is present in the studio during the painting of Mona Lisa. Leonardo ogles Flora’s son, who wears lederhosen and is both a cherub and a sinister reminder of one consequence of Renaissance idealism, Hitler. The two models hate Leonardo, who makes them endure endless hours of humiliation and stick-rigid posing. Mona is told not to part her lips because of her long, protruding teeth, the result of gum disease and poverty.
At times it seemedto her she looked like other womenwearing a baffled look her brainretained an image the very longteeth due to gum deterioration herexhaling suddenly looking in themiddle instead holding her head to theside Flora said she was lookingfor her shoes posed like a youngpaysanne with smiling littleeyes blushing nostrils
Freud is the real villain of the piece; his theory of the psyche involves a massive theft by the ego of everything that goes on beneath it, in the depths of the unconscious. Siggy’s rationalism justifies the scourging of the dark side of human nature. He is ruthless, unyielding in his zeal to conquer these depths, and in him are all the lurid forecastings of world wars and technological inventions for controlling nature. While the genius of the Renaissance in effect paints his self-portrait in the guise of a woman’s ineffable smile, Freud writes his analysis of genius in grim, authoritarian language. The two men are versions of the same polarized human nature that would end alchemy, witchcraft, the occult sciences; ban tarot and earth worship; and bring about the terrors of the Inquisition and the conquest of the Americas. In fact, American Indians make frequent appearances in the last quarter of the text to remind us of the fate of indigenous America under this sort of mind.
Owens, who lives in Norman, Oklahoma, was writing Luca at the time when Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, another leap back into our beast nature. Now the World Trade Center towers are reduced to smoke and ash by creatures out of the same inarticulate extreme, as if all such human energies were escaping from a vent of an excluded reality, assaulting the symbols of their oppression. Owens has been writing for the past 35 years about just such tragic collisions between isolated reason and repressed instinct, between the controlling human intellect and savage nature.
But the proper gateway into Owens’ world of primordial modernism is through her New and Selected Poems, 1961—1996 (1997), which draws on 16 books of poetry and selects what is clearly some of her strongest work. There is no evolution here, either; only a growing certainty in the voice she invented back in the late 1950s. Her work moves with increasing grace (and stealth?) toward unpredictable revelations of the nature of her speakers. In a startling poem near the end of the book, “Devils Clowns and Women,” taken from How Much Paint Does the Painting Need (1988), a woman’s voice remembers being brought to America in her dirndl, conjuring an image of a grateful, smiling, slightly simpering immigrant. But the poem keeps slithering forward past flirtatious remarks to threats to a David Lynch-like climax, in which she announces:
I am part Of a long migration of fearless lesbians hardly ever recognized except as the witch in fairytales concocting potions of flowing menstrual blood eating young virgins.
Karin Lessing’s book, In the Aviary of Voices, is the work of a poet who secretes lines slowly, carefully, with no sense of hurry. And she does her composing in a small, minimally equipped cabin up on a hill above her orchard and little farm in the heart of Provence. She took me there one day and let me absorb the silence of the clean, simple space she created with a low desk, a few books, a mat for sitting, the gold sunlight pouring through the windows from the nearby woods. These elements circulate in her poems, after years of discipline in refining her language. Here she is on love, from “Under Sirius”:
fever- star, burning
in the thick of sleep
I hear drilling itself
into the summer’s heart
Lessing squeezes language down to essences, to incandescent little gists, as if she were compressing coal to make a diamond here and there, and she has quite a few diamonds scattered across this book:
in the lava bed glows
rubbed smooth, all those wishes
the ice would bud
On the psychology of letting go of someone, she writes this plaintive, perfect language:
the irregular progression of forget-
fulness roots in the eyes, beginning there
on bare islands: “mon amour! mon amour!”
as white on white
If America keeps lopping off the extremes–the highs and the lows of cultural life–and encourages only a middle ground to stuff us, mesmerize us, we’ll go on living without knowing how ideas form, where they come from before they trickle down into commercial forms of expression; we won’t get to see the limits of art sketching themselves into existence somewhere in Norman or in southern France. We’ll just get the finished, tamed, domesticated, market-tested middling product of imagination and go on believing everything is pat, regulated, predictable–unless of course some terrorist strikes to remind us we are living in a fool’s paradise.
Poet and essayist Paul Christensen has been a professor of English at Texas A&M University since 1974. His most recent book is West of the American Dream: An Encounter with Texas.