Monday, May 24, 2010

Buffalo 2008 New Jersey 1608

Richard Ownes is traveling a river in his poem. The river of time. He titles his book delaware memoranda, though I don’t find any instructions here. A 93-page book of memos? Ownes is a fine man, loving husband, editor and publisher of a good journal called damn the caesars. The last I heard he is also studying poetry in Buffalo. He’s kept up a lot of correspondence with the poets he likes. I remember that Cid Corman played a big role in his writing, and in his talk. The concept in this book should be a familiar one to readers of poetry, or at least readers of The New American Poetry (1960). It’s like he’s writing poetic letters to the poets in that book. His influences are right there; but I wish he’d divulged a little more about the history books he’s using. This is a scholarly and archival book. As a poem, it relies on historical weight applied to short lines, and almost becomes a series of haiku derived from historical prose. Ed Sanders it ain’t. Lorine Niedecker, Charles Reznikov, Charles Olson, William Carlos Williams: these names figure largely. I don’t quite understand the last section about the letters from “Dad”. I guess that section bookends with the “Foreword” section. This book is the poet’s personal history of a place. It’s tough and manly—with history, fishing, rocks, Indians, and the hard work and sweat of a metal factory in it. Drinking, whoring. Well, references to such things. He doesn’t describe what it feels like to drink, or to whore. A lot of instruction surrounds this book. I like it for that fact—the guy stuff. I respect it for that. A lot of personal reflection and love for poetry and family are in the book. The centerpiece for all these things is a collection of historical events: the discovery of the river, how the people already living there are driven out, killed, enslaved, with a few friends almost being made. But mostly it’s about the adventurers and conquerors. Sad news. Ugly.

A moment in my reading stands out, sort of brings me around to what this book is all about. It hits like a punch. It’s like being punched, or especially, being punched by one’s father. Yes, I guess this book is significant for the fact that a moment takes place in it that I equate with being punched by one’s father for having gone out drinking one night, and then sleeping in on a work day.

My old man never punched me in the face to knock sense into me. I guess that would have been one way to respond to, put an end to, the sloth and vagaries of my youth. Instead, my dad would kind of pin me to the ground until I went limp and cried uncle. I wonder if that shows up in my poems? I’m sure it does, somewhere. Maybe the more important fact is that I didn’t get any sense knocked into me. I’m confident that that shows up in my work.

Ownes ends the “foreword” to the poem with a mellow, lyric and playful image: “Barefoot on the banks/swinging from tires fastened to trees”, and concludes with an evocative scene: “Foam over ancient stone/moving through wooded valley/scrub oak bending over the basin.” (19) There’s a crisp, Gary Snyderish, missing-article kind of thing going on there (except for the one at the end, which I think he could have dropped as well). It has that “just so” quality. I was getting a dreamy, nostalgic feeling reading that—and the “foam” reminded me of the detergent-polluted rivers of my youth, the ones I wasn’t allowed to swim in. And then, at the beginning of the next section he writes: “Not to fetishize the fucking river/but to think through the transformation”.

Wham! Boy does Ownes get to fucking work! History comes galloping in, and we see the ages piled up and compressed. I never got over the shock of the poem turning so sharply. And then I was confused when it turns again at the end, in Section VI, to a transcription of letters from “Dad”, and then there’s an inexplicable typewritten note about Whitman’s poetry jammed in there. Here is the lineage: Pound to Olson, haiku Gary Snyder, maybe Susan Howe, and Richard Ownes. That’s not a fair list, as there are tons of poets whose tones and phrases are sounded and invoked in this book. Some of these are named in the blurb on the cover.

I guess I have to express what it is I feel is happening here. This is an excellent, condensed, layered historical poem about personal and political reality. But the two modalities are really, I mean really fighting for your attention. It leaves the contradiction of those modes right there on the page. The lyric and the poem-including-history are here, but they don’t sit comfortably side by side. I really respect that. Like it, even; but it makes me uncomfortable. It feels jagged, sad and angry. If I thought the poem wanted us to sense it, I would even say it is a confused poem. But I won’t say that, because this poem is above all else about clarity, memory, a commitment to place and family. It is a serious commitment to American Poetry. It follows the instructions.

Did you get my memo?


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