Jan Owen: Poems 1980-2008

Elwood: John Leonard Press, 2008, 328pp.

(also) Jan Owen: Blackberry Season (Warners Bay, NSW: Picaro Press, 2007). First published by Molonglo Press, 1997.

Jan Owen is one of those poets who becomes progressively more interesting not because the quality of the work improves radically or because they write a breakthrough work, but because it takes a number of books before readers can see the outlines of her distinctive imagination. Such a situation is an ideal one for the publication of a selected poems such as this. It is built out of generous (and, as far as I can see, well-chosen) selections from her first five books and contains a book length new work, Laughing in Greek. Reading it enables us to see how restlessly Owen’s poems move internally from the microscopic to the cosmic; from the present to the past (and vice versa); from the local to the exotic; from the abstract to the embodied and from the act of representing to the act of meditating. Given this restlessness it is no surprise that the poems are interested in rooms, horizons and frames – all things that must be crossed or exited when one of these shifts is made.

For a critic it is nice to be able to say that much of this can be found, inchoate, in her first book, Boy With A Telescope, published in 1986. The very first poem, “First Love”, describes an adolescent falling in love with a Titian, or rather, the subject of the Titian, when she should have been attending to lessons on Archimedes’ principle: the result is “a D in Physics”. It is a poem about art and reality but also about the frames that mark them out. When,

. . . . .
Ten years later I married:
a European with cool grey eyes,
a moustache,
pigskin gloves.

the young Englishman of the painting has stepped out of the frame into reality. And when, in “The Riding Habit”, a painting of a tailor is used as the basis for an imaginative filling out of the relationship between a noblewoman and her tailor, what is this but the author reversing the process by entering through the frame into the picture and describing those components that we cannot see?

In a series devoted to the Duc de Berry’s Tres Riches Heures in her second book, she describes the magical May painting at some length, seeing its picnic as an embodiment of the idealised courtly love tradition, though “torture, famine, poison, war” lie “outside the frame”. But the poems are not only interested in this move to what is outside the frame: the wonderful illuminations of this book are noted for the astronomical pictures at the head of each page. They bring the cosmos alongside the everyday in a way that Owen’s poetry often wants to do.

Her first book’s title poem, couched as a painting title, is an example of the movement from the local to the cosmic though here that is configured as the poem’s subject matter rather than as a meditative shift in the poem itself. The poet’s son surveys the stars:

Shadowy neanderthal, his silhouette
straightens to shake a fist
at the prowling clouds
then down again eagerly
to Saturn’s swirling rings
or Jupiter trailing his brood of moons.
The warm room of the family
is galaxies away;
tonight he charts the distance and the dark,
burning with a cool celestial fire;
names like charms spin in his head -
Betelgeuse, Rigel, Aldebaran -
they peal like bells in the cold air.
. . . . .

(It is probably no more than my own obsession but the conjunction of “charts” and “charms” here has always looked significant.) When, later in the poem, the poet asks, “And may he always stand so – / a little to one side of what he loves . . .” it encourages us to read the astronomy as no more than a symbol. But this is to reduce the poem to being one about motherly concern for the future growth of her offspring. What the rest of the poems in this selected teach us is that the stars and their perspective are serious matters indeed.

All of Owen’s books introduce the world of travel and the exotic about halfway through. In Boy With A Telescope we are introduced to Hungary; in Fingerprints on Light (1990) there is a suite of poems from Hungary, England, France, Israel and Turkey; in Night Rainbows (1994) there is Hungary once again and Venice; in Timedancing (2002) there are an important group of poems from Malaysia as well as some from Italy and in Laughing in Greek, poems from Holland and France. This is a long way from the world of exploiting comfortable cheap travel in poetry. It is about allowing the exotic into the frame of experience, and the frame of the book, as a balance, as a different kind of knowledge to the local. It may also explain a strange poem from Blackberry Season (1993). That book, recently republished by Picaro, has always worried me. It concerns itself entirely with the poet’s childhood past in Adelaide, providing a set of brief pictures of the child’s life. It is a warm book, nowhere exploiting any sensational trauma. In fact it is, possibly, a polemical work, objecting to the current fashion of seeing childhood as a site of abuse, and doing it by substituting loving parents and a close bond with her brother (in the first poem the child climbs into her baby brother’s cot and it is “agreed” between them that “there is room for both”). But these continual recollections don’t have the enlivening and distinctive twists that one is used to from Owen’s other poems: in other words, Blackberry Season is problematic in being the least problematic of her books. As a portrait of an Adelaide wartime childhood, there is no room for poems about travels to Hungary or Kuala Lumpur, but, in the middle of the book is a strange poem, “The Egyptian Room”, which seems to be a description of a room in a local museum. My guess is that this is, in miniature, the inclusion of the exotic, patterned to match the other books. Certainly the subject of the poem is allowed to influence the style so that it is not really like the other poems of Blackberry Season:

Stillness rose from the stone and wood
and linen here: they breathed in mysteries
lightly, carefully touching all they could -
the hunting mural, Khafra’s cold black knees.

. . . . .

The sun was high. I am Khepera at dawn Ra at noon and Tum at eventide.
They and the lotus pillar on the lawn
cast no shadows on the world outside.

In one of the most brilliant of these “exotic” poems, “The Pangolins” from Timedancing, the animal itself – and the poem devotes itself to describing it, to “capturing” it with great accuracy – does not appear until the end of the second stanza. The poem, up to that point, has focussed on the alienness of the setting in which dubious messages are read in dubious light:

Throwing the I Ching by the northern wall
(Mountain over Water: the cataract clears),
rereading the dubious message in dubious light,
dusk there is as brief as thirty years.
The dogs were off at the end of the garden, barking
at moonlight or monkeys, tenor and alto and bass.
Under the rambutans it was lighting-up time,
teetering lanterns in the bushes and grass

were practising emerald – becoming, yes, here;
the fireflies above were loopy with desire.
A pounding of fists south-east from the Surau
was the kampong boys on their Thursday drums. The air
yearned after the odd missed beat like a tired heart.
And then the stranger came. Out of the neat
fit of the dark. Self stood back. No-name
trundled up, snuffling the mulch with her slender snout.
. . . . .

The poet is as exotic a presence to the pangolin as the pangolin is to her. In other words the meeting with the exotic is far more complex than a stable self meeting something that it doesn’t usually find. The poet’s self, itself, is under pressure, surrounded by dubious messages. The pangolin is a homely, earthy phenomenon, but not a conventional one. The net of metaphor that the exotic elicits is Western: it has a scientific component (“a relaxed bell curve validated with scales / perfectly graded – 3:5:8:13”) and a mythical one, a variation of the Sphinx’s question to Oedipus (“What goes on four legs at night and none at noon?”.

Night Rainbows begins with a group of poems involving rooms and the best of them, “Left”, shows what can happen when the movements in time which are part of Owen’s poetic personality are harnessed to the image of the room:

Maybe coming late from the womb
I stayed out of sync
between is and was,
watching the ants or the clouds too long,
seeing things from behind,
tender and strange.
Days like provincial towns
with every gallery just on closing time
and the crowd streaming by
the other way.
Or the only open one
is an archaeology museum
and very quiet.
I stare alone at spearheads
and stone axes marching back
to the twenty-fifth millennium BC
with a firm declaration of war.
Four rooms ahead
the guided tour has sighted Ur.
Back here, some bungling guard
has bolted the intervening door.
I’m left in the Palaeolithic,
trying to dream up fire.

It is not a poem that covers all the issues of her poetry and of her position within it but it does, in the third and fourth lines, speak about the issue of the present and the past and of the intently local perspective as opposed to the wider one.

And so to Laughing in Greek. I don’t think this will ever be considered the most likeable or successful of Owen’s books: it is more ambitious than the earlier ones but has too many flawed poems in it for that to happen. Like all of her books it begins with a set of poems that outline the book’s themes. As with Night Rainbows, here these are room poems. Thematically, however, they want to be about philosophical – at least, both metaphysical and epistemological – issues. The first, “Room”, begins with the consequences of the Enlightenment:

Say, what went wrong
was what went right: the question mark
reared up against the word
and down that sinuous vertical doubt
abstractions slid to elbow out
visible angels, solid gods.

and goes on to consider the human response to this:

. . . . .
We’re given a little room, a little scene
to reason reason out and guess
dimensions surging from the other side.
But is there “side” beyond its word,
what deepens the abyss when we say “fall”?
Why ever call such shadows up?
Look how the night sky wheels around -
Antares, Fomalhaut, Achernar, Sol,
time-lapse traffic grave with light
like our slipstream of love and fear.
And a human hand held out is half a star.

I haven’t quoted this poem at length out of admiration. Like so many of the poems in the first part of Laughing in Greek it doesn’t seem successful in its attempt to ratchet up the level of abstraction. But it does contain the issues that I have been speaking of. Here the room represents the limits of ordinary perception, our “frame” or “horizon” – to use a word common in Owen’s poetry. Words do not invoke the dimensions beyond (a nod to the idea of humans as language and language-limited creatures) but they exist in our experience of the cosmos which is, itself, contained in magical, iconic names such as Antares. Perhaps I’m leery about this poem because I disagree with it: I think it makes the mistake of assuming that the scepticism of the Enlightenment is an attack on the notion of other dimensions whereas, at its best, the scepticism of the Enlightenment is an attack on fraudulent, superstitious and lying representations of the other dimensions.

The second poem, “Ante-Room”, is as unsuccessful as the first but interesting because it circles around the issue of language. The specific issue is metaphor, one of those imaginative techniques whereby language tries to reach beyond the frame of mundane apprehensions of reality. According to my reading of this difficult poem, metaphor controls the door whereby “concepts craving life” – including, presumably, other dimensions – might, like petitioners in an ancient court, have access to an absolute ground of reality. The last part of the poem is a kind of mildly comic lament for the author’s own descent into adulthood (or into a post-Enlightenment historical period – depending on one’s reading):

Before joy tamed its alphabet to words
or peacock intellect flaunted its span,
the here and now was clearly lesson one
but all I learnt is scattered to the birds,

food for the moon and manna for the sun.
Dear drifting self, best come hard round,
your captain’s crazy and your first mate’s blind,
surly mongrels. Try a different tune.

The third of these first poems, “Corridor” is the densest of all and written in a compressed, very unattractive style. In its deliberately bathetic quatrains it sounds a bit like “The Phoenix and the Turtle” or Peter Porter on a bad day:

What helical two-step slides through us?
Hypnotized by jamais-vu
we’d strip the face off with the mask,
the mouth for me, the eyes for you.

And so on: yes it does make sense but it is not an attractive path for Owen’s poetry to trace.

Fittingly, the poems of travel-experience are prefaced by a long and very abstract meditation on the nature of travel itself, “Travelling towards the Evidence”. Like the first poems of the book, it is difficult and not really successful – though those two things are not related. What does work in the poem are the rapid modulations from meditation to moments of actual travel – there are brilliant moments in which you get the sense that the poem has suddenly set you down in the real:

Cynicism’s copper and lime

is a coin on the tongue
for Charon’s deep pockets; time
as a brief ID is the happiest fake.
What god of the unlikely gets us here?

With Pepe and Isabelle, say,
and the saturnine stare
of twelve cooked goats’ heads
watching us sip goat broth

in Jemaa El Fna . . .

The poems that follow this are more like the travel poems of the earlier books and are a mixed bag of attractive pieces. Noteworthy, perhaps, are “Levity” which records the story of the Chevalier de la Barre who, at nineteen, was tortured and killed for contempt of the church (and owning dirty books as well as reading Voltaire). In a sense, he is one of the iconic heroes of the French Enlightenment and it might be unusual to see a poet, in a book generally doubtful about that value of that historical event, celebrating him. But the poem may be more about the backpackers who, today, “size up the same scene”, the argument being that violent intolerance can exist in contradictory ideologies – the contemporary secular as well as the pre-Enlightenment Catholic. Also impressive is the last of the group, “Salt”. A brilliant poem not about arriving or experiencing but about leaving, it details all the aspects of existence that one leaves behind beginning with the “gap-toothed men untangling nets”, going on to the “windows round the waterfront” and finishing with the clock-tower spire, the last thing seen, which is “a candle for what you were”.

The best poems of Laughing in Greek are the ones that come at the end of the book, after the travel poems. “Shifting the Dark” is a kind of search for a totem. It begins with a list of creatures that have appeared before in Owen’s poetry as connected with joy: the butterflies that once congregated around her head, the gnats and the resurrection beetle, the scarab, that appears in “Beetles” (from Fingerprints on Light) and “Egyptian Room”. It then rejects the family totem, the bee, in favour of the firefly (a creature which has also appeared in earlier poems, notably in Timedancing.

. . . . .
I choose the spirit green of fireflies,

drifting afterthoughts at the river’s edge,
ghost shuttles, elf breath, nimbus of limbo.

Think of a light left on past any hope of return,
oblivion underwriting desire;

they are heart space from the void,
round trips shifting the dark

with the simplest argument,
I shine therefore I am.

Such crosslife clues for stars,
these perfect strangers do no harm.

It is no surprise that this totemic animal should be invoked in terms of movement, of shuttling between states, since that is so much part of Owen’s poetic. No surprise, also, that the second last line sees them as one of the counterparts in our lives of the cosmic.

“Touching This Matter” and “The Trellis Fence” are big, set-piece meditative poems. The former begins with detailed portraits of insects responding to the triggers of instinct and its first image, of ants crawling across a sunny patch of wall, is described in typically Owen terms so that the sun, the cosmic, has landed on the wall. Issues of instinct lead to thoughts about the status of the mind and the human:

. . . . .
Flatlandedly, I’m peering over the rim
of non-existent time and edgeless space

wondering whether it’s maths or madness or God . . .

before (always something that poetry does well) modulating to the poet in an actual, physical location but a physical location in which time is dissolved:

I fall to picking up sticks, purposeful, brisk,
as if for a fire, as if it’s getting late;

. . . . .

I’m back in my grandparents’ garden
gathering almond husks to throw at the chooks.

We’ve ample space between our ears
for time the symbiote.
“Later,” we promise Poppy, not yet two,
and she nods, “Uh,” placated. And will wait.

The last of these poems is “The Offhand Angel”, significant because it deals with poetry as well as the other issues of Owen’s work. It is significant also because it speaks in terms of balances between the perspectives that dominate the poetry and of the shuttling movement between them that is so characteristic of Owen’s method. The offhand angel is, himself, a kind of muse; a spokesman for another dimension that is, after all, perhaps no more than a different hemisphere of the poet’s brain. He begins outside of the frame but is gradually, in the course of the poem, incarnated to the point where the poet can, at the end, say “Come through . . . Come in”.