1975 Margins Symposium
on Rochelle Owens


by Toby Olson

There is in Rochelle Owens' stance a quality of naive purity. This attitude is found in the plays, but it is most centrally evident in her most recent poetry. It is an old fashioned quality, one that was more common before words like 'risking' were applied to a poet's acceptance of a task. When Gerard Hopkins begins a poem with the words "Nothing is so beautiful as Spring," it is with zeal similar to Rochelle Owens' that he accepts that sentence as a joyful claim and proceeds to prove it. Similarly, Mayakovsky's poem "The Atlantic Ocean" is about the Atlantic Ocean, not some quality of waves or a boat on a troubled sea, but The Atlantic Ocean, all of it. In her preface to the "Book of King Lugalannemundu" section of The Joe Chronicles, Rochelle Owens says "The poems presented here... are about the multitudinous levels of human experience and the totality of the world." She means quite literally what she says.

In the prologue to his introduction of Rochelle Owens on December 7th, Fred Bauman welcomed us all to Chumley's first annual Pearl Harbor Day reading. The suggested metaphor has possibilities. The poems in I Am The Babe Of Joseph Stalin's Daughter, product of the years 1961-1971, do often gain much of their force through effects comparable to sneak attack. The attack is best seen as directed against reader sensibility. No matter how often these poems are read, it is impossible to become comfortable with Rochelle Owens' ability to assault with the inappropriate. Here is a quotation from "Song of the Loving Father of the Stuffed Son."

        my son is nervous so/
        let him bomb my competitors
        let him fuck god's sake
        find peace/
                   my son is hi/
        strung let him break a win
        dow let him break/
        the capitalist head/s off
        i'm a capitalist my son the
        marxist the bomber said so/
        i paid thru the nose for his
        anal/ysis his electroly/sis

                             i love my son/
        so he's getting better i'm
        pay/ing for it/ he's so full
        of shit/ my son
        i love
               my son
                      so/ ...

The grating nature of the inappropriate here is caused by the dangerous sense of hysteria felt in the persona of the Jewish father. I intend the dictionary sense of hysteria: an uncontrollable outburst of emotion or fear, often characterized by irrationality, laughter, weeping, etc. Hysteria is intimidating, inappropriate behavior; there are things the father should not say; we fear he will go too far, will 'go to pieces.' What controls the hysteria is the voice and structure of the poem. "Anal/ysis" controls it. The poet's controlling presence is seen in the artfulness of the scatological hint in ." . . let him break a win / dow. . . ." But these are as well instances of the father's hysterical 'nervousness.' To borrow a phrase, the freakish precipitate threatens to come to the top. A continually interesting product of Rochelle Owens' use of hysteria is that her personae have fuzzy edges; they constantly threaten to explode out of character. This leaves us in the hands of the poet, whose voice also, threatening hysterical, inappropriate statement, causes discomfort in us. The word 'grating' at the beginning of this paragraph should be taken in a specific sense. It is the sound the two ends of a broken bone make when an arm is manipulated to set a simple fracture. It is an inappropriate, physically cathartic sound.

A friend once mentioned to me that it was only upon hearing Rochelle Owens read her poetry aloud for the first time that he was able to locate the controlling element in it. That element was her voice. It is true that Rochelle Owens' poetry is oral; it is also true, it seems to me, that she is very skillful in writing her poems so as to indicate that quality of voice through form. Check the following.

        Why call an anti-missile
        why not Flaming-Jesus
        or Red-Eye Moses
        We are a Judeo-Christian
        are we not?
                    why the hang-up
                      on ancient Hellenic
                         What is it with

        What's wrong with calling
                              a bomb
                         St. Mary or
             what's wrong with
                         Jewish names
                   or Christian Ones!
        Are the weapons so brilliant & ruddy
        like cocks ...

Here there is no persona, no constructed receptacle for us to observe losing control. But the poem has, perhaps, even a more electric edge than that experienced when reading "Song of the Loving Father of the Stuffed Son." It is the voice itself that serves the hysterical function; "why not Flaming-Jesus / or Red-Eye Moses" are evidence of rage, but "CiViLiZaTiOn" as well as the form of the exclamations are rage behavior. In I Am The Babe Of Joseph Stalin's Daughter the distinction between the poems that rely on personae and those that don't is pretty clear. Near the end of that collection, however, in the "Bernard Fruchtman in Town & Country" series, the poetry suggests a fusion of those two modes: "I have suppressed / Bernard Fruchtman a long time / & now he leaps out ... ;" these poems are a suggestion of what is to come.

The poems that Rochelle Owens read at Chumley's that afternoon were selected from newer work. The "Book of King Lugalannemundu" follows "The Joe 82 Creation Poems" in the Joe Chronicles Series. At this writing The Joe 82 Creation Poems have just appeared from Black Sparrow Press, They are a long and rich series of genesis poems ending with a section called "Basic Information," a series of 'father' poems that gives ample expression to Rochelle Owens' lyrical ability. To come directly to it, what happens in the Creation Poems is that the voice of persona and poet becomes indistinguishable. This had happened on occasion earher—the "Bernard Fruchtman" series, etc.—but here it is totally pervasive and in some ways different in kind. The sense of the use of impropriety mentioned earlier is generally missing from these poems: because they are generally mythic in nature and they tend to avoid specific contemporary invective. Their personae are archetypal figures, and that in itself allows Rochelle Owens to meld her voice more thoroughly with theirs. But the force of hysteria, though it is located differently here, is still a central force. The two characters of the Creation Poems are WildWoman and Wild-Man, both, like Trickster, moving through various experiences in the direction of self knowledge and integration. Their hysteria (again: uncontrollable outbursts of emotion or fear, irrationality, laughter, weeping, etc.) is essential, literally part of the delineation of who these characters are. What has happened is that Rochelle Owens has relocated the hysteria, once a tool of irony and assault, as a central element of the poems' voice. This is what gets us to the Atomic Bomb.

                  I Am The Charged Observer
         said good King Lugalannemundu
               the drama of my
           dance is-
       My love.

The emphasis rests on 'Charged;' the good King, not unlike the mushroom cloud, is product and container of what is observed. The poems have moved again to a context in which the persona is a possible contemporary; Lugalannemundu is closer to Bernard Fruchtman and the hysterical, Jewish father than he is to Wild-Man. But Rochelle Owens has entered Lugalannemundu completely, and she has brought Wild-Man and Wild-Woman with her. What the poems abandon of the mythic history of the Creation Poems is replaced by a return to the more frightening (contemporary) hysteria of I Am, The Babe Of Joseph Stalin's Daughter. And ." . . the multitudinous levels of human experience and the totality of the world," as experienced by a consciousness, have been brought into the poems also. Among the many results of this fusion is a variety of tone in voice that has expanded the parameters of hysteria. From the perspective of variations in tone of voice, a glance back at "Song of the Loving Father of the Stuffed Son" gives plenty of evidence of the seeds of the power that Rochelle Owens has come to develop. The voice of the father is lyrical, 'nervous', loving, raging, inappropriate, conciliatory, resentful, etc. But look at the range of voice in the following, a typical piece from the "Book of King Lugalannemundu."

                    what the Deuce do i
                Care about convention? every-
            thing I See is unConventional    your
        words are like a fish-market    I buy it all/
     everything i Like          & it's so cheap
                  there's plentitude
                       all around
                        My God
                    I Seem to Show
         So much affection     for the whole
                Don't Be Pessimistic Suffer
                      Fools    gladly!
                 mutton rhymes with button
                       /I like to pet
      they are Never incorrect They go wild
               when they See a King/
                        Do you Have
      a preference for a Certain Kind of Talk?
                      a criminal
                  Swinging Walk a dark metal
             Shiny Smile       a diamond
                       of a true
   Love/ perhaps a pick-pocket who Sees thru
        you    your Snaky Corruption your Music/
                    a noisy fight a
              continuous series of Something
          other than it appears to be a Release
                 From a Vow a Kiss in the
            Why Not?          it's Not square
                    My Songs buzz loudly
                         I'm wide-awake
                  I'll Never turn ya down
           I'm Shrewd for you You're alluring
                       like Dark Run
                                   i drank in Guyana /
                I got a lota Nerve for you.
                         I'm sharp as a
                    a Sweet heartbreaker

That was one of the poems Rochelle Owens read at Chumley's on Pearl Harbor Day. It was a pleasant Saturday afternoon. The crowd was large and responsive. The tables at Chumley's are carved with initials and forms; it was hard to take notes. Looking at the table to see what was wrong while listening to Rochelle Owens' voice reminded me of Nathaniel West's Miss Lonelyhearts; he was trying, in his dream, to fit all the objects in the world into some recognizable, controlled figure. There were too many objects, more coming all the time, and Miss Lonelyhearts couldn't do it. What Rochelle Owens has attempted is similar to that; the difference is that she has been successful.