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Saturday, 3 December 2011

Guest Review: Kaye On Owens


Ami Kaye reviews
Something knows the Moment

Something Knows the Moment is by far the largest canvas Scott Owens has worked on. This time around he ventures into sacrosanct territory as he tackles our very foundations of belief. This poetry collection articulates our innermost conflicts about the subject. Owens plies his talent with a heightened sense of language and examines what he embraces as well as what he repudiates. He understands the disconnect between religious texts and their imperfect interpretations, and the limitations of theology as a whole which he explores with honesty and compassion, characteristic traits of Owens as a writer.  Early in the book (from “Having His Hands Before Him”) we feel the emotional impact of “God had a son,” “…so with his silence/he nailed him to a tree/so with the shadow of his hand/he took him back/and with his long spine/he lay down beside him/and wept deep/into the hands before him.” The book’s title comes from the poem “Common Ground,” written to his brother, which ponders the extent and allowances of love:

“I do not believe God will bend
to kiss this mouth.  I do not believe
the wine will turn to blood.  But something
knows the moment of sunflower,
the time of crow’s open wing,
the span of moss growing on rock,
and water washing it away.”

Owens furthers his quest in “Covenant,” as the speaker tries to comprehend the immensity of belief. We see how the origin of life is connected to its nomenclature. Owens’ natural love of words is apparent in “Learning the Names,”  “…without reason or rhyme but just/ the joy of weight on his tongue.” At such vital moments, Owens reminds us he is a poet. We feel the visceral thrust in “Original Sin”:

                      “I opened

my brother’s body as I opened
the land to plant this seed
of knowing.”

Readers of Owens’ previous books will feel the shift in poetic vision in this one. Deft and masterful, the expository tone and structure takes an exponential leap. “The Dream of St. Francis” reads like a meditation on a text, its style is pure and luminous: 

“It started with the hungry look of stars,
wind a trembling lip, earth
a field of mouths closing on air.
For all I gave I thought that God
would show me the way, give me the means

to make my life a sacrifice.
He gave me nothing but pierced hands,
a dream of the world in need.
All I had left was myself.
I gave my hands to doves, shadow wings

incapable of flight.”

This collection shows a maturing of the poetic craft; it combines superb poetic compression and imagery. In poems like “Evolution,” Owens achieves a lyric intensity that is startling and compelling:

“Reaching out to the people she loves
she feels nothing but the light around them.
She no longer knows the imperfections of face,
hand, breast.  When she tries to speak
she finds her mouth can only make music.
If she could shed this skin, her body
would burst into flight, her wings cut the sky
like sharp limbs tossed erratic in wind.”

For a topic with enough gravitas to potentially weigh the book down, ample moments of audacious humor are provided by  poems such as “Now Hiring Holy Angels,” where a recruitment call reads Must have own halo and be willing to relocate,” and states, deadpan, at the end of the list, “Salary:  None. Benefits to die for.” Other poems like “For those Grown Tired of Angels,” make a playful wisdom accessible to the reader.

Whereas in “Art of War,” the speaker’s voice mirrors our frustration “You’d think thousands of years/of civilization would be enough/to make practice unneeded,” the sensuous and emotionally charged “Saint Sebastian’s Widow” echoes a passion often found in the ecstatic poets like Rumi, Hafiz and Mirabai:

                                          “I was old
had been alone too long, had forgotten

how beautiful a man’s chest could be,
the soft thatch of hair, small-boned
ribs pressing against the flesh,
curving around the heart.”

“…I rushed to your side, watched your back
swell with air, held your face in my hands,
ran my fingers through your hair.
I wanted to lick the sweat from your brow,
suck the chill from your spine.”

“In the Cathedral of Fallen Trees” layers meaning, poetic language and some beautiful visuals. While Owens’ previous works have often employed unembellished speech, this collection kicks it up a notch. Here we find an enhanced tonal structure as music and image meld together:

                                  “He sat down
beneath the arches of limbs reaching

over him, felt the light spread
through stained glass windows of leaves,
saw every stump as a silent altar,
each branch a pulpit’s tongue.”

Owens thinks about souls and where they will go, what they will do. In “Post Mortem,” the speaker cogitates “Maybe we all get to the place we believe.” Different beliefs are called into play “Hindus come back./ Buddhists achieve Nirvana.“  “… Bad ones/ sit on thorns, turn on roasting spits,/scream against their own minds’/hellish inventions.” He goes on to speak of his own reaction to death when the time comes. In “Resistance” the speaker refuses to go gently into the night, raging against it:

“…I’ll argue the time is not right,
a mistake has been made.  I’ll call
names, scream embarrassing insults,
then dig fingers into the underside
of the chair, clamp teeth on anything
that comes near, slam my head
against their chin, the bridge of their nose.”

In the end, after the individual journeys are made, it all comes down to a personal faith, whatever it may be, and whatever direction it might take. Owens’ yearning for that spiritual knowledge comes across in “Common Ground”:

                                   “There is you
lifting me up to the limb I couldn’t reach.

This is the faith I’ve wanted, to know
that even now we are capable of such
sacrifice, such willingness to love.”

Something Knows the Moment is an act of courage. The question of faith is posed and exposed with intelligence and insight; we experience a writer trying to make sense of the incomprehensible as Owens brings a very human perspective to this vast, divine concern, making allowances for our foibles and failings. Compassion underscores his words even as he challenges the hypocrisy present in much of organized religion’s didactic beliefs and practices. This may seem far too ambitious an undertaking for one person to achieve, but Scott Owens, in a fine and seasoned voice, delivers.

Ami Kaye is the author of What Hands Can Hold (Xlibris, 2010), and Singer of the Ragas. Her poems have appeared in Cartier Street Review, Peony Moon, The Argotist Online, Luciole Press, Kritya, Tinfoildresses, Bird’s Eye Review, among others, and literary articles in Scottish Poetry Review, Diode Poetry Journal, etc. Her work was nominated for the James B. Baker award, and included in the Soul Feathers anthology from Indigo Dreams Publishing in partnership with Macmillan Cancer Support. Ami Kaye publishes and manages the poetry journal, Pirene’s Fountainand is currently editing two anthologies.


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