Monday, January 26, 2009

The Fractured World by Scott Owens (poems)

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Paperback: 79 pages
· Publisher: Main Street Rag, 2008
· Price: $14.00
· ISBN-10: 1599481200
· ISBN-13: 978-1599481203

I’ve worn my pencil down to the nub. When reading a book with a review in mind, I usually have one near, making notes in margins, making a check by a particularly interesting line, drawing a row of x’s—the more x’s, the better the line—when something strikes me as particularly fresh and interesting.

Scott Owens, send more pencils.

I’ve made x’s, I’ve drawn circles, I’ve drawn faces with raised eyebrows and open Os for mouths, I’ve punched holes through pages from too many exclamation points. Perhaps I should have simply set the book down on the table and placed a circle of stones around it with an arrow drawn pointing in: read this.

Here’s why: Owens is that rare poet that chokes the very word out of you that you weren’t sure how to pronounce. Or didn’t have the courage to try. He writes the phrase you were searching for in that perfect moment. He finds the face you were trying to avoid in the mirror and pastes it right here, on this page, and this one, and this. I’m not even sure if I love this poet’s work or fear its nakedness. We are all exposed. The Norman in every one of us.

I come to escape the absence
of home, the blank spots
on the wall, the empty
chairs, the lack of voices.

Owens brings his voice where there is a lack of voices and fills the space with a precise understanding of the complexities and simplicities of the human condition. If a good poet is more than one part psychologist, Owens is that and also one part priest, offering redemption, and yet another part drinking buddy, crying into your whiskey right along with you, and still another part child, the one left behind on the playground, who never forgets, not even when he becomes top executive.

We are the heirs
of all that come before us
pushing and pulling
one wanting strength
one wanting intelligence
all wanting whatever
they miss most in themselves.

Owens’ language is not so much beautiful (it is simple and near-to-the-bone clean of pretty adjective or wistful metaphor) as it is perceptive. His style is the common man’s clear speech, not messing around with ribbons and bows, but rarely missing a target. In one of his unadorned greats, “The Human Condition,” the poet writes what we all silently know:

We are, none of us,
who we think we are,
bolder, more foolish,
heart heaving on the pulse
of caffeine, sugar,
one addiction or another,
noble, persistent,
constantly drunk on
scotch, breasts, laughter
of the three year old,
incontinent, inventive,
tending to elders, pets,
rainforests, ourselves,
anything endangered,
indecisive, rude, unrelenting.
We plan for, struggle against,
cry about and welcome the end.
One last breath and then
gone from this world.

In another poem, Owens inserts pithy truths, no bones about it:

Some people kill themselves
with the lives they lead, others with the lives they don’t.

You only have two choices really.
You can get busy living
or you can get busy dying.

And then there is the Norman series. Norman? He is you. And me. The guy next door, your best buddy, your worst enemy, your boss, the cop on the corner, your fifth grade math teacher, he is nobody and he is everybody. Owens devotes an entire section, “Suite Norman,” to poems about Norman, and very soon, with a wince, you recognize him. Even when you wish you didn’t. The titles alone will tell you Norman’s story: “Norman’s Storm Fear,” “Norman Learns How Not to Cry,” “Norman Warms to the Idea of Love,” “Norman’s Enormous Thing,” “Norman Dreaming,” “Norman Has a Change of Heart,” and so on, until Norman’s life ends as too many of ours do and will. With a whimper.

Read for yourself. Random Norman lines:

…you’ll learn to whisper what you feel
so far under your breath
that even you won’t hear it,
you’ll learn to turn
what flutters in your chest
to a cold stone beating
in the palm of your hand.

("Norman Learns How Not to Cry")

Norman pinches the women he loves,
tugs at their hair and hands,
talks like a child, his lips
protruding, words stretched out,
calls them nothing but baby.
With his sons he punches
their arms, applies headlocks
and dry shaves, calls them boy
no matter their age,
and speaks of nothing but baseball.
Uncertain how to be intimate
without seeming silly, Norman
has learned how comfort can be
found in hurting those he loves.
He hopes they can learn how love
abounds in uncomfortable acts.
(“Uncertain How to be Intimate Without Being Silly”)

Norman at work all day
earning a living as if he had to.
Norman leaving at the bell,
coming home the same way,
careful to obey each light
and sign. Norman at home,
watching the news as if he had to,
uncertain he believes what he sees,
uncertain whose children he holds,
whose hands hold them.
Norman bored in bed with his wife,
finding nothing to say,
nothing to remember,
nothing to look forward to.
Norman alone in the bar,
quiet in the corner,
watching faces watching
faces in the mirror…

Norman on the bridge at 3 a.m.
wondering where the water goes,
where it comes from,
how much he might be missing.
(“Norman Everyday”)

Norman will tell you
he likes women,
but that’s not entirely true.
He likes women the way
he likes children and dogs,
mostly quiet,
mostly soft or playful,
mostly the way
he wants them to be,
mostly there
only when he wants them to be.
(“Likes and Dislikes”)

Fractured mirror piece after piece, splinter beside splinter, building the image of a lifetime, Owen builds the portrait of Norman, from child hiding beneath a table during a storm, to elderly man, the creepy one you see at the mall ogling women, girls, half his age. He shows us this man in his isolated loneliness, his chest aching with a heart that longs to feel, yet is too closed off to remember how. His every day is a slow suicide. Owens holds up the mirror without mercy.

By the time I read the last poem in Owens’ book, I know Norman as well as I’ve known anyone, everyone. Yet Owen also has managed more than a few revelatory moments, with lines about fathers and sons, men among men, talking about nothing but baseball—this is not the male bonding we pretend sports are, perhaps, as much as it is a lack of ability to talk about anything else that might be more intimate. The great American Male mask? And when Norman dies in the final poem, at last able to open that clenched hand that in life never learned to hold gently, but in death at long last unclenches to hold rain, sunlight, wind, and then, to let it all go—I could, too. However reluctantly. My pencil worn to the nub. Just enough of it left to scribble a note tucked into its pages for a friend, “Read this.”

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet

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