21.5.08

this warm, dry space...

from my anthology of must read (a)merican poems

James Owens

Encounter

On a cold morning in spring. Raining. I’m driving by, my
different atmosphere. She is walking the gravel border of the
road, small, I guess twelve years old, lugging a plastic sack of
groceries with both hands, hooded sweatshirt already soaked,
her face pale and wet, plastered with dripping strands of red
hair. I can’t offer a ride. Think of her teeth chattering, think of
her tiny feet chilled in wet socks. Imagine her backing away
from the open car window, afraid because she’s been warned
about this, maybe her worried grandmother tearful with the
police after she gets home with the story. One doesn’t offer
rides these days, even though I am harmless. I see that you
can’t be sure, that you suspect me, no matter that I’m the one
who invited you into this warm, dry space where I am speaking.
Think of those decayed narrative conventions that once meant
so much between us. Think of syntax. Remember the persuasion
of sentences, their supple pressures and release.

*

An amazing piece in the early pages of James Owens’ latest collection, Frost Lights a Thin Flame (Mayapple Press, 2007) – a group of poems that is very place-centered, peopled with authentic characters. This poem, with its straight-ahead narrative approach, captures me. Owens’ focus is to draw in the reader, and he’s successful. The reader enters the poem in a real and physical sense. The equivalent would be watching a movie, only to realize that somehow you had moved inside the actual film, becoming a character in the story. The speaker in the poem, in story-like manner, using a tone and language that is absolutely expected, creates a setting with believable characters.

Two-thirds of the way through the poem, however, the universal voice, without warning, becomes very personal, speaking directly to the reader ... speaking directly to me. The feeling created by this approach is unnerving. The speaker at no time appears to step outside the poem; instead, the reader, in Gregor Samsa-like fashion, has a realization of being inside the poem, without ever noticing the shift. It simply happens. An incredible feat. Owens never explains how – nor does he need to. I’m a believer.

“Encounter” ultimately shows itself as being focused on the power of language to illustrate, clearly, the nature of lost connections. Notice the bent of the wording: decayed narrative conventions, syntax, persuasion of sentences. The “pressures and release” at the end intensify the transportation into this brief and unusual world. My exact experience when first reading the poem was to feel as though I were a time traveler, trapped inside an episode of The Outer Limits. “Trapped” is the proper response with Owens’ poem. He focuses on difficult matters – the impossibility of befriending, because of the very nature of the world, a young walker, caught in the cold rain. The speaker, as would most any reader, wants to help but cannot. All the characters here – speaker, walker, reader – need to connect, but cannot – and that is the point – in this most improbable landscape of the poem itself.

2 comments:

Collin said...

I'll add this to my list, which is getting longer and longer while my wallet gets smaller and smaller. :)

sam of the ten thousand things said...

You won't be sorry you did, Collin. Thanks for the visit.