The Operating System

2nd Annual NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: DAY 15 :: MEL ELBERG on MAUREEN OWEN

remember when the word romance meant moonlight &
now it just means holding down two jobs
by Mel Elberg
“Maureen Owen saved me from academia” a teacher turned friend explained, handing me printed out copies of Owen poems as if they were a rare and powerful contraband. Indeed, I soon found out, they are. It’s rare to find a poet whose work feels like both armor and a weapon against some of our greatest social ills: euro centrism, historical whitewashing, systemic hetero-sexism, and bad poetry. Owen grew up on her family’s California farm where they raised horses, spending summers on the horse-racing circuit, and you can feel the openness and wildness of this western upbringing in her work. There’s room for ideas to breath, to scream, here.
One of the first things that drew me into Owen’s texts is how conversational they are. I want to read them aloud to friends, strangers, myself. I’ve often had the urge to speak to the very print on her pages expectant the words themselves might rearrange in poetic response to my prodding. Partially this is due to Owen’s perfect grasp of the visual experience of reading and comprehension. She grew up a visual artist, and her impeccable use of space and real-time speech aren’t just pretty on the page, they’re seriously political. When William Carlos Williams proposed a challenge to the pervasive British tradition and it’s rigid Iambic Pentameters, employing instead the “Variable Foot”, a metric flowing from the natural cadences of American speech, he too knew the power of pace. “I wanted an absolute silence to fall where I have left a long space between words, and I want the reader to lose themselves for a time in that space”. It’s impossible not to: If you’ve ever thought of the perfect retort too late, (to “the man” per-se, but anyone whose verbally wronged you) Owen shows how a poem can alleviate, and attack, even the most abstract, ill-willed forces at work in so much language.


the other night at dinner            when you said
“I’ve never known a famous writer                 & I probably
never will”           I experienced        “Future Shrink”            a
wool sweater trounced in hot suds              or cotton too
long under water              like Thomas Hardy                 who found out
he had fallen in love with           his own niece                    not knowing
she was the illegitimate child of the illegitimate daughter
of his own mother            or saran wrap              in steam

Worldly and witty about it, like someone gone through hell and back, and who knows heaven and hell and earth to be one and the same, Owen takes on the shifting and intertwining narratives of one who has left but not abandoned the life, as a woman, of an artist on the margins, and taken matters into her own hands. In an interview In Jacket11, Owen reminds us “writing is not just getting it down, but getting it out”. In response to a dearth of publishing space for female writers, and as a way around gaining acceptance into (mostly dude-run) poetic projects in 1960’s NYC, Owen founded Telephone books, originally printed in mimeo format, totally DIY, or “on the street” as she says.
I don’t like to use the word “collage” when referring to Owens work. To me it is more her mind-by-way-of-writing-moving rapid as the multitudinous problems of gender, capital, and the home themselves continue to shift and intersect in the shadows of mainstream art and writing worlds. “Tons of information coming in, so it seems like it becomes your whole consciousness, and a way to deal with that is to construct [a poem]…with all that information kind of interacting with itself”. As a release from the tension and anxiety produced by our current oversaturation of “information”, she allows herself to be a medium through which all the problematic tenets of mass media can duke it out themselves.
I also don’t want to call all she does at once “multi-tasking”. So much can happen in the space of one Maureen page: other poets and poems appear, joy compounds with a sudden realization of loss, seemingly disparate experiences, the mundane and the prescient, broccoli and blow jobs, gather in a rich discourse. Bringing her sleeping schedule, parties, theory, correspondence, the car and the kids into it, that’s not multi-tasking, that’s living! To date she has published 10 books. Anyone lacking even a piece of the privilege bequeathed the White Male Artist can understand her poems’ nod to the double-time, not-enough-time, mode of being-in-the-world (even childless) women and members of other marginalized groups know all too well. The title poem of Zombie Notes, Bump through 6AM Rookie lightness, touches on what becomes of one forced to live on multiple levels as such:

A Zombie!
Zombie drinks tea!
Zombie writes poems!

and also from Zombie Notes:

“stone letter in a pot”

Air picks a trail along these sills             where
Instead of Adam and Eve       Fanny has typed Adam         & Even
Though the rest of them will want you to go on “being
a woman

I don’t want to hear anything more about love                  or
See the word for centuries in every poem I read now
Two cats sit in a circle of light                   O baby
I don’t understand even in heroic summer

Two frogs bleep from two separate ponds
Soothing damp enters between fat bugs on my screen
the hour is pie-eyed              Shutup              & hear the frogs

*”stone letter in a pot” is a Japanese expression. When you’re unable to say exactly what you mean, you say something else instead, and these substituted words are called “stone letters in a pot”


 Owens observations of acute and omnipotent forms of violence are so precise, I read her as a wizened grandmother teaching me the secret little tricks of staying afloat in this literary shitstorm. Though nothing about her is secret or little. And, like most deadly serious issues, Owen knows the best way to approach the hardest facts is with humor. She’s actually really funny.



Calmly & with an air of detachment she folded the great

ship in two                      & sank it                               … no

I must have imagined that                       I must have imagined

the french fries             the wind aching over the hot rods

night’s crushed geography             where all the wrong people

went off with the wrong people                I must have imagined the

air off the steeple’s             dark point                where in telling her story

she seemed not to notice         that one by one all the men who

left her           became novelists             I must have imagined      someone

sent me her ring         in a small box               they said this is her ring

we thought you’d want to have it             but it wasn’t her ring

I was dreaming again               I must have imagined the

motif of confronting birds                  or pigs

who like sharks & children will put anything

into their mouths                       the world considered in terms of

chewable & non-chewable             & then two days later the

cartoonist’s spouse            committed suicide.             I must have imagined

the paper flew up from your hands!                              the milk exploded

on the stove!         I must have imagined love was out of fashion

the spectators came to be shocked!               the knobs resembled

elephant’s eyes                you always loved this weather.              Unlike

the horse         who relies on the assumption              that no one is

there              as to the sound of hay drifting on a thought

of hay                  dreamed up & sent ceiling               I must have imagined

that we would go on calling it what it was meant to be when

we said it                    & I would never need to measure the chairs to

make my point!            I who pounded on your dreams              &

walked backwards in snow to confuse you                    I must have

imagined you were calling just to rub it in!

If, as bell hooks says, feminism isn’t as much an identity as a movement, Owen’s poems powers, too, lay in their continuing vibrations. Much as her mode of poetic process, her poems think for themselves, of themselves, melding life and poetry in one deft movement. Her work reminds us how fickle language is, how cunningly interpersonal this American speech, however seemingly banal, reaches and reverberates between us. Owen has, and reading her you can, too, an awareness of how through art and otherwise we all have the power to bend realities to confront the harsh circumstances that necessitate such work. (“Women’s work” lol). The dream of the death of poetry, of art and life as one, come true through her. Or we see that it’s already true, and it’s beautiful, and tiring, and funny.
*NOTE Quotes pulled from “A telephone interview with Maureen Owen” by Barbara Henning

2nd Annual 30/30/30 Poetry Month Series:


Post a Comment

1942 Amsterdam Ave NY (212) 862-3680

    Free shipping
    for orders over 50%