To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Monday, June 20, 2011

Rochelle Owens: from Solitary Workwoman (2011)

[The following is the opening section of Owens’ Solitary Workwoman, recently published by Junction Press and printed here by permission of the author.]


This treacherous procession
of words of a HAG
a hag’s words are SEVEN
then she tightens
your black silk hood
Her life is among the ELECT
seen in SCENES of
Daily life in a rural
American town
And then the thought
of mundane domesticity
washes over me
I am WASHED in the
thought of the toil of
women women drawing water
And then the thought
of women dragging waterjugs
their MUSCLES contracting
bigger and bigger
muscles like strong woody cores
And then the thought of
a needle a woman THREADING
a needle wetting the tip
of the thread with her
lips trying seven times
her red and pale mouth
as SMALL as an eye
the needle only a blur
the woman’s eyes of MYOPIA
crossing over to UTOPIA
And then spitting out
a bit of white thread thread
transformed into wet pulp
the shining needle coming
Such difference between those fixations on
HAGS those you see climbing up the ladder
angelic beings with bloody RAGS of
afterbirth You search always the source
‘the fruitful vine’ the hind wing of a
flying ant blending the male and female
spheres spawning BLUE larvae
blue larvae into BONES autonomous
bones washed in saltwater
Is knowledge of the hag a search for
something to grasp—a thickness of
the fat layer beneath the skin her
enormous bunions a callus tearing
like the hymen of a virgin?


And of a hag’s embrace it is LONG smooth
and unyielding her winding arms press
her partner’s body organs
the CRUSH of her knees will fracture
the spine of a youth who cowers
before her but the hero who lies down
beneath her     flattening and pushing
his backbone into the earth like the
roots of a TREE
tensing tensing squeezing squeezing
the muscles of his butt
the hero who lies down beneath her
without sloth or greed and feels LUST
and gazes upwards smiling smiling
with pale and red lips
flickering flickering his long eyelashes
flirting flirting with the hag
singing singing to the hag blowing blowing
kisses singing and blowing kisses
to the GOLDEN belly of the hag
That hero will never creep backwards
on his haunches nor be SORE afraid
he will be redeemed


For a long time the hag’s skills were thought
to be at the very least efficient
able to do good works
You must HOLD onto this idea like you hold
onto the edge of a CLIFF
your attention slips SINISTER
you step on a nail and draw blood

The good rural housewife is seen making
mustard she measures closely and tightens
the cap of the jar

Step where you are into the hag’s DOMAIN

Isolated feigning to be BELOW ground
and waiting—her wisdom GERMINATING
becoming active VITAL
She is musing on her version of a

Suddenly you hear breaking GLASS
your neck twisting to the side FORCE
of escaping a freak accident hit and miss
hit and miss
You begin horsing around with letters
of the names of the hag STRINGLA greek
VETULA latin
You see two gray forms moving towards you
then fusing into ONE hit and miss hit and miss
You repeat the RITUAL    a gray form moving
towards you SPEEDING up swinging and flinging
her gray wool cape her gray wool cape
saturated with piss
The names of the hag STREGA BRUJA HEXE
illuminate gyrating rotating rising upwards
to the ceiling

She is behind me    her elbows winging out
under the FAMOUS piss saturated gray
wool cape
Now she is standing in front of me
And under the cape are a gray donkey’s legs
hit and miss hit and miss    a gray donkey’s legs
knocking the mustard jar off the table
breaking glass shattering glass
splinters of glass glittering YELLOW
DEADLY women’s stuff


And of a hag’s COUNTING waterjugs it is
a solitary activity during the cold months
light reflecting off GLASS
And then the image of the shape of her
knuckles STYX in my mind red and pale
hexagonal bumps and stretching your fingers
and cracking your knuckles
you ponder on the degenerating cartilage
the bulbous arthritic knuckles of the hag
You FORCE a grimace ETCHED into your face
like the ancient mask of TRAGEDY feeling
the black letters of the word LOSS
LOSS lashing and scourging your body
All flesh is GRASS
To each her own PLAGUE



From the time of her first publications Rochelle Owens has spoken with a voice that seemed to some of us – when first heard – like a fierce and unrelenting force of nature. Coming into the present her latest work – the booklength Solitary Workwoman – adds to this a remarkable sense of form unfolding and expanding in the very process of composition – in the way she picks up, then releases, and again picks up key words and images – a truly dazzling display over the near-epic length of the entire work. There is no one quite like her, as Marjorie Perloff explains in summary: “Rochelle Owens’ writing ... is sui generis. She is, in many ways, a proto-language poet, her marked ellipses, syntactic oddities, and dense and clashing verbal surfaces recalling the long poems of Bruce Andrews and Ron Silliman. But Owens is angrier, more energetic, and more assertive than most of her Language counterparts, male and female, and she presents herself as curiously non-introspective. Hers is a universe of stark gesture, lightning flash, and uncompromising judgment: it is imperative, in her poetic world, to face up to the horror, even as the point of view is flexible enough to avoid all dogmatism.” That Solitary Workwoman is also her most personal and tragic work is its deeper secret and well worth noting. As in her final stanzas:

The chemical energy
in the crone’s brainstem becomes
heat light and SOUND    And the sound
is a VOICE released by the WOOD
and her burning body

In a medieval town GUTTED by fire
the red and pale sun casts a SHADOW
of a donkey and limping beside the animal
is the hag    She is called Helga-Bruja

Her quest is irregular    evolving

No witnesses    no photographs    no proof

More of Owens’s work, plus an extended commentary, appeared in a December 8, 2008 posting on Poems and Poetics.

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