Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Language(s) of Rochelle Owens


Rochelle Owens' new work, Triptych, represents a departure from her earlier poetry and drama, at least upon first glance. Triptych is deeply spiritual, filled with allusions to the meaning-making processes that inform the sacred and sacred texts.

One could argue, however, that Owens has always written about the sacred, and her earlier work, while seeming to be profane, has been, in reality, a deep plunge into the very heart of the sacred. Her work has affirmed the existence of the sacred. Several essays in "Considerations of Rochelle Owens," curated by Karl Young, and hosted at Light & Dust Anthology of Poets, explore these themes.

Nevertheless, Owens' work has been largely misunderstood in the past, and the disruptive content in works such as Futz or Black Chalk has been viewed as an end unto itself. While the facile conclusion would be that her unmaskings of hypocrisy and the emptiness of institutions lead to an ultimately nihilistic existentialist stance, the more careful and astute observation is that she uses disruptive and mock-comic dialogue to affirm the reifying power of language, either to destroy or to create.

Language, in Owens' discursive universe, serves to invoke the generative powers of fragments and phrases, and bear witness to the generative act of syntax ordering itself into meaning(s). Her language illustrates the process of becoming, and it captures the moment when language invokes action and process. For example, in a poem from Triptypch, "Here We Are, Like a Leaf Driven," repetitions of the words "spawn," "nucleus", and "larvae" bring to mind the moment of creation, which is followed by growth, procreation, cell-division, and individuation.

The language of Triptypch counterposes the bland, quotidian words and phrases of everyday life with the raw, magic-producing fragments that comprise the building blocks of a singular utopia - a utopia of sacrifice and redemption, of purposeful loss that raises the awareness of a host of murdered artists and societal "Others" who still exist as disembodied memory and consciousness.

Perhaps this directly relates to the Holocaust. Perhaps it relates to an attenuated form of it that persists even today. It is not necessary to create a solvable puzzle from a set of words. What matters is that one recognizes that the generative energy comes from shouts of rage, joy, loss, and desire that come groaning through the night when one feels the most dislocated and/or adrift in the contemporary world.

Owens suggests -- in all her works -- that the polite lies of drawing room platitudes are absolutely venomous. Polite language allows atrocities to occur, for bureaucratese to creep in and strip individuals of their opportunity to armor themselves with words that resist, or with words that protect.

Triptych recalls Owens' brilliantly moving translation of The Passersby, where at the heart of the language is geist which could be seen as a soul, an essence, or an exercise that proposes to unify a person with the divine. The fundamental dialectic is one between sympathy for victims and outrage at the world's hostility, which is enacted as a teen-age girl struggles with anorexia. Is it ethical for her to nourish herself when she struggles with the ghosts of those who starved to death? When and how does one purify oneself? While mortification of the flesh may appear to be the best approach, further examination reveals that it is not.

The journey toward unity requires, as a requisite first step, the unhitching of conventional language, an uncoupling from the rigid and ultimately false, limiting, and even life-exterminating language of conventional wisdom and platitudinous daily life, where language is reduced to bureaucratic procedures.

demonstrates that fragmentation, combining, and then recombining is necessary in the pursuit of new knowledge, and requisite circumnavigation of a literary planet of her creation that leaves in its wake the shadowy outline of wisdom.