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Scott Owens

 

October’s Reign of Yellow Leaves

Outside, leaves fall like blackbirds descending,
summer’s bright oppression seeming just
begun already ending.

The trees are having their annual falling out.
October tracks mud in the house, kneels
on grass-stained knees.

Dead stalks of flowers, smell of leaves
burning, dream fragments like chips of moon
slipping off the horizon.

October’s drizzle of days pushes the sky
together again, its distant expanse appearing
through blank terror of trees.

Night’s white mask of cold, morning’s
lingering wet breath, black earth
whispering exhumed corpses.

As the last leaves fall, October goes out,
rattling chains, knotting trees with blackbirds,
swelling with echoes of leaving.

From: The Book of Days. Winston-Salem: Dead Mule, 2009

With summer’s bright oppression fading quickly in the northern hemisphere it is my great pleasure to present an article of one of the hardest working poets in America today. Scott Owens is not only a prolific writer of exceptional quality verse; he is also an extensive promoter of contemporary poetry. As well as writing a weekly online column, Musings, and publishing Wild Goose Poetry Review, Scott Owens is Vice President of the Poetry Council of North Carolina and a regional representative for the NC Writers’ Network. He also facilitates poetry readings at regular Poetry Hickory events in his hometown of Hickory, North Carolina.


With all these extracurricular activities, you would be excused for thinking Scott Owens does not have much time for his own writing, but the facts of 7 collections of poetry; awards from the Academy of American Poets; inclusion in the Pushcart Prize Anthology; nominations for 7 Pushcart Prizes  and 7 Best of the Net Awards; as well as being read by Garrison Keillor on The Writer's Almanac, tell a different story.

And it is not hard to see why the accolades are so deserved:

 

January Looks Forward and Back, Feeds the Stove October’s Wood,
                               Saves the Ashes for April’s Garden

January wraps trees in sleeves
of ice, coats the ground in frost,
throws its shawl of morning mist
on field and lake and stream.

January plants sage and lavender,
costmary and mint, pulls up fingers
of crocus and daffodil, green
buds of forsythia, rose, spirea.

January’s voice is cold and coarse--
the silver moon, the blue sky,
the gray sky, the absinthe moon,
the empty trees, the trees filled

with cedar waxwings.  January
wears out darkness sleeping late,
puts on morning’s half-white face,
speaks of what is bare and necessary.

It is dangerous to know the mind
of January.  January is life
and death, the new born from the chest
of the old, half-formed eyes of flowers

forcing their way through tight skin
of limbs, mouths of bulbs tonguing
up through dirt, opening to earth
and sky and air of January.

From: The Book of Days. Winston-Salem: Dead Mule, 2009

This tremendous drive and work ethic has been part of Scott Owens’ life from an early age. While most poets draw on their life experiences for inspiration, Owens’ difficult upbringing provided a constant source of material as well as the impetus and drive to rise beyond his environment. As he puts it:

My mother, daughter of subsistence farmers outside of Greenwood, SC, was 13 when she was told by her mother to marry my 17-year-old father, son of millworkers in Greenwood, because she was going to sin with him.  After a few years and one son, my father left when I was 8 months in my mother’s womb.  My mother remarried and had two more boys.  That husband was physically abusive; thankfully, after a while, she left him.  My brothers and I grew up with very little.  In fact, for many years there were those who encouraged my mother to give her children up to the state as they questioned her ability to provide for us on her own.  She never gave us up, though, but she did marry 6 more times, including twice to my biological father.  Some of those other husbands were also physically abusive. 

So, it was a pretty rough childhood, one that I couldn’t get away from quickly enough.  I had become convinced by my 10th grade English teacher, Ms. Carolyn Thomas,… that unlike most of those around me, I would go to college.  I knew, however, that there was no money with which to make that happen.  So, I graduated high school a year early, and went to work in the cotton mills, working double shifts anytime someone was out sick or on vacation, and managed to save enough money, along with financial aid, scholarships and part time jobs, for three years at Ohio University.

With this background, it is no surprise that so much of Scott Owens’ poetry centers on relationships. As a poet he delves deep into his own history and experience to open up and reflect on the true nature of our relationships.

In The Man in the Bottle we see how, if we are not careful, we can constrain ourselves too rigidly by our own character and beliefs:

 

The Man in the Bottle (excerpt)

The left leg goes first,
bending and folding like paper,
an origami of the body.
Then the hip and torso,
one arm and shoulder,
compacted and twisted,
pinned against the chest.
It is important
to keep your back
flush to the wheel of glass
curving around you,
keep your buttocks
thin and tight, arms
in, avoid any
unnecessary reaching.

With proper training
you could stay like this
forever, safe in your circle
of glass, taking only
shallow breaths,
holding everything in,
tasting nothing
but your own skin.

From: The Fractured World. Charlotte: Main Street Rag, 2008

For me, this poem holds the key to how many of his later poems can be interpreted. Our fears and experiences can trap us, and if we allow them to, can shape and affect all our relationships. An example is in The Fractured World where an early theme is the fear of loneliness and disconnection, specifically how much of our daily interactions can only be seen as relationships on the most superficial level:

 

Sunday Afternoon, Atlanta Fulton County Stadium (excerpt)

You’ve seen me here before.
Every game I watch from field level,
Section K, Row 12, Seat 3.
I’m the one with the Braves
cap turned backward, one hand full
of nuts, the other scratching balls
and strikes on the back of my program.

I could be anyone for all you know,
your neighbor, your banker,
your daughter’s teacher, your lover’s
lover…. 
:
…I come for the sounds,
the crack of the bat, shouts
of the vendors, the thousand conversations.
I come to escape the absence
of home, the blank spots
on the wall, the empty
chairs, the lack of voices.

From: The Fractured World. Charlotte: Main Street Rag, 2008

And even though the poet recognizes this disconnect, there is still the underlying sense that he is ever watchful of not succumbing to his own past and confining himself inside his personal bottle. In Paternity, we see this reflected in the almost obsessive need not to be his father:

 

Days Like These (excerpt)

On a morning when even getting dressed
takes forever, when anxieties bend
like knuckles beneath your skin, you know
you’ll never change the world, become
the great poet, teach anyone
anything, your best success is simply
not hitting your three-year-old daughter,
not becoming your father or his.

From: Paternity. Charlotte: Main Street Rag, 2010


But, while there are early themes of fear in both The Fractured World (fear of loneliness) and Paternity (fear of failure as a father) it would be a mistake to see either collection as being negative. In both, Scott Owens takes the reader on a journey, where through exploring his own experiences he emerges, not only having escaped his feared destiny, but with a renewed hope for the future. This is especially true in Paternity, where we see that it is not only the parent who shapes the child, but the reverse as well:

 

Sawyer Says (excerpt)

Sawyer says, Aren’t you glad I chose you,
Daddy? When I was in Mommy’s tummy,
I saw you and you looked sweet, and I knew
you’d be a good Daddy, so I chose you.

From: Paternity. Charlotte: Main Street Rag, 2010

A fascinating construct that Scott Owens uses throughout his work, is the fictional character of Norman. As mentioned earlier, Scott Owens’ background was both difficult and complex. By developing Norman, the poet was able to project aspects of both himself as well other formative people from his past. As such, Norman represents both abused and abuser, victim and perpetrator, child and parent. But, maybe surprisingly, even as perpetrator and abuser Norman is portrayed with a certain sympathy, a character somewhat trapped by his own past. When I asked how important it was to consider the perpetrator as victim, Scott Owens put it this way:

Absolutely vital.  Otherwise, the story would be hopelessly incomplete and dishonest.  In almost all cases, abusers are also the abused... without that understanding, the most likely consequence is the loss of at least two human beings:  the abuser who is dehumanized into oversimplified monster; and the abused, who is likely to become abuser themselves.

The character of Norman was so successful, that he returns in Scott Owens’ later work. In 2010, he collaborated with Pris Campbell to produce The Nature of Attraction. In these poems, Norman’s relationship with Sara enables the character to develop from a construct of Scott Owens’ early life, to a full character in his own right:

 

The Nature of Attraction (excerpt)

He liked her laugh,
her smile, the way
she sympathized with childhood
pains, the way she saw
to the serious heart of everything
but never let it get her down.
He liked the way she opened
herself to anything that came,
sound of birds, splash of water,
lying back in sand.

He loved most the way
she rubbed the back of his neck
when he bent over the sudden poem.
He thought all this
must mean love or something deeper,
though as for that,
he thought sex and cooking
might have been enough too.

From: The Nature of Attraction. Main Street Rag, 2010

While it is not unusual for two (or more) poets to release a joint collection of poetry, it is less common for them to work on a collaboration where the poems are so closely blended that it becomes difficult to distinguish the style of each writer:

One of the more interesting parts of the collaboration was that after a few days, she was writing as many Norman poems as Sara poems, and I was writing as many Sara poems as Norman poems.     

Scott Owens’ poetry has been described as accessible. When asked if he believed there was a general move to bring poetry back to a wider audience he replied:

I do think... there and plenty of people who enjoy reading poetry that is comprehensible and meaningful without being facile, and I suppose those are the people I hope will find my work.  I feel like I have perspectives and experiences that may be useful to others, and I feel like poetry with its ability to recreate perceptual, intellectual, emotional, and psychological moments as if they were the readers’ own is one of the best mediums for conveying those perspectives and experiences. Thus, I prefer that my poetry be accessible.

As he says, being accessible does not mean being facile. In his latest collection Something Knows the Moment Scott Owens explores the nature of God and man’s relationship to God. With such a complex and varied subject, the poet’s talent really comes to the fore. For me, this collection shows Scott Owens at his most versatile and skilful. The following passages give a snapshot of the deft use of language and imagery in this volume. The poetry is sometimes confronting, sometimes tender and sometimes even wryly humorous but always engaging:

 

God, Creating the Birds, Envisions Adam (excerpt)

At last he draped it over the white sticks
he cherished, measured out sinew and nerve,
vein and gut, planted the bright seed
of his favorite tree in the loam of brain,
stood back, looked, retched,
dredged the life again from his lungs,
spat it into the mouth, called it
man, son of God, keeper of earth,
dropped it headfirst, naked, crying,
bruised and bloody to the ground.

From: Something Knows the Moment. Main Street Rag, 2011

 

Saint Sebastian’s Widow (excerpt)
“A pious widow found him and nursed him back to health”
--Lives of the Saints

I found you, pierced with arrows and left
for dead, hanging by your hands
from a knotted oak, your head pitched
forward, face hidden beneath
the wet rag of your hair. I was old,

had been alone too long, had forgotten
how beautiful a man’s chest could be,
the soft thatch of hair, small-boned
ribs pressing against the flesh,
curving around the heart.

From: Something Knows the Moment. Main Street Rag, 2011

 

Now Hiring Holy Angels (excerpt)
Title from a sign on Highway 16 Near Denver, NC

Job Title:  Messenger.
Full-time position. No education required.
Duties may include intervention,
retribution, passing through silent rooms,
guarding trees and true believers,
unlocking gates, moving the dead.
Some heavy lifting.
                        :
Send name, photo, previous addresses,
age, religion, exact weight,
relevant experience, personal references
and driver’s license number for criminal background
check.  All applicants will be tested
for drugs, narcissism, and insatiable lust.
Salary:  None.  Benefits to die for.

From: Something Knows the Moment. Main Street Rag, 2011

But I will leave it to the passage that gives the volume its title, and my personal favourite, as a final testament to this very fine poet:

 

Common Ground

My brother has never kept a single lake,
a single lost grave to himself.
Always he calls, then waits until I
can come, lets me lead the way,
find it like the first time,
shouting the names I know, the shapes
of bird and stone, cloud and tree.

Once in the same day I saw
a kestrel, a mantis, an arrowhead
and took it as a sign, though since
I have seen each in their own days
and miles away from each other.

I do not believe God will bend
to kiss this mouth.  I do not believe
the wine will turn to blood.  But something
knows the moment of sunflower,
the time of crow’s open wing,
the span of moss growing on rock,
and water washing it away.

In the pictures I remember, there is you
letting me stand on the fallen tree
as if it were mine.  There is you
letting my arm rest on top of yours
around our mother.  There is you
lifting me up to the limb I couldn’t reach.

This is the faith I’ve wanted, to know
that even now we are capable of such
sacrifice, such willingness to love.

From: Something Knows the Moment. Main Street Rag, 2011

“True of all the arts, poems often spark off other poems in response. Owen’s book,
“Something Knows the Moment” inspired Helen Losse to write “Mustard Seed.”


Tony Walbran
October 2011

                   Click to read the interview with Scott Owens