- Well Versed
123 Pages; Print, $20.00
Jan Owen, trans.
189 Pages; Print, £13.39, $19.34
Jan Owen is a South Australian poet whose recent work has been published in England and Australia. She has participated in international poetry festivals like the Festival Franco-Anglais de Poesie and the Maastricht International Poetry Nights, where a group of her poems in Dutch was published by Azul Press. Most recently, she has translated Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) by Baudelaire. What’s clear at once about her poems is their glittering literariness, their wide range of reference, their playful coining of verbs from nouns (“Summer syrups down her chin”). “To question-mark the light”(from “Ice-Oh!”) is another example of this verbal legerdemain. To begin, let me quote the entirety of her last poem in The Offhand Angel, which shows both her strengths and weaknesses:
An earlier pitch of lighthad turned all edges halo—tree, rock, child— contained the change a moment then withdrawn.The pebbles banked along the cliffs and scattered down the sand to the shore are facing the falling day;too many to be touched or known except by passing air,they sit seaward of their only gesture— the shadow cloak cast slowly backtill the cusp of revelation, that last delicious slice of light, goes downinto blue yesterday’s digesting sound. while the breeze, light-fingered, dints the water’s sheen to pocket spills of early dark,all things are making their escape into the nether time, certitude first,with subtleties, always in profile, last from sight.Listen: that other-century sound of seagull cries. What’s waiting behind all this? Some great happiness, says Amichai.As if they are a million doorstops propping the unseen open a crackthe pebbles persevering from white to grey sit put in such rapt humbledom as the tide creeps in to round them downin the image of their sun (small exiled asteroids, sad moons)that the tumbled glug and glottal stop, the clink and crepitation, all the blurred octaves of wind and sea say suffer and live, suffer and live, in pebble tongue:opacity again and again trying to clear to song, always almost ahead of itselflike small feet running on hope just gone just gone just gone… but then...whatinteresthashope ever vested in finitude?
“Turned all edges halo” is a shorthand way of describing brightness around visible objects. The whole poem is a sort of halo over this scene of gradual sunset on a beach whose pebbles “sit put in such rapt humbledom” as the sea wears them down. My favorite alliteration in this poem is “the tumbled glug and glottal stop / the clink and crepitation.”
This poet is a wonderful scribe of the actual sounds and sights of the world—climbing a nectarine tree (“Climbing the Nectarine Tree at Dusk”) and eating its fruit, or running after the iceman’s truck in “Ice-oh!” She has the same mystical sense of oneness with nature that Patrick White possesses in all his Australian novels, especially Riders in the Chariot (1961).
In “Shingle” she quotes Amichai as to the “great happiness” behind the sound of crying gulls. Why is the sound “other-century”? Well, why not? In describing dark wavelets in the ocean, she writes: “While the breeze, light-fingered, / dints the water’s sheen to pocket / spills of early dark” we can picture this scene exactly. But what are we to think of “all things are making their escape / into the nether time, certitude first, / with subtleties, always in profile, / last from sight?”
Why does Owen let the momentum of her poem slacken in this way? And why end with “… what interest has hope / ever vested in finitude?” The Latinate words like “certitude” and “finitude” make the poem, finally, less perfect, though subtleties being in profile is subtle.
The poems of childhood...