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Saturday, January 02, 2021

The “Animus” Required of a Poetics: On a Recent Poem Series by Rochelle Owens

Rochelle Owens consistently challenges the reader's perspective with her plays, poetry, and videos that relate to her work: Futz!Black Chalk, How Much Paint Does the Painting Need?, Oklahoma Too

Literary critic and scholar Brian McHale argues that the primary difference between Modernism and Postmodernism is that Modernism is concerned with constructing vast, new epistemological frameworks, while with Postmodernism, there is no longer any belief in the efficacy of knowledge systems to represent the world.  Instead, Postmodernism’s primary conceit is that of a challenge to beingness and the unavoidable processes of disintegration to be followed by re-integration. 

Award-winning and trail-blazing poet and playwright Rochelle Owens (latest book, The Aardvark Venus)  captures the two often oppositional processes in her work.  On the one hand, her weaving, incantatory rhythms and the reflexive nature of her subject matter, clearly take on the constructive act of developing the poem’s own epistemology.  On the other, however, she often dismantles the very episteme she has built, and as it is torn down, she replaces it with the process of becoming.  In some cases, the “becoming” process starts as an “undoing” or dismantling.  

There may be images and processes that allude to dissection, dismembering, putrefaction (as in Black Chalk (1994)), or they can allude to a destructive, nutrient-robbing parasite (the tapeworm in “Chomsky Grilling Linguica (Part 2)) . But, by the end, the ontological destabilization turns into a regenerating process that explores how language and poetics model the creative act; more specifically, the freedom enjoyed in the re-assembling of language and signification.    

Owens’s latest work, “Patterns of Animus,” ( specifically addresses the issues surrounding how the poet represents knowledge and knowing.  The poem begins with the image an etched piece of metal.  The engraver creates an etching that has “geometric form” and is “fatal the design. However, the action of writing and inscribing, or etching, is a work of construction of meaning. The construction occurs when the letters are formed, and that gives rise to the possibility of signification. 

The artist continues to engage in the act of etching, which reinforces idea of signification-in-the-making and meaning that can arise from the actions.  The “animus” brings together a great desire to create, but also suggests a base-level hostility that may be necessary for true art to be created.  

The engraver is inscribing something that stays just outside the reader’s view, which gives it the ability to take on many forms at the same time and to create in the reader’s own mind, the notion of the reader’s own epistemological framework that rises up like a Fata Morgana, the startling weather phenomena that results in mirages resembling complex castles and structures.

In the engraving process one cannot help but think of other acts of generative classifiable ways of seeing and cataloging. The Marquis De Sade comes to mind because his subversive world which is in essence a destructive mirror: an anti-world.

The artist cuts or burns his way through to a new world order and a new system of organizing perception and in doing so creates a sense of permanence by cutting into the metal in a way that the message or the series of signs are permanent and not easily erasable. But instead of metal, he could, like Kafka’s Commandant, invent “The Harrow” to dig into The Condemned Man’s head. The artist, so enchanted by the ability to write, inscribe, or etch, may be oblivious to the fact that the function is violent and will ultimately kill The Condemned Man.  In “Patterns of Animus,” art is likewise consigned to the service of signification, but it is not, as in Kafka, done to remind the condemned of their transgressions.  Instead, Owens reminds the reader of the potential to create.

In contrast to the act of inscribing and etching and of creating a system of knowledge, in Part II of “Patterns of Animus,” the body of a woman (the “dead paysanne”) floats in a swamp, and as it does so, decomposes. Is the “dead paysanne” like the drowned prostitute used by Caravaggio as a model for the Virgin Mary for his painting, “Death of the Virgin” (1606)?   

The paysanne is heavily imbued with signification because she embodies a taboo or a limit to the structure in which people find their roles. That body is potentially a victim, or simply a receptacle of transition as it lies in a swamp and decomposes. The body transmits a message metaphorically because of social constructs (in the case of Caravaggio, the drowned prostitute was used to represent the Virgin Mary).  The body has meaning simply because of the action of the observers and their socially constructed reality. 

However, the body of the dead paysanne is lying in the swamp and it is decomposing, a condition of being (or “unbecoming”) that triggers a process by which all the signification starts to change. One becomes very aware that the meaning system and the concerns of the text have to do with ontological anxieties and ontological instability: the center does not hold. The central concern of the poem transitions to questions of being, beingness, becoming, and their inversions, “unbecoming.” The “dead paysanne” floats in a swamp and the physical changes brought on by “microscopic algae” suggest an unraveling of being and by extension, a poetics of “un-becoming.”  The rather horrifying mental image of a body being broken down by natural processes gives rise to an extended metonymy, and a mechanism by which one can address how the poet subverts traditional values. The restrictive belief systems become turgid, followed by the burbling degassing of values (and of meaning).  

On a larger scale, one can’t help but think of videos of a dead whales that wash up onto beaches, their putrefaction gases building up in their bellies, causing consternation to the communities. Eventually, they explode, resulting in a rain of rotting whale carcass parts. (There was a case in Oregon: and in Newfoundland:  The granddaddy of them all took place in Florence, Oregon, in 1970, where Oregon Highway Division decided to have a “controlled demolition” with twenty cases of dynamite . It did not go as hoped.).  On a smaller scale, the explosion only bursts the belly of the dead whale, allowing the entrails to slide out as though alive: 

If the “dead paysanne” has a parallel with Caravaggio’s dead prostitute who was used as a model for “The Death of the Virgin,” there is another level of ontological insecurity, which has to do with being judged for one’s status in society.  She drowned. Was she murdered? If so, the notion of murder reminds one that certain people within a social construct are those relegated to be the trigger of change.

If the moving eye that moves along the “jagged black line” represents the epistemological framework in a world, the rotting corpse of the murdered prostitute lying in a swamp is representative of the ontological insecurity of the world and an essential fragility that points to the provisional nature of being and beingness. And, in this fragile world, “animus” – with all its contradictory suggestions – is a requisite condition for the creation of a poetics. 

Works Cited

Kafka, Franz. “In the Penal Colony.” Franz Kafka Online. 2007. 

Owens, Rochelle.  “Chomsky Grilling Linguica” TheNewVerseNews. 15 March 2006. 

_____  “Patterns of Animus” Jacket2: 24 September 2020 

Questions? please contact Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D. 

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