Scott Owens
Main Street Rag
ISBN Number: 978-1-59948-222-4

Reviewer: Janelle Adsit

          Before it opens, the book declares its subject—and each subsequent page is focused. These poems are not afraid to be “about” something. In fact, one might argue that subject matter in this book is put before formal considerations. That is not to say that these poems are inattentive to matters of form. Without being subjected to the songs themselves, we hear the internalized rhythms of children’s songs in poems such as “A Father’s Complaint”:

Today I don’t want to be a dad.
It happens sometimes when I’ve had
all the 3-year-old talk I can take for the day
and I can’t make the children’s songs in my head go away.

          The perfect rhymes of mostly one-syllable words in this poem invoke the relentlessly bright songs children sing, but the fact remains that this is a subject-centered book. The poems read like prose—prose that’s been boiled down to the best parts. This book is a succinct account of the inexhaustibility of parenthood. With okra on the cutting board and the tune of B-I-N-G-O at his lips, Owens paints the scene of parenting in few brushstrokes. The indelible mark that child-rearing leaves is shown in physical change, as demonstrated in "Promises at 2 A.M.":

After four months of holding you
my body sways constantly,
rocks a little when I walk.
My left arm keeps the shape
of a cradle.

          These are poems of few-lettered words. In “First Loss,” for instance, Grandma’s death is explained to a three-year-old in simple sentences, in six words: “I tell you that Grandma has died.” These are no-explication-needed poems that reach their readers. The father behind these poems knows how to select the funny detail or the inestimable word from a child, and he hands these to the reader. These delicious slices are granted in a language that’s all around us: “Norman sucked,” one poem declares.

          These poems are accessible, but not so much that they are devoid of allusion. There are explicit references to a literary tradition. The poet thinks of “Frost in the woods/ going on, keeping promises.” He describes his sons “like the man/ in Dobyns’ poem, looking for answers.” Gary Snyder and Robert Bly take their places in this collection, too. Owens wants to be known “as Sawyer’s Daddy, teacher/ gardener, reader of poems.” It’s obvious that Owens reads well. He is also well-known as a writer, with awards from the Academy of American Poets, the North Carolina Writers’ Network, the North Carolina Poetry Society, and the Poetry Society of South Carolina.

          So perhaps this is another case of something for everyone—readers of and strangers to poetry alike. What will define the book’s readership is its subject matter. That is, Owens’s poems seem meant for parents. They provide lessons. “I fear how…little I can control/ how much less I should.” They offer commiseration and some celebration too.

          Owens’s is not a one-sided lauding of paternity. Fatherhood is in some sense celebrated as it offers the opportunity to make a sky, to learn the word “effluctress” (i.e., things that can only be seen by four year-olds), to see the soda tree. But fatherhood is also tragic, as is described in the poem “Steps”:

For ten years I raised you as my own,
the son I never had, the one
I wanted to be for my often
absent father.

I thought we might be happy,
bastard sons raising each other.
The end, I suppose, was inevitable,
reliving the things we knew best,
how to leave, how to be left.

          It is the stepson, rather than the young daughter Sawyer, that opens the book. Although more poems are devoted to Sawyer in her first years of life, the troubled relationship with the stepson hangs over the book, in part because of the first poem “Foundings,” which depicts a foundational moment:

I touched him
with almost a space between
my flesh and his, the way
a woman, aging and overweight
steps off a curb as if the path
beneath her might not be real.

          Touches are always complex. “My hands stay open all day” becomes an emblem for quality fatherhood. The open hand is mentioned a few times in this book, put in sharp contrast to the fist that characterized the speaker’s own youth. Often appearing is the specter of the speaker’s father and his abuse.

On the days
I am not my father I romp
and play, I don’t compare myself
with everyone else, the night
is always long enough, I like
how much I am like my father.

          In these lines, the poem alludes to a long line of rough father figures, which precede the central persona of this collection.

          Although it reveals a violent, damaging side of paternity, this book is also often sentimental. A “Sky of Endless Starts” titles a poem about childhood wonder. “Naming” is a sweet love poem from father to daughter: “Your body translates this spirit/ like all you’ve already taught me/…the reality/ of clichés—apple of my eye,/ greatest joy, answer to prayers.” Owens, for the most part, finds a way to make the clichés new again. The book, taken as a whole, is not saccharine. And its lullaby moments seem to suit the situation Owens writes from.

          As Anthony S. Abbott’s postscript notes, poets “can see all sorts of things.” The poet of this book seems to faithfully relay what he has seen and heard, thereby allowing his readers the untainted speculations of a daughter who debates the nature of death and the problems of God. The collection binds the stuff of child rearing: “teaching the rule of numbers,/ colors, left and right,/ …pouring tea/ checking for monsters, eating/ crusts of bread, skin/ of apples.” There’s a lot to parenting and a lot to this book. Parenthood, we learn again, is demanding work. And the same can be said for writing. But Owens makes for effortless reading, some welcome reprieve in a fluid eighty pages.

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