From David Gilbey, ABR, October 2008:
‘This is an accomplished, playful, intelligent collection which conﬁrms Owen’s status in the front ranks of Australian poets (why is there so little criticism or commentary on her work?). It is full of angels, goddesses, older men, iconic art, imagined sex, strange fruit, ﬂowers, trees, birds, travels through Europe and Asia – encyclopaedic ideas and sinuous, crafted language. Angels and spirits inhabit and shadow Poems 1980–2008. It is part of how Owen reads the world: as a lab assistant, librarian and poet: analyse, catalogue, invest in language. Being is permeable, and Owen’s poetry conjures and connects across dimensions.
Objects, people, experiences, ideas are never ends in themselves, desired or deferred to by the poem. There is no ‘reality’; it is language, especially poetry, that instantiates the teasingly beautiful agnosticism where pattern is the best you can hope for and perhaps the best: “is this all resurrection means, / a ﬂicker of cells, a taste for symmetry?” As ‘Shifting the Dark’ has it: “I shine therefore I am”.
Owen writes with delicacy and strength, passion and intellect, in formal and free modes (see her delight in the sonnet form). John Leonard Press is to be congratulated for publishing yet another high quality and imaginatively satisfying collection.’
From Penelope Nelson, Quadrant, September 2008:
‘Jan Owen deserves to be better known outside the small world of poetry enthusiasts.
Owen’s poems work their magic with quiet assurance. She has a dazzling, underrated talent. There are no grand narratives, no victim personae, no fanfares. Instead there are shimmering memories, fleeting encounters, caught moments, perfect pitch and seamless craftsmanship.
And has anyone ever written a better poem about an echidna? “At my step he’s aquiver, horripilous, digging in all stop-start as if in doubt …” The stock response to “How do echidnas make love?” is “Very carefully.” Jan Owen’s answer is both wittier and more poetic.
Many poems flirt with cosmology and quantum physics when essaying the ineffable. This is dangerous territory for anyone who lacks Owen’s delicate touch, but in her hands scientific metaphors of time and light partner well with intuition. “What god of the unlikely gets us here?” she demands in “Travelling Towards the Evidence”, an ambitious poem that traverses beauty, evil and the search for understanding, while almost settling for “the elliptical travelling-on”.
There is nothing superfluous in Jan Owen’s poetry: no flowery runs of description, even when she writes about flowers, as she does in Laughing in Greek. Poised, polished and apparently simple, her work is more profound than it may appear. This book is a fine achievement.’
From Marie-Andree Lamontage, La Traductiere, No. 26, June 2008:
Owen sets herself to evoke moments which are special, indeed numinous, where the real and the banal are transfigured and take on what one could call an opaque transparency. . . . The opacity of these scenes stems from the important part played by chance, the existence of mysterious links between beings and things, the feeling that all this is not simply perceived but created by the perception. . . .
. . .
Jan Owen’s purpose is to question the world through language. In addressing the real she escapes sterility. In questioning language she avoids banality. The whole, it seems to me, with the same concern for a balance where what is spoken of has the same importance as who or what speaks. A difficult bet to take up. Jan Owen has done so.
From Martin Duwell, http://www.australianpoetryreview.com.au/0808owen.htm , August 2008:
Jan Owen is one of those poets who becomes progressively more interesting not because the quality of the work improves radically or because they write a breakthrough work, but because it takes a number of books before readers can see the outlines of her distinctive imagination. Such a situation is an ideal one for the publication of a selected poems such as this. It is built out of generous (and, as far as I can see, well-chosen) selections from her first five books and contains a book length new work, Laughing in Greek. Reading it enables us to see how restlessly Owen’s poems move internally from the microscopic to the cosmic; from the present to the past (and vice versa); from the local to the exotic; from the abstract to the embodied and from the act of representing to the act of meditating. Given this restlessness it is no surprise that the poems are interested in rooms, horizons and frames – all things that must be crossed or exited when one of these shifts is made.
For a critic it is nice to be able to say that much of this can be found, inchoate, in her first book, Boy With A Telescope, published in 1986. The very first poem, “First Love”, describes an adolescent falling in love with a Titian, or rather, the subject of the Titian, when she should have been attending to lessons on Archimedes’ principle: the result is “a D in Physics”. It is a poem about art and reality but also about the frames that mark them out. When,
Ten years later I married:
a European with cool grey eyes,
the young Englishman of the painting has stepped out of the frame into reality. And when, in “The Riding Habit”, a painting of a tailor is used as the basis for an imaginative filling out of the relationship between a noblewoman and her tailor, what is this but the author reversing the process by entering through the frame into the picture and describing those components that we cannot see?
In a series devoted to the Duc de Berry’s Très Riches Heures in her second book, she describes the magical May painting at some length, seeing its picnic as an embodiment of the idealised courtly love tradition, though “torture, famine, poison, war” lie “outside the frame”. But the poems are not only interested in this move to what is outside the frame: the wonderful illuminations of this book are noted for the astronomical pictures at the head of each page. They bring the cosmos alongside the everyday in a way that Owen’s poetry often wants to do.
. . .
In one of the most brilliant of [her] “exotic” poems, “The Pangolins” from Timedancing, the animal itself – and the poem devotes itself to describing it, to “capturing” it with great accuracy – does not appear until the end of the second stanza. The poem, up to that point, has focussed on the alienness of the setting in which dubious messages are read in dubious light:
Throwing the I Ching by the northern wall
(Mountain over Water: the cataract clears),
rereading the dubious message in dubious light,
dusk there is as brief as thirty years.
The dogs were off at the end of the garden, barking
at moonlight or monkeys, tenor and alto and bass.
Under the rambutans it was lighting-up time,
teetering lanterns in the bushes and grass
were practising emerald – becoming, yes, here;
the fireflies above were loopy with desire.
A pounding of fists south-east from the Surau
was the kampong boys on their Thursday drums. The air
yearned after the odd missed beat like a tired heart.
And then the stranger came. Out of the neat
fit of the dark. Self stood back. No-name
trundled up, snuffling the mulch with her slender snout.
. . . . .
The poet is as exotic a presence to the pangolin as the pangolin is to her. In other words the meeting with the exotic is far more complex than a stable self meeting something that it doesn’t usually find. The poet’s self, itself, is under pressure, surrounded by dubious messages. The pangolin is a homely, earthy phenomenon, but not a conventional one. The net of metaphor that the exotic elicits is Western: it has a scientific component (“a relaxed bell curve validated with scales / perfectly graded – 3:5:8:13”) and a mythical one, a variation of the Sphinx’s question to Oedipus (“What goes on four legs at night and none at noon?”).
. . .
“The Offhand Angel”, significant because it deals with poetry as well as the other issues of Owen’s work. It is significant also because it speaks in terms of balances between the perspectives that dominate the poetry and of the shuttling movement between them that is so characteristic of Owen’s method. The offhand angel is, himself, a kind of muse; a spokesman for another dimension that is, after all, perhaps no more than a different hemisphere of the poet’s brain. He begins outside of the frame but is gradually, in the course of the poem, incarnated to the point where the poet can, at the end, say “Come through . . . Come in”.
From Angela Rockel, Famous Reporter, No. 38, December 2008:
The final collection, Laughing in Greek, begins a new phase in Owen’s project, turning to the language-matrix which organises consciousness and from which the poetic voice and the events it recognises both arise. Problems inherent in language/art are identified, beginning with the way it ‘fixes’ what it formulates in the process of embodying ideas. The more powerful the image, the more resistance it creates to subsequent thought-forms and to interpretations of meaning that are adequate to later experience. The act of bringing something into being in language/art displaces that which is not-yet-thought:
Abruptly held at bay by metaphor,/that masked guardian of the ante-room,/tomorrow’s tenants try to stake their claim –/concepts craving life, they find no door://You are simply one of us in denser form!/they tell the latest metaphor – the sign/NOT IN on the wall of thought … (‘Ante-room’)
In the long poem ‘Travelling Towards the Evidence’, Owen examines this role of metaphor in determining which events and experiences are recognised as meaningful and how they will be interpreted. Widening her reflection on origins, this time Owen identifies not family but culture, understood as the product of a system of metaphors, as that which determines how meaning will be assigned:
We start with nothing/but darkness older than bone//and a couple of leftover maps,/some purpose lighting us down…/ Down onto loose sand/where another man’s creed/may be your grit in the craw,//or glimpsiest chiffons of God/bankrupting the one you were./Neptune sextile Pluto sets its seed/as prayer’s cross-section –// a star-fruit, say, or the pomegranate’s/packed congregation./A flower will open on sheer fall,/says Anna Mezzanotte, ironing lace.//We travel towards such evidence/trace by trace,/backwards, with our luggage/of lessening light … (‘Travelling Towards the Evidence’)
Each of us, the poem suggests, labours to bring forth our own nuanced understanding of the world, always in hindsight, through experiences that are of necessity directed by the cultural ‘maps’ we inherit. Writing/reading is a vitally important part of the process of updating the maps, since language is all we have to articulate the next necessary thought that may steer us away from wreckage and towards the mindfulness that is our only hope. Jan Owen is a traveller who brings news of places where the maps have failed, and her precisely-imaged and cogently-thought poems create breathing space for us all. Poems 1980–2008 is a landmark.
From Peter Kenneally, The Age, November 29, 2008:
Jan Owen’s collection opens with a signature poem, ‘First Love’. It combines, in a wry, semi-detached way, memories of youth, and art as an influence in life. . . . Owen’s gaze is coolly taxonomic, the knowledge she interprets the world with is arrayed methodically and usefully and always serves the point of the poem.
From Lisa Wilde, American Book Review, 30(2), February 2009:
A retrospective can present the double pleasure of the work itself and an in-depth look at an artist’s journey. This is what the handsome new collectionPoems 1980-2008 by Jan Owen gives us. Containing over two hundred poems, this book is an almost thirty-year look at work by this talented and sensitive Australian poet.
‘Seascape with Young Girl’ presents an aspect of Owen’s territory and poetic talent, capturing a human being in a moment. It is a poem about almost nothing—a girl on her way to the beach who consciously will not notice a boy who is trying to be noticed. Yet from the first lines, “The heat seethes dragonflies, / their sheen, the exact colour of flight’, I am transported. By the fourth stanza the girl [has] made it to the beach:
the light bleeds silver on water;
a rainbow sail windsurfs the inshore green
and cries of gulls and children thin into air,
pure as the notes of a pipe.
At this point the poem [‘Seascape with Young Girl’] is almost breathing on its own, making the leap from a literal moment to a place in the realm of human feeling. This quality—slowing down and deepening time—is what many of Owen’s poems achieve.
[She] is a true artist. . . . In her poem ‘Schoolgirls Rowing’ she writes: ‘You’re on the bank, just sitting in the sun,/ but suddenly happiness has you by the throat.’ Go on this journey with Jan Owen. Maybe that happiness will grab you, as it did me.
From Susan Healy, The Poetry and Poetics Centre Reviews Page, April 2009, http://poetryandpoeticscentre.com/index.php/Recent_Australian_Poetry_Reviews:
Poems 1980 – 2008 by Jan Owen has been my constant companion these past few weeks. The look and feel of this book is a kind of preview: it is saturated in luscious colour and I can feel its weight in my hand. It is a generous volume, packed full of poems from five previous collections, in addition to a full-length new collection Laughing in Greek. Jan Owen is a vivacious, sharply observant poet who examines the world with a wide lens.
Jan Owen’s poems have a seemingly effortless lyric. Her light, almost magical touch transforms complex, potentially weighty ideas into a lively, sensuous dance. Her poetry praises mind and the joy of being alive.
From Robert Lumsden, The Adelaide Review, October 2008:
There’s a type of poetry lately pervading the literary supplements which smothers the thought with which it sets out with a kind of verbal overkill. Instead of precise targeting we are given the equivalent of carpet-bombing by metaphor. Jan Owen, mercifully, is not such a poet.
She offers instead of bravura scatter, a sensibility fine-tuned to the particular occasion, a comprehensible complexity, classi in its way, in the tradition of Harwood, perhaps. Her robust and delicate verse is for us, not above us. It defers as it informs, inclusing us in its flights: “high on figures of speech – /our hands are stroking stars/we are the metaphors”. A true poet, who deserves to be read respectfully , and relished.
From Shane McCauley, Indigo, Summer 2010:
Congratulations to John Leonard Press for publishing such a superb and comprehensive volume as Jan Owen’s Poems: 1980-2008. There are certain constants in Owen’s poetry, not least of which is a deep and abiding interest in art and culture … [poems of] sheer abundance, variety and thematic scope. A warm and thoughtful personality pervades the poems, opening them up, making them always accessible. [This collection] is fervently recommended.