Poems by James Owens

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by James Owens

From Canary Winter 2015-16

James spends part of his year by the Mississinewa River in central Indiana, not far from where the Maumee Torrent scoured the Wabash Basin down to bedrock, about 14,000 years ago. He spends the rest of the year in the La Cloche Foothills region of Ontario, on the northern shore of Lake Huron.

A limited freedom in this secured space like a soldier’s hand in a wired gauntlet. I walk from room to room and wait. For something.

Every Thursday morning the garbage trucks maunder past like a military maneuver, those devourers, and every afternoon my daughter trudges from school, smiling --- a bit distracted, it seems --- at the dogs restrained by the neighbors’ fences, at the drifts of snow,

her mind somewhere else, though the little cage of her supple bones comes home.

I wanted for years to translate Alcuin’s elegy on the destruction of the monastery at Lindisfarne but there was no way to capture its sorrow and poise, Alcuin’s balanced sense of the tragic. I think this poem is about that failure,

as much as it is about my daughter.


One who is dear to me writes of the kneeling girl in Brancusi’s La sagesse de la terre: “it is that kind of innate wisdom, intuitive understanding of the right measure, the right way, the way a child sits still with her hands in her lap and nature is at work in her, that quiet life-sustaining energy.”

Sitting alone, my daughter sways slightly on the surge of a rhythm I can’t hear, her eyes closed, turned inside to the dark candle gleam of void we all carry. When she rises, it is the motion of a young doe across a lighted space in the woods.


The monks gathered without breakfast from their meditations and sang their last matins as the outside walls burned, their song punctuated by the thuds of the battering rams, screams from the servants’ quarters (I imagine it),

and they saw, Alcuin says, the altar, the goldleaf illuminations, defiled by the dextra ethnica, the “ethnic right hand,” of the Danes.

In Iraq, the soldiers were busy somewhere else while looters took apart the National Museum. That’s the way to kill history --- Sumerian golden bulls peddled for “culture,” or melted somewhere in the world to cheap wedding rings and bangles for leather bracelets. So little remaining now.


That my daughter will live in this world, which worries her less than it worries me. That her natural kindness could be a tincture, a trace, as she carries herself through.

No artificial closure for these fragments.

We started out in the morning and drove along the small, empty roads for a long time, under the sheets of early light hanging from the branches of high trees, past the cows and the pairs of horses that turned toward us, to the ruins,

where the walls were still crumbling,

and my daughter’s face brightened as she reached out to touch the broken stone.

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