A Journal of Contemporary Arts 





Review by


Robert Darling





Multi-Variations on A.W. Owen



Most contemporary first collections of poetry are dismally predictable. The first person predominates, the self portrayed as a sensitive, abused soul whose glance is turned inward, any attempt at an aesthetic distancing submerged if not drowned in floods of self-pity. If the I is turned outward, the world is still addressed through a prism (and prison) of inner anguish, though grievances swamp griefs. The forms, to use the word loosely, of the poems tend to be nonce, matching the writer’s momentary inclinations. The language consists of a loose drifting of randomly lineated prose. The best thing about these collections is that they tend to be brief.

Andrew Wynn Owen’s first full-length effort, The Multiverse, has very little if anything in common with the above. The first thing one notices is the bulk. Checking in at 135 pages of smallish print with very little in the way of white space, the book is packed. The most cursory glance shows that the poems are formed—all are shaped in stanzas uniform to the pattern established by the poem, many in elaborate patterning rarely seen since the 17th century. The presence of the first person is infrequent and rarely personal; the persona is usually observing and commenting, very often in a garden, most often at peace with the world and in awe of its beauty and complexity. But the tone is very much contemporary; the voice is familiar, and seemingly at home, with mass media and the digital age, up on the latest advances in science.

Owen is a doctoral candidate of All Souls College, Oxford, where he won the University’s Newdigate Prize in 2014 as well as an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors in 2015. He has also co-authored a pamphlet with John Fuller (One can see Fuller’s influence on Owen; it is good to see Fuller, well into his 80s, still active and influencing young Oxonians) as well as several other poetry pamphlets. Not a bad beginning for someone perhaps in his mid 20s.

First, the forms. The first stanza of “Mutabilities” is typical, if any particular stanza can be chosen to illustrate such ornate verse-making:

Catkins, a sacred mountain, galaxies—
The whole caboodle, matter.
Yes, all that’s seen and everything that sees
Evaporate, dissolve, or shatter
As trigger-happy change
Conspires to scatter.
Is this so strange?
The rusty whisk of give-and-take
Turns country grange,
Palladian court, and public lake
To space miasma. All we are
Is pattern primed to break
Apart like sizzling chunks of cinnabar.

Here we see evidence of several of Owen’s traits beside the complexity of stanzaic form: the ready mixture of statement and image, the asking of a question and its ready answer, the mingling of formal and technical language with commonplace observation (“The whole caboodle”).

The other half of the poem:

By ‘all we are’, I mean ‘the stuff that matters’.
By ‘pattern’ also ‘passion’.
Our dearest hopes, in time, will lie in tatters
Unless released from chancy fashion
And dressed in more abiding
Glad-rags. The ashen
Waste-planets gliding
Through vacant space may yet be green
By overriding
Short-termist instinct, guillotine
Of progress. What I mean to say:
The mind’s a mezzanine
Between deep past and an otherworldly day.

This is one of the more egregious examples of self-explaining in The Multiverse but there are numerous occurrences. And some of the phrasing seems ill-considered—“more abiding / Glad rags”(?) The ending is quite striking however, though Owen does show a penchant for weak endings at times, from stating the obvious: “It is a brilliant thing to be, a bee”; “Settling some far-flung star / And bringing bubble tea where there was none?’; “who / Would care to speed like flung neutrinos do?” ; “We must collect ourselves before it is too late.” To many of these the reader can murmur “of course but I knew this already.”

Another sample of questionable word choice is shown in works like “The Pristine and the Torn” in which the second stanza begins well enough—“But tremblings, trenches, rust, and dark recriminations / Pile up like sins”—but then leads into “A milk-jug chirps, a jacket thins, / And dust-mites lurk in sotto-keyboard gunk.” I guess milk-jugs could be thought to chirp in the right circumstances but “sotto-keyboard gunk” seems not to fit the tone, especially followed by the grand “Yes, it’s the way of Death to walk among the nations.” (Though it is refreshing to find a young poet not afraid of capitalized abstractions.) Owen has the jarring habit of also populating poems with lines of astute insight, mind-opening images, and clichés that seem presented as wisdom. The juxtapositions can be unsettling.

The poet seems to enjoy dialectic; many poems propose imagined worlds with this one; others state alternating points of view. Titles such as “Ants, Spiders, Bees,” “Good and Bad,” “Promise and Compromise,” and “Convenience and Inconvenience” are but a few of several poems that work around this schema. This can lead to a didactic tone dominating some of the poems. One also senses at times that the ornateness of form may lead Owen to phrasing he might not have chosen if the form was not quite so intricate.

Still, it seems unfair to be overly critical of Owen for occasional lapses when he is doing what is beyond the capabilities of most poets of regard today. He offers several series of poems, the sections each comprised of ingenious stanzaic forms; each section not only reproduces the difficult stanza form chosen for the series, but each part has the same number of stanzas. One sequence is composed to mime an equation devised by the Dutch mathematician Nicholaas Govert de Bruijin. He is fond of chiasmus and often uses it very effectively. He will sometimes will feature slant rhyme but even that in a pattern amidst true rhyme. One hears the occasional echo of Auden and even, in “The Centrifuge,” Roethke. He handles ottava rima and its Byronic rhyme with seeming ease (e.g. “Europa/interloper/hoper”). When he ‘relaxes’ into pentameter the reader finds a bit of relief as well.

My favorite among the poems of The Multiverse is “The Fisherman.” It is the most conventionally religious poem in the book but more to my point is that it is something of a dramatic monologue spoken by a disciple of Jesus. Reproducing another human voice and sticking to a particular series of events ties Owen down from his usual pendulum swings of exuberance. The usual (and generally ignorant) verdict against form—especially developed form—is that it is too constricting. Owen had mastered his technique so well that form does not inhibit him in the least, but he needs to inhabit his subject matter in a more modest way. Witness the second stanza of “The Fisherman”:

Peter was leaning out to cast his net
While I, daydreaming, watched saltwater’s ruptured
Mirror. Remembrances
Spiralled. Mosaic of fractals. Passion’s knot
Revolving. Tell me, have you been enraptured
By moments, mess,
The weathervane
Of who and why we are?
It is a source of awe
I’ve always felt. It ripens on the vine.

Perhaps ‘mess’ is not the best word and fractals a bit anachronistic and, yes, the attitude of the speaker seems very consistent with the spirit of Owen’s other poems, but the movement away from the breathless kaleidoscope of so many of his poems is welcome. There is much less of the sometimes befuddling cleverness that mars some of his work.

It will be interesting to see where Andrew Wynn Owen goes next. A very young poet with some of the best technical skills of any living poet, one who is not afraid of big subjects, whose enthusiastic gaze is directed outward with energy and gladness, who writes of science and technology with some expertise, who has, well, considerable gifts, is definitely someone who bears close watching.

The blurb for The Multiverse submitted by Richard Davenport-Hines says simply, “Inspired, delighted, and exhausted me.” I know how he feels.