Review: 'Timedancing', by Jan Owen

Five Islands Press (2002)

Jan Owen - 'Timedancing' cover The poems in Jan Owen's Timedancing are contemplative – joyfully, actively and often playfully so. Her major preoccupation, as both the title of the collection and the epigraph suggest, is with time. The epigraph, from TS Eliot, ends with 'Quick now, here, now, always', while the title implies that, rather than someone or something dancing to time, (which after all, is invariably the case), time itself is being danced, perhaps by us. In the second poem it becomes clear that it is fireflies that are timedancing:

a million little flashers,
the spirits of the place timedancing
momentary patterns, golden gestalts of thought,
'On-off,' murmured Chandra, 'like the universe.'
Or love. ['The Fireflies: Gamelan']

Dance, with its forward, backward, sideways and circling motion is an apt metaphor. Owen is concerned with movement that is not necessarily linear. She is interested in these 'momentary patterns': the fleeting, the perishable, and further, the way transience defines existence:

As if the upwardness of touch and music
turned time aside
for joy whose currency is just
its own slipping away. ['The Fireflies: Gamelan']

and from the final poem

Firmly her head made
a pact with air as music does whose notes
must die to be made whole. ['Santa Cecilia in Trastevere']

This is generally not disturbing, since renewal is constant. In the spirit of Zen, in which she is clearly interested, her poems are infused with acceptance of the here and now, of existence as a state of flux. Many of the poems end with a meditation on the subject: 'Something was over/ clearly. And flowed on.' ['The Fireflies: River']. Occasionally, though, it can also be disquieting: 'I shiver: it's just/ that we're all of us sifting neutrinos/ and flimsy with time.' ['Scattered Pines on the Bank of the Tonegawa River']

In an interview with Rachael Kohn on The Spirit of Things (ABC RN 22/12/02), Owen said, 'poetry... certainly does affect your inner time as you read it, and as you write it. For all we know maybe a poem in a strange way bends, those great poems that last. You... couldn't prove it, but you couldn't disprove it, either... As for looking up, we're looking in all directions... and I think it's a matter of looking deeply, looking for truth but realising that it's ever-evolving and ever-changing.'

The poems in Timedancing certainly are looking in all directions. Their subject-matter ranges widely. These are poems of the exotic – first in a literal sense, set in Malaysia and Singapore (mangosteens and durian, pangolins and carp), Italy and Spain. And in a metaphorical sense: translations of Baudelaire and parodies of fellow Australian poets. As for looking deeply, Owen is said to have 'an eye like a telescope and a microscope rolled into one', and this rings true of the poems in this collection. She moves over her subjects as well as into them, through them, even. She is interested in what lies behind appearances, the unknowable. And indeed it is as if she cannot get enough of the world and all its detail, as if she is breathing in all the stimuli around her – inspiration in its original sense.

Typically Owen takes a point of reference, something outside herself – organism, artefact, or incident – and asks what sense it makes. In order to assign meanings to it, she looks at it from a sensory, scientific, spiritual, cultural, linguistic and/or historical point of view. She examines the object in its relationships: birth and death, use and art. Many of the poems begin with quite matter-of-fact scene-setting:

The caltrops were too stale to boil with salt
so I posed them on a Chinese plate

but this narrow door often opens on a world imponderably big. In this poem, 'Water Caltrops with Butterfly', the seeds become 'black grotesques of primitive art' and participate in a death (caltrops also being a plant that entangles swimmers). She places next to them a 'frayed gold butterfly... gently trying how to die'. The poem then turns to a question about the purpose of any existence, one that the 'blue carp under the porcelaine glaze... caught mid-leap, ... cannot answer straight'.

She is alert to the paradoxical, the equivocal nature of all things apprehended. And although her poems usually speak with an I, and often involve other, named participants, her voice is quiet, the voice of intrigued observer. Puzzling over the bullfight as sex, death and art, she asks

And when the slick cape conjures art
from the crumpling legs
and the suddenly prayerful head,
who am I to say I have missed the point? ['Mulberry Dress']

With her acute intellectual and sensory powers, Owen's lyricism is potent. Wit is also a strong feature; irony and word-play are cleverly integrated, as some of the previous examples show. These are poems that keep language on its toes. She manipulates language easily, often including reminiscences or foreign words, or leaping semantic fields in a light-hearted bound:

Beside us, on the marble, fresh-picked
rambutans are affluent with ants: Chinese work ethic
in action, they scour the cloudy grey
with word of the formic god. With word of mortality.
But the rambutans are blatantly here and now,
to be seized by the short and curlies. ['From the Balcony']

These lines also exemplify the painstaking compression of Owen's language and the sure-footedness of her rhythms. It is as difficult to encapsulate these marvellous, marvelling poems as it is to find fault with them. They are full of delight, like slightly wayward children, rushing around after new experiences. There is, perhaps, a rather repetitious structure, and the occasional straining after an effect. But this is hardly obtrusive, and only evident when too many are read at one sitting – always inadvisable.

The Timedancing poems end with breathtaking felicity. Like the exotic fruit she turns over in her mind, the endings seem to have ripened naturally, and they are at once satisfying and tantalising. Some of my favourite lines conclude 'The Pool', 'Fig Trees', 'This Instant', 'With a.'glitch', and 'The Return'. So, to borrow the conclusion to 'Limes', 'What's to be done with a handful/ of Owen's poems? Here – catch.'