The Hebrew word selah, which turns up like a bad penny throughout the Psalms, means (maybe) pause, and implies that what you ought to do while you pause is consider. Take the shot, let the rhetorically-enhanced solution of thought hit the vein, savor and move on. Rinse, repeat! At poetry readings, often endurance trials to rival the worst of what temples and churches threaten, into the audio vacuum created by the pause often rushes the mm, that awful sound that lets the poet know that her words have, given the sanctified moment of silence appropriate to their Awesomeness, found their mark. They also let the listeners near the mmer that the mind of the mmer is fertile soil indeed, in which the seed of good words can find nourishment and grow. Rinse, repeat!

Of course, anyone who has ever actually endured a formal liturgical pause (via either or any of the identities of St.Marks or an equivalent venue of Awesomeness) knows perfectly well that it’s just as likely that pausing will allow consideration of what is the success rate of the diaphragm in preventing pregnancy or how are the colonists going to get off New Caprica in the next season of Battlestar Galactica as it is to inspire greater appreciations of wisdom, beauty and truth. Much of what makes Maureen Owen’s most recent book such good company is that her poems, which consistently valorize the pause as it serves human minds still in human heads, don’t pay much tribute to solemn reflection. What they do, however, is display the discursiveness of a mind operating at 33, 45 and 78 RPM, sometimes all in the same poem. And while Erosion’s Pull contains just over 100 pages of such discursion, the variety of Owen’s use of the pause is as apparent in any one of her poems as it is in all of them. So take a look at the first stanza (and then all the subsequent ones) of “A History of the English Speaking Peoples or tea in the shape of a kite”:

the moon was scraping across the sky
what about the river recognizable psyches should
have floated barely under the surface
water in a bizarre reflection of leaky foliage

The first unit is mildly poeticized — it takes a second to replace with scraping — but once the scene is set, the second unit introduces an obviously disaffected colloquial diction. The third unit responds to this bluntness with a checkpoint charlie of a lyric claim, one that has the authority of declaration but doesn’t quite add up. And then the break. Surface… water? Water in foliage? Bizarre is pleasingly off-the-cuff, unashamedly generic, and leaky closely resembles leafy, summoned into being by the presence of foliage. These units don’t work as does “fragmentary” poetry, which tosses out dots and requests or hopes that the surface blandishments of the dots themselves will seduce the reader into the act of assembly. Owen’s strategy is more personal; this is a single consciousness evaluating dots on the fly, figuring out what to keep, what to discard, guesstimating but never getting to commit to the appropriate connection and the tone it might require.

This combination platter of discrete observations and claims, each in somewhat fractious communication with the other, is reminiscent of mental operations that don’t usually result in poetry, or at least not in that kind of poetry that makes a point of brushing away the steel of its welding seams and embedding level its screws. These poems? sometimes remind me? of that rhetorical habit? often found in teenager-speak? whereby they turn every divisible accumulation of syntax? into a prompt for query? Which can be irritating in its own right, but is also charming in that it acknowledges, however witlessly, that One that doesn’t follow Another, at least not absolutely, not necessarily.

suspicious of their hands they
held each other’s noses &
spun the colors didn’t move or slip out of joint
leaves were everywhere

When the eldest daughter lost control of
the diesel tractor with front loader &
came through the wall of the dark living room they
said hmmmmmm put in a big picture window

Here you can also see how Owen tells a sort of story that communicates narrative detail while also leaving room for mimetic, apparently impromptu theorization as to how stories get told: fits and starts, asides, attempts at beautification and interpretation and much dead air besides. This isn’t flarftacular in the way that flarf exalts the ostentatiously wrong, but it does share a disinterest in the locking up a poem’s perimeters with a fatally satisfying click. At its worst, Owen’s technique approximates poetry as transmitted through a badly compromised cell phone, but at its best, it possesses a hypnotic daffiness:

Along this stream they demand more than a passing notice
Southward and eastward along a terror
they who entered on a window night vanished
into deforested shapes

When the runaway pickupwith their 3 year old at
the wheel took out one of the two hefty columns
holding up the porch they shook at the impact

Teen-speak, cell phone: this could also sound like an accounting made to the police after an accident, or the erratic grace of hyper-articulation leavened with distraction and simplicity as one fights mightily to sound more sober than one really is. It also suggests an interesting compromise between those conceptions of poetry that view it as regular stuff, fit for daily consumption and production, and those that want to reserve poetry for Very Special Episodes. The daily use ethos does free poetry from the burden of conceptual high collars and starch, but it also breeds poetry like Philly breeds Rolling Rock and Yuengling: cheap, dangerously abundant, likely to get you full before it gets you drunk. Very Special Episode poetry, though, is like absinthe, of which you do not want more than an infrequent taste. It also often smacks of the liturgical, which returns us to the very function of pause as escape from the liturgical with which we began. Between these options, Owen creates room for a poetry that is attentive to the bells and whistles of lyric possibility, but no more attentive to them than would be a mind preoccupied with the rest of the world and the words we use in it. Neither a poet who ejects escape pods of polished perfection built to neither admit or release oxygen, nor one who places one homiletic pie after another on the windowsill of her folksy farmhouse, Owen becomes a more human alternative, the poet of wandering attention, the poet under citizen’s duress:

not knowing what to look for light sheer as
white heat large bundles of
straw creamcolored & cut straight &
added as a sun deck

Now, some of this does fail to meet “standards” of descriptive novelty. “Light sheer as white heat”? If that’s citizen’s duress, then it can be argued that what you get under duress is more likely to be dross than gold. But you can’t stop there, because the purpose of each element of the poem is to contribute to the poem itself, not just to sit on its throne of jewel-encrusted glory. If the introduction to these descriptions is an uncertainty as to what to look for, then moving quickly through the half-assed description of light in terms of heat seems a plausible step — necessary to acknowledge, at least, if not at length. The hasty overreaching of that simile does give way to the more straightforward description of straw. But that last simile: added as a sun deck. Dorky improvisational perfection, friends. Teen-speak, cell-phone, blow to the skull: add to these the dozens, that rapid-fire cataloguing of precisely how fat your mama truly is.

a spreading ink stain followed their sunsets
they were bigger than their chairs

Do I like that first line? No, sir, I do not. Do I like the second? Yes’m I do. And I know that the second — it’s tone of wait! I forgot! — and its loyalty to the fact at hand buys much of its charm and trustworthiness from the presence of the first. Erosion’s Pull is often as scattered as an open mind must be, and its moments of truth, beauty and wisdom come as pauses, not between them. That’s a daily poetry I can live with, and happily. It’s also a seriously bemused book. Bemusement without condescension: this is a mighty and christlike gift! There are plenty of misuses of language these days, the chicanery of which stuns the right and the good, and we best reserve both our small reserve of exaltation and our ordnance of contempt for that fight. In the meanwhile, however, feast on the good humor and good spirit of Maureen Owen, who brings in the dirt with the flowers and tends them both and equally. Pause, y’all, and consider.