Maureen Owen and Barbara Henning
Introduction by Pat Nolan
Poets on the Road
City Point Press

Reviewer: Burt Kimmelman

Barbara Henning and Maureen Owen embarked upon a continent-wide, pre-pandemic reading tour. It was so much more. Poets on the Road is a book of occasions celebrating their return to places and people who shaped their lives. Pat Nolan’s festive introduction (“Poetry Odyssey in a Honda”) rehearses their many stops along the way (“bookstores, coffee houses, museums, legendary used bookstores, botanical gardens, university classrooms, art centers, and artist coops”). Why did these poets feel the need for a “pilgrimage of reengagement with their calling?” They began at the Jackson McNally Bookstore in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (their reading sponsored by the Belladonna collective), then headed to the DC Arts Center, “tracing an arc across the Southern States, the Southwest, and up the West Coast before hooking back to the Rockies.”

When I think of Henning or Owen, their poems and them, I picture them in what seemed their natural environment in the East Village, but that’s a false assumption. They found their way there, as have many poets we now revere. My association has had to do with so much of their poetry, prose, or something else, and with the St. Mark’s Poetry Project. Owen now lives in Denver, Henning in Brooklyn. They arrived at the Project (Naropa, their other lodestone, in Boulder) from Graceville, Minnesota and Detroit.

I see in their diary entries a penchant for dwelling in the everyday. Their respective stylings return me to downtown Manhattan and New York School poetry. That their poems are unique to each of them doesn’t keep me from feeling that they’re cut from the same cloth. I say this not to complain, but rather to offer some sense of how I read this book with the greatest pleasure.

The book’s title might suggest some version of a buddy movie – it’s not that but, then again, it’s filled with fascinating, endearing photographs, posters announcing the many readings on their route, stunning vistas, and other visual treats (an appendix contains poems Henning and Owen read to their audiences, another chronologically lists their readings, and another pertinent references). There’s a cliffhanger in Pensacola (by Henning):

We washed our clothes and rearranged things, starting to find some kind of order for our travels on the road. When Rachael and Jamey left for school, Maureen and I did our yoga practices. While we were doing yoga, the men were working on the eaves outside our window and we pretended not to see them, and they pretended not to see us. While I was packing up, one man caught my eye and I waved to him. When we went out to the car to find a restaurant for lunch, I stopped to talk to them. “Did you enjoy practicing yoga with us?” I asked. They laughed. Even watching can transmit energy.

Travel is not supposed to be routine. Routine is not supposed to be extraordinary. These travel notes lifted me to something I might describe as a communion with the day’s quiet pleasures. Henning’s poetry, from “The Moon,” nicely complements her diaristic prose:

—hang a dress—in the lobby—wrong size—for 2016—once twirled around—like a flower—on a highway—soon on a hanger—in some other closet—reading Walter Benjamin—Berlin Childhood—what was and what might be—a shelter—the rhythm of the railway—ringing of a bell—butterfly hovering—each passing moment—to gaze—to touch—as a child—the moon—

Owen’s travel notes are mostly the cataloguing of their days:

Flagstaff’s elevation is 6,909 feet above sea level. So chilly, but now we headed out toward a lower elevation and flat desert on I-40 East. The surrounding mountains were fabulous colors in the morning light. The variations of the strata flowed from subtle mauve to rich clay red to purple. The desert floor was sage with bushy yellow clover or mustard scattered in clumps. I felt like I could drive forever under the rolling cumulus, so brilliant white against an ever-lifting blue.

In her account of California’s Imperial Sand Dunes the sublime ushers in a taut, understated description of how human beings can strive to coexist with the natural processes of land and sky:

[W]e seem to be engulfed in their giant mounds forever, then abruptly their wonder ends and we are back in sage and rambling desert. Now we begin to see more small farms where the farmers drive simple, older style John Deere tractors, not the behemoth rigs of the giant co-op farms in the Midwest. A canal of blue water flows between the field edge and the road. Then a cattle lot with what appears to be hundreds of Holsteins grouped in smaller numbers in separate pens. A grim, dismal sight to see them shut up in small pens with the wide land around them teasing freedom. Then irrigated crops, small farms with goats and a large herd of sheep.

Owen’s love of the ecosphere, as in “Dazzle Camouflage,” comes to the fore; she’s seeing the world from the inside out:

Green that goes straight up      tousled locks of branches
then green as still as baize         firs and pines
the great green cargo of these branches      in layers      thick
green hunks of rafts      of forest      pitch and foam

kids across the way put up a makeshift stand
by the side      of the road      shake dust from
little trucks & chant      “Toys
for Sale!”      they plan to buy ice cream with the money
[and so on.]

In Tucson, going forward in her journey, Henning goes back in time:

I sit quietly smiling to myself, remembering years back singing kirtan and going on retreats with Krishna Das every week in small groups in NYC at Jivamukti; this was years before he became famous. My very close yoga pals Lisa Schrempp and Kate Donovan were there, too, and then they both moved to Tucson. When I tell Maureen about it and call up one of his albums on my computer, Pilgrim Heart, we both start singing, smiling, and laughing, especially when I show her how we used to dance around the Jiva studio: Hare ram, hare ram ram ram, hare hare / hare krishna, hare krishna krishna krishna, hare hare and so on. Now to sing with KD would require going to an auditorium with a crowd of people. But here we are in a little casita singing together.

And this is from Henning’s ecstatic poem, “With a Bang”:

—with a bang—the hairy flower wild petunia—flings its tiny seeds—sudden and far—how and why—the scientist—kneels down—clamps a metal band—on a pigeon’s leg—her initials—and id number—my broken toe—x-rayed, recorded—at the Bleecker Street station—an old man—with head bowed—kneeling—on cardboard—an over-crowded—shopping cart, a sign—repentthe end is near—the Indian guru whispers—the only sin—to harm oneself—to harm another—is to harm oneself—on the platform—the next generation—leans over a keyboard—riffs, breaks, runs—his body hunched—fingers flying—30 miles an hour—all at once—released—the seeds spin outward—the bird flutters into the air—

“San Francisco & Berkeley February 26 – March 1, 2019,” one of seventeen chapters, includes various photos – one a road-level shot of the Bay Bridge looking east, taken by Owen, its vertiginous height emphasized by striated, dark clouds. The shot anticipates their coming visit with Diane di Prima (in her retirement home). The facing page has two images of her (with David Henderson, with Henning). On the next page two of Henning’s photos show portions of di Prima’s room. Her bulletin board contains, almost gallery-like, portraits (snapshots, art works), and, in one corner, what looks to be a manuscript page.

“Her room had stacks of books,” Owen writes, “orchids on the windowsill, and prayer flags over a shrine to her Tibetan Buddhist teacher.” The other shot on this page is of the shrine. Subsequent pages present folks gathered for drinks, food, in either city. The constellation of these tangible memories is quietly poignant. A poem of di Prima’s, “Wisteria Light” (which begins, “In the early days of eternity”), steals the show. It was a gift to Henning for a collection she was using with her students in New York. More photos conclude the chapter – of luminaries who’ve turned out for their two at-home away-from-home visitors.

Each stop, each reunion, is framed by a shared social, poetical network of people who become a big part of the story. The familial spirit is gently captured by a lovely frontispiece built around two graceful, lighthearted portraits, one of Maureen by Yvonne Jacquette, the other of Barbara by Rie Shimamura. To contemplate this book as an artifact of what Donald Allen (editor of The New American Poetry, 1960) called “the community of love” strikes me, now, as anachronism. It’s there to be appreciated, though.

Social positionings in Henning’s and Owen’s work are wonderfully alive to happenstance – the existence of their poems, their circumstances, with or without ascribed purposes, part of the grand celebration we witness in celebrating the now. I come better to grasp how both poets constitute chapters in anyone’s history of the New York School with its adoration of the situation. In this particular way this book honors people’s lives.

Here’s Owen back home:

We chilled and rested up for the first week back in Denver. We unpacked the wine we had traded our handwritten poems for in Sebastopol / Monte Rio, sorted books, and I got my paperwork in order for next year’s taxes. I reentered the rhythm of taking care of my mom. Then, wanting to celebrate our “We did it!” moment, we organized a little brunch. We had our great California wine from Random Ridge, a 2016 Fortunata red, Barbara’s Bill Clinton recipe for quinoa salad, and the amazing , nearby French Trompeau Bakery right down the street. It all came together beautifully with my mom, Junior Burke, Jenny Dorn, Denie Orr, Joanne Weiss, Barbara, and myself around the table. A rollicking crew. It was the perfect toast to our reading adventure!

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