Review: For One Who Knows How to Own Land

Review: For One Who Knows How to Own Land

By Richard Allen Taylor

Scott Owens draws heavily on his memories of growing up in the fast-disappearing rural South to bring forth his seventh collection of poetry, a collage of diverse but interconnected, mostly narrative poems about life on or near the farm, at times as a participant and at other times as a witness.

The book begins with “Between the Rails,” a poem about a young boy who found God between two cars/of the line from Greenwood to Clinton,/where his feet had frozen in place/on the small block holding the coupler.” Transfixed, the boy clings to his perch until the next train stop, when railroad officials return him safely to his parents.

The boy shows up again in “Feeding Time,” in which the farmer (possibly the author’s father or grandfather) lures a cow to the feed trough, steps outside the barn, pokes the barrel of a rifle through a knot hole and shoots the cow through the head. Owens tells the tale in graphic and skillful detail, but as dispassionately as most of us eat a cheeseburger. A related poem, “Slaughter,” describes the skinning and butchering. I’d seen him twist heads/off chickens, shed skin of rabbits,/batter skulls of fox, hawk, possum,/but nothing made a space in memory/like this reduction of life so large.

Whether Owens writes about himself or people he knew, or heard about, is not always clear, but it doesn’t matter. Every word in this collection rings true, all seems authentic and lived-through. Actually, the book contains hints and clues that some of the material sprang from direct experience while some came from stories heard at family gatherings and meetings with old friends. In “Ed and His Brothers,” one character—probably the author—meets up with his old chums: Then he’d listen to every story,/remember every point, never question/a claim, no matter how big or out of character.

Several of these poems begin in simple innocence and proceed in steps toward the dire or the tragic. “Breaking” begins with a young boy throwing rocks at bottles and marches through other things that break or are broken: the mother broke water, the boy broke legs off insects, the grandfather broke chicken bones in his teeth and broke the land. The scene shifts to Attica and Kent, King/and My Lai, the fields and jungles/scattered with war, the streets/emptied through breaking of wall/and windows, hearts and heads.

To say it another way, some of these poems progress from the ordinary to the extraordinary, a technique that Owens executes masterfully. A prime example is “The Land Above This Line Is Oak and Hickory; Below is Pine.” The poem begins with biological and geographical fact, then proceeds to what it or meant to live on or near that line: It will be something you swung from,/something you crossed despite the danger of buckshot,/something you held tight before you,/your back bending against its going away.

“The Exploration of Edges” is closely related. Here, the author begins with the childhood observation that he expected lines on the ground separating North Carolina from the South, South Carolina from Georgia, Greenwood County from anywhere else. From there the author explores the significance of lines and boundaries, how they define us, limit us or tempt us to cross, and to understand the necessity of neutral zones,/in places thin as walls, in others,/off the tip of Argentina, for example/where oceans meet, as wide as moving water and every bit as tumultuous. Again note the progression of ideas, in this instance from the naïve to the mature, as the poem ripens before our eyes.

The latter part of the book contains a series of character sketches, poems about people remarkable for one extreme trait or another, good or bad—usually bad. “Brock” tells the story about a dog-kicking wife beater who got a bullet in the back, ending his reign of terror. “Meta,” a woman with oppressive and obsessive moral standards, drove two teenage children from her home, leaving a third as the only shadow visible behind her. “Kendall” had a wife who despised him and doted on their only son. Kendall shot them both. The author reminds us that crime and villainy are not limited to modern life, but were with us long before most of our ancestors dropped their pitchforks and headed for the city.

For One Who Knows How to Own Land is a welcome and valuable addition to our literary landscape. With the virtual disappearance of the small family farm from the American scene, the number of us who have experienced the rural life is shrinking. Lest we fall into any sort of romantic reverie about the good old days when folks worked their own tobacco fields and butchered their own hogs, Owens shows us that life in the country was a hard life.

Scott Owens is editor of Wild Goose Poetry Review, has an MFA from UNC Greensboro and is the recipient of many poetry awards. He teaches at Catawba Valley Community College and lives in Hickory, NC. (book link)

– this review refers from Scott Owens’ contributor page

  1. Thank you, Richard, for a very insightful review. Thanks also to Jessie and Andrea for including it in Referential.

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