The Poetry Project

On let the heart hold down the breakage Or the caregiver’s log by Maureen Owen

Cassandra Gillig

If there were a Mt. Rushmore of wild and free New York School Feminist Publishing, Maureen Owen would be up there beaming ear to ear for all the tourists. A longstanding and generous steward for language antagonizers, Owen’s Telephone Books/Magazine was a Whitepages for lesser known St. Mark’s devotees of all regions—freaks of the everyday, accidental lyricists, meter thieves, etc. Owen’s involvement in the Project, too, is a beautiful looming history of love for poetry writ large.

Owen’s newest collection let the heart hold down the breakage Or the caregiver’s log is her twelfth book, another work of attentive recordkeeping that adheres itself to even the smallest moment’s melody or dysfunction or general allure. let the heart chronicles Owen’s caretaking for her mother during the final stages of her life, an inevitably difficult topic but one that seeks truth or miracle with the same deft eye as she has applied throughout her writing career. Though Owen avoids directly addressing her own struggles, the book opens with a list of facts about caregivers—that they are stressed, exhausted, lonely in providing medical services but never entirely that alone (29% of people in the US also provide this sort of imperfect aid to someone in their life). Home care exists both because of the world and in spite of it; there’s little recourse in a medical system which leaves us isolated in our time of greatest need and places the largest burdens of care on those with the least time and resources. The economy of caretaking is inextricably a part of poetry—so many of us being precariously employed or uninsured or existing against traditional family structure or simply broke and exhausted. We have learned to provide for each other in ways that are both because of capitalism’s violent denials (“billionaires don’t care if we like them” one poem starts) and far superior to anything it could ever dream up. Owen’s story—of being caught for life at the fringes of stability—is relatable and her caretaking journey follows suit. Of all the failures chronicled in this book, there’s an understanding that personal fallibility is a product of the impossible task. “Getting mad at anger is counterproductive,” Owen writes, reorienting herself toward the small miracle of anything working at all.

The poems in this collection are often dialogues or disobedient tautologies—what happens when the floor falls and leaves two people equally stupefied? There is a generous amount of misunderstanding but a particular sweetness in every exchange. Titles argue with the stanzas they govern. The poetry of life fights the austere anti-rhythm of living. It’s a propulsion that tugs backwards. “Above us clouds flee southward / grounded our wind blows north // her hair blows forward / mine blows back” one title announces. This is a regular day:

mark a line........on a

milk white....plank table

anchoring a stasis of modality

Owen is at her best when the poem does not give in to the frustrated logic of the world—when it instead falls trustingly into an appreciation of what happens in logic’s absence. The reader is moved between an understanding of how two people used to know each other and what their present alienation can provide even in the most difficult moments. In “sweating into / what is more beautiful than a summer’s darkening twilight”:

On this remote porch ...... salt plans drift

so much indentation ................... whose house could now resist ............ such


I came to realize

that it was not “a break” I was experiencing

not “A vacation”.... not “a rest” ................... but instead

I was in the process of healing ................ of healing

from an affliction ... I had suffered ................ from

my childhood ........ and that by .. the inconceivable vagaries

of fate ................... I had been given this ................... second chance

to heal

This is not an optimistic book, nor one that seeks to punish its reader. It is simply an unadorned record—a serious account of everything that aches, and, too, a catalog of all that provides pleasure. Owen’s is a poetics of noticing, a necessary catalog of a destructively watchful eye and painfully focused heart. She has never shirked a moment of precision.

This is perhaps where a poet’s attentions and a caregiver’s overlap perfectly. We are created and sustained in the most exact details. Telling the story with a piercing accuracy might somehow truly, finally unlock a transference of some of the pain and uncertainty of watching a loved one grow sicker. It is a record that wills a lonely reality into a properly validating audience. Owen writes, “what seethes within that plumage / sucks from the room .... all oxygen / vegetation thick as thunder ... knots between us / into some ....... exotic vacuum” and the reader feels it tug. We have seen everything build and unravel, too.

Owen’s caretaker breaks every day into digestible parts, actions, objects—our most basic skeletons of need and speech. But every list of to-dos or collection of items on a nightstand begins to reassemble itself into a whole. “A glass of 3 cards / / data” gives us an image: “lip balm / Tums / talking clock / stepping stool .... & / rosary.” Each scene or room is full of familiarity—all we’ve used to give or receive comfort. Lists cascade into an incoherent-yet-definite commonality. It’s a clash of existences, too. Two people made real in their exchanges of objects, their incomplete volleying. As much as speech can fail, these serve to cushion something. The poem ends “now / without / staging / lighting / we seem to float / your talking clock / your stepping stool to bed.” Owen administers each word as if it might have the same impact as any small object of comfort stacked on the kitchen table. Meaning emerges in the mess.

As any book that takes a stance against overblown suffering-for-the-sake-of, let the heart has moments of impossibly good humor. “‘Did you say you ordered pizza with the / sauce that prevents aging?’” Owen’s mother asks. Sometimes language fails in order to soothe. Hallucinations of strangers in the room and strangely timed food requests keep the difficulties of caretaking human enough to allow for air. Owen, when possible, gives her mother the final word. Attention is taken to record their frustrated exchanges as much as their gleeful ones.

In digressions—perhaps some of my favorite poems in the book—Owen builds a portrait of her mother’s earlier life. We gain an idea of her power and character, one that I found myself deeply craving more of as I worked through the difficult present times of the book. These poems, too, hold contradictions. In “she could put on her left ear hearing aid / but not ... her right .... & sometimes / ..... she could not put on her left either,” Owen falls into a memory:

back then

she would swing me up behind the saddle .. of the smokey mustang

go full gallop up the cow pasture till the very end fencing

my skinny arms wound around her waist for dear life ........ bounced

and flung ....... my sides pinching & aching

then ... turn and gallop back through the cows ....... leap up the ditch ........ trotting

the gravel driveway .. back into the yard

It chronicles a particular kind of wild independence that gave way to Owen’s, too; it’s all a cycle laid out with love. let the heart often collapses a sense of past and present, some way of making sense of trajectories and necessities and loss. In an early parallel moment of caregiving, Owen recounts dying her mother’s hair black, a poem that dips into diary: “rich fuzz of tawny ........ & slipping green / banks as tho herds of seals / sprawled .. soft & sloping ... hills” (“Distortions”). Again we are confronted by the constant pull between language’s ability to stun with beauty and language’s ability to torment with exactitude.

To caretake is to stretch a love to its furthest limits and challenge patience to proliferate in its gaps. As such, the literature of caretaking is permanently insufficient. This volume has an honest and knowing way of following suit—an attempt to record a relationship unfolding against the wishes of time and with full awareness that it does not know how to feel. Any poet is fortunate to have Maureen Owen as a guide in record-keeping and piloting a new schematic of care.

#271 – Winter 2023