Sound and Form

Andrew Wynn Owen, The Multiverse

Carcanet Press, 136pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781784105624

reviewed by Liam Bishop

William Blake saw, in the age of scepticism, Enlightenment philosophy heralded as damaging to what he thought was the unifying power of the poetic vision. Should the sun and moon be overcome by doubt ‘they’d immediately go out’ he wrote in ‘Auguries of Innocence’. Andrew Wynn Owen, in his collection which draws on images and arguments from religion and science, also questions what scepticism might mean for our aesthetics. He takes us to a similar time of wonder and trouble.

Indeed, it could be a parallel time, in his opening and title poem ‘The Multiverse’, we’re going through worlds where one is ‘all slides and tinkling laughter’, and others where ‘God or restless mathematics meant to fix it so’. We feel like we’re at a continual crossroads in the collection as his poems of varying meters and winching rhyme depict an ensuing tension in the complicated relationship between the poet, the actual structure of the poem, and the ideas and forms that form within or around it. Although The Multiverse might be a self-conscious title to the poetic art, it also insinuates the positions the poet takes in Owen’s work: philosophic, academic, and heretic to name a few. 

Perhaps through the writing of the poem Owen is obliged to take these stances. In ‘Good and Bad’ the reader gets a strong indication of how complicated this relationship between the poet and the poem can be:

And since we’re human, animal-angel, after all,
I shouldn’t like
To eulogise and drop the mic.
Low-hanging fruit to overlook the fraught
Realities that structure, force-field, make befall.
No get-out in these breath-tricks,
The long and short
Of patterned speech to free our defects from our ethics

If we look deeper we’ll see how these ideas don’t appear so congruent. Numerous compounds like ‘animal-angel’ and ‘low-hanging’ feed into the lack of clarity and the switch from ‘eulogise’ to ‘drop the mic’ in the same line suggests the speaker is struggling to determine the most appropriate register for their idea. In fact the spondee encased in ‘low-hanging’ appears to place emphasis on this fruit, which at first, suggests Genesis-inspired imagery, but by the next line, could more likely be referring to Newtonian physics.

Form and imagery are more elusive than their structures and you begin to wonder if Owen’s ideas, and his staggering scope, need more, or want to break out of their structures, to return to Blake, whom Northrop Frye said of, ‘the mystical experience for him is poetic material, not poetic form, and must be subordinated to the demands of that form’. Owen is not a mystic like Blake was, but he appears mystified by his material. There is something that disturbs that energy though. Where Blake might have unified his vision and form in his poetic structure there is a dissonance in Owen’s work that is uncomfortable with this notion and instead of him denying the scepticism like Blake did, it appears as a source of a desire for Owen threatening to break, rather than unite, form and structure. Doubt is almost Owen’s muse.

Naturally, these grand questions can be exhaustive and the collection, as a result, is dense both in content and length. But the way Owen situates his poetry at the intersection of religion and philosophy, as though purposefully antiquarian, suggests that if we’ve been asking these questions for nearly four hundred years, why haven’t they been answered? Perhaps this is why in ‘Detectives’ the poet appears as a tired sleuth. To deduce or determine becomes just another way to reduce:

Having ruled out impossibilities,
However improbable,
What’s left must be the truth.
Still, who can love a wood without the trees?

You begin to get a sense that this contingency on structure might be existentially impeding him, like the detective’s protocol, or the academic’s research paper; the answers might not be conducive to the structures we have now. ‘Detectives’ though gives a more implicit warning of this ‘wood without the trees’: here, the stanzas funnel down to a monometer and then back out to the pentameter (I cut the last line short): ‘The image trembles and/Eludes./Where it may lead/Perhaps we’ll never know, . . .’ What is the force that eludes or inspires the evasion once it’s reached? We’re left wondering whether there really is anything to search for down there or if we even have the tools to search for it. 

There is a lightness that supplants the density of the grand themes however, that sometimes borders on the audacious with an Ashbery-like skill to impart the acerbic or casual aphorism where it’s least expected. It seems though that in Owen, to use these ambitious and extensive themes as his subject is also to question something more fundamental to the art, of not just poetry, but language. This is the first stanza of ‘The Birth of Speech’:

Can you recall that moment when,
Leaving a den
Of warmth, you went to meet the light,
To gasp and fight
For breath, the shock of air
A jolt
That made secluded selfhood bolt
Beyond its bounds
And fashion sounds
So those who heard would care?

The sixth line really does jolt us despite the enjambment and this is how the poem takes its course, dipping and submerging, before slowing to a restful image of ‘people fishing’ as if they’ve just watched us drop and peak above the water’s surface. But Owen’s most dazzling preoccupation is reserved for this poem: how do we even fashion these miraculous sounds that form our language? How, from thin air, does it become sound and form? Amidst the multiverse and parallel worlds, where the philosophic and the religious meets with the scientific, the most important question is perhaps reserved for the poet’s answering.