Marjorie PerloffRochelle Owen's Luca: Discourse on Life and Death
San Diego: Junction Press, 2001

by Marjorie Perloff


        In 1919, Marcel Duchamp bought on the rue de Rivoli, a cheap postcard reproduction of the Mona Lisa and decided to give Leonardo’s famous enigmatic face a black-penciled mustache, curling up at the corners, and a neat small goatee. Underneath the portrait, Duchamp inscribed the letters L.H.O.O.Q, a sequence which, read aloud in French, equals elle a chaud au cul (she has a hot ass). But his was not just a crude joke; as he explained it many years later, “The curious thing about that moustache and goatee is that when you look at the Mona Lisa it becomes a man.  It is not a woman disguised as a man; it is a real man, and that was my discovery, without realizing it at the time.” 

        Here Duchamp implies playfully what Freud, in his famous study of Leonardo da Vinci, took very seriously—namely the artist’s latent homosexuality. In both cases, the model herself (a local merchant’s wife) is seen as mere object—“the occasion for these ruses,” to use Frank O’Hara’s phrase in “In Memory of my Feelings.” And of course art historians have taken this object status as given: Ernst Gombrich, for example, argues that the universal appeal of the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile may be attributed to “Leonardo’s famous invention which the Italians call sfumato—the blurred outline and mellowed colors that allow one form to merge with another and always leave something to our imagination.”

        Indeed, the painting’s sfumato does leave something to the imagination, and in her brilliantly inventive Luca: Discourse on Life and Death, Rochelle Owens has imaginatively recreated Mona Lisa from multiple perspectives, including Mona Lisa’s own. Owens’s is a profound meditation on how Leonardo’s painting—the very epitome of Renaissance art—was really produced and disseminated, and what the process meant to the women (Mona and her friend Flora, who appears in so many Leonardo works) as well as the children who served as the models for Jesus and St. John the Baptist in various paintings. Owens’s “narrative”—which is complexly disjunctive, weaving in and out of Renaissance Florence, our own time, and the more distant past of pre-Columbian cultures—circles around three characters: “Lenny” (Leonardo) the artist/scientist, the artist’s model Mona Lisa, referred to here as Mona or La Gioconda (“the smiling woman”), as the painting is also called, and Siggy or Sigmund Freud, whose rationalist analysis destroys the heart and soul of the culture it “murders to dissect.” In the course of the narrative, Mona and Flora become part of a larger company of women, especially poor women from various Indian tribes, who continue to be oppressed in the Americas of the present

Leo na r do had not heard you you answer
correctly you calculate the edge reflect
Reflect on the sketch
of Indian women

The conjunction of time frames and situations makes for a bravura performance—that rare long poetic sequence that holds the reader’s attention from beginning to end even though it is by no means a linear narrative.

      Just as Marx will never be the same after one reads Owens’s Karl Marx Play (1973), so “Lenny” emerges as a complex character, obsessed with anatomy and hence the dissection of cadavers, much taken with young boys, alternately giggly and abstracted—and always consumed by his work.  Sigmund is his alter ego—hard, cold, “trimphantly smil[ing] on reading/a pathological review of a great man.” In “The First Person,” for example, we read:

                                                            you said
the smile of Gioconda floats upon

her features           you hook your neck
pursing your lips saturate your dry
eyelids with oil and very lightly

brush in this preherstory widening
your fibrous memory

        This passage gives us a good idea of the diction and tone that distinguish Luca from most poetry written today. Owens’s theme, here as in The Joe Poems or Futz, is that of violation—the violation of one person’s space by those others who want to control or absorb it, who will not let it be. Freud’s “fibrous memory” won’t let the Leonardo story be; he has to explain away childhood memories as homosexual fantasies and find explanatory mechanisms for the artist’s sublimation. But Owens doesn’t relate these things dispassionately: in her macabre vision, Freud is seen “hook[ing] [his] neck” and, in a horrific image, “saturat[ing [his] dry/ eyelids with oil.” Owens does not shrink from the violence and horror she finds everywhere around her and which she projects back, most convincingly, into what was supposed to be, according to Burckhardt and Berenson, the ordered and measured world of Renaissance Florence. This poet enters her narrative and calls the shots as she sees them:

At times it seemed
to her she looked like other women
wearing a baffled look her brain
retained an image the very long
teeth due to gum deterioration her
exhaling suddenly looking in the
middle instead holding her head to the

The sardonic suggestion that Mona Lisa’s fabled smile is the result of gum deterioration is characteristic of Owens’s X-ray vision. Her packed, heavily accented free verse erupts like a volcano, as in this description, early in the poem, of Mona’s illness:

Thin body of fiber

Desperately sick for want
of a cleaner wound the woman followed
Mona’s orders as if there is any
doubt water  salt   sugar   protein

potassium   calcium     urinate   spon-

taneously then the exposed & opened
entire lens would rupture the rule
in most cases the patient adjusts
following this three to

seven fine sutures of silk or dog-gut.

      Notice the strange collision of highly concrete nouns as in lines 5-6 above with the indeterminacy of reference produced by syntactic ellipsis and a quirky absence of punctuation. In lines 8-9, one expects a period after “rupture,” and the next phrase should read, “the rule / in most cases [is that] the patient adjusts,/following this three to seven fine sutures of silk or dug-gut.” And even the adjectival modifier here is non-sensical. A surgeon might say, “Give him three to seven sutures” or “He will need three to seven sutures,” but in what situation would one say, “following this three to seven fine sutures”? If one knows that Y follows X, one would not be in the uncertainty about X that is registered here.

        And sound repetition tells the same story. The predominant sound is that of syllables ending with an emphatic /t/ stop:  want, salt, protein, urinate/ potassium, rupture, patient, sutures, dog-gut. The poet’s voice fairly chokes as it vividly recounts the many threads of the Mona/Flora story—threads that come together, later in the poem when the Renaissance motifs are seen through Aztec and Mayan prisms—words like “Aztec” and “Tlaloc,” reinforcing the sound structure of the earlier passages and ironizing the claims of the conquistadores whose plunder of American soil parallels Lenny’s earlier plunder of the very bodies and souls of his female models in the interest of anatomical study as well as the art of painting. 

        Rochelle Owens’s writing, here as elsewhere, is sui generis. She is, in many ways, a proto-language poet, her marked ellipses, syntactic oddities, and dense and clashing verbal surfaces recalling the long poems of Bruce Andrews and Ron Silliman. But Owens is angrier, more energetic, and more assertive than most of her Language counterparts, male and female, and she presents herself as curiously non-introspective. Hers is a universe of stark gesture, lightning flash, and uncompromising judgement; it is imperative, in her poetic world, to face up to the horror, even as the point of view is flexible enough to avoid all dogmatism.

        Immensely learned, sophisticated, and witty in its conceits, this Discourse on Life and Death demands two kinds of reading. First, it should be read through from beginning to end as if it were a novel; in this instance, our concern is with character and the interchange between people, and we watch carefully as Mona and Flora and the children evolve before our eyes. But a second reading is required so as to note the poem’s microstructure—its superb modulation of rhythms and internal rhymes, its ironies and paradoxes. It is the layering of cultures and especially of myths including our own contemporary myths of the Great Creative Genius (always male), creating beauty out of the detritus around him, that makes Luca so distinctive. Watch out, Owens seems to be saying, for those high-minded claims and take another look at the evidence of actual life—“a stream of molten lava burning,” “doses of nitrogen muscle saliva,” or even “the seams / of a discarded wallet.” Owens has no easy answers for the pain and sorrow she presents for our contemplation but her insistent questioning is itself a gift.


BIO: Marjorie Perloff's most recent books are Wittgenstein’s Ladder (1996) and Poetry On & Off the Page (1998).  She has just retired from the Sadie D. Patek Professorship at Stanford University.



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