Two Poems by James Owens

Leafing Out

As if to say—in the shape
of saying, where there are
no words, the broken 

young dogwood that autumn wind
snapped clean from the earth
and which lay frozen

all winter has thawed 

and stirred and has spun 

bright futile leaves  

at the tip of each twig. 

Not to speak of hope, for the leaves 

will wither hopelessly— 

but as if, with a final gasp, 

one who has lost all 

at a crash, cut off 

from aid and recovery, who has 

labored the weary dark 

to arrive and die, 

might fall at your feet, 

whispering Fuck death 

or I love you.


Confessio Poetae

I could have become a pediatric surgeon and moved to Dhaka, learned to speak Bangla, labored long for low wages under poor conditions, but I would have loved my bravely determined, young patients and would have helped. Or I could have persisted with that graduate program in French and could now be safely tenured in some New England university, which, I think, must involve a variety of profound inner silence. I love silence. I could have been a lawyer, putting my modest verbal facility to respectable use. Even factory work might have been an improvement, like my uncles who spent forty years at GM in Ohio. They made good livings, bought houses, raised families, so drenched in the American dream that they forgot they were dreaming, until they looked around on their deathbeds and wondered. My wife and I could have avoided this perpetual precarity, bought eyeglasses whenever we needed them, even a frigging new book, now and then, besides haunting the exhausted shelves at the charity store. I could have gotten her the physical therapy she needs, not sending her off to work every morning, knowing she will return at night, limping in pain, and me unable to help, which is my particular, Dantean hell. But none of that happened. I neglected everything—my lonely parents, my disappointed first wife, my children and step-children, had few friends, had no real work—and spent myself in making little, fluttery toys out of words, toys that, once set going with a breath, dissolved into nothing as they spun to a rest. Not many readers wanted them, understandably. They had no clear use, not like tools or money. Some of the fluttery toys were pretty, no denying it, but the people I loved stayed sad, and the prettiness was not enough to change that. And here's the goddamned punchline, the very one you've been expecting: I sat here, thinking through this dreary history, and it occurred to me that I could write a poem about it.

James Owens's newest book is Family Portrait with Scythe (Bottom Dog Press, 2020). His poems and translations appear widely in literary journals, including recent or upcoming publications in Channel, Arc, Slant, and The Honest Ulsterman. Originally from Southwest Virginia, he earned an MFA at the University of Alabama and lives in a small town in northern Ontario.