You will notice the corpses on our gallows.
After the drying effect of sun and wind,
they grin wider than you ever could.

The streets over there are narrow
because those people
love things that do them little good:
odd cloud formations,
breathless dark-eyed girls,
the rustle and stir
of stiff languages in the day's first heat.

At dusk, each person
carries that day's wound
back to a chilly, ill-lit room
and examines it
the way a child plays with a firefly.

(You know which child it has to be --

She laughs musically
when she chases the brief brightening
over grass slippery with dew,
then she plops down cross-legged,
bent over her cupped hands.
She moves a thumb and peers in,
waiting for a light,
then waiting for the light again.)

James Owens


When lightning wallowed in the orchard's lap --
that quick, raw violence from the clouds almost
offhand, it seemed to us whom the hard crack
knocked out of sleep, guessing -- we went and touched
the ruined tree as if it asked for touch
or fed our human lust for broken things:

a bright smell of stripped apple wood whetted
the dawn air, as last ends of storm lit up
the shattered limbs and naked spines of trunk,
pure white against the winter leaves' worn black --
a sharp smooth architecture of weapons, aimed,
right then, where we stood, sky-threatened and new.

James Owens


2/10/01  observations on hunger

The man at the corner table
gets up for another plate,
leaves chicken bones heaped.
A waitress shakes her head,
makes a little clucking pout
at the pink folds of his nape,
and clears a round of dishes.
He lays two-handed waste
to the dessert counter,
brings one plate of cookies,
one with chocolate cake
dripping cherry sauce.

I could explain it all
if you were here:
the mouth is a womb
where the soul can curl
alone in any crowd.
Cake is good in its accidents,
does not require one merit an essence.

I wonder if I will pass him later,
weeping in the parking lot,
staring at the sky,
tears glittering in the sun.
You would look away,
but I want to know everything.

My restlessness has never
brought you closer by any part of an inch

James Owens


Rain wears to a whisper in the yard,
and lightening bugs take back the neighbor's hill,
synapses firing again in the night's black brain,
flickering numberless above high grass.

A man watches from the porch, plays
at stitching these bright points
into pattern, lines and shapes like signals,
forms broken by the dumb cast of chance.
Nothing meant for him,
only an odd pleasure
that the world slips his net.

If he needs something in the night to love,
there is endearing randomness.
Joy still might wander in from the woods.

If he could sleep, he would join
the dance of small illuminations,
would float above night-blooms
until the intermittent flashes
were shining incidents in his own body.

          James Owens


The morning when it was almost spring
ached dull and infected,
though ordinary light
was only ordinary light.
He stirred and rose. Sunshine
winter-rinsed and weakened
crossed the table and washed one cup.
Late snow stuttered across the fields,
sticking on the windward sides of trees,
accumulating like the need for sleep.
He wanted the light dull, and he did sleep.

Now at the start of summer a friend on the telephone
asks about flowers:
"How did they do this spring,
those big tulips along the driveway,
she worked so hard....?"

He says, "I don't remember,"

and here you should feel
his hand cold around the receiver,
his throat like a blackened well,
and should think how, without
his noticing, the spring days
have all trembled on their stems
and have loosened themselves, petal
by petal, into
the blank and silent air.

James Owens


The morning after my death, the light
comes up as usual, hungry flowers
gasp open to the sun, cardinals

rediscover the clever songs
of centuries past, you read this
and turn the page with a little shrug

(I see the birds' red
bleed into the dirt, light hushes
the sky like wind on a puddle)

James Owens


This face about to sink out of sight
through paint: empty flesh
slacks back on the skull as he sorts
grades of day across pale curves of skin,
analyzing ripples of bed sheets.
She floats-her hair's final dishevelment
framed by the light of an hour
before the arrival of morticians-
floats between the darkness of her eyes
and the other darkness severing us
from that day of singular color.

Work as devotion in the priesthood of what is:
setting out his paints and choosing brushes,
the rote kitchenry of accustomed labor,
and then his attention narrows to a brushstroke
and the following brushstroke, building her,
the odd set of her mouth testing his craft.

Any worker stands that way some days,
before a loom or on the line at an auto plant,
lightly, swaying slightly on the surface of time,
watches the melding yarn or twists
on a thousandth washer, and the factory
fades to a sweet blur, the century
declines to quitting time as shadows mass
at the windows, pigeons in the rafters
cooing like the long day's welcome to sleep.

James Owens

First appeared in Arbutus


Alfred Jarry wrote: "The soul is a tic."
At first I misread that line,
thinking he had written "tick,"
and I saw what he would have meant:
the soul grown fat and parasitic
on the body's juices, hanging lazy
and bloated, from the back of the knee,
or eager, drilling for the jugular.
As if the body
might give one pest-crazed, canine shake
and be free, the dislodged soul
a thing to be stepped on but

remember your death-vision in the mountains
last spring, birdsong fading,
new leaves fading from your numbed eyes.
You wanted to run, but your legs
were gone, or became legs of snow.

James Owens

First appeared in The Blue Fifth Review


Phlegmy clots of algae
   fleck the slurry pond-
no other trace of life

since the mine above
    spat its refuse here
and died. Milkweed

stops at the edge of mud
    rotting and warm with sulfur,
where ruined water reflects

the rare hiker's face,
    and, deep down, slow
veils of old coal dust

still shudder on dim currents.
    Maybe they are like
thoughts of poison

that ghost a mirror when
    a man has lost money
again on cards, lost

his wife for the treacherous
    sweetness of other women.
The bottom is pure nightmare,

anaerobic and yards deep
    in silt as soft as greed
and lust. Imagine lovers

who have left their car
    at the foot of the hill, climbing
without words the yellow

clay ruts of the road
    toward the exhausted mine,
and stopping here. It is

their last day together.
    She says, "No-"
and can't find a way

to complete her refusal,
    stares at empty clouds
slicked on the pond.

And he wanders into the woods,
    absently touching branches,
the bark like numbed skin.

Or think the woman a doe
    fleeing hunters.
She drags her torn belly

under the hollow rattling
    of dry autumn laurel,
and now, drawn to the water,

thirst clawing blood
    from her throat, she turns
her head and will not drink.

James Owens

First appeared in The Pedestal


Leaves rattle on the drained trees

What does this boy in the meadow whisper
Face down words filtering

Among odd twigs and into the soil?

Wind plays broken dry stops of weed
He is not a boy who cooled his face

Against window glass when the adults hurled things

Not the one who set out alone
He has wandered here and talks

Through cupped hands to the ground

His words won't flit away like tiny insects
Or burrow like ants

He doesn't say the kind of things

You would keep in a little leather pouch
He isn't that boy who sits up beside a lamp

And touches pages of a book

Then comes to lean into the leaf rot and speak
He is not someone who woke early

And surprised the shadows still hanging

From their hooks
Or the deer at the edge of a clearing

So that only now the does lower their heads

To nuzzle dew from the grass
After his smell has slipped past

His words won't brush

His lips with a touch like a feather's
Over and over soft

Bringing him from long sleep

He never becomes that boy
And lies whispering in the meadow

Where bees stomp through late vaults of pollen

James Owens


The continent buckles here to comfort
and confine, but let morning light through fog

and a mountain remembers
the sea, oaks branching like coral,

wreathes of mist snaking into seaweed.
Cliffs shelve off into gray ignorance

where one might fall for years, abstracted
into the soft element that nibbles and unknits skin,

pearl-colored glow wherever the hands move.


All memories gather in one green swell-

light washing over him, dimming as he pulls himself
deeper, reaching for the dark.

In a million years, we will all be there
at the floor of the trenches, attending his slow descent.

Already we lower our dead among the currents of earth,
and they set out, rudderless and sure,

under plains, under mountains, toward the sea.


This morning-every sound damped by fog,
birds hushed by fog like starers in the utter depth-

the only music is the ear's own sea-music.
We should float through the empty streets

before the sun pulls them back to shore.
We should remember how bodies love water,

dreaming in the marrow that lost approximation to flight-
tides holding everything, leaving

and returning, the million hands of the sea.

James Owens

First appeared in Arbutus


The mirror watches him pace without comment,
except for the old story about time,

always droning on about time,
the full room and the empty room,

inbred days of travel.
He hears a woman's voice outside

and feels ready for anything.
Time gathers its paws and crouches

but does not spring.
As the moon flexes around streetlights

somebody's death waits at the corner-
maybe not his death, but death,

(the story skips as he falls asleep)
death beckoning to strangers, whistling an invitation,

whetting a chipped ax (and all night
his dreams scatter like dust

through the mirror's whispering,
settle in the pockets of his hanging jacket,

on the telephone and on the numbers in the book,
in the folds of the sheet and on his eyelids).

James Owens


They are preparing to flee the city.
It is the fifth year of the war, and she is three.

Stiff pose. A tiny white dress.
Mended lace blooms at the throat.

Her father scowls beneath his beard
and holds her

like a valise full of her mother's bones.

James Owens


Fog wound the neighbor's forsythia
until the sun unwrapped it-not
your gift. Draw breath, towel
the dribbled coffee, close the door,
close the curtains. Wind out there
tears chimney smoke off at the roots.
Dogs prowl the road like threats.

Didn't you know things would slide,
the sink and cupboards would blur,
and nobody left gives a damn
for that pressed swatch of sky
treasured in the dresser drawer?

Verbs untense, slip their knots.
Infinitives rip like a sudden gust
through your closet of little ironies-
to be, to have, to darken, to end
burst like forsythia in the window.

James Owens

JAMES OWENS lives in Northport, Alabama, where he is the editor of The Sow's Ear Poetry Review. His poems have appeared in numerous literary journals, including recent or upcoming publications in 3rd Muse Poetry Journal, Now & Then, The Pedestal, Pierian Springs, and Wind.  The Adirondack Review also published three of his original French language poems in previous issues.
Featured Poet
James Owens
Notes for Visitors to the Restricted District
Memory of War
The Sort of Thing I Observed When I Was Trying to Keep a Journal and Intending to Show It to You Someday
During Grief
Monet: Camille Monet on her Deathbed
The Way Things End
Inland: For Cousteau
Old Photograph: Prague
Last Morning

James Owens
Read TAR's interview with James Owens by Ace Boggess