In Conversation with Jennifer Knowlan
Here are some of the adjudicators’ comments on Jennifer Knowlan’s “Barred Owl.” You’ll find the poem itself in Issue 136: Do You Know Who I Am?, available fall 2015:
- I like what this poem says about memory: the occasion of visiting one, the stubbornness and familiarity of it. I like the line: “as if returning will solve the puzzle of following the same path to the ocean every time.”
- Okay, I was hooked just at the title of the poem, but the imagery was also great, particularly “the trees knitting wind into/shawls of mist” and the pond “waiting for a story” (or was it the birches that were waiting for a story? It could be either or both).
- A poem about the pull to a loved place of childhood, managed through the appearance of an owl “returned…to where it first found freedom.” But while the poet relates to the owl (a very real owl, not a plucked metaphor), the poem also intimates something of the dark side of nostalgic connection to place, that it can be a homecoming but also “a feathered weight,” memory itself a “retched pellet” (wonderful simile that!). I had confidence in the poet throughout.
Kim Jernigan: Okay, I have just one question for you. The occasion for the poem is the arrival of the owl, not just any owl, but a Barred Owl. These haunt the night forests of our family’s summer place in Northern Wisconsin, their familiar cry “Who Cooks for You?,” though they also make a more spine-tingling growl that can startle if it comes all unexpected on a dark night. The “barred” in their name refers to the bands of brown and white on their chest, but the term itself signifies in other ways: to bar is to fasten but also to prohibit or fetter. So the suggestion is perhaps that the return to a loved place can have a dark side, can be both connection and obligation. Can you speak to some of the emotional complexities the image of an owl’s returning to a place of “first found freedom” ignited in you?
Jennifer Knowlan: The poem “Barred Owl” grew out of a story I heard on Denman Island about an owl that was nursed back to health after an injury and released into the wild, then kept returning to the spot at which it was released. I loved that story (thanks, Julie of the Blue Owl B&B!): it rang true for me about how we keep, as humans, not only revisiting scenes of death and destruction, but also those of freedom and rebirth. I love exploring the concept that no matter how we grow and change through our lives and no matter where on this earth we go, we are always dealing with the same essential issues, just in different ways. The owl, for me, serves as a reminder that life is a series of cycles: we can think we’ve found “the answer” (freedom), but, like everything else—including life itself!—it comes… and then it goes.