Wresting Dailiness from Obscurity: Maureen Owen’s Zombie Notes

by Ashleigh Lambert


I recently found a scrap of paper in the notebook I kept while I was pregnant. At first glance, it appears to be misplaced, an orphan from some other journal. It’s an excerpt from a Mary Ruefle essay. She writes:

I remember that I did not always know authors were ordinary people living ordinary lives, and that an ordinary life was an obscure life, if we can extend the meaning of obscure to mean covered up by dailiness, glorious dailiness, shameful dailiness, dailiness that is difficult to figure out, that is not always clear until a long time afterward. Obscure: not readily noticed, easily understood, or clearly expressed. Which is a pretty good definition of life.

Annie Dillard makes a similar point when she writes that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our life.” This succession of humdrum days is all there is to life, and if our daily existence seems to obscure the grandeur of capital-L life, that’s because life itself is obscure. Children, especially, coat everything in a thick layer of dailiness – and yet they do not see it that way. Possessing so little power over how they spend their time, and operating in a constant condition of curiosity, children approach each moment as a unique opportunity. Maybe that sounds sentimental, but long-term exposure to this worldview – the kind of exposure you get as a parent – can provide real benefits for the poet-parent.

Maureen Owen is a poet especially attuned to the awareness that arises from full immersion in dailiness. There is a particular section of her Zombie Notes that moved me when I was pregnant and unsure what shape my new days would take:

Bump through 6AM Rookie lightness
Care & Feeding of baby & small children
Drive 150 miles to read poems
Do it                 with feeling!
Drive 150 miles back
Get on train       Go 80 miles to work
Work 48 hours straight
Retrace trajectory
Enter jeep         drive home
Sleep 3 hours
Now Friday morning!
Lunge upward
Care & feeding of baby & children
Go into small study w/ many books
Sit in front of typewriter
                                                A Zombie!
                                                Zombie drinks tea!
                                                Zombie writes poems!

Here the poem functions as a word problem with no discernable solution. There is no way to move beyond the fact that no matter how far she travels, the speaker will always return home to face the “care & feeding of baby & children.” She claims the identity of a zombie – but zombies are not generally known for their generative abilities. The poem’s mere existence serves as proof that childcare, wage labor and commuting, while time-consuming, are not insurmountable obstacles to creation. Owen’s specificity here was exactly what I needed when I was pregnant. I needed to see the numbers laid out for me, needed to know that yes, it is possible to write when you are juggling a job and children; yes, if you want to write, you may only sleep for three hours, but you are allowed to speak about your exhaustion in the work you produce. Owen wrests dailiness back from obscurity. She does not propose a way out of the time crunch all poet-parents face, but there is a solace in seeing someone else assess the constraints of her material condition, let out a sigh, and go on writing.


Ashleigh Lambert is the author of the chapbook Ambivalent Amphibians (Dancing Girl Press, 2012). Her poems and book reviews have also been published in Anti-, Bone Bouquet, Coldfront, Elimae, The Rumpus and Sink Review. She lives in New York City with her partner and daughter. She is currently at work on a book of poems about debt.