Thursday, September 07, 2006

Alice Notley, Flux

I just pre-ordered Alice Notley's Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems, 1970-2005 from Amazon. There was a profile of Notley in Poets & Writers that mentioned the book. I really loved Mysteries of Small Houses when I read a year or two ago. That's the only work of hers I've read. Mysteries is such a fascinating book--so nakedly autobiographical, yet the speaker feels at times quite distant and removed.

Is that a good thing? People always seem to talk about the personal as something that needs to be held at arm's length--at a distance. If your concept of the personal doesn't have the sensibility of 'distance' in it, you just know someone's going to mow you right down in your tracks. The personal is to be feared--like my friend Patty saying, "I really like your poems. They must have been so therapeutic for you to write." Patty is a child psychiatrist, and I think she finds a lot of pleasure in the slippage between the author and the work--getting at that is part of the pleasure of reading for her. So I don't mind her comments.

But how close is too close? For a poem, I mean. What does it mean to say "I" in a poem? Is it something to be avoided? Something strategic? Is it necessary to separate yourself from what you write and in what way? Eliot talks about needing his mind to be dead in order to write. Anne Carson talks about the ecstatic--the being deleriously outside oneself, but not destroyed--decreated, unmade. Which is different from not existing.

Here's the beginning of "Prophet's Job" by Alice Notley:

620 West 116th St school housing apartment girls
there's a kitchen but I don't cook. They broil an occasional
thigh I remember it blond naked sprinkled with herbs
it's Susan she's engaged, everyone wants to be.
Not me, I'd prefer to be upset by boyfriend but no
in a motion towards permanent coupling, rather
in a motion towards understanding feelings, I've a print
a detail from the Eisenheim Altarpiece on my wall a fiery-
haired pointy-haired angel grinning and playing a viol
to remind me to wait for epiphany.

The lack of punctuation lends humor, initially to the piece, with the implicit comparison of cooked chicken to Susan (the flow created by the lack of punctuation, the use of lineation to align the thigh and Susan one beneath the other). But the stream of consciousness created by the minimal punctuation also allows the speaker to digress. And that wraps the "I" in details or winds details around the "I". The "I" is snagged in the swirls of the language, in "the motion" created by the poem, the lines hard enjambed. Note the acute placement of the comma between "feeling" and "I've". And the comma directly above that. They bend the line at an odd place, at the end. A double pause, the creation of a caesura at the last minute. It adds to the swirling effect--that's the best I can do for interpretation tonight.

And as I recall from annotating this book, Mysteries gets really cool as it moves along. Notley uses style and technique to illuminate the female poet's emerging consciousness, even self-consciousness--and not in a bad way. The consciousness of the self is part of what the book is about.

Until I read the profile in the magazine, I'd forgotten how much I'd like Notley. She says, "I change my style all the time. I change what forms I use. The whole thing is in flux. I think that poetics is an industry." I greatly admire what she says about style. She talks, later in the article, about living in Paris and not understanding the language around her all the time, or understanding it only partly. And she decides that's a good thing: "Linguistically it's been very interesting . . . I've had various reactions to it. One has been to become more difficult, because the language around me is completely in flux all the time. I only half understand what people are saying to me, I only half know whether I'm saying it correctly; on the other hand, all transactions are working, and the information is conveyed. And I got interested in that as a kind of linguistic thing that is connected to thinking, because when you think, you don't 'think.' You certainly don't think in complete sentences."

Good stuff. Flux and the "I" in the midst of the swirling flux and the personal.

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