Monday, July 31, 2006

notley: sonnets and phoebe light

there are so many other things to say about notley's wonderful sonnet sequence, but i feel i must move on or will never get anywhere with this projected read-thru of all her books in order. so i will pick up on one theme i teased out of the first two sonnets in 165 meeting house lane, namely the speaker's unease with the state of things in which she finds herself. i suggested that she is critical of male domination in the literary and sexual domains, in which women's only recourse is to "ingratiate & divert / Upstairs stay quiet inviolate." to find a response to this situation is i think in part the goal of these sonnets. poem #3 begins:

The new way through town, snow still clean, warmer
I walk erect loose arms & red shawl scarf
New antique shops I'll never enter
Plenty solid houses no people: TV's
Who wants an old velvet dress good brown
50 postcards of old little girls & such
Anyway? I do, prefer to live in this town
On present means means no work as such [...]

alice notley, cover of 165 meeting house lanethe chance to stay with friends in the hamptons might offer a break, a fresh perspective; instead, it's the same old commodity culture that the speaker realizes is empty and hollow but is nevertheless drawn to all the same. in a culture that does not value poetic labor, the speaker wears this lack of means as a badge of honor: "I'll take to my own device," she says in the last two lines of the poem, "Being part in part outside the premises." That is, she knows she is complicit in a system that she tries to resists; she knows she does not "belong" in the hamptons according to her class status but will remain there defiantly. "This house came gratuitously," she writes in sonnet #4, "Christmas new friends their / Summer house / Jealousy keeps / To stun from where / To escape I speak" -- again, she is both complicit and resistant, willing to accept the invite of a free place to stay but also jealous of the means by which the friends afford such a place. "To stun from where / To escape I speak" -- remarkable lines that might serve as something of a motto for the sequence as a whole. notley wants to stun us into a new consciousness of our surroundings and their contradictions: she speaks from this place in order to escape to an alternative. (again, the flight/chase motif from earlier in the sequence).

theses sonnets are not always filled with such confidence, and often the speaker reflects self-doubts, flagging energies for the battle, or simply the need to be comforted by the other. "Sometimes I think I just do / As in 'You'll do'" she writes in sonnet #12, while sonnet #11 begins "Sometimes you asleep / I go there to be with you / Love's my lazy streak." Sonnet #16 is for me something like the emotional center or pivot of the poem, so i'll offer it here in full:

Hour less close to feeling bad & restless
Spent bath food & drink while you've been sleeping
Now reading I hear you walking past my door shut
& back to bed, no words none needed, how can
I think of what's not done when there's an easy doing
Always now? Between us. As we're going each
If we reach there are words too, & walks & books to-
Gether, tether we pull tighter, after
It turned surprising into the prize for staying
At it, see there are some sometimes, prizes, that aren't
Lost when found out, & it isn't even like winning
Which is what gets to be being over fast, it's like
Being, & spreading, & air we're breathing

Here the speaker finds comfort in the ease of being together and in the present moment, as if the concerns with what lies ahead can be deferred while the present is enjoyed: "how can / I think of what's not done when there's an easy doing / Always now?" there is a collaboration in and with language here -- "If we reach there are words" -- and persistence pays off, "the prize for staying / At it." the speaker reassures the other, "see there are some sometimes, prizes,... & it isn't even like winning / Which is what gets to be being over fast, it's like / Being, & spreading, & air we're breathing." that is, the payoff for persistence does not have the feeling of winning, of victory over something or someone: instead it's as easy and natural as being, coextensive as breathing.

the remaining 8 poems in 165 meeting house lane, however, do not maintain this sense of ease; the 24th and final poem picks up the motif of breathing from the 16th poem, but this time with an altogether different tone. "Pretty soon all I hear is breath / Not calm as it is one listening / For words to make languor into ease," the poem opens, but it concludes "Only completion's breath / It's calm, I'm less not" and we are returned to the state of unease that largely persists through this book.

*     *     *

alice notley, phoebe lighta 36-page saddle-stapled chapbook, phoebe light (big sky book, 1973) somehow feels lighter (or slighter) to me than the previous 24-page sonnet sequence -- perhaps in part because it is a collection of individual poems without the unifying themes and structure of the sonnet sequence, but perhaps also because of her additional 56-page collection (incidentals in the day world) that came out the same year. given that one usually takes the publishing opportunities that are made available to you, i'm nevertheless left wondering what kept phoebe light and incidentals from being combined into a larger collection -- or perhaps more importantly, what keeps them distinct. from a quick glance they appear to have only a single poem in common: "dear dark continent," the second-to-last poem in phoebe light and the second in incidentals.

Dear Dark Continent:

The quickening of
the palpable coffin
fear so then the frantic
doing of everything experience is thought of

but I've ostensibly chosen
my, a, family

so early! so early! (as is done always
as it would seem always) I'm a two
now three irrevocably
I'm wife I'm mother I'm
myself and him and I'm myself and him and him

But isn't it only I in the real
whole long universe? Alone to be
in the whole long universe?

But I and this he (and he) makes ghosts of
I and all the hes there would be, won't be

because by now I am he, we are I, I am we.

We're not the completion of myself.

Not the completion of myself, but myself!
through the whole long universe.

this is a stunning account of the responsibilities of parenting and especially motherhood. i'm reminded of ted berrigan's famous declaration "I'm only pronouns, and I am all of them" (from the poem "red shift") here some ten years earlier anticipated with a vengeance! i'm also reminded of "diving into the wreck" by adrienne rich: "I am she: I am he. [...] We are, I am, you are / by cowardice or courage / the one who find our way / back to this scene" and how fraught pronouns can be -- in notley's case, utterly fraught with the complications that motherhood entails. recall how "quickening" occurred in the opening sonnet of 165 meeting house lane with a sense of renewal; here it's associate with death and ghosts, since the speaker recognizes that with motherhood it is no longer "only I in the real / whole long universe," that "I and this he (and he) makes ghosts of / I," essentially killing of the "only I" and replacing it with an "I am we."

the closest phoebe light comes to maintaining this kind of intense emotional weight is in the confessional mode of the poem "to my father," where we read

The centre of me
is always & eternally
a terrible pain--
a curious wild pain--a searching
beyond what the world contains, something
transfigured & infinitie--I don't find it,
I don't think it is to be found.
which further nuances our understanding of the flight/escape motif first sounded in the sonnets. as this poem concludes, it is tied to both the ghost motif and the idea of the poet's work, also from earlier: that "centre of me" that is "a curious wild pain,"...
It's like passionate love for a ghost.
At times it fills me with rage,
at times with wild despair,
it's the source of gentleness & cruelty & work.
it's that insatiable desire for the beyond that both crushes and uplifts, that's the sustenance of human life.

there are plenty of other great poems in phoebe light -- a number of dream poems and list poems and "things to do" type poems that are characteristic of the new york school -- and perhaps it's a good thing that they are on the lighter side, since to keep up the emotional intensity of "to my father" and "dear dark continent" might very well be unbearable. there's also a quasi-autobiographical sort of prose poem called "the development of my mind and character," part of which again has a wonderful satire of traditional gender roles and expectations--
        I robe the bank, to have friends come from far countries. I clean the stove, the pilot burns, pure blue gas. When I was a good and bored little girl I was secretly afraid I would do all horrible things: stop going to church, fuck, be dope addict, be lesbian, commit suicide. I forgot to mention have baby out of wedlock and lose contact lenses. It never occurred to me certain things would become 3-D like a room with wondows and light and big boy firend. And the map the highways of the US. Nor are elaborate speeches and slick alacrity, yet.
--only to conclude "Then I became a lesbian, had a baby, killed myself, chatted much."

one thing i see new in this book is a kind of compressed syntax that one certainly sees in passages of the meeting house lane sonnets, but here extended over an entire poem like


Cloud logic weeps a cloaked laugh
Moon-eyes make illusions on earth
Inanimate pinnacles backyard
Cultivate mirror regions farcical
Beyond grief
Foliate scowl
That rain should sleep
Passions' assignment the brain awaits
By streak space comes
Through mirth insight collision
The lunatic under the ice-swell
Waits rake burned, born reprobate
Clicking gestures ingown iron

that strikes me as some of notley's most challenging writing yet, and already in only her second book. and it's the kind of thing i recall seeing and feeling in those mid-1970s books of notley's i have already read.

but we are not quite there yet.

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