Friday, July 28, 2006

notley: sonnets

this is the first of what will be an ongoing series of posts, over the next six weeks or so, on the poetry of alice notley, book by book in chronological order. i've only come to notley's work within the past few years: i remember finding a remaindered copy of close to me & closer . . . (the language of heaven) and désamère at labyrinth books in NYC and buying it to give my friend jean since i knew she was a big notley fan. of course she already had a copy so i kept it for myself, reading it and finding it intriguing but rather disorienting or something. but it was perhaps chiefly through the recording of notley reading (MP3) "at night the states" that peter gizzi included in the exact change yearbook #1 (1995) CD and now available at pennsound that really opened my ears and eyes and brain.

i then began rummaging through the anthologies lying about at home for whatever poems of hers i could find but not finding much more than scattered poems, tho i did find her early sonnet sequence in the all stars anthology that tom clark edited in 1972. at some point i picked up disobedience and read it straight through, thinking it the best long poem i'd read in a long while, perhaps ever. also somewhere around this time i heard notley read at the lannan poetry series at the folger library here in DC and was again blown away. next i got descent of alette and was not as compelled by the mythopoesis constructed there but still found it a remarkable work. then mysteries of small houses again blew me away, poem after poem, through which i could see the growth of the poet's mind as it were. i then happened upon songs for the unborn second baby (powell's online had a bunch for a good price) and, as i wrote earlier, found it a rather jarring experience, full of discontinuties and ruptures that i was unprepared to find in notley's work. then, just last month at tim's in london i read as much of his notley as possible, especially finding alice ordered me to be made a brilliant collection that started putting the pieces of her overall trajectory together for me.

essentially i've come to notley's work backwards, starting with the more recent penguin books and sort of ping-ponging back and forth through the earlier work. this is unfortunately all one can do when significant portions of a major poet's work are allowed to remain out of print. the talisman selected may have proven useful in keeping some work in print for a time, but the table of contents gave no indication of what poems were form what books. the forthcoming grave of light: new and selected poems, 1970-2005, due out from wesleyan this fall, should help matters considerably. but of course there's no substitute for the individual books themselves. so this is an attempt to start at the beginning and move forward to construct a trajectory of her work...

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alice notley, cover of 165 meeting house lanenotley's first book, 165 meeting house lane, like many of the classic 8-1/2 x 11 side-stapled publications of the mimeo revolution, is presently rather difficult and costly to obtain. (this one from ted berrigan's "c" press, 1971; serendipity books has a copy currently fetching nearly $90.) indeed the book's final page tells us: "This single limited edition consists of 250 copies, mimeographed, with offset covers, front and back, drawn & printed by the poet Philip Whalen. There are also 4 copies hors commerce, lettered A, B, C, & D, which are cloth bound and contain each an original drawing, & a photograph of the poet." (wonder what one of those goes for!)

as i suggested earlier, a reasonable alternative text for these poems -- one that has the added bonus of including generous samplings of poetry by michael mcclure, clark coolidge, dick gallup, aram saroyan, ed dorn, ted berrigan, ron padgett, philip whalen, james schuyler, robert creeley and ed sanders (alice the lone woman in the crowd!) -- can be had from all stars (ed. tom clark, goliard/grossman 1972). in fact, there's something wonderful about notley's sonnets in all stars being followed by her husband ted berrigan's sequence winter in the country, very likely written at the same time and drawing of porter's southampton houseplace as notley's sonnets. indeed the same last page on the "c" press text that contains the publishing info also contains a bio that states notley resided, during "the Winter of 1970-71, at 165 Meeting House Lane, Southampton, Long Island, New York. This book, her first, was written there." hence of course the book's title. in fact, since the book bears the dedication "For Jimmy Schuyler | for Anne & Fairfield Porter | & for Tom Clark," my suspicion is that notley and berrigan were spending the winter months of 1970-71 with schuyler and the porters at the latter's southampton home.

one could also take a more recently written author's note, one she wrote for tim atkins' recent reprinting of a subsequent (1973) sonnet sequence, great interiors, wines and spirits of the world (from the notley issue of the chicago magazine out there) as an additional indication of the occasion for 165 meeting house lane: she describes this sequence as "heavily influenced by the later sonnets of Edwin Denby." certainly denby and berrigan himself were the chief practitioners of the sonnet sequence in the post-WWII, new american poetry tradition, and one could fruitfully compare notley's sonnets with these to discern the stylistic and thematic differences between these sonnets and notley's. but i'm more interested for the moment in taking notley's sequence on its own terms.

here is the first poem:

I dreamed of a clipper ship
Until he'd seen which Captain You said
He'd seen nothing. I woke bold
Chased you to get caught in the hold
Back to sleep 2 nightmares
Solid ones down not to be told
Woke not wanting to be in life
Wasn't, outside warmed
To my blood clean cold quickened
On the way to town for food and
Back for toy, though I was still
A little sulky & grim
So you fucked me back in.

wow! while this poem could be seen reiterating a typical new york school concern with the dailiness of routine experience, right away it sounds a number of concerns that recur throughout the sequence and make notley's work distinctive: dreams, as both aspirations and darker perturbations; flight, escape from or unease with one's present surroundings; and sleep/sex with the significant other as a refuge or sanctuary from these concerns -- or in this case, a rather stark and perhaps even coercive return to the real world. those last three lines are great not only for their frank and even coldly aggressive treatment of sex, but the words "a little sulky" have a wonderful childlike quality that makes the lines sound very coy and playful as well. i can't help thinking too that the alternation between the gutteral and hard "uk" sounds (sulky, fucked) and brighter "i" sounds (still, little, grim, in) contribute to these qualities.

a word here too on the remarkable quality of notley's syntax. since the poem describes a dream experience it would be reasonable to expect the poem to have a fragmentary, notational quality: we tend to remember dreams in bits and pieces, and anyone who has kept a dream journal or otherwise transcribed his or her dreams in writing can attest to this. freud even talked about how dreams as we remember them are subject to the condensation and displacement of the stuff of which our dreams are made. you can see this taking place in the very syntax of notley's poem. lines 3-5, for example -- "Until he'd seen which Captain You said / He'd seen nothing" -- are quite nearly impossible to parse: we don't know who "he" is (the captain? you?) and we don't know what "which" refers to (the ship? the dream? the captain?), so all we can say really is that the speaker/dreamer is experiencing a contradiction regarding the facts of the dream. and again if we think about it, this is not so uncommon: things in dreams often seem contradictory, and notley's syntax is literally making the reader re-experience those contradictions.

there are also a lot of omissions or ellipses in notley's syntax. notice how there are only two sentences in this poem -- actually one complete sentence and one long incomplete run-on sentence that begins "I woke bold" and technically never ends. the "I" who "woke bold" carries through as the implied subject of a string of subsequent actions in the poem that are also compressed or have omissions: "chased you," "[went] back to sleep," "woke," "wasn't [in life]," and so on. there is a notational quality to this syntax, as if the words are jotted down as they come to the speaker in a rush. the brain does not always think in correct grammar and syntax: it can think "outside warmed / To my blood" and then realize that the blood needs to be described or modified further, not once or twice but three times: "clean cold quickened."

i'm tempted too to go back to those themes and concerns i mentioned earlier -- dreams, flight, the other/lover -- and even psychoanalyze the dream a bit. for example it's interesting that the name of the ship (THE CHASEY ALICE) and begs the question of what the speaker is chasing after, but then when she says that she "Chased you to get caught in the hold" it's not clear if it's the pursuer or the pursued that is getting caught here. perhaps the speaker is caught by her need to chase after things? hard to say at this point, better simply to put those questions out there. and also note the sense of flight and escape expressed upon waking from the dream: the lines "Woke not wanting to be in life / Wasn't" are powerful stuff, showing clearly that if the dream world is filled with uncertainties and perturbation, the waking world appears to not be much better.

rather than linger over these matters, i want to look at the next poem in the sequence:

Outside the man upstairs stops me
Is everything ok? 3 days 3rd time
Yes, late pink & gold I see
On snow new as our home
Shirt-sleeved Swede old spits on snow
I have on a dirty schoolgirl coat
Show him colors rainbowed icicles, bow?
Not exactly but ingratiate & divert
Upstairs stay quiet inviolate
To noise of records bed
Typewriter keys, above the noisy sit
Come down if you want to say your placard
His wife of the delusions
Invisible upstairs in seclusion

without claiming that we now suddenly have all the answers to the questions raised in the previous sonnet (about the speakers dreams, unease, etc.), we certainly have a very particular situation or scenario from which we can learn a great deal here. and again, without claiming that the event described in this sonnet "occurs after" what was described in the previous one, i think we can say with some confidence that the answer to the question posed by "the man upstairs" in the opening lines of this sonnet -- "Is everything ok?" -- is clearly and on some level no. the fact that it's "3 days 3rd time" the speaker has been asked this question implies that whatever the problem, it is and has been noticeable by others and ongoing. the speaker denies this by answering "yes," everything is ok, and perhaps it really is, as we have no immediate reason to find this speaker unreliable or untrustworthy.

the poem quickly moves to observations of the surroundings -- "late pink & gold I see / On snow" perhaps being colors of a sunset reflected on the snow-covered ground -- and the interlocutors, the "Shirt-sleeved Swede old [who] spits on snow" and the speaker wearing "a dirty schoolgirl coat." these are not inconsequential details: spitting on the snow is not especially appealing or attractive behavior, and the "dirty schoolgirl coat" is sexually suggestive, i.e. the kind of coat or girl that a dirty old man might find attractive. (an aside: the speaker in these poems frequently gives detailed descriptions of her clothing, which i'll show later are nearly always codings for gender roles and expectations.)

from here, the speaker seems to pose an option for what to do or how to behave in this situation: "Show him colors rainbowed icicles, bow?" again i can't make certain sense of this, the "colors rainbowed" perhaps referring to the "pink & gold" on the snow, as if to say "shall i call his attention to the sunset and the colors it ahs produced on the snow (which he has just spit on), perhaps as a diversion of his attention from my dirty schoolgirl coat?" i dunno, i admit this is pretty speculative here.

but what follows is far more interesting and indicative of the themes and concerns of these poems. the next five lines pose an alternative repsonse to this situation: "Not exactly [show him colors] but...
                ingratiate & divert
Upstairs stay quiet inviolate
To noise of records bed
Typewriter keys, above the noisy sit
Come down if you want to say your placard
His wife of the delusions
Invisble upstairs in seclusion

essentially, instead of confronting the man or elaborating a response to what is perhaps the confrontation of his own initial question (Is everything ok?), the speaker plans a line of flight: "ingratiate & divert," make polite and get the hell out of there. go back in the house, "upstairs" where one can "stay quiet inviolate / To noise of records bed / Typewriter keys" etc. increasingly this poem is working though gender politics, the traditional role of women being to remain silent, to remove themselves so that they will not be violated or profaned by the worldly "noise of records bed / Typewriter keys," that is the domains of music, sex and writing which are better left to the husbands. "Come down if you want to say your placard," an interesting choice of words that seems to suggest that slogans and platforms (whether for politics or advertising) are all women can aspire to contribute.

the final two lines, however, put an intriguing twist to this whole situation, as up until now we have assumed that it is the speaker envisioning herself retreating to her "proper" place upstairs and outside the public sphere; but when the poem concludes "His wife of the delusions / Invisible upstairs in seclusion" we have to think that while it's possible she could be talking about herself as "His wife" ("he" being the husband inside typing), it's more likely that it's the old swede, "the man upstairs," whose wife is the "wife of the delusions / Invisible upstairs in seclusion." regardless, there is an identification going on here of the imbalance of power between the sexes that all women, including the speaker and the swede's wife, experience: the delusion on the latter's part is not seeing the imbalance, which secludes women and prevents them from being equal participants in the "noise of records bed / Typewriter keys" -- certainly ground for what the previous sonnet described upon waking. "not wanting to be in life / Wasn't" is in this sense not by choice but by design, by the position to which society has already assigned her. thus, being "fucked back in a little sulky & grim" is a reluctant acceptance of this design in which the woman is subjected to the man.


1 comment:

DUSIE said...

hey ttt,

check out the pic i made for ya at my blog!

i love this new blog sequence! lovelovelove!!!! if any more notley's ever fall your way via remainder bins, pick em up and i'll reimburse ya! i have several, so let me know if i should send you what i do have.