Tuesday, August 08, 2006

notley: great interiors and o'hara's birthday

recently resuscitated from the ephemeral twilight by tim atkins, alice notley's sonnet sequence great interiors, wines and spirits of the world would be important alone as a followup to her first book, the sonnets of 165 meeting house lane. but it's also part of the (to my knowledge) primary chunk of uncollected notley poetry from this period, the special issue (#4, 1974) of out there devoted to her work. in her note to the onedit reprint of great interiors, notley writes:
OUT THERE was associated with Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago and edited by Neal Hackman (later Ravi Singh, the yogi.) The issue was a special "Alice Notley issue" and had a knockout cover by Rochelle Kraut. Neal did all the work: typing, proofreading, collating.
indeed the whole issue is worth looking at, as it runs to at least 50 or 60 pages and thus is longer than some of notley's published books. nevertheless, i think tim was right to reprint great wines in particular because, from my quick middle-of-the-night look through out there #4 at his place, i got the feeling that the sonnets were far and away the standouts. (it is llikely that some of these poems made it into notley's next two books, which both acknowledge prior appearance of some poems in out there.)

the temptation to compare the sonnets of great interiors to those of 165 meeeting house lane is perhaps unavoidable: the familiar motifs of dreams, clothing and unease are present, and it's also curious that jealousy is sounded twice in the fourth sonnet of each sequence. notley herself even draws the comparison:
I wanted to write a second sonnet sequence, having written 165 MEETING HOUSE LANE, which was heavily influenced by the later sonnets of Edwin Denby. To make this one different, I tried elongating the line (Edwin’s diction is clipped), though reverted from time to time to medium-length lines and sometimes short ones. It was summer [1973] and Ted and I, with baby Anselm, were renting a room in someone’s apartment, in a brick tower block near Battersea Park.
it's more than just the line-length, tho, that distinguishes these sonnets from their predecessors. these sonnets often retain that sense of unease from the previous cycle, but there's a quality of thought and expression that strikes me somehow as marked by greater discontinuities than before. here's the opener:

Old Chinamen--what room there is!--each pf us on one foot from
his mother's attic
Dancing; though I'm on one foot sitting sort of tilted
We can't keep our lines aligned nor however our feet down--our
most serious tics
Star our marrings of "the natural the solid"--
Smell of a lemon shampoo, smiles' cornerings of cheekbones, a
White, a sheaf of red, reveals Battersea, wide, gree
I gather up my tics & tilts, my stutters & imaginaries
into the "up" leg
In this cancan where we're taxed just to flaunt it
That calf curved from a supercolossal waylay
The way ray strikes shade loss: less screen more flesh
Cool bay things; change greenly to stream
Through face & feet, jangles tendrils free and reft of conscious
Made own piano surgical appliance
Pliant as the expert, expecting you to catch her whole act

As much as this poems sounds a note of extreme awkwardness -- on one foot, titled, knockkneed, with tics and tilts and stutters -- the theme is picked up in the qualities of the anguage here as well. the linebreaks, the punctuation, even the assonances and internal rhymes all seem off somehow. ("We can't keep our lines aligned" indeed!) The associative leaps -- from, for example, tics and marrings to lemon shampoo, cheeckbones, white wax and a red sheaf, much less how these things "revela Battersea" (lines 3-6) -- seem quite extreme. Even the intriguing soundplay of the last 5 or 6 lines move sounds forced, and the succession of images (shade - screen - flesh - bluffs, feet - tendrils - dark - piano - surgical - appliance) remain as bewilderingly disparate as any in notley's poetry so far.

again, themes of dreams and unease, the latter especially as manifested through clothing, persist here. sonnet 2 claims, "We're looking for just the right clothes," but the serach is obviously unsuccessful as one item after another is rejected, "no fit." as is so often the case in notley's poems of the period, intimacy and tenderness emerge as a kind of remedy or palliative, and to manage one's own continual unease in the world one offers to comfort an other: "A cup of coffee's a complication, extends / Caresses my cluttered something that's beautiful / and true: / Like an allegation of a tree: / My shade -- / Let me shade you." (Sonnet 3).

other themes from earlier collections, however, are not as present: motherhood, for example, is not nearly so present here as it was in incidentals. instead there is a new interest in art and paintings, starting in sonnet 8 and appearing again in sonnets 10, 13, 15, 16, and 17. additionally, the wine of the sequence's title appears at several key moments in the second half of the sequence, leading me to wonder if the discontinuties of these poems are something like the leaps of drunken though, an invocation to the "great interiors, wines and spirits of the world" as princes, thrones and dominions -- a hierarchy of demons to reign over incoherences. for all their intriguing leaps, these poems do not cohere like the meeting house lane sequence does: the theme of painting and art emerge in what could be the logical or emotionalbalance of the poem; instead we have, in sonnets 15 and 20, nearly wholesale importations of found language that push the sequence away from coherence.

*     *     *

for frank o'hara's birthday contains 25 pages of poems and thus, as a smaller collection appearing in the same year as a larger one, it would seem to being playing the same role with respect to alice ordered me to be made as phoebe light played to the larger incidentals in the day world, something like an appetizer to the main course. there are some interesting if not long-lived experiments here, especially in short-line forms that, in the case of "View of the North Sea," border on imagism. "She's a Friend of Shirley Niebank's" reads like an exercise in loose english-to-english homophonic translation, while "Education Villanelle" is a study in old forms.

mot significant to me are the sequence "3 Dreams" and an untitled prosoid piece that begins with the epistolary greeting "Your Dailiness,..."

"3 Dreams" continues a by now familiar motif in notley's work and again have the feel of being nearly straight, unedited transcriptions from a dream journal. what strikes me as significant however, is how the third poem in the sequence marks a major transformation of the dreaming process.


                I had my old, half-awake dream
Of my performing a lascivious stripping
Dance in front of men in ancient
Roman surroundings--have had this
Dream since earliest adolescence (too
Many Historical Romances, & movies
Of the Roman Epic sort). The quality of
The half-awakeness is my ability to
Control the dream.

                    This morning,
I changed it completely: my own
Lasciviousness became tempered by my
Desire to dance really well.
The end of the stripping was not the
Climax of the dance (as frustrating
As a climax); instead I
Continued to dance naked, as well anf
As beautifully as possible. I fel
Lascivious too,

among the many dream poems in notley's work so far, what's unique here is the idea of the lucid dreaming in which one can actually transform the dream content. and notice how it's transformed: instead of simply being the passive object of the male gaze, the dancer "tempers" the dance from chiefly erotic to chiefly aesthetic: the point is not to induce climax but to do it well, and beautifully, and while still retaining the erotic aspects. the dancer's own control and satisfaction is made more important than that of her male audience. this i think has all kinds of implications for a poetics that i won't spell out here.

the other piece in for frank o'hara's birthday that holds significance for notley's trajectory as i am trying to construct it here is the prose/epistolary concluding piece, addressed to "Your Dailiness." on the surface it's a piece of autobiographical or even confession narrative, focusing chiefly on death as experienced through the speaker's relationship with grandparents, in-laws and poet friends. this all gets complicated and conflated with birth as well: "A few weeks after Granpa showed me himself as a baby, my son was conceived." and between birth and death, death and birth, there is the haunting, the spectral: ghosts emerge here in an important way in notley's poetics. it's not the first time, and i feel like i have to go back through the books i've already read and discussed in order to find where. but here are some relevant passages from "Your Dailiness,..."
I wrestled with the ghostly, to emerge real, and I wrestled I think with evil for it must all be in me all of all in the world, kill, kill yourself. A few weeks after Granpa showed me himself as a baby, my son was conceived.[...] Why am I not one who's suicidal or who's evil? I wait as for the ghost but I'm haunted by knives, and I work I write.[...] Last Sunday I walked barefoot through the cemetary, came home and wrote '...And the dead the golden warm & shady earth/ I'm comfortable with/ ...Sights & insights endless as the dead...'  Intimacy with all, spreading, Your Dailiness."

powerful stuff, and anyone who's following notley's career today knows how important the lucid dream, death and ghosts are to her work. stunning to me, and giving for frank o'hara's birthday an important place in notley's trajectory for having such a powerful and prescient piece concluding what otherwise seems to me a lighter collection and a prelude to what is still for me the crowning achievement of notley's early poetry, alice ordered me to be made.

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