Friday, August 04, 2006

notley: incidentals

notley, incidentals in the day world (cover by philip guston)incidentals in the day world (angel hair books 1973) complements notley's other book publication from 1973 (phoebe light). and i do mean "complement" in the etymological sense of "to complete" -- as i said in my previous post, phoebe light feels a bit slight relative to this 56-page book.

on another level though, both books are pretty consistently working through similar thematic terrain: dailiness, dreams, unease, and increasingly motherhood -- especially in poems and sequences like "it," "i keep feeling my baby's / expressions...," "three strolls" and "3 postpartum exercises." again it's worth nothing that the second-to-last poem in phoebe light is also the second poem in incidentals, "dear dark continent" (the only poem the two books have in common). the different placements suggest that whereas the poem was a kind of emotional culmination or conclusion for the former book, it is now in incidentals something of a starting point. this might further suggest that the new role of motherhood, the making way of the self for a new sense of self that is inextricably linked with child and husband -- taken as starting point rather than culmination of conclusion -- is something with which the speaker is now at greater ease:

                   In excitement it all
fits cloudy mysterious with lissome vocab-
ulary "I".

("Expanding Rooms")

even though the unease will never be fully reconciled. here is one of my favorite poems from this book, which i like partly for how it reflects the insistence of desire and combines it with a kind of universal impersonal ("one wants..."). i reproduce the poem in full here, though i am not sure if the indented lines are meant to be long lines that simply could not fit in the typewriter margins.


What one wants of course is the clothes to contain one which
are one,
flexibly enough for the breasts' ease,
aesthetically accomodating to the elbows' awkwardness,
if one stoops as a heron might it smacks
of truly amazing grace,
grace that's a tender smack in the face:
one wants one's own form of clothes.
One wants it
in bright colors that are a duller, felt background
for nuances' play of face,
infinite polkadots stripes stars yet a softer,
polyphonic line to those nuances,
and at the same time one eschews that vocabulary
strides forth in essence irregardless!
who has
born a baby (and married a husband) and is suddenly
skittish within form,
would punch holes in it,
make monster faces at it is it to test it in every way? Just
it, one day
it is simply a privilege,
to be one for long and so specifically
--how scary how exciting
a privilege--to expand to the fullness of the specific one.
There is work to do to do it,
a letting fo constantly
to find form, every muscle must relax in the working.
The eyes caress the clothes in the mirror without looking,
the skin feels them like a friend's admiring
when both peple are comfortable in the admiration.
One is a connection, and one is a sun, facing sun, the rays
of both one.
One has lost the thought thread and is simply
breathing in bed with one's husband, latticed
culotte and starry blouse glowing
from the closet

i mentioned in a previous post how clothes are charged with gender roles and expectations in notley's poetry, here reflective of the changes a woman's body goes through during and after pregnancy. "one wants one's own form of clothes" i.e. that fit the unique shapes of one's own body but also a form of clothes that are unique to one's own self -- tailor made rather than off the rack as it were. childbirth makes one "skittish within form," uncertain and uncomfortable and restless.

but just as easily "one day / it is simply seen as a privilege, / to be one for long and so specifically / --how scary how exciting a privilge--to expand to the fullness of the specific one." the speaker recognizes in the midst of her discomfort and unease the awesome ethical responsibility of childbirth. "one" is no longer the impersonal universal but "the specific one" to which one must "expand to the fullness of." the enlargement produced by carrying a child is also an expansion of the ego and the identity of the mother to a fullness that includes the life and identity of the child as well.

"There is work to do to do it, / a letting go constantly / to find form," the speaker continues. The search for form is no longer a restless labor but one of love and patience -- precisely because of this sense of ethical connection to the other. "One is a connection, and one is a sun, facing sun, the rays / of both one." Not "both ones" but "both one" -- no longer separate entities.

there's a sense in which the effort "to find form" in which one feels comfort and ease, clothes that will help the speaker to feel less uneasy, restless and "skittish within form" -- this is the effort that the poems of incidentals in the day world are undertaking. (and it never hurts to recall the etymology of "text" being that of "textile" and "weaving," through which clothing and language are linked; there's also the idea of language being the clothing of thought that comes from somewhere, offhand i can't recall exactly where.)

this effort to find form is most successful in the 9-page poem that gives the book its title. what's most remarkable about this poem is not simply the language and syntax and quality of thought which merges the highly personal with, dare i say it, the surreal or visionary aspect that really emerges fully in her later work. there is a sense here too of a form utterly adequate to this language too, specifically the stanza as a kind of integral unit in the poem's overall movement and argument that i find in a masterwork like "at night the states."

if i have time i might attempt a longer reading of the whole poem, but for now let me just offer the first page and some comments:


You and baby you know me and I am
my ankles and angles and cavern-
haired particular whim

a bank of violets devours
deposits itself again and again

in the flame boa heap with diaper pins
the Chanel for the monthly bath and the invisible Rodins

Our moving cars through the rain
I'm grabbing the road
trees can turn fish or rock
underwater (or city like toad)
our compacted gyre, common load
setting out to win a face
child was is me, and me, and no one
spangled with charm apparently flesh
you in me with me mean mind clear and fleshed

Lovely and wise in a number I

poignance is a spear in use bossed, with dew
numerical I overcome Sandsjoy
numbers are my face when I am flow
when I perform a number I'm in num-
ber's silver clean, exalting hollow
"Thought it was the Reader's Digest but
it was Life": number's deepening deepening hum

the poem begins in what is by now familiar territory for us, the merging of the speaker's identities with those of husband and child; immediately however we are met with an unusual synechdoche ("I am / my ankles") and two metaphors, "and angles" (associated by wordplay with "angles") and this stunner, "cavern-haired particular whim." the next two couplets heap up more unusual and intriguing images from the natural and material worlds, from motherhood and sensuality and sculpture.

i can't really explicate the rest of this excerpt with any confidence except to say that with the "compacted gyre" (a yeatsianism if there ever was one, the first of several i've neglected to point out in notley's poems so far) and with "number's deepening deepening hum" we seem to be in a realm of mythopoesis here that again looks ahead to notley's mature work.

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