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Notes from the Underground

Brian Kim Stefans

Disobedience
Alice Notley
Penguin USA, $18 (paper)

  8 American literature has never been short of poets who structure their works like running commentary on their spiritual sojourns, from the weekly “Preparatory Meditations” of the Puritan Edward Taylor (“My Soule had caught an Ague, and like Hell / Her thirst did burn”) through Emily Dickinson’s secret fascicles and the hallucinogenic “beatitude” of the Beats. But with this stunning, book-length work, Alice Notley creates a new mold: that of the pilgrimage of spiritual and social negation, a poem that records in prismatic detail and with shotgun wit the poet’s efforts to divest herself of everything society has handed to her, and to resist what’s ahead:

This is the beginning of a new
spiritual and ethical position. For a woman.
Based on the supposition of harmful intent—
that another, male or female, even without
      realizing it
might very well want to hurt me, cause my
      subjugation.
I don’t propose an equalitarian lovingkindness or
      compassion.
I propose, for women, always an instinctive
      wariness.
I propose, further, meditation in separate closets, without
instructions. That’s
the whole religion. It never has to be proposed
      again
in order to exist. It has no organization and
      no beliefs.

Written in Paris from 1995 to 1996, Disobedience is in method something of a synthesis of Notley’s last two books, both of which also pursued clearly defined conceptual projects. Like The Descent of Alette (1996), it derives many of its themes and much of its imagery from dreams and conjoins the description of a subterranean journey with a concerted effort against the day world of oppressively bureaucratic, often male, society. Structurally, Alette was distinctive for its use of quotation marks to break up the line into breath units, and each of its untitled sections—which otherwise looked like normal stanzas—added up, serially, to the whole of the poem. Disobedience is also a serial poem, but each of its irreverently, often histrionically, titled sections is a constellations of fragments, some of which resemble barbed fortune cookies—“Starving because there are ‘jobs’ in our consciousness”—and others which run as long as a page. Like Mysteries of Small Houses (1998), a suite of sixty-nine poems that chronicled significant events in the author’s life (including her marriage to Ted Berrigan, her changing attitudes towards writing, and her second marriage, after Berrigan’s death, to English poet Douglas Oliver), Disobedience is written freely from an “I” and with the forthright, even defiant, lyric subjectivity she feels has been subsumed under the projects of collagist poetics with which she herself—as a member of the “second generation New York School”—had once been deeply engaged. In Disobedience this “I” becomes a troubled site, sometimes represented as total absence (the soul is the “universe’s asshole,” she writes, and later, “I am exactly material and in fact non- / existent as a self, am everyone else”) and at other times as a singular, rebellious presence, as when she revisits Rimbaud’s famous “I is another” with a formulation that reflects the friction between the “exactness” of the refreshed identity that she is pursuing and the anonymous, troubled commonality she can’t do without: “What’s exact / is I, whose particulars may not be mine. / I is never another.”

But Disobedience is more than a synthesis of the two previous styles. In fact, what occurs with a merging of this “dream” method and the warts-and-all, reality-based method of Houses is an explosion of the dream world into that of the everyday. Notley’s idiom is different from that of the Surrealists, for whom the the free play of the subconscious cast an estranging, aestheticizing aura over objects and emotions. Instead, Notley uses dreams in a manner both very ancient and very contemporary; while they take on an air of prophecy and riddle, their candor and fluidity of meaning implicitly critique the decorousness and stringency of time-sheet-driven monoculture. Notley presents her dreams with all the clarity of ‘real’ reality and without Vaseline-lensed wooziness (or Oz-iness). The transitions from waking life to dream world are often startling and cinematic; her night visions glitter with detail and attitude and she is quite as busy sleeping as she is awake: “Because I work on my poems all night in my dreams I’m / always tired.” In fact, the project of disobedience continues in dreams also:

Dreamed the street artist’s talent,
at Les Halles, was to make
a big purple wig. Yarn dreads
in an 18th century arrangement.
Some demented woman behind me
indicated I must worship, even wear
this new atrocity;
another impossible heavy head.

Perspectives shift radically—questions are posed, concepts are questioned and often dismissed, shouting matches ensue—but the dream world is not presented as a secondary, more liberated reality; pursuit, not escapism, is the rationale for these subterranean dips.

Throughout Disobedience resonant images and thematic ‘threads’ develop and entangle. In addition to the dream there is the cave, which Notley equates with imagination and independence, perhaps even with a search for innocence. The cave is a more voluntary and fictional space than the dream world, its defensive posture taking on an odd resonance in the aftermath of our Afghanistan campaign:

People keep trying to foist Greats on me—oh
Wordsworth Melville Langston Hughes, James
      Joyce, or
some girl, Bradstreet Dickinson, Stein Toni
      Morrison
                  Fuck ’em—
They aren’t “great” on the newly discovered
planet beneath Orion; and deep deep inside me,
      in the caverns
I haven’t heard of them. I’ve only heard of the
      unnamed there

It is in this cave that Notley confronts one of the most prominent imaginary tropes, a male protagonist named, among other variations, “Hardwood,” “Harwood,” “Hardon” and “Mitch-ham” (because he looks like the actor Robert Mitchum, famous for his dark-priest role in Night of the Hunter) and is equated with the theme of the “will.” The “soul” and the “will” dance contentious, if seductive, circles around each other, at times merging (“I’m Hardwood himself now / filling a great coat”) and at other times clashing, or simply disappearing as they modify into new concepts (“I lost Soulgirl, as character, a long time ago / simply became her.”) Another thread running through Disobedience is the poet’s reaction to the news: car bombs in Paris, the lives of celebrities (Whitney Houston, Ursula Andress, and Demi Moore “nearly moored” make appearances), and anything to do with “big fat America” are among her favorite items. If the cave and the dream world return Notley to her particularity and Whitmanic sense of commonality, then the mediascape is the opposite: it abuses both her empathy and her narcissism to the point of replacing the interior mirror with ephemeral, packaged events and model, even ageless, doubles—and a home country she refuses to recognize. The aggregate effect of these manipulative but humanistic forces takes on proper-noun status for Notley, becoming “The Emotion”—“Society is / a huge / cohesive / emotion” she writes at one point. “The Emotion” might be a homegrown double for Guy Debord’s “spectacle,” that all-invasive system of mediations that he believed is imposed upon the individual by State and Capital and which, in his mind, is an obstacle to freedom. Notley writes: “I go about / just detached from The Emotion—am not / in Your story. When I remember.” By “remember” she means remind myself to: the “rip(ping) away” is deliberate, its end being “a physical / sense of detachment— a sac no / longer adhering to a flesh wall,” as if her own birth were dependent on how willfully and severely she could excise herself from her own socialization. But she is not always able to do this, and the fragmentary nature of Disobedience—in which phrases drop in like kamikaze flyers—amply dramatizes her vulnerability.

Mingled among these many threads, other motifs that take on symbolic resonance as they recur “fugally” (Ezra Pound’s “method for the Cantos”): her fascination with dressing up campily or revealing herself nude before others (“A rosary of amber beads is really / a G-string or pelvic tassle, / ‘for exotic dancers only.’ Of course / I buy it. / [...] I have defined degradation.”); the appearance of Futurist and postmodern poets who, among other things, cavalierly deny the “self”; her engagement with a particularly female tradition in literature (Marguerite Yourcenar, Anna Akhmatova); her rejection of male terms of knowledge. Human consumption and defecation, not to mention menstruation (“Hardwood says, You should stand up soon / I’ll help you / I say, I have cramps / I say, I’m using my period, to get pissed off and to Know”), are all recurring presences in this poem.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about this elaborate congeries of thematic threads is that they never lead the poem into preciousness or turn it into an exercise in facility. Far from being a clever revisiting of St. Teresa of Avila or (to press a more modern point) Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Disobedience makes much writing that borrows thematics from literature and history appear stiff and self-conscious, even timid. This is due as much to Notley’s restless, aware and candid personality as it is to the structure of the poem—almost like a collection of e-mail, with subject lines (“Dante’s Ass a Nobel Prize”; “Meet Me at La Chappelle for Some More Salami”) deep chatter, dialogic moments and to-be-continueds—which allows her to change frames rapidly and to improvise the poem’s movement like a journal without ever losing sight of the motion forward. This gives the book a unique pacing that is both centrifugal (her imagination could take us anywhere) and centripetal, as the breaks return the reader to a familiar place, to a closed set of obsessions. Disobedience is structured, in this way, sort of like the city of Paris itself—birthplace of the flaneur and home of the concept of “psychogeographic wandering”—as the poem’s five main sections form the roads leading out of a center that is itself heavily symbolic but largely empty, like the star in front of Notre Dame (fabled “center of Paris”).

Breaking up the flow of thoughts and discontents are what Notley calls her “lacunae,” her “space[s] between official places.” These periodic breaks within the poems—represented by long dashes—allow her to dart to any one of her chosen modes: “These lacunae are really great, most restful. / Do I really want to fill them in with suppressions?” Of course she doesn’t: it is these spaces where she is most fully exercising her will, where she creates a garden, a “retreat,” out of her poem. What might distinguish Notley from earlier American spiritual sojourners such as Taylor and Dickinson is the pragmatist’s “duty to believe”—the injunction to move forward without a doxa, to experiment with one’s life, in a state of unknowing. The voids provide the cover (even a search engine will miss them!) from which the poet, like a panther crouching before its prey, strikes, unleashing language that has had time to formulate at a distance from trends, editors, and countrymen, but which is nonetheless “untested,” with unpredictable returns. In a secularized culture that has lost touch with the traditional languages of the “soul” but which has offered no replacement except to silence its entreaties by dulling it with pills and the evening news, Notley possesses and transports her selfhood like a priceless contraband—like a loaded gun, like a lethal opiate—as if fearing that it, too, will be subject to the indignities of “economic man,” of control through regulation. This strategic, covert action is difficult for a poet as garrulous and opinionated as Notley, but it is perhaps the only way to preserve the “feral tooth” of expression when it is threatened on all sides. <


Brian Kim Stefans
’s most recent books are Angry Penguins (Poems) and the forthcoming Fashionable Noise. He is creator and editor of arras.net, a site of poetry and literary criticism.

Originally published in the December 2002/January 2003 issue of Boston Review



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