Alice Notley, "In Forgetting"

Michael Peverett

     Why should I respect, or convince, or even interest you?
In the Pines (2007) is a stifling book. Apart from its unrelenting animosity towards the reader - this was the book's first line, the final poem is called "Beneath You" - it exists entirely in a death chamber. If the title poem is, as the back cover proposes, a lament, then the word lament does not include elegy. Do not look here for poetry's starry recreation of the past, for conferring immortality on the good times, for
                    thou in this shalt find thy monument,
     When tyrants' crests and tombs of brass are spent.
But here: "I remember no-one's fine eyes; I remember no-one's large heart"; "the story is false. Why is the story generated? For beauty's sake?"; "I'm almost telling this story but I'm not going to. The old kinds of details aren't right any more"; "but if they say what you did, that isn't what you did".

Here the dead are the dead, unless they are still dying, it is death that is remembered, its negativity that is upheld, the book is about no-one, nothing, denying that things exist. This negativity, well it's cheap of me but it seems reasonable to say "this negative theology", I like in "In Forgetting":
          I see bodies in the snow, as I walk out, but I'm dead myself. The entire north knows this. He took the manitou on his knee and I succumbed. So why read the murder book? The only real murder is mine.
          As I fly above the white north. Wonder who's dead and if their souls will appear.
          Everyone in this land is a frozen eyeless heartless forgetting.
          One might recognize the form of someone you knew; you won't know if this one recognizes you. You may not know exactly what recognition is, if they have killed you.
          Well someone has. Do you care who killed you?
          There is a walrus-like man, a silkie, in the night exchange coming towards me. He walks upright and would like to say something, but the counter-exchange is formless; my words are lost.
Notley doesn't talk about a cloud of forgetting, she doesn't like clouds or food (it sounds too positive), the forgetting is just called forgetting, and it is formless. How does one bring formlessness into a poem? By misdescribing the form (lament, noir fiction), or by tattered, defective forms. In the Pines, quite as much as Kenny Goldsmith, is indifferent to the writing of good poems, though what does get written dispenses also with the acceptable surfaces of the game or the forecast. I think it's a committed private endeavour, a search for contact "in those rooms where we can no longer touch our lovers, because their skin hurts, or touch them with words they can answer", a shamanistic search for a soul. If it's in any way directed towards the world of the living, it's not about aesthetics, it's an instruction.

To catch the full force of the book's hostility to being "read", it helps to be a male reader, but any reader is going to exemplify the "he structure" ("something is of interest if the he structure says so"). As we stand, all culture is corrupt, the reader is an institution of the culture and so is everything else; there is no nature in In the Pines, or rather, it is just as acculturated as everything else: "if I'm the earth or ocean, you have ruined me".

This poem begins: "Because he took that strange girl on his knee." Which is a perfect image of betrayal, abuse or love, or all three together, or who is to judge which? Is there love which is not abusive and a betrayal? In this false culture? How deep will this radical negativity cut?
          It's interesting her eyes are torn places.
The weight of denunciation in "interesting" is clear enough. In "Beneath You" that sarcasm smoulders on:
     In my crushed-out               eyes I beautifully


     working for you my-
     self. which took lives
     in this crushed-out room where
     all times come, between the
     spokes of my broken irises
     there's no one who can sing like me.
In the Pines comes up to breathe only twice, once in part 14 of the title poem, the already celebrated section about the world tree that had also appeared in Grave of Light (Wesleyan, 2006), and which Notley reads memorably in a soundclip on Third Factory. The second time is on the book's last page, but here I'm not sure if the gulp of air we take isn't mostly to do with the white space that signals that this bruising encounter is finally ending. The real work of the book is elsewhere, not in these stray concessions.
     Make nothing of this; to be this negative is an action with no known flower yet, but I prize it, I said.

Constellation: Alice Notley
[#] Birkbeck Centre for Poetics
[#] Openned Video Constellation of Readings
[#] Return to “Intercapillary Space” Notley Contents page

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