After Alice Notley’s “1992,” from Mysteries of Small Houses

Amy Hollowell

Often, Notley’s pronoun is “I,” and “I” is speaking to me, to us, to herself, to whoever’s here listening in the folding chair audience of the poem. Clearly, “I” is concerned with nothing but saying what she says. She is, as she writes in the poem “1992,” from Mysteries of Small Houses, “empty/as I am except for my self who observes me/both lovingly and detachedly, and my tradition.’’ That’s all there is, and that is everything.

“1992” is a poetic record of Notley’s mind field, laying it all out, what she is and is not, every word and omission, what she was and would and would not be, of a rainy night in Paris. It is a portrait of the artist as a no-longer young woman, “where I don’t want to be in a red silk skirt/when we first ate at Au Pierre de la Butte/five years ago this wasn’t my city.” When moving to Paris in 1992, she acknowledges, she had “fear to be no one here,” then adds, “but that’s why I came here to see how I’d change ---/implies that “I” sees and registers the change, unchanged.” She leaves the question open and takes us for a walk instead.

She has her doubts, descending the rue Caulincourt in the dark, leading us to the bridge across the Montmartre Cemetery, “over history dead great men unlike me,” and thus summoning her dreams and the stark reality under which they are buried like the long-deceased in their grand graves:
I’ve always wanted to be a
dead great man though not exactly dead but
I’ll never make it
partly because not a man
partly because this is no world for greats
anyone’s buried under dross of so many
made prominent by technology’s pomp
of produce its certifying empire. . .
Indeed, Notley’s voice is not “made prominent by technology’s pomp.” Such is her greatness, her every word evidence of an unrelenting resistance to the sway of this empire, even if, as she says, “I have a dream of staying at the Hotel Ibis/I want to lie in its sterile Americanized arms.” She regales us with how the late 20th-century poet’s condition looks and feels “in a world/where all art’s patently successful/ratified by treaty packaged by conglomerate celebrated/by comment and dropped to consider real business.”

As she has done throughout her work, here Notley leads us from her private space to the public arena of “real business,” with its big-name literary prizes, author photos, book advances, institutions of learning and publishing and the conferring of prestige, the grouping of writers and trading partners, all the better to conduct the hefty getting and spending affairs of our sorry day.

For her, however, the affair is elsewhere. There is nothing to do but return to what matters most to her: “I’ll make a poem for you which holds locked up a living voice --- /the key’s on your own tongue.’’ While the voice is alive, it is not locked up. It’s pouring out in a torrent, coursing around the bends of Notley’s experience, its unassuming brilliance cascading with the sudden drop-offs in the lay of the land of her life. In making her poems, she explores every corner of where and who she is and was, and then, in the last steps of “1992,” she offers us more: “I’ll teach you some things about Berrigan Padgett/Kyger Thomas Oliver Riley or how to/win a poetry prize given out by yourself.”

Ah! we may think, the poet has given her all, all she knows, her voice and her tradition. But not Notley. There is more; there is what very precisely cannot be grasped, and it is, appropriately, the last word: “…but that’s not the ending it’s walking/in a wet Parisian dark that’s/utilizable, every inch, even used up.”


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

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