‘Incidentals in the Day World’

Sophie Robinson

[#] Watch Alice Notley read 'Incidentals in the Day World'

I’ve performed a short but close reading of the work, paying particular attention to Notley’s use of quotidian objects and language, and their reconfiguration as emblems of life and death. The only other text I’m referring to directly is Notley’s 1988 lecture ‘Notes on “The Poetry of Everyday Life”’.

One of the things that really struck me about the poem was the relationship between the ‘incidental’ materials used, objects and language encountered in the ‘day world’ of the domestic sphere, and universal questions about the conditions of existence. Coffee and magazines in rented city-space are continually ‘spiralling outwards’ as Notley uses innovative juxtapositions and slippages to reveal the larger cultural and spiritual implications hidden in the small. ‘Thought it was the Reader’s Digest but it was life’, Life the magazine, but also perhaps the ‘deep self’ Notley refers to in her lecture. Thus the line becomes a microcosm of the macro level negotiations of the work; the dialogic relationships between birth and death, presence and absence, the personal/domestic and cultural/universal, ‘face’ and ‘deep self’.

Birth and death are recurrent themes of the text, birth seemingly a melancholic marker of death: ‘I’ll wear my death my baby gives away / I’ll wear my death like anyone like day’. Presence foreshadows absence, the creation of life an indication of its eventual end.

There are glitches in everyday objects, made strange through focus, the ‘glassine eye’ requiring love drawing attention to artificial construction. ‘Caves being minor matters’ is reversible, either caves which are of trivial concern, or, perhaps - as I read it - the ‘minor matters’ such as the ‘glassine eye[s]’ of everyday life which, skewed or seen anew, ‘cave being’, being caved in, being hollowed out by something made new or made strange. ‘Violent / ly velvet’, split in two to the next line, indicates this schism, the making-strange of ordinariness which draws attention to hidden disturbances in everyday detail, the violence of social order smoothed over or the velvety comfort of ‘home’ made foreign.

This carries over in the next stanza, the ‘gold ring’ ‘spiralling outwards’, returned to later, ‘rings into gold contract’, the futile containment of flesh and ‘messy air’ inside a ring which here functions as the eye of a storm, an object so imbued with meaning it cannot contain itself, ‘splinters’ into the surroundings, the desire of a ‘deep self’ and the site of its ‘velvety intersection’ with the ‘bold blind face’ of marriage, contract. Equally, birth is conflated with rent, ‘time and space’ financially purchased on one plane and in another, being ‘rent’ or torn from ‘an easier part’ played out alone. The ring is also echoed in ‘sphere’ and then the ‘spherey earth’, the translatability of the functional domestic ‘reliques’ seized from context and given a universal significance. Objects become arranged around ‘dead centres’ and ‘stolen hearts’, the construction of one’s material world, the fetishisation and personification of objects in culture perhaps implied as part of a battle against absence or death, and yet for that reason becoming emblems of it. Notley writes that in death and tragedy, ‘the quotidian loses all of its lightness’. In such situations, one’s subjective world loses its comfort, inconsequential moments, actions and objects take on renewed meaning in the rituals of death and consequent attempts to remember loss or rebuild a life, and this seems to be something negotiated in the poem in death’s filtering through the ‘day world’, its sudden availability not in archaic language or grand ritual but in clothes, on a shelf of coffee, in the presence of live flesh.

The body is negotiated in relation to language as flesh becomes a permeable boundary, ‘mixing skin with sheet’ and having a ‘coffee heart’, a personal investment in the ‘nest’ of a home environment and also a mark of immediate experience and its mediation through language. The difference between corporeal and linguistic understanding is highlighted, ‘the grit of your knowing it’, a visceral interaction with the world translated here in sounds, repetitions, renegotiations – the grittiness of an understanding in process.

This is another kind of dual micro and macro functioning in the work, the slippages emphasising a mediation and remediation of meaning, of making sense. There’s external speech, rationale – ‘“nothing monstrous about that violin”’, in speech marks – and yet there’s ‘clef’ and ‘cleaving’ to a ‘cylinder’. There’s something extremely somatic about the lines, simultaneously erotic and disturbing, the repeated ‘c-l’ as spoken suggesting a ‘click’ into or out of place, mirrored in ‘cleave’ as a split or, poetically, an attachment. The ‘interaction between deep self and sound of the spoken language’ that Notley writes of is here evident in performing the work, consonance suggesting rapprochement between terms and yet creating slippages or disconnections, clicks out of joint, making sense in language and transferring the ‘grittiness’ of the ‘knowing of it’ happening in time and space.

This way of making or problematising sense in sound, working through ideas in repetition and difference, is something I read as related to the concept of singing and ‘The Poetry of Everyday Life’. Notley writes that ‘One purpose of language is probably to sing where you go, to name the landscape so you can make it exist and thus get from place to place (to create it)’. In the poem there’s the line ‘what you don’t kiss won’t sing less’, implying the inherently autoerotic nature of flesh – of knee and nape – and also the ability of flesh and of objects to speak or sing.

Furthermore, there’s a question of orientation, of recording the singing and resonances as a way of mapping one’s space. Again, it’s micro and macro functioning – domestic space, the palpable dimensions and contents of one’s home, and the conceptual space and time one inhabits in the world. Notley writes that ‘the quotidian gets mapped’ in the poetry of everyday life, and ‘you can go to that place on the map, but you have to sing the exactly first song of it that calls it into being’. Here the ‘incidental’ of the title comes into play as a procedure for making work through incidental objects and how their ‘song’ sounds out its context, and how it resonates with what’s around it to create points of location and dislocation.

The landscape of a life is sounded out and made new through a process which reveals a network of hidden connections and the ‘tangible magic’ of the everyday. The structure and language of the poem implies dialogic practice which works towards an emphasis on mediation and process rather than resolution, the inconsistencies of homophones and humanoids being a way of speaking knowing as it happens, recording it, ‘choked’ and ‘inchoate’ to the last and yet, in its innovation, allowing one to be present on the ‘other side of…sight’ in a re-evaluation of what means and how it speaks or sings that meaning.

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

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

  • Twitter
  • Intercapillary Places (Events Series)
  • Publication Series
  • Newsreader Feed