Alice Notley’s ‘A Baby Is Born Out of a White Owl’s Forehead – 1972’

Jon Clay

[#] Watch Alice Notley read ‘A Baby Is Born Out of a White Owl’s Forehead – 1972’

In the essay ‘The Poetics of Disobedience’, Alice Notley wrote about an absence of babies in poetry:
I’ve spoken in other places of the problems, too, of subjects that hadn’t been broached much in poetry and of how it seemed one had to disobey the past and practices of literary males in order to talk about what was going on most literally around one, the pregnant body, and babies, for example. There were no babies in poetry then. How could that have been? What are we leaving out now?[1]
There are, it is true, very few babies in serious poetry. This is unsurprising; as Deleuze said, ‘man presents himself as a dominant mode of expression that claims to impose itself on all matter’,[2] and given that men have often been largely distant from the experience and lives of babies, a certain absence of babies from poetry has even been inevitable. In such a situation, writing about babies is an act of disobedience, an assertion of something other than the dominant expression of Man. It is, historically, an assertion of woman, although it is also an assertion against woman, against ‘woman’ as a particular fixed identity imposed by Man.

So when somebody (Alice Notley of course) writes this assertion, a poem that concerns babies or childbirth, what happens when a man reads that poem? Whatever a man’s personal experience, he will still have the heritage, if I can dignify it with that word, of absence from child rearing.

The poem ‘A Baby Is Born Out of a White Owl’s Forehead – 1972’ opens with a similar statement to that made in ‘The Poetics of Disobedience’:
At this time there are few
poems about pregnancy and childbirth [3]
Babies as such are not immediately at issue, but rather women’s bodies, female transformations, metamorphoses and pain. Unlike child rearing, these are areas that are definitively outside of male experience; men are excluded from them not just by patriarchy and its history, but by nature. Reading these opening lines as a man produces an affect of being on the outside, of not having access. It is an exclusion that is the inverse of the exclusion to which the poem refers. As I read about pregnancy and childbirth, even in the barest and most straightforward reference, I am pushed out of my own reading performance in a way that ironically brings me somewhat into proximity with the way in which women have been pushed out, barred from poetic reference to their own lives. I am clearly not made or transformed into ‘woman’ by this; I do not experience the actual exclusion that a patriarchal society enforces, but I am only brought into a certain proximity with it.

The poem shifts, following these lines of bare statement, first to an ambiguous question and then to a violent response. The third line’s question, ‘do I find this curious’ is left ambiguous by a lack of punctuation: is it the speaker asking the question of herself? That was my initial feeling, one of eavesdropping on an internal dialogue. However, the violence of the response folds back over the question, indeed it seems to turn on the question in order to attack its stupidity:
do I find this curious
I want to shriek at
any identity
this culture gives me claw it to
pieces; (Notley, ‘Baby’, 38)
The sense of not only folding back over the question but turning aggressively on it partly results from the enjambment that, in a sense, shouldn’t be there, or wouldn’t be there if conventional punctuation were being used. While this lack of conventional punctuation might suggest a Joycean stream of consciousness, at the same time the question is thrust away from the speaker, distanced from her as it takes on an air of incredulous repetition as though something somebody else has asked in conversation.

The incredulity suggests that the question is to be judged stupid or woefully inadequate to the situation. However, in terms of its tone it is entirely in keeping with the opening statement: it is rational, reasonable, noting a phenomenon as being of interest. To the speaker, however, life itself is at stake and it is a matter of a denial of that life: it is a denial, a distancing, of women and mothers as being of any active interest or of any real importance.

This violent response is, therefore, a violent assertion of the life of the speaker, a refusal of the acceptable womanhood prescribed by Man, almost a liberation in itself if it were not so freighted with frustration. At least as important as the direct statement of disobedience and refusal is the violence of it; it is energy, it is even life itself, turning against the conventionally distancing calm of apparently rational discourse.

In the performance of Notley’s poem (and here I mean performance in the sense set out by Douglas Oliver in Poetry and Narrative in Performance, which includes the act of silent reading[4]), I embody it. The poem as it rests on the page is real but only virtual; it is actualised by performance, and in that actualisation a reader’s body becomes a body for the poem. As I embody this particular poem, I embody a disunity, the sharp difference between the first, calm lines and the frustrated anger of those that immediately follow them. I do not feel that this is a debate between fictional characters, however, but is rather the speaker’s frustration at herself, at being drawn into the trap of an abstract debate when her life is, in a sense, at stake. The performance of this disunity is a physical shock, but it is a necessary incoherence in the movement of the poem, and registers the force of the refusal of an imposed identity.

Instead of simply falling entirely into a role prescribed by patriarchy, however, both mother and baby transcend it simply by means of their basic humanity:
       has nothing to
do with me or
my baby and never will,
has never perceived a human being. (Notley, ‘Baby’, 38)
This suggests the complexity of a human individual beyond the simplicities of ‘identity’; even beyond the identity of ‘woman’. A new mother desires the shredding of the category of ‘new mother’ because she knows there is nothing natural or harmless about it. It is infected by assumptions drawn from the collective assemblage of enunciation that is the social character of individualised speech.[5] In a patriarchal world these assumptions are often, unsurprisingly, patriarchal. Hence the disunity and problematic coherence: the individual speaker is not simply herself. The identity that the culture gives her does not fit but is hers nonetheless. The frustration-affect that is inscribed so deeply into these lines seems is a very clear symptom of this.

This kind of internal disunity is again presented in all its force by the following lines:
My baby is quiet and wise, but I’m
a trade name and I’m
rainwater on a piano (Notley, ‘Baby’, 38)
A trade name and chaos; an externally imposed identity and its ultimate impossibility. I read chaos as the basis for refusal, the shifting, bubbling, wriggling possibilities that will not fit the skin that is manufactured by the ‘dominant mode of expression’. It is the part of the individual that is always amongst the people who are missing, the ‘oppressed bastard race that ceaselessly stirs beneath dominations, resisting everything that crushes and imprisons’.[6] The baby is quiet and wise because it is not yet either missing or stamped with an identity; ‘he isn’t wrong’ the poem says and for that reason may be served, a sense of an entitlement to respect that doesn’t have to be earned but rather is all too often thrown away as one matures.

As I read, I register many aspects of this poem with recognition, including the failure and refusal of imposed identity and the frustration of the failure to refuse it adequately. I recognise myself as chaos and trade name, and even as the combination of natural and manufactured beauty, of chaos and organisation, that is ‘rainwater on a piano’. I recognise the sense that the baby is ‘not wrong’, outside the struggles with identity and culture, the claims and counter-claims and refusals. I recognise all this and I embody it as I perform it and it is me – and yet it is not me. I am brought into proximity with it, once again, but yet I am not, once again, a woman. I feel solidarity in principle but not quite entirely in fact. I cannot feel solidarity ‘in fact’ because this is not my experience, however similar my experience may be. There is a weight of history here that is not mine, the weight of frustration is historical and political and is not mine, not in quite the same way.
When the poem says:

I’m infused with a noxious dispirit
as the world makes me be a woman
everything has gone wrong in some sense by now (Notley, ‘Baby’, 38)
I perform these lines and am the embodiment of sensations of ‘noxious dispirit / as the world makes me be a woman’, I am brought into proximity with ‘woman’ – but I am not one. This is a feminist poem because it reaches out to women in the absolute and personal singularity of a constellation of experiences that can be recognised by women made women by a world that robs them of power and devalues them. The world does not do that to me, or at least it does not do so on the basis of gender.

The poem then moves towards a sense of motherhood not as identity but as an ambivalent process:
Two years later I obliterate myself again
having another child
not to be a form of woman
but in allegiance to the process I
can’t quite see.
I have begun to be. (Notley, ‘Baby’, 39)
‘Two years later I obliterate myself again’ has an initial affect of dropping back into an essentially similar situation, ‘having another child’, in which a woman destroys herself. The sense of agency here seems important: she does it to herself, although the source of this obliteration surely remains ‘the world’ that ‘makes me be a woman’.

At least this is what appears to be happening, but there is a fresh refusal of this imposed identity of ‘woman’ in favour of a process, an ambivalent movement of life beyond immediate perception that does ‘obliterate’ but which is something other than a foreign identity. In an ‘allegiance to the process’ there is a focus on passing through rather than arriving, on a transformation. There is also an affect of mystery in not being able to ‘quite see’ this process, as in a dream in which something vital always lies just beyond the corner of the eye. The sense of passing through a process rather than arriving in a fixed state is strengthened here insofar as any possible final state of transformation is not known and may not exist.

‘I have begun to be,’ on the other hand, is a statement that is absolute and complete in itself; it interrupts the sensation of process and composes an ending. In fact there is indeed a sense in which the poem does end here, with what remains forming a coda that in its turn suggests that this ending is also a beginning and larger processes are continuing to unfold.

Across the movement of a performance of approximately the first three sections of the poem there is an unsettled affect composed of shifts and irrational cuts. These include cuts between tenses, such as ‘I’m so / scared then but now of then I’d say / I want to make your tunes go away’. The unsettled affect embodies sensations in excess of signification that again bring me into proximity with the female speaker’s struggles and the debilitating affects of those struggles. Again, too, of course they do not reproduce those struggles or affects, but they do pull and push me into a zone of proximity that allows me some conception of them.

Although in the final three sections of the poem the speaker is still ‘undone,’ ‘never born’, ‘obliterated’, although even in the last line of the poem ‘for two years, there’s no me here’, the formal qualities are more settled. She seems to be moving towards an understanding, at least, of the situation, of the process that she ‘can’t quite see’, that makes it liveable and bearable. The process is one that has to be gone through in order to continue with the larger process of living, as suggested by what I’m thinking of as the coda:
I sit with my sons in a barely cared-for apartment
inside from Chicago in the TV’s ambience (black and
white, like the snow) purple crocuses there
Ted’s becoming sick with a lasting illness
though we are calm while money doesn’t press us
a moment of happiness, these bodies are clear
all four finally clear and
still clear
Here, of course, if you know Alice, or very much about her, then the force of the poem as autobiography is unavoidable. If you don’t know her or anything about her, the autobiographical qualities of the poem work to ground it in a sense of a ‘forcefulness of the moment of recognition’ in Denise Riley’s words[7]. This recognition, necessary for solidarity of any kind in fact but for a feminist solidarity in this case, is perhaps all the more forceful for the account being specific and singular.

However, if the poem were simply an autobiographical, narrative account, I, however sympathetic, would only be excluded, outside and looking in. It is the force of the poem as a poem – with its difficulties, its shifts, its restlessness and its overall deterritorialising force – that allows a proximity that includes its own elements of recognition and allows that sympathy to be grounded in the realities of embodied sensations.


[1] Notley, Alice, ‘The Poetics of Disobedience’, in Anne Waldman and Lisa Birman (eds.), Civil Disobedience: Poetic and Politics in Action (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2004), 91.
[2] Deleuze, Gilles, Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. by Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco (London and New York: Verso, 1998), 1.
[3] Notley, Alice, ‘A Baby Is Born Out of a White Owl’s Forehead – 1972’, in Mysteries of Small Houses (New York: Penguin, 1998), 38. References to Notley, ‘Baby’ hereafter in my text.
[4] Oliver, Douglas, Poetry and Narrative in Performance (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1989), vii.
[5] Deleuze, Gilles, and Guattari, Felix, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. by Brian Massumi (London; New York: Continuum, 2002), 80.
[6] Deleuze, Gilles, Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. by Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco (London and New York: 1998), 4.
[7] Riley, Denise, 'Am I That Name?' - Feminism and the Category of 'Women' in History (London: Macmillan, 1988), 99.

Constellation: Alice Notley
[#] Birkbeck Centre for Poetics
[#] Openned Video Constellation of Readings
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