Beginning to read Alice Notley’s In the Pines

John Hall

[#] Watch Alice Notley read from 'In the Pines' (pp.3-6)

(Note: This is not the written version of a talk. In the symposium itself I used very sketchy notes and spoke rather more generally, knowing that mine was the first talk after Alice Notley’s initial reading and Carol Watts’s introduction.)

In her essay on Joanne Kyger in Coming After, Alice Notley wrote: “Poetry’s supposed to be lived in, not assessed’ (Notley 2005, 26). This wonderfully engaging statement quickly became troublesome, and troublesome in the light of Notley’s own work: as though you don’t need to ‘assess’ what you live in, where you live. It seems to me that her poetry is a sustained, uncomfortable and knowingly contradictory exploration of ‘what you live in’, an unaccommodating engagement with all her accommodations. I wanted to add ‘living through’ to ‘living in’. Poetry is a very serious business to this poet, enough to be thought of as a way of living; and at the same time what is lived through poetry is a world always also beyond poetry, that poetry can never fully absorb or domesticate – and certainly not reduce to a matter of ‘language’. There is nothing settled, or at least nothing settling; and there can be no final account.

In The Pines is an unsettled and unsettling poem. I shall look at the opening lines, fully aware that these open a long poem and not a short, self-contained lyric. Immediately, it seems to me, there is an unresolved tension between a lived-in-ness and what-it-is-to-live-like-that:
           Why should I respect, or convince, or even interest you? (Respect, conviction and interest belong to him.) On earth. Where we except for those in charge are drained from giving ourselves to each other until there’s nothing left. In the year of our President. Eighteen coaches long.
‘Why?’. ‘Why should?’. ‘Why should I?’. This is the middle of something, responsive, in that everyday political mode of protest against established shoulds. ‘I’ is the third word and this is a poem, but it’s a poem by someone who has already established in other poems that ‘I’ can equally be the biographical person whose name appears on the cover and a figure in a narrative. In any open exchange of talk, ‘I’ is likely to be used by everyone who speaks and the passing of ‘I’ through different voices is something too that happens in Alice Notley’s poems. What most unsettles this ‘I’ is, not surprisingly, the ‘you’ at the end of the question. We’ll have to get used to the light to see who is being addressed. I’m just a reader but you could be talking to me, using the poem as a form of direct address, outwards. Why should the poet ‘respect, or convince, or even interest’ me, as reader? That’s an edgy thought to start off with, and it won’t go away. More conventionally this ‘you’ will be contained within the exchanges and pronouns of the piece, and that doesn’t go away either. In the brackets there is that italicised ‘him’. This is someone else, is it? But then not exactly a someone, or if a someone, one borrowing the aura of an earthly universal. How does the Lord’s Prayer go? ‘Our father […] Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven’.

What do those commas do, that separate out ‘or convince’ in the first line? This is not rushed. This is itemised. These are relational verbs, touching on power, and different kinds of charge within power exchanges. They are repeated as abstract nouns within the brackets as subjects of that charged verb ‘belong’ and then come up against a compacted rhythmic stop on ‘him’. Full stop. ‘On earth.’ Full stop. Rhythmic entity. So, not ‘belongs to him on earth.’ And not straightforwardly: ‘On earth, where we, except for those in charge, are drained …’[leading up to main clause]. These aren’t sentences and the clauses are only kept apart when she wants them to be. The withheld comma after ‘Where we’ caused me to assume that ‘except’ was going to behave as a verb until the next line made a muddle of that assumption. So the punctuation is operating in a way that guides the pragmatics of reading: it is prosodic as well as being syntactic. The prosody troubles the syntax. The troubled syntax puts urgent pronouns into doubt. The pluralising of ‘we’ and ‘those’ does nothing to help. Is this ‘we’ universal, though with the stated exception? Does the syntactic ambiguity also leave in doubt the status and clarity of this exception? Is there even a possibility that ‘we’ too are in charge (of something, somewhere)?

In the next lines, negatives – ‘no’ and ‘not’ – come in, bringing a similar ambiguity, a contradictoriness about the drive to negate:
          There is no earth. There is no creation, there is no evolution
nothing ever said by a then or a now one —their nineteenth century minds. Backwater rising come on.
          The only thing you need to know here is whether or not you can stand my voice. Of which there is surely no such thing.
If ‘There is no earth’ why that emphatic ‘On earth’? What is at stake in these argumentative assertions? And a provisional answer, as reader starting out into this poem, is ‘my voice. Of which there is surely no such thing.’ This will not be a linguistic or ethical world of simple either / ors. It is exactly what matters that must be denied.
          I may be trying to destroy you in order to live. I may only be trying to love you.
The modality of those mays is not settled either.

And these are from the first few lines in the first sub-section of the first of fourteen numbered sections of a fifty-nine page poem. This is the middle of a dark wood in which this reader is, each time, woken abruptly, and in some trepidation. This subsection is in prose, by which I mean that the lines, though not justified to the right margin, allow the width of the page to determine their length. All the sections also contain lineated pieces, often with short lines. Movement between these modes puts into play – and in large measure this is made explicit – a sense of the different ‘voices’ generically associated with these decisions. Direct address, poem, song, narrated story, dramatised story – all these are either put directly into play or cited or invoked.
It’s almost a story or a poem but it’s really a song because it’s ripping me apart.
                                                                      (Section 2, 7)
I’m almost telling the story but I’m not going to. The old kinds of detail aren’t right any more.
                                                                      (Section 10, 43)
I have said that I started my remarks at the beginning of the poem, but I didn’t, because the beginning – a beginning that hovers hover the whole – is the title. Steve Willey’s talk about different versions of the song In The Pines was later very helpful but this knowledge (and what kind of knowledge is it to have a song in your head?) wasn’t with me when I was first reading. I assumed a connection with Needles, California, where Notley grew up, though I believe that that is named after rock formations rather than pine needles. Even so. But more than that, the verb pine would not go away. Phonically and etymologically, the word is not far from ‘pain’[1].
my eyes are like rhymes
my mother’s back yard
covered with pine needles
stabbing your eyes

on the ground it’s misty night.
The fence is silver-sharp spikes

on the edge where I can’t see
on the periphery
                                                  (Section 5, 19)
Pining is connected with lamentation, a way of settling in resignation to loss and grief. This poem certainly engages with loss, but at no point through a settled resignation.

[1] Notley discussed the French word épines in her essay, ‘Ron Padgett's Visual Imagination’ (Notley 2005, 27): ‘In a poem by Reverdy (“Espace”, in Sources du Vent) the sky lies down on spines or thorns (épines) which are probably trees (pines? the pin in épines) and on its spine (also épines); you see a large ghostly back, with its ghostly spine, as well as the waiting pines like a fakir’s bed.’

Cited texts

Alice Notley (2005), Coming After: Essays on poetry, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press
      ~       (2007), In The Pines, New York: Penguin Books


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

[1] Notley discussed the French word épines in her essay, ‘Ron Padgett's Visual Imagination’ (Notley 2005, 27): ‘In a poem by Reverdy (“Espace”, in Sources du Vent) the sky lies down on spines or thorns (épines) which are probably trees (pines? the pin in épines) and on its spine (also épines); you see a large ghostly back, with its ghostly spine, as well as the waiting pines like a fakir’s bed.’
I wonder whether Notley may know Francis Ponge's Carnet du Bois de Pins (1947) which makes play with 'epingles' and 'aiguilles'; also the book has an elegiac dedication to a dead friend, and sees the pine as likely to 'De leur vivant a fournir du bois mort'
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