Notley, Monteverdi & Infinite Negativity

Melissa Flores-Bórquez

“I stood waiting” “for some minutes” “in this very” “alive darkness – ”
“the air so vibrant,” “the trees awake” “There were flowers,” “mixed
grasses,” “growing lower” “in the dark,” “& I was relieved” “to be
near them” “after so much time” “where nothing grew” “Then” “I heard a

song” “faint & blurred,” “a slow song” “I heard it” “as if through
walls” “As if” “there were a room” “next to where I stood” “& someone,”
“a man,” “sang inside of it” “The tune was sad,” “& attracting”
“I approached it – ” “where its source seemed to be – ” “& it moved away

from me” “just a” “short distance” “This happened twice” “Then I
understood” “I was to follow it:” “& so it led me – ” “through deep
woods” “& clearings,” “for” “a long while” “The voice sang” “the
same melody” “over” “& over” “mournful” “& intimate” “in a language”

“I didn’t recognize – ” “or didn’t think I did:” “it was hard to” “hear
the words – ” “Till at last we” “reached a meadow” “where the song”
“ceased to sound,” “pale & empty” “with trees around it” “Then I
sank to” “the ground” “& fell asleep for” “a long time” “But when I

awoke” “of course” “it was dark”

(The Descent of Alette, Book Three, Penguin, 1992, p. 88)


Led on by a voice, trusting its intimacy – even as it overlaps with itself – this process becomes a chorale-like confluence, a strophic staccato. The short phrases which cut across sense in Alette create a syncopated rhythm measure, and though various musical forms come to mind, the short phrases closely recall those in Monteverdi’s madrigals, in particular those passages in which a series of solo voices sing a first-person text, continually kick-starting one embodiment out from the last. Compared to his contemporary Caccini, Monteverdi wrote few madrigal monodies (there is one example in the seventh book of madrigals), perhaps because symmetry underlies his compositional structures to such a degree that he cannot reach any affective subtext without an ensemble, or a different form, such as opera.

There’s a particular structural development of works in which a commenting chorus washes around a single voice, culminating in the eighth book’s ‘Lamento dello Ninfa’ in which the counterpoint between the cry of an abandoned nymph and a polyphonic trio of male observers reaches an inexhaustible mixture. In the earlier ‘“T’amo mia vita” la mia cara vita’[1] a chorus of male voices overlap in a single narration, while the entirely remembered voice (of the beloved) rings through or over them, rather as direct speech, when it occurs in Alette, tends to haunt the ongoing spectrum of telling’s fragments – one voice constructed by many, perhaps what Robert Creeley meant by an “almost archaically determined poetry” when describing the book[2]. In the poem, voice either echoes (the Tyrant repeats and remixes what he hears) or it creates:
“‘My voice has power,’ she repeated” “‘More power” “than before”
“For as I’m speaking – ” “as I speak now,” “look above us:’” “she
pointed” “to the sky, where” “tiny stars” “were coming out”
“just here & there” “in that blackness” “They formed no patterns”

“that I recognised,”

The flesh of this poetry with its bony white ridges creates particular eye-movements in the reader, quotation marks causing the flicker of an edge: “she / pointed” “to the sky, where” “tiny stars” “were coming out”[3]. In the first break the pointing has time to be a gesture, so that the sky really is up, and the comma succeeding it is a kind of dip back down towards a perceiving point, which movement reaffirms the height at which the “tiny stars” come out.

This texture proposes a number of things, among them the poem’s idea of paradise:
                                                                                         “It was simply”

“the music,” “the vocal texture” “of beings” “free together”
“I sat enwrapped in – ” “unaware” “of how much time passed – ”
“The voices murmured, laughed,” “shrieked & dropped,” “paired &
soloed” “& chorused,” “speeded up,” “hesitated,” “in female,

male &” “childish registers” “All their being” “seemed externalized”
“& hearing them,” “mine was too” “Sometimes they seemed to be”
“much closer than” “They were” “Or I myself” “was elsewhere” “than
the bench,” “floating” “among them,” “bodiless,” “lost in voices”

(p. 103)
That externalisation is language become an ideal realization: not of the species and not a Hegelian practical consciousness, rather a superseding of bounded selves into a realm of freely revealing ones. The voice, thought or journey of Alette can only create if it is absolutely negative, which will give it the power to bring about something new. Notley later christens her idea as Disobedience, not believing that knowledge always comes from books, suggesting that we ask “What are you buying at the moment?”. Inevitably exemplifying exactly the association-fault at stake, I think the project at least shares a structure with that of Feuerbach[4] who wrote of the courage of the absolutely negative (needed to supersede philosophy and bring nature back to humans), putting the unity of antithetical truths at the core of his emancipatory thinking towards a universal freedom. In order to really obtain a life, which is also to gain a relation to her true self, Alette journeys through a framework which is the tyrant’s form, or society externalised – the negativity must be infinite, if thought is. Finally unrestricted by this frame, the poem’s territory of caverns, lakes and carriages necessarily disappears, in an over-ground light, the white gaps suddenly flourishing so that the poem ends, as an epic, by proposing a new time, a new space.


[1] From the fifth book.
[2] Quote on the back cover of the Penguin edition.
[3] It doesn’t seem necessary to put quotes around this poetry when quoting it here.
[4] See ‘The Necessity of Reform in Philosophy’, in The Fiery Brook: Selected Writings of Ludwig Feuerbach, (Anchor Books, 1972).

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

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