On Above the Leaders

Stephen Mooney

[#] Watch Alice Notley read the following poem.

from Alice Notley's Above the Leaders:

I saw the sick man again, tall and unsteady
he got on at Bolivar, exited at Buttes-Chaumont: a white man
gray-haired, thin, with small cheekbones. A week ago a black woman
dressed in beige and dyed blonde hair, thick beige powder on her face,
beige stockings and shoes, got on at Gare de l’Est and descended with me
at Louis Blanc talking to air. But I want to
stare at these people, fearing any connection I might establish:
she a little crazy seemed to want to follow me. Because I was warm
and intense? knocking on her mind’s door, out of curiosity
Or she may have been a transvestite. Sunday morning at 8.
The plump young boy helps the old man, who is
nonetheless a tourist with a backpack, find his way through
the Gare de l’Est which being remodeled lacks signs
All the chestnuts in bloom in the Buttes. The yellow tulips
weren’t there anymore, inward with their red stripes.
The owner of the Boulangerie dislikes my wrinkled
five-euro note: I say, It’s not very elegant . . . so she laughs
and accepts it. No politicians know what we say.
On the rue de Rivoli, Friday, it was muggy with bursts of grey
in different gusty intensities, some verging on purple.
Recently I dreamed of the arcaded passages as a tunnel
with uncanny lights. If you touch our bruised selves
it’s sky on earth; such treasure, wouldn’t you join me?
But I’m so afraid of you. She was young, with her friend, and suitcases
the cuffs of her long pants ragged, she’d stepped all over them -- is it a fashion?


In this short piece I'll be looking at the poem beginning 'I saw the sick man again, tall and unsteady' from Alice Notley's 2008 book Above the Leaders[1], which she describes as
a set of Paris poems – almost-adventures, visitations, paranoias,
the exquisite, outrageous language of l'étrangère
The immediate association here for me would be that of the flaneur figure so often manacled to the walker in Paris, but this is not, I think, what Notley is invoking with this book, or this poem.

Take her 'sick man again' of the opening line – textually he runs into the "black woman dressed in beige and dyed blonde hair", and the plump young boy, and into the old man "who is nonetheless a tourist with a backpack" … who may be the same man – these people move themselves, seemingly jarring against each other and the complicated 'I's being invoked by the poem, rather than melding into a sequence of motions that defines the 'relator' (be that poet, voice, or reader).

This sense of connection-made-complex is what I find most interesting here -
                                             […] But I want to
stare at these people, fearing any connection I might establish:
There are movements between encounters and people that do not, I'd suggest, simply line up together to make the presence of the I, or the personal, emphatic.

This is not the easy relation of encounter to encounter that a flaneurised internal dialogue would suggest, but a somewhat unsettling series of relations to encounter. Nor is this the implied resonance of the internal to the socially rhythmic in the Lefebvrian sense, of encounter to internal rhythm, but more the tension of the encounter in collision with the personal-social exchange implied by it.[2] The encounter here has gained somewhat of an unattached quality – its significance is perhaps not in its sense of inter-relation (to other 'parts' of some construction), but in its identification of seperateness within the notion of coming into contact. It seems more of a 'coming up against' than a 'coming into relation with'. It is an uneasiness of the presence of this within the social space that encounter generates that stimulates the apprehensive sense of alienation this, and other poems in this book, mediate.

Ann Charters in Contemporary Poets[3] has commented that:
Notley writes poetry to express her personal voice as a contemporary wife and mother, not to promote a social agenda [,]
whereas Notley herself has said, in the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series[4], that:
… I hate meaning . . . that's a funny thing to say! But I'm not interested in meaning, I'm interested in being right here, no veils.
This immediacy of the personal that I feel is implied here, in both these statements, carries a complicated resonance with the mediation of this personal sense in this poem; it is not the relation of the personal/identity through the presence of others, of the social, nor the presencing of the external through the medium of internalisation, but the encounter between the personalised, that which is mediated, and the person that is emphasised, a "connection I might establish" – it is the encounter itself, rather than the translation of this that is foregrounded – and held in uneasy proximity to the social construction of this encounter that, I would suggest, underlies the flaneur's perception.
The owner of the Boulangerie dislikes my wrinkled
five-euro note: I say, It’s not very elegant . . . so she laughs
and accepts it. No politicians know what we say.
Here we see 'encounter, almost-adventure, visitation, paranoia and the exquisite, outrageous language of l'étrangère' – the setting is curiously both personal and social, wrinkled and accepted … but neither written into the personal or the social without the presence of the other. 'No politicians know what we say.' acts in this way, both writing and retracting the writing of the personal into the social, and vice-versa.

Whilst perhaps not the exposition of the political, or politicised, 'I', 'you', or 'they', I get the strong impression that these encounters, and these étrangers, bear the marks of a personalised identity that struggles with the politicization of pronouns – they present, I think, a way in which their identity as personal étrangère can be viewed – the presence of politicized identity (its social coding) within the poem certainly brings the tension of this proximity into an equation of presentation.
                                                                       […] -- is it a fashion?
What can be said of a fashion except that it is a ragged adherence to the social, a substitute for presence, that engages the social, without engaging the individual. The inevitability of the social intervening in the 'enjoyment' of the personal seems rattled here – the equation of presentation, presence in the act, is capable of shifting:
Recently I dreamed of the arcaded passages as a tunnel
with uncanny lights.


[1] Alice Notley, Above the Leaders (London: Veer Books, 2008), p. 40.

[2] This is not, by any means, to equate the figure of the flaueur, where the city is effectively constructed by the walker, to Lefebvre's Rhythmanalysis, where the emphasis is upon a construction of the city's rhythms related to an interaction of internal and social influences. These seem quite different endeavours.

See Henri Lefebvre and Catherine Régulier, 'The Rhythmanalytical Project' in Rhythmanalysis, trans. by Stuart Elden and Gerald Moore (New York: Continuum, 2006), pp 71-83 (p75):

In everyday life, what is relative to social relations thus appears to every 'subject' as necessary and absolute, as essential and authentic. Were we to introduce a new element into everyday time, this construction might totter and threaten to collapse, so showing that it was neither necessary nor authentic.
[3] Ann Charters, Contemporary Poets, 6th edition, Ed. by Thomas Riggs (New York: St. James Press, 1996).

[4] Alice Notley, Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 27, ed. by Shelley Andrews (Detroit, MI : Gale/Cengage Learning, 1997).

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

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