3 Selections from “Negativity’s Kiss” by Alice Notley

Redell Olsen

[#] Watch Alice Notley reading the 3 selections from Negativity's Kiss

Selections published in Come Hither 2: (The Winter / Thaw Issue) 2008.
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In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, E.B.B. makes a plea for the contemporary poet to: “Exert a double vision” to “see near things as comprehensively/As if afar they took their point of sight,/And distant things as intimately as if they touched them” (184). This might seem like an anachronistic point of departure for a discussion of the extract from Alice Notley’s “Negativity’s Kiss”, but it shares a number of qualities with this 19th Century poem which are worth noting, especially in terms of Notley’s interest in the sheens and structures of narrative, dialogue and character. Both poems are concerned, in very different ways, with the politics of representation. Notley’s poem embodies the “double vision” of a writing which moves like a zoom lens across time and space. The poem is fraught with images terrible in their iridescent and strange familiarity: the Cop, the roach elected by “presidential impersonation”, the murderous Hooded--who are both killers and victims--and the mediation of it all by the video recorder, an image which acts as a cipher for a discussion of the role of the poet and of writing.

The Whitmanesque refrain--“Sing to/rivers I ended/ Sing to, cities I flooded. Sing to bodies I/conquered”--creates a radical juxtaposition of registers that periodically interrupts the poem and turns it towards a kind of lament. Unlike Whitman, Notley has no illusions that she can “discorrupt” the world that she finds herself in but like Whitman she is interested in the ways in which the body -and perhaps soul- “balk account” and enter into spaces of negative insistency which defy evaluation (Leaves of Grass, 11). Instead the poem finds itself complicit in the dark and violent space which it occupies: “We’re both, / now, the instruments of chaotic power” says the poet in dialogue with the Cop. Meanwhile the “voice of the Street” sings of “Rivers I ended fields I scorched / Sing of bodies, who cares” and the line ends without a question mark. This absence of punctuation raises the very question as to who might supply one: the Cop’s, the roach politician’s, the poet’s? The poem explores the possibility of detachment but cannot carry it through. Like an apparently impartial video recorder the poem attempts to record a violence which is both psychological and physical but fails and this failure; this negativity, is the “double vision” of the poem.

Poetry is “a vocation” she asserts in the face of the Cop--or perhaps critic?--who is supposedly policing the limits of what is and what isn’t political along with what is and what isn’t worthwhile in poetry. Notley is proud of her lived fulfilment of the Romantic poet who does not “live like others, fulfilling duties / to the candeled deities of employment” but instead lives by “presenting truth without payment”. And while this might strike some, probably with a mixture of envy, as a naive and flawed claim for a pure and free poetry, Notley defends the role of the poet and defends herself, even as she lays in with “razored / slices” and a provocative and confrontational smile.

“And who reads poetry?” she asks rhetorically; “They don’t have to read what you say for it to enter/the garble” she claims in lines at once pathetic and heroic. It is the annihilation of each possible position of identification that might offer itself to her --“even/the avant-garde is mannerly now”--which drives the poem forwards in its negative trajectories--“you insult people you coup de foudre them”--and it is a negativity which she is not afraid to turn on the poem and lyric personae--“I am as evil as the footsteps behind you”.

The poem argues that poetry has “opened you to change” and Notley seems to mean this in both a specific grammatical sense, that is what poetry can do to the “you” in writing. Yet the poem seems to notice that this potentially revolutionary conception of poetry is very like the voice of a politician who, like a poet has the ability to break and enter “you”--“we can break/you in order to help you, different yous”, and yet who seduces with rhetorical guile--“I can use you to get elected”. A poet, like a politician, is someone who might substitute “roach is” for “roaches” and get away with it.

Death and art are frequently synonymous in the poem in a kind of Lacanian, Gothic film-noir nightmare scenario in which technology effaces subjectivity even as it supersedes it--“Meanwhile the video clicks in/ again from within/in my head”. Through the poem, Notley asserts that the poet’s “negative fingers” do not conform to known channels of political resistance and this is precisely why in political terms poetry seems doomed to fail. Even as this is its potential power and one which cannot easily be diffused: “A lot of people who tamper with everything / in accepted capitalist ways / don’t want you messing with them” says the Cop to the poet; “you are an enemy who has invaded them”.

For Barrett Browning “if there’s room for poets in this world . . . Their sole work is to represent the age”(200). How you represent the age in an age founded on the doubles and spectres of representation is a complex point of return in Notley’s “Negativity’s Kiss”. This is a poem for an “age” built on multiple and constantly shifting levels of representation, one in which the recording might even begin to anticipate the event --“I/will assassinate you soon/in the manner of/this video”. The poem does not so much seek to “represent the age” as to enter into and inhabit its already conflicted, power-tainted scapes of violence that appear to be leaking into the poem, from the video recorder, from the street but also from the poem itself.

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

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