Bodies, near and far: Alice Notley

Ian Davidson

On 'Dear Dark Continent' and 'September's Book'

In the title of her poem from 1972, ‘Dear Dark Continent’ (Notley 8), Alice Notley links the familiar to the unknown. The address, ‘Dear’, simultaneously indicates intimacy in the way it links speaker and addressed, and distance through the letter form. The ‘Dark Continent’ is both a land mass with a mysterious unknown interior reminiscent of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and a body close enough to be touched and identified as a ‘palpable coffin’ in the third line. The Dark Continent is therefore both a body that is like a land, and a land that is like a body. It is also a body that is familiar, and ‘dear’, and a land that is unknown.

The writer of the letter is both inside and outside of the land and the body. The body is a ‘palpable’ coffin that is ‘quickening’. The ‘quickening’ is of the body of the speaker, as she feels herself coming to life, and the body of the other, of the ‘he’ we meet later in the poem. Yet there are two ‘hes’, husband and son. The ‘quickening’ of either would bring fear that she would lose her train of thought and her reflection of herself through the demands of the other, whether the baby wakening or the other beside her. The idea of a ‘palpable coffin’ resonates through both relationships. As a wife she is next to the body of the other that contains within it a wild and mysterious space. She is potentially smothered by the scale of the body of the other, lost within it and her movements limited. As a mother she also contains the child within her, in the space produced in the womb during pregnancy, and her body becomes the ‘palpable coffin’ to the child trying to kick its way out, a relationship developed before birth and sustained afterwards.

The two bodies of husband and son make up the body of the family of which the letter writer is a member, with the dual roles of wife and mother, and of which the husband is the head. A number of perspectives emerge, like an image of Russian dolls where each body contains within it another body, perspectives that link the familiar to the strange. The speaker is inside her own body looking out, and imagining her child’s body within her. She is looking at the outside of her husband’s body and imagining herself inside it and, by the device of the letter, as outside of it and addressing it. Yet that body of the husband also provides a possibility of finding new things, of exploring new territories that exist within the ‘whole long universe’. Her roles within the body of the family provide security and a freedom from loneliness. She has ‘ostensibly’ chosen to be a member of the family, and that ‘membership’ of the family has limited the possibilities of her experience. Despite her family membership she still senses, inside herself, her own loneliness, her own individual relationship to time and the time of her own body, and to the spaces her body produces in the ‘whole long universe’.

Notley describes a highly embodied experience that combines the sensuality of the fleshy body in the ‘dark continent’ and her own motherhood, and the socially constructed nature of the family roles of mother and wife. She both welcomes the familiar and the way she is now ‘irrevocably’ tied to the histories of those others and linked to the spaces they produce, yet desires the strange and the unexplored. In ‘Dear Dark Continent’ the bodies are the places that make up the familiar space of wife, husband and son. In poems written a few years later she describes the spaces she finds herself in, and in so doing combines within the notion of the familiar the idea of accustomed behaviour and the bodies of the family.

The relationship between the familiar and everyday and the wider world become combined in her image of the ‘dark ocean life’ in the long 1978 poem ‘September’s Book’ (Notley 75-91). It is a life she is ‘leaving and yet never’, a place she can imagine but never gets to, and a place she desires yet never attains. The title of the poem, ‘September’s Book’, locates it within a time, giving it something of the quality of a diary. If ‘Dear Dark Continent’ is located between the bodies of the family members, then ‘September’s Book’ is located between August and October. The poem is about fifteen pages long and made up of a variety of sections divided up by a ‘*’. Within the poem Notley uses a range of forms, including dialogue, monologue and parody. Some sections of the poem have settings, character and action, producing a representation of space in an apparently real world, while others are highly abstract. These more abstract sections seem to produce a space in which the speaker, temporarily free of the limitations of time and space, can explore herself or at least explore different representations of herself as she exists within language.

The image of the ocean as life, and herself as a ship, runs through the first section of ‘September’s Book’. She addresses the world as a man in the third stanza of the first section and moves from an image of domestic limitation where ‘we’re all secret bound made into a tight lawn out front’ to the call of the last line where ‘Masts and lights await me’ (76). Some four lines later she develops the image of the ship:

- I like this strangely you know,
this quite dark eyed ship I will sneak on
quietly as a dew drop & then away
I’ll be where the real there is … (76)

The simple image of escape is made more complex. The ship, by being ‘quite dark eyed’, becomes like a human body. She is seeking escape, not only by taking the ship across the ocean to somewhere else and leaving the body of the other behind, but is also achieving escape through the body of the other. Like Blake, she is seeking to understand the world through an embodied sensual activity. The ‘real there’, where she leaves her self behind, lies both within her own body, and is reached through the body of another as well, as being potentially geographically distant. A few lines further on she reflects:

- It’s very interesting how I am
the ship & my sea is .. (76)

Line endings and syntax create a complex relationship between self, ship and sea. The first line, read in isolation, is a reflection on the complexity of the self. The second line, read in isolation, is an affirmation that ship and sea exist, and are in relation to each other. Yet if one follows the syntax to read through the line endings then she is ‘the ship’, an assertion emphasised by the ‘am’ in italics. The ship is therefore not some other, that carries her across the trackless sea to some distant place, but is herself, her own body, and a body that is in a familiar relationship with some others that form the sea on which she sails. Yet the speaker in the poem is not only wife and mother but also poet. The section ends with a series of single line stanzas which begins by self consciously referring to the poem and asking ‘- These typings …’ (77), a question that is answered by ‘-So?’, further questioning the implications of the ‘typings’. Notley goes on to pun on the word ‘type’, deftly linking the genetic body to the socially constructed body, and the physical act of typing to the self that is produced in the act of typing. She is continuing to play with the notion of an eroticism of the self, and with the idea that she is her own ‘type’. Ship and sea are again combined in the final lines of this opening section where she goes ‘off the top of my waves’, an oblique reference to waves of pleasure and to the waves of the sea. Yet, in the end, she recognises the way in which she is joined to others when ‘- Here we go’, rather than ‘here I go’.

Notley refuses to settle into a response to her environment in which she is neutral observer and recorder. The body in the poems produces the space that unfolds before her, whether that space is internal to herself, on the surface of her body, within the family, in the conceptual space of her poetry, in the disembodied and abstracted over ‘there’ of her imagination or, as in the next section of ‘September’s Book’, in public space. In this second section she adopts the voice of an African American man who is observing her. She sees herself as if through the eyes of another, eyes that are given a gender and an ethnicity. While she might be describing her familiar visit to the park, familiar in that it is both a family event and one that she is accustomed to, she recognises that the space she produces and that unfolds at that specific time and in that specific place, is never neutral. There is no repeat performance, but a performance that always produces a new space. In the tension that Notley is exploring, between the domestic and the exotic, between her own body with its familiar bodies next to her and disembodied and abstract linguistically constructed spaces of the imagination, between the genetic programming of her type and the linguistic construct of her typing, there is no unchanging state she can revert to. There is no normal condition, even of the self, from which other conditions might be read off as not-normal.

The speaker in the second section of the poem is specifically located in time and space. He is both general, beginning his dramatic monologue with ‘I am man’ who is on his ‘regular schedule in the park’ (77), yet also specific in relating a narrative that has the characteristics of a representation of a particular time and place and interaction between particular characters. He describes the figure of a woman, a woman we assume to be the poet and the speaker in the first section, as a ‘skinny white mother’, punning on the woman’s role as a mother taking her children to the park, and the use of the term mother as street slang. Notley is also setting the female figure as a reverse of the Dark Continent, and as a figure of transparent vulnerability in public space. The speaker can see right inside her, and even knows, or thinks he knows, when ‘her right nipple just puckered closed in & up against that cool little breeze’ (78). The voice invades her reading, changing the emphasis of the words in page 192 of the book. The male narrative opposes the passivity of the woman, subjected to the surveillance. Yet the observation is never threatening, or even really obtrusive, but is a recognition of the gendered nature of public space. The scene ends with a moment of recognition between the two when ‘She looks at me as if she knows I know’ (76).

In the later section, following the scene in the park, the specific time and place becomes abstract and more generalised. The observed pretty, brown haired girl on her regular visit to the park, begins to speak for herself again and becomes ‘I America and the time eternal being sound of mind & of heart’ (79). The address is depersonalized, she is speaking to everyone and no-one, and the speaker personifies herself as ‘America’. Her abstraction from the specifics of time and place releases her into an imagined place of Blakean sensuality, where the world is understood through a private eroticised sensual response. Yet in order to reach this imagined place she must claim her own place in American culture. It is also a place with literary connotations, where she is ‘in mild heat but not quite become plainting Wyatt no sighes no teysr am just a girl in a soft swooony semi-miasma’ (79). In this dreamworld ‘cars & shops go by & men who’re like gentle wildernesses & great poppies and immense freighters & horizons’ (79). Her response, unlike the watchful passivity of the female figure in the park, is to allow herself to get ‘pleasurably weaker’ through her observation of men in the ‘solids of their shirts’ their ‘columnar necks & intense looks’ (79). As the section draws to a close she again echoes the tones of courtly love where her ‘poore true hart is comforted much by the restorative fantasy of sensuall love which begetteth song and poem’ (79). The dreamworld is a place she can reach through her own body and happens from inside herself, yet is also through the world of literature, through texts that transcend time and space and that promise other worlds. This fantasy did also ‘beget’ a poem, the one I am now reading, and one that is in relationship with the poems she herself has read.

For Notley, her body is both fleshy material, which exists in the material world, and social construct. It has a special place, and as Merleau Ponty said ‘The outline of my body is a frontier which ordinary spatial relations do not cross.’ (Phenomenology of Perception 112), yet for Notley it is a frontier crossed by the members of her family, the gaze of the man in the park and in her own fantasies. The socially constructed nature of the body exists in a relationship with the fleshy body. The more abstract section is also her fantasy response to the person watching her in the park, and a dream world she can escape to outside of the limitations of gendered and sexualized public space. The range of possibilities offered by the dreamworld, as against the limitations of the daily round of parenthood, is illustrated by the repeated ampersand that brings the images piling in to the poem alongside and on top of each other. From a particular person in a particular place and with all the restrictions that brings, and where she is located through her previous relationship with the place and the people in it, the body and the poem becomes a space of possibility, like the ocean and like the Dark Continent. It is a place in which ‘I’d become wild birds in search of amusement but am too soft & lazy & thick & go back & sit and think’ (79). It is a place that makes action possible, but not compulsory, a place in which she can do, or not do, what she likes. Yet for Notley, pleasurable though the abstraction might be, and whether it takes her to some place else, to the imagined geography of ‘over there’ or the eroticised fantasy of the dream world, she must still exist between the immanent experience of everyday life and the possibilities of the abstractions of the transcendent as she comes to and exclaims: ‘a muggy September day! What a dream! what a blanket!’ (80).

This early work by Notley can be read as a gendered account of the restrictions a woman might face in negotiating public space, the compromising and potentially contradictory roles of wife, mother and poet, and her fantasy of the possibility of freedom from those restrictions through an exploration of her sexuality, rather than by a denial of it. Yet she also describes the different corporeal and spatial relationships that unfold in the poems, and a clearer understanding of the relationships between those places, of which the body is one, can provide additional or supplementary readings. Within the poems we move from being inside one’s own body and looking out, to being outside one’s own body and seeing oneself as seen by others. The speaking self is in a relationship with a familiar body, both in the sense of being known and being a ‘member’ of the body of the family, yet it is a body that sometimes appears unexplored, a ‘blind face’. Her body is also in a spatial relationship with the body of a stranger, yet in a familiar public space in the park. Through processes of abstraction and generalization, and through real and imagined geographies of possibility and exploration, including the geography of her own body, she is also in a global space, the ‘whole long universe’, which is both a space of liberation and possibility, and of threat.

There are shifting relationships between the figure and the contexts it finds itself in, and between self and others. We move therefore from the perceiving and perceived body and through a fleshy biological body and a body that is constructed socially, to the local, the familiar and the abstractions of the global. This is a body genetically and emotionally linked to the family and to the domestic spaces and familiar locales in which family relationships are played out. It is also a body which is both a vehicle of a more conceptual travelling towards unfamiliar places which are ‘there’ rather than ‘here’, and a body which is transcended by time and space and which transcends it.

Works Cited

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception, Routledge, 2002.

Notley, Alice. The Grave of Light: Selected Poems 1970-2005, Wesleyan University Press, 2006.

This discussion of Notley's work will also appear in 'Radical Spaces of Poetry', due to be published in 2010 by Palgrave MacMillan, where I examine global abstractions and embodied experience in the work of a number of modern and contemporary poets.

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

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