“101” from Mysteries of Small Houses

Peter Middleton

[#] Watch Alice Notley read “101”

Alice Notley’s Mysteries of Small Houses (1998) is a contemporary Prelude: a series of free verse poems whose passionate self-questioning traces the development of her poetry and poetics from youth through education, marriage, losses, and new relationships. The result is a searching account of what it has meant to be an American poet living and working outside the incorporated literary genres in Grub Street and the Academy, and one of the relatively few to speak openly about poverty and class as cultural determinants today. Her collection also unsettles the current dogma that openly expressed subjectivity in poetry generally plays a conservative aesthetic and sometimes political role.

The poem “101” occurs about two-thirds of the way through. By then readers have followed her from a desert upbringing to New York, England and eventually Paris; been introduced to her husband, the poet Ted Berrigan; learned about his death and its aftermath; and met her witty British partner, another poet, Douglas Oliver. The title presumably refers to the address of the apartment in New York that is the subject of the poem. A poets’ “treehouse” as she calls it (a metaphor that is typical of her humour—a subtle reminder of the unself-conscious boyishness of the men), it’s where she lived with Berrigan and wrote much of her poetry. This is a poem of reluctant anamnesis rather than nostalgic memories, in which she re-encounters its furniture, decorations and above all the people whose passions made the place what it was. So forceful are the memories once re-awakened that she begins the poem with the seemingly impossible opening proposition: “It’s possible that I still live there” (the reader already knows that Notley “lives” in Paris at the time of writing):
It’s possible that I still live there
Apartment that is path-narrow
I don’t want to be there in this poem if
Anyone else is, from the past, I want it to be empty
A lot of dust I let fall
It gets smaller          See mobiles from when, a flasher
Whose penis has broken off          That other mobile I
Made it’s talismanic objects
A bottlecap a rose a centaur a cactus a coin
Memory as we know is sticky stuff, often adhering against our wills to moments of trauma and pain, and this poem conveys the sense of risk in recalling all the stuff that piled up in this place. Perhaps this is why there’s a slight uncanniness in these lines as if she were an unwilling revenant there, who might actually meet another person in the space of the poem. If even former friends should keep out how welcome is the reader in this place? To anticipate a little: readers who maintain a cognitive and emotional distance from the poem’s appeal to identify with the values and anguish of this autobiographical history are going to feel unwelcome unless they do reflect on their own memories and desires, their own history of talismen, broken penises, and the mobility and stasis represented by the mobile.

The poems in Mysteries of Small Houses sustain a tacit polemic against dogmatic poetics, of whatever kind, whether “fin-de-siecle non-referentiality” (37), or the Iowa Writers Workshop poem, with its “Iowa style, / characterized, as I remember, / by the assumption of desperation / boredom, behind two-story houses / divorce, incomes, fields, pigs, /getting into pants, well not really / in poems, well no ‘well’s and all / in the costive mode” (26). Associating the widespread use of diminished referentiality of avant-garde poetry during the past thirty years with the decadence of the literature of the end of the nineteenth-century, and demonstrating that the supposed openness of the free verse personal lyric is subject to strict limits (no use of filler words common in conversation for example), are both clever and acerbic judgements on poetic dogmas that the poet knows would be critical of her own style of intensive referentiality whose rich fibre doesn’t result in costly fears of the body’s life (no constipation here). Statements can be affirmed by the poem and it need not rely on parataxis and disjunction: “any broken phrase in plaster will do in these postmodern times, you asshole” says Douglas Oliver in one poem (as someone who has written plenty of broken phrases I feel the force of this!). It was the transgressiveness of the poems in Mysteries of Small Houses that drew me to want to speak about it when asked to contribute to this round table about Notley’s work. Whatever classification one attempts to shoehorn her poetry into (New York School is the most obvious of course, but there are a number of others ranging from confessionalism and Iowa Writers Workshop to several U.S. and U.K. avant-gardes), it resists.

At times it seems that this is because of crowding of circumstantial personal detail into the poems. “101” describes a shoehorn in the apartment where she and her poet husband Ted Berrigan lived in New York, only to correct itself, as if to underline the importance of chasing down whatever reliability her memory can provide, and demonstrating her commitment to what the philosopher Bernard Williams calls the two virtues of truthfulness: sincerity and accuracy. When I used the metaphor of the “shoehorn” a moment ago I was relying on commonplace usage that has largely lost sight of shoehorns I suspect (who uses them today except perhaps in expensive shoe shops?). Notley calls us back not just to the generic material object; she reminds us that the concept of the shoehorn relies on actual singular shoehorns that intrude in the field inscribed by the hands of poets. The crowding of personal details has further consequences for readers. Those at all familiar with recent Anglo-American poetry are likely to have read, heard, met or even possibly known some of the poets mentioned (“you” is Douglas Oliver):
                                                               Go to Luxembourg Hurry
It’s foreign and take a nap
                                                 Go to festival party
Poets arriving, “Here come the English,” says someone, “they
              go off and drink a lot”
There you are
                        With Wendy, Allen, Ken, all serious-faced out the window
You buy me a langouste later—How long will this take? three
                                                                                           more nights
Till we leave for Paris together
This is a poetry that goes out of its way to insist that the reader respond as a person rather than a reader, by remembering her or his own passions, objects, histories, interests, friends and interests that might converge with those in Notley’s poems. Critical distance is subverted constantly in what is the antithesis of the poetics of impersonality. To try and detach oneself from all memories, feelings, or personal associations elicited by the poems would be to resist the poems’ strategy, a situation likely to feel uncomfortable to readers trained to do just this and be suspicious of overly subjective responses to literature.

Subtle use of autobiography and self-reflexive narration in these poems avoids inventing an unexamined, pristine subjectivity split off as a monadic observer, the price so many contemporary poems pay for their experiential clarity. Many if not most contemporary personal poems do this and encourage the reader to occupy this invulnerable spectator position. The dominant autobiographical or personal poem of the past half century has several key features: elegiac memory, anecdotal narrative, and a striving for authenticity. The poet deploys the singular details of narrated memory to give the poem’s claim to be public some justification, and even the poet’s name is crucial. This is an expression of inner knowledge that only this named person could have, inner knowledge of which individual memory is a paradigmatic instance, since doxa has it that a person can speak with complete authority about their own experience and only about that. The risk in basing a poem around a narrative of mental actions is that the poem projects a fixed centre of subjectivity outside these actions capable of observing them without being touched or bruised by them. Common-sense poetic convention directs the reader to ignore this virtual subjectivity, and often therefore obscures the complexities of subjectivity, its expressiveness, its intermittence, its temporality, its reliance on judgement, and its interdependence on memory and affect. The framing device of the self-narrative of psychic life confines understanding to one mode.

Notley avoids such constrictions by making explicit that she is writing from a specific present moment when she is recalling the past. “About a year and a half later and there is no connection particularly”(114)--is the penultimate line of the poem, and similar often more extended references to the present recur throughout the book. She also creates an implicit blurring of temporalities by such devices as the uncertain tense of the verb “let fall”, which here could mean that when living in the flat she didn’t bother with vacuum-cleaning and dusting, or that in this present moment of recollection she holds in her mind everything, including the dust of that apartment, and lets go of this detritus (and any sense of loss, guilt or other feelings associated with it). Dust becomes a latent metaphor of the mortality of both people and objects. The syntax and structure of the poem also contributes strongly to the avoidance of the creation of an implied monadic self. Sentences are indicated by capital letters but have no punctuation to end them so they fade rather than conclude, and this places a burden on the reader to justify any inference based on the assumption that a specific unfolding sentence has completed its passage. Even line-breaks are not reliably placed at the end of lines. Some occur mid-way. Sometimes the line’s rhythm is strongly dissonant—“How did it all fit in it was all-nighters parties near-fistfights breakdowns” (113)—where there is no punctuation, one sentence abuts another, and written grammar would require a period/full stop whereas spoken syntax can drive on without stopping.

Repetition is integral to the poem’s style. Notley is a virtuoso of poetic repetition in her work, notably in “Beginning with a Stain”, a poem with an aesthetic similar to some minimalist music (Steve Reich’s “Come Out To Show Them” has the same sort of tension between bodily suffering as a mark of injustice, and a meditative repetition that is almost prayerful) where phrases loop over and over until their meaning soaks into the sound. “101” enacts memories of the repetitiveness of everyday life: she walks to the store so often that the mere act itself can become a kinetic mantra to lift her out of mundane time altogether. Repetition elicits a reflexivity manifest as a revising, self-ascribing-and-adjusting voice at work, correcting its own representations. We are always in a temporal situation that is a series of successive present moments comprising the emergence of an unfolding text, and each moment is to some degree disconnected from what went before.

Such features of Notley’s poetry give it affinities with a still somewhat unrecognised genealogy in modernist poetry that is usefully summarised in Leslie Scalapino’s “Introduction” to Philip Whalen’s Selected Poems. Much of what Scalapino says about Whalen’s poetics could apply to Notley as well. Whalen wrote (and characteristically in a poem rather than an essay) that his “poetry is a picture or graph of a mind moving” (xv). Scalapino comments that “the syntax and structure of the poetry imitates or duplicates the process of the reader’s own mind-phenomena, so that one is reading as going through the process that is one’s own mind.”(xvi). This is a poetry resistant to what literary critics understand by interpretation because its preoccupations are “mind-phenomena as shape and sound” (xx), and in a typical Whalen poem there is no single continuous temporality unwinding from beginning to end. Instead his poems project “all times at once” (xvii). Despite his learning and extensive allusions to literary, intellectual and Buddhist traditions, the poetry appears to lie open on the page, needing neither the exegetical labours demanded by Ezra Pound, nor the encounters with history invited by Charles Olson, nor the extrapolations to philosophical issues that are intimated by many linguistically self-conscious poets. The language of a Whalen poem also doesn’t appear to offer any substitutions of music for semantics, comprised as it is of particulars tied together by the movements of a unique, self-monitoring subjectivity. Philosphical reflection is made to feel out of place (a poet who talks about “the treasures of reason, / logical delights” (On Bear’s Head, 294) is going to be hard to find a place for in a system of thought that is wary of the capacity of delight to distort reason, while likely to recognise just those same treasures and pleasures of reasoning); literary critical analysis is kept at a distance by the freedom of the free verse prosody, the avoidance of phonemic euphony, and the avoidance of narrative and argument as frameworks. Above all the poems disable conceptual generalisations and seem only to be addressable by echoic personal admissions as if such identificatory participation similar to everyday conversation were the necessary scale of response.

It’s not difficult to see Scalapino’s own interests helping focus her attention onto these elusive features of Whalen’s achievement (he is surely one of the most underrated American poets of the late twentieth-century). She too writes a poetry in which textual disjunction is enacted cognitively. Her insights into the workings of Whalen’s poetry emphasise Zen devotion to watching thoughts as they arise and disperse in a mind that has settled into meditative calm, and extrapolate from this a poetics of scrupulous reflexive observation of one’s subjectivity as it meets injustice and conflict in the world. There’s another side to Whalen though, from which this perspective abstracts, his immersion in a world of objects. One page of his own ars poetica (perhaps also a vita poetica), Scenes of Life at the Capital, mentions Handel, Memling, Yeats, Gregory Corso, Stephen Spender, a named friend of his, the titles of poems by Wallace Stevens, as well as heaven, harps, New York, tweed trousers, peacocks, Camembert, and Bolinas, amongst other particulars (9). As if this weren’t enough, the poem carefully includes the poet’s “greasy little fingers” (19): his body, desires, embarrassments, confusions and excitements. The result is a poetry that not only resists interpretation for the reasons Scalapino gives, it also refuses the proprieties of interpretative distance that most poetry observes.

Whalen’s work is often described as beat poetry, but it is markedly different from his contemporaries such as Corso and Ginsberg, for the reason Scalapino can describe it as an experience of subjectivity reflecting on its contingencies. It belongs as much to another lineage that goes back through D. H. Lawrence’s Birds Beasts and Flowers to the Romantics, and that extends on into contemporary work such as Scalapino’s, the poetry of some of the New York poets (James Schuyler for instance), and finds new and original realisations in Alice Notley’s work, especially Mysteries of Small Houses. In this poetic genealogy, time elapses between sections and even lines, and therefore the poem does not present the artifice of one continuous, temporal and logical, line of thought. It’s a mode that may be enjoying further interest to judge from some of the poems in recent anthologies such as Reginald Shepherd’s Lyric Postmodernisms and Jeff Hilson’s Book of Sonnets.

I chose this poem because its irreducible claim on the reader’s own empathetic responses is so strong. Many of the poems in Notley’s collection, including “101”, invite a reader to think about their own histories of reading and perhaps writing poetry, as well as of passion and loss, of travel and modern urban life, and above all the endless reworkings of memory on which our temporal being depends. Literary theory orthodoxy has long taught us as readers to eschew such supposed contaminating projections of our own preoccupations, to try and see the work steadily and whole as objectively as possible. Even recent poetics of the active reader and theories of reader response still expect in the one case a highly cognitive, non-affective constructivity, or a careful self-examination of the cultural matrices determining one’s reaction, as if one were an instrument measuring cultural radiation. Notley’s poems also invite reader response of a very active kind, but because they work with such emotionally sticky material and confront the reader with direct appeals to respond as a friend might, and because the work avoids closure through its abruptly shifting temporalities, our usual strategies of reading and interpretation stumble. Literary theory has often stigmatised such poetry as sentimental or insufficiently impersonal, but Notley’s poems know this, and refuse permission for either catharsis or narcissistic self-congratulation to the reader, and also refuse to be patronised by theorists from Iowa or anywhere else. In fact her poetry offers a far-reaching investigation of the authenticity of authorship — only Alice could have ordered it to be made (one of her compelling book titles is Alice Ordered Me To Be Made, a title that cleverly encompasses the entire range of book production on which published poems depend, and also invites a pronominal ambiguity of reference, as if the book were itself an expressive subject perhaps similar to those androids hunted by the “bladerunners” of recent cinema).

As a result Notley’s poems frequently check on their own poeticality. A few examples would include: “this poem is prosaic”; “that’s not the poetry”; and “I can’t get at the poem of this”. A reader wary of essentialism might imagine that these utterances assume that there is some essence of the poem, that she is assessing her creations by an ideal measure of the poem against which at times her writing fails, as if a sonneteer were to admit to prosodic crimes or an ode were to confess that no transcendent spirit had been called forth by the poem’s prosopopeia. Critics and reviewers of poetry look for failures and analyse them closely. Notley’s search for poetry arises from quite other aspirations than either perfections of poetic form or readerly approval. It deliberately risks failure. Analogies with other fields of activity where repeated failure is integral to eventual achievement of any sort of success help make this clearer. As readers we are sharing a process of poetic discovery that can fall short in the sense that an athlete attempting to clear the high jump might knock off the bar, or yield confusing results as when a scientist attempts a new experiment that will have to be replicable to be a success.

“101” is as demanding on the reader as a Canto or as a poem of diminished referentiality, both of which require readers to address bodies of knowledge or sociolinguistic understanding in order to furnish contexts for the poetry. “101” asks its readers to think about subjectivity as an unfinished narrative history, as troublesome memory, and passions of regret and hope, and it expects these readers to meet the poems half-way and be prepared to be as rigorous in tracing the consequences and inferences to be drawn from emotional and cognitive commitments revealed in the process. Necessarily this hoped-for conversation between writer and reader doesn’t always work as successfully as “101” in posing the question that shapes the book: how is a poem possible in the face of poverty and the contradictions of modernity?

Works Cited

Notley, Alice. Mysteries of Small Houses. New York: Penguin, 1998.

Scalapino, Leslie. Introduction. In: Philip Whalen. Overtime: Selected Poems. Edited Michael Rothenberg. New York: Penguin, 1999.

---. The Public World / Syntactically Impermanence. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1999.

Whalen, Philip. On Bear’s Head. New York: Harcourt Brace & World, and Coyote, 1969.

---. Scenes of Life at the Capital. Bolinas: Grey Fox Press, 1971.

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

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

  • Twitter
  • Intercapillary Places (Events Series)
  • Publication Series
  • Newsreader Feed