‘Decomposition’ by Alice Notley

Jennifer Cooke

Alma, or The Dead Women (New York: Granary Books, 2006), pp. 161-2.

Alma is a work of mourning and dreaming wherein angry ululations, accusations and broken images rub next to some political dirt and straight talking. It is a female book. It talks of the subjugation of women. At least one male reviewer has felt locked out by this, although I wonder if he would state such a thing about, for instance, Afro-Caribbean poetry which directly addresses race.[1] I suspect it is the intensity and insistence of female grief that makes Alma so uncomfortable for some. In the West, grief is usually private so there is a goodly indecency in Alma’s determination to mourn to the end. Not just in its subjects, this femaleness of Alma lives in its language. Is this really possible? Can this book perform a female way of speaking, of writing, as dreamed of by Luce Irigaray and others?
MAN       because he is hunter and fisher. because he cannot speak
except in regulation      if he could speak as i can he would be in ruins too
‘Decomposition’ fights against this solid ‘MAN’ of which it speaks, with his manly activities and law-giving speech. The poem is in ruins, with fragmented lines like incomplete thoughts, and with repetitions through which these thoughts return: a work of composition coming apart. Each stanza is punctuated by a star or perhaps a bullet-point, the kind that the poem mutates from war, to democracy, then dance (but also heraldry) in its move through ‘bullet’ to ‘ballot’ to ‘ballet’ (161). The title, ‘Decomposition’, is that familiar word for the state of physical putridity, but a more archaic usage paradoxically names the opposite: it means composition pushed further, an extra compounding of things already composite. This older sense of decomposition is a suitable appellation for the poetic: the poet’s tool, language, is already composite, composed of words whose meanings are layered sediments; the work of poetry, especially the work of the poetry that is Alma, compounds this further. The poem title’s ‘de’ signals the undoing of orderly, proper writing, a challenge to ‘composition lessons’, and also – perhaps unintentionally –undoes the fallacy of composition, a philosophical term for which the OED uses Isaac Watts’ 1724 definition, from his Logick: or the Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry after Truth:
The sophism of composition is when we infer any thing concerning ideas in a compounded sense, which is only true in a divided sense..If any one should argue thus, Two and three are even and odd; five are two and three; therefore five are even and odd.[2]
A later example is of how many small debts can erroneously be inferred, because they are all small, to therefore not be ruinous. To de-compose this fallacy, then, would be to attempt to fight against or resist a world in which logic has been skewed and to attempt to restore events, or perhaps reason, to their or its proper proportions: to make it be seen, for example, that the many deaths of women who are innocent over the world cannot be reduced to specific, tragic circumstances or illustrative photos in newspapers, symbolising grief (‘because the tears of women are politically exploitable’ (118)) but actually add up to a terrible – and Alma would argue, male – injustice against one half of humanity. This is what Alma confronts us with: not the idea that every bullet and every bomb that has ever killed a woman was a calculated act of misogyny, deployed by a man against an innocent; but, instead, that in a patriarchal world, again and again women have more to lose – and often do - and less to gain than men.

Alma and ‘Decomposition’ remind me of facts about the split between the sexes, forceful facts which are so obvious that they seem to be invisible in contemporary culture. Here’s one: on 3rd October 2008, UK prisons were holding 78,846 men and 4,437 women.[3] Regardless of whether we quibble with the classifications of crime and take into account that some will be incarcerated unjustly, the differential is still absolutely staggering. Yet when is this ever really talked about? With incisive eloquence, these figures mark a societal scandal, a massive human failure, but there is pretty much silence on this particular gender divide in the public sphere. Men just are more aggressive, more inclined to get involved in crime, more likely to be violent or risk-takers: this is what is implicitly assented by the silence and, more perniciously, those qualities are repeatedly represented as useful in certain contexts, such as the financial trading floors of the city. Alma is having none of this and is not afraid to state the obvious facts: that wars are run by men; that men are the ones quoted in the newspapers talking of war, of finance, of football; that it is men who hold guns and shoot them. Alma is freshly angry with such ‘givens’; it will not let us shrug our shoulders and give up, fatigued by post-feminism. I for one am invigorated by this.

The opening lines of ‘Decomposition’ are:
and intone inside the spell       am i inside it with the dead
we will not distinguish ourselves from the nuances of speaking
Spells are cast by women, the mysterious incantations of witches and sorceresses. ‘Decomposition’ speaks from within the spell; the voice is that which embodies the selves of its ‘we’. The first stanza is concerned with tone, intoning and the nuance of tone, in eyes as in speech:
if you are mental you’ll know the tone of it bleeding
i am bleeding only to intone and see through mandala eyes
it is for you i intone, or for the tone itself       as a smell is a tone of its own
corpse, the corpse flesh sings it
The ‘it’ referred to as ‘bleeding’, if we follow on from the previous few lines, is ‘my work’ cut ‘down to his size’, as man exerts decisions over the writing and voice of woman. Work and women bleed, as do the bullet-torn and the freshly dead, the corpse whose flesh ‘sings’ in decomposing, in leaking into the earth. The ‘you’ could be the mental ‘you’, or not: there are many ‘you’s in the poem, many ‘i’s, with ‘we’ and ‘our’ as well, and this multiplicity of addressees and speakers disarms any attempt to read the poem as a private communication whilst retaining the privacy, in ‘Decomposition’ at least, of a certain anonymity and therefore an ‘i’ available for identification. The ‘i’ remains lower case and thus shorn of some of its insistent centrality encoded within its usual bold column of black-on-white as ‘I’. ‘Decomposition’, as other poems in the collection, uses the mandala, symbol of unity and completeness; i’s and eyes which can bring together.

The mad woman, the ‘mental’, and the spell-casting witch are outsiders who are therefore natural companions, if historically separated, as Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément point out in The Newly Born Woman (1975). Cixous and Clément’s description of ‘femininity in writing’ functions as a kind of prophesy fulfilled and overflowed by Alma. They write of:
a privileging of voice: writing and voice are entwined and interwoven and writing’s continuity/voice’s rhythm take each other’s breath away through interchanging, make the text gasp or form it out of suspenses and silences, make it lose its voice or rend it with cries.[4]
In ‘Decomposition’, there is a usurpation of that most traditional of male discourses: ‘you need to know the name of the law: magic / if you’re mental you’ll know that…’ (161). If the law is magic then it is aligned with ritual and with rites, which is what the later part of Alma turns towards with poems entitled, ‘Rite to Make You Exist Anyway’ and ‘Rite Against Fear’. The slippage into ‘write’ hardly needs highlighting. Magic waned as Enlightenment rationality replaced religion; to return to it, to conjure it as law, is ambiguous. On the one hand, magic has always stood at variance to mainstream explanations and knowledge; it has been hunted down by powerful men, as Cixous and Clément comment in their reading of the Spanish Inquisitors. It attempted to challenge the dominance of the church and of rationality with the supernatural and, often, the local and the mythical. On the other hand, to name law as magic is to give law the properties of powers which are inexplicable. As the poem moves into the third stanza, magic returns as the power of man to kill:
and your name is?...surcease he said
but he really said            my name is cyanide,
as if he and his magic or medicine              were Now’s suicide pill
Magic becomes the drug which kills in his hands, the ‘genocide’ which ‘rhymes with cyanide the blue of reason’ (162). Reason is the colour of cyanide which through its rhyming is patterned with genocide and with suicide, placed within the domain of men as ‘magic or medicine’. In this way, magic is not reclaimed as a pre-modern realm of liberating protest to dominant thought but is thoroughly modernised, appropriated by a patriarchal reason which, in turn, can kill.

The movement from the third to fourth and final stanza blurs the boundary between self and enemy, making it hard to ascertain who is being referred to at the start of the poem’s final section:
everyone is defending a self against       their faces charred        the broken enemy


has to kill those people      why      the rules for taking over the room
War is brought over the threshold into the domestic sphere; it is conducted in a room, where, indeed, raids do happen, snipers do shoot from, and people are killed in: it is not only on the ‘battlefield’ in the ‘open air’ that the ‘theatre of war’ takes place. Even more fragmented than the other stanzas, there is urgency here, in the face of death, for ‘…he is going to shoot them all and i’ll / we are watching, nations founded              on the genocide of who was there first’ (162). We are all complicit; we are all spectators. In the people dressed as performing bears for the one who holds the gun, there is a horrible prescience of the human circus created at Abu Ghraib prison by the American soldiers. Finally, poignantly, it is ‘she’ who is the ‘anyone’ whose eye is ‘now never closed’ (162), the anyone which is repeated six times in four lines. ‘i am here for the love of my incursion’ (162), claims the poem towards its close: incursion as blame-taking, as well as attack or invasion.

This last stanza is the most affecting; it is also perhaps the one where the gender divide is, if not broken down (‘he’ still holds the gun, ‘she’ still dies), then at least inclusive of both genders as those who watch such events, although the final line pushes this away from the speaker of the poem, accusing: ‘because you bear the charge    of   this ground’ (162). What to make of this condemnation of reason, war and patriarchy? It has been made before, of course, but these events and discourses remain powerfully dominant and thus there is still a necessity to criticise and to resist them. Notley’s ‘Decomposition’ is unrepentant about such a line and unrelenting to read. In a West which still rationalises turning a blind eye to atrocities or excusing them as aberrations, Notley’s commitment is, I think, painfully eloquent and exemplary.


[1] Alan Clinton, in his review of the poem in Reconstruction, 7.4 (2007), claims ‘the text excludes me as a reader’. http://reconstruction.eserver.org/074/clinton.shtml, accessed 9th October 2008.
[2] Isaac Watts, quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary, www.oed.com, accessed 9th October 2008.
[3] Weekly figures are published on the HM Prison Service website: http://www.hmprisonservice.gov.uk/, accessed 9th October 2008.
[4] Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément, The Newly Born Woman, trans. Betsy Wing (London: I. B. Tauris Pulishers, 1996), p. 92.

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