Alice Notley's 'January': An Appreciation

Steven Waling

'January' (first published in How Spring Comes, 1981)

First the subject matter. It's something we don't often mention when discussing modernist poetry, except to look down our noses at a poet who chooses to write about a subject we think is trivial. So we talk disparagingly about those poems about holidays in Italy, or poems about “personal” subject matter. We want our modernist poems to be big, to be “about” something substantial, to make reference to ideas, to notions of language that are “important” and substantive.

What can be more personal, however, than a poem centering round family life? 'January' starts in the world of bringing up children, and stays in the routine domestic life of an American woman in '60's America throughout. It never even mentions the “important events” of the time: the Vietnam War, say, or the elections, or the nuclear arms race. Yet somehow, they're part of the atmosphere of the poem, somewhere to one side. Not mentioned, but present. Nevertheless, this poem is focused on small things, on children, on childhood language, not on big adult language or ideas; on the small, every day detail of bringing up children.

Nobody, however, should mistake the word “domestic” for the word “domesticated.” In its insistence on the primacy of experience, and the way it is mediated through language, 'January' is every bit as radical as Charles Olson. It starts off, in fact, with a piece of reported dialogue from the kitchen table:

Mommy what’s this fork doing?
It’s being Donald Duck.

What could I eat this?
                                     Eat what?
This cookie.
                      What do you mean?
What could I eat it?
This is exactly the kind of language you’d expect a child, in the process of learning how to speak, to use. Here is a young child experimenting with the right way to speak, trying to negotiate meaning through the new medium of words, and doing so through play. Right from the start of this poem, we’re thrown into language not simply as a medium for expressing ideas, but as a thing in itself, to be enjoyed for its own sake as well as for what it says. Neither the mother, nor we as readers are exactly sure what the child is saying, though we have a pretty good idea; and throughout the poem there are numerous happy confusions: how can a fork be Donald Duck, for instance, they don’t even look like one another?

The poem mixes the language of children and adults throughout: when the poem says “I sleep in the bulb”, is that the poet speaking or the child? Or both? Who is it who sees two full moons? There are memories of the poet’s own childhood, perhaps; an insertion of some darker matter when the child (or is it the poet again?) says “He’ll take off your wart tomorrow and you won’t be sick.” The poet worries about not losing weight, about all the domestic minutiae that go into daily existence. The poem is a journal, a record of one month in the life of a poet, full of incident and love and the odd domestic argument.

'January' is an extraordinarily beautiful poem. Its insistence that the beauty of childhood language, and of George Oppen’s “small nouns” of ordinary domestic discourse, its talk about love and TV and donuts, is as meaningful and as special as talk about metaphysics and history, is what makes me return to Alice Notley’s poems time and again. Alice Notley’s poems never lose sight of language as a medium of play as well as communication, as the site of mysterious otherness even among the quotidian realities of ordinary life.

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

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