Alice Notley: A Poem from Above the Leaders

William Rowe

from Alice Notley's Above the Leaders:

Recognize this red; your brain wants to marry it. Roses.
The children are playing in the dirt, windless sun. Times together anywhere
before the way down. But no one sees a message in the palm of the hand.
One light tree mingles with the deeper green all around, almost revelatory
         at memory’s edge.

If you knew that you had real feelings expressed as seen colors
you still couldn't crawl through premptive opening into new hours.
I'm in heaven; and I'm going to the drugstore soon.
Later I'll cook polenta. Then a terrorist plot in TV, so I can feel more.

I came here to be with you - was it equal to myself?
They die in a room; non-assertive morning angel
can't reform our side of town. All the darkness meant triumphs
by a methodical light. There is no upstairs, the damage precious,

I'm trying to decipher a newly discovered mark
         at memory’s edge.
in an older English,
in advance of the world's absorption, at nightfall,
         of the color of my love.

Do I accept the roaring shawl of eternity, uncadenced backup?
My photograph, in trance, agrees to monitor my mission.


The first sentence of this poem, printed on page 49 of Above the Leaders[1], can be read as a sequence or as a series whose parts cut across each other: ‘Recognize . . . Roses . . . at memory’s edge.’ The phrases are not driven by the pulse of sound, though they are traversed by it from time to time: ‘Recognize . . . red . . . / mingles . . . deeper green.’ There is no quickly emergent pattern despite the fairly rapid speed of montage or rate of flow. Pattern in this sense includes correspondences between things (as in Baudelaire, Spicer) that are data of inner life: Notley acknowledges the possibility of such correspondences while affirming doubt about them: ‘If you knew that you had real feelings expressed as seen colours / you still wouldn’t crawl through a preemptive opening into new hours,’ the poem continues, recalling Rimbaud’s ‘Voyelles’, where colour and feelings are strongly bonded, and Leslie Scalapino’s New Time, where there is a radical break with conventional temporality. This sentence of Notley’s recalls and distances itself from these two types of poetics, both of them predicated on what amounts to belief in radical rupture. Yet the possibility of belief is not absent from Above the Leaders, as the title suggests. If you reverse the process, and instead of going from something to nothing (the thing seen ‘mingles’ with the background) proceed from nothing to something, the result is similar to Badiou’s ‘almost nothing’ from which the event emerges.[2]

Consider more closely the texture of phrases. ‘Marry’ would be a way of talking about the formation of symbols (red . . . Roses), which in a broadly Simboliste aesthetic can be called correspondences, consolidated by isomorphisms of rhythm and sound (as in Baudelaire’s ‘Correspondances’). Here in Notley’s poem, though, the marriage of percept and resonant name is cut by the subsequent two sentences (‘children . . . dirt . . . sun . . . before the way down’) which negate the logic of correspondences by plain juxtaposition without resonance. ‘Times together anywhere / before the way down,’ refuses to privilege the site of time-transcending images and instead marks what is transcendent as either bathos or Epicurean acceptance.

Spicer asserted in After Lorca that the poet is a ‘time mechanic’, as opposed to an ‘embalmer’. His negotiation with Simbolisme and surrealism requires him to clear correspondences (‘things do not connect; they correspond’) of their need to be embedded in sonority, where sound in the poem would be the time-based substance of subjectivity. Notley adds, to the avoidance of sonic resonance, the problem of belief: ‘no one sees a message on the palm of the hand.’ Is there correspondence, marriage, love without belief? The rest of the poem, like many others in the book, places that question in relation to the tendency of pattern to become entropic, where entropy is cosmic as well as historical.

Let’s look more closely at the interplay, in fact the dialectic, since it’s not merely an alternation, of resonance and non-resonance in this poem. If ‘before the way down’ hovers at the edge of moral resonance, the latter is denied, by the next sentence (‘But no one sees a message . . . ‘) the privilege of being embedded in phenomena: the ‘but’ is lightly ironical, since the previous sentence, heard as speech, hardly implies belief in such things as palmistry. However (here the poem does not need ‘but’: it creates immediate contradiction), there follows a strong image (‘One light tree mingles with the deeper green all around’) which contrasts with the inchoate images of the first three lines. The image is strong, though by no means completed, precisely because it’s at an edge of disappearance or appearance (‘almost revelatory’). It also occupies an edge between speech and poetry: ‘light’ does not belong to spoken immediacy. In a note for a commemorative volume on Frank O’Hara, Clark Coolidge wrote, ‘Rhythms of the rush with which things cross the bar-lines of memory. To make a poem be the very slippery edge of forgettal.’ (Homage to Frank O’Hara, 184) Which prompts the reflection that the rate of flow of Notley’s poems, though sharing the New York delight in montage, is less consistently fast, less regularly punctuated, than that say of Lunch Poems.

For Rilke, in the Ninth Duino elegy, being human hangs upon saying, as opposed to the temptation of falling back into nature and merging with small differences of greenness. In Notley, the city has taken the place of nature: ‘I am a city, a chilling wind infesting projects / an undeciphered glyph tacked forever to a regret.’ (57) Here it is a question not so much of the inchoate as of the entropic. In both cases, the poetic act is a subtraction from correspondences, a refusal to ‘engrave my moment into the creepy air of our time.’ (56) The crisis of what Notley calls ‘the symbolic act’ (56) is central to Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and it comes to a head at the moment of the October Revolution: ‘there was something in common between events in the moral and the physical world.’ Difficult, in our time, not to read that as ‘there was nothing in common . . . ‘ Yuri himself, a few pages later, thinks that the ‘real genius’ of October is that it ‘is exploded right into the very thick of daily life without the slightest consideration for its course.’ (175, 178) Paul Bowles’s ‘Pages from Cold Point’, is prescient, foreseeing the disconnection which is the tenor of neoliberal societies and deriving a morality of biological survivalism from loss of hope: ‘Our civilization is doomed to a short life: its component parts are too heterogeneous. I personally am content to see everything in the process of decay. The bigger the bombs, the quicker it will be gone. Life is visually too hideous for one to make the attempt to preserve it . . . . At the same time, I am still a part of life, and I am bound by this to protect myself to whatever extent I am able.’ Given the date of the story (1947), ‘bombs’ can be read as Hiroshima and the much-filmed and photographed Bikini Athol ‘tests’.

One of Notley’s versions of entropy is:
The mind flawlessly informed us there was no experiment
we were not evolving, the connection between moments had bottomed out
Fate’s skinny figure got lost in the dazzle. A house of old cards
collapsed whose enclave was to have been yours, mine whosever. (47)
That loss of the figure-concept of fate to science is the theme of another poem, where the concern is how the loss relates crucially to the absence of a temporality in which the subject could be inscribed or spoken:
                                                             causation’s an uninhabitable
filthy cottage, though it’s ours. Fate doesn’t cause
How connection would work in the mind of god.
You thought ‘financial,’ but glaringly older
she tore our bonds to pieces. You tried to coopt her
into biologic digression; genetic claptrap. (60)
Here ‘she’ is the fourth Greek Fate, Aphrodite Urania, a principle of ‘unblinking time’ which has nothing to do with sex in the city and everything to do with ‘erotic solemnity’ and ‘corruption, as a gift’. Her names (‘black one’, ‘death-in-life’) suggest that other economy, of life as excess, that negates community predicated on capitalist exchange (‘bonds’). The poem’s ‘argument’ is of course hugely more condensed than any summary can suggest. Notley brings the hard edge of conceptual thought (the insufficiency of those two coeval orders, myth and science), into uncompromising confrontation with poetic language as one whose truth rests upon neither of these.

Bowles’s ‘too heterogeneous’ extends thermodynamic entropy to the political and gives the background to non-connection. Notley extends Hobbes to the internal organs of the body: ‘Organ transplant man is more what I refer to. Jealous of the ravaging emotions of the heart, I am the liver.’ (52) She locates cosmic entropy as outcome of Enlightenment organisation of space: ‘Famous appearance of the Grid God / and the cosmos falls to pieces,’ brings Newton and Leibniz onto the scene. And, to return to the initial poem under discussion, in place of Rimbaud’s ‘worlds and angels’ which the last of the vowels conjures up, there is the contemporary immediate: ‘I’m in heaven; and I’m going to the drugstore soon. / Later I’ll cook polenta. Then a terrorist plot on TV, so I can feel more.’ This negation of the French inheritance is followed by one of her most O’Hara lines (‘I came here to be with you – was it equal to myself?’), as if to raise the stakes.

The poem moves into further uncertainties. What is the status of ‘non-assertive morning angel’, accentuated like a slogan but without visual correlate? By contrast, the phrase that completes the sentence entrusts its meaning to speech and comfortable reference: ‘can’t reform our side of town.’ Despite the statement ‘I am a city’, the city offers no immediate or enduring correlate to subjective feeling. Absorption into the city’s surfaces is actual but the poetic act occurs against that or at the edge of it:
I’m trying to decipher a newly discovered mark
              in an older English,
in advance of the world’s absorption, at nightfall,
              of the colour of my love.
Once again, it’s at the very edge of becoming absorbed, indistinct, that the thing is vivid, can be inscribed, and that possibility of absorption is embodied, in its full ambiguity, by the way the sound is taken up into the high resonance of ‘the colour of my love’, Verlainian music or O’Haran frisson, either way it hangs on the appearance of something at the moment of the loss of its difference as it merges into the city, the cosmos. The two final lines insist on the importance of this dilemma: reading ‘Do I accept the roaring shawl of eternity, uncadenced backup?’ it is difficult, given the emphatic regularity of ‘roaring shawl’, not to hear ‘cadenced’. The background, the surface or temporality or continuum in which poetry can make its mark, is both heard as full and made empty by this poetry.
How do I know if I’ve accomplished the symbolic act?
Am I supposed to feel different
You vacant flower, belittling me
for not engraving my moment into the creepy air of our time
in the dry spirit of innovation
stuff the calibrated emeralds into fissures in the junk. (56)
This book is not a formal wager, its horizon is not the formal possibilities of language, in any case a mirage of fullness, it asserts something else: ‘for I am content, that is, a Spirit.’ (50) Form – formalisation – begins there. Hence Whitman, who visits several of the poems, is simply ‘she’: no light of ideology, straight to the thing.


[1] London: Veer, 2008.
[2] ‘Every truth . . . proceeds from that point in a situation where all the recognizable differences are at their most imperceptible, at that place where, according to the criteria of distinction operative in the situation, there is “almost nothing.”’ Peter Hallward, Badiou: A Subject to Truth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2003).

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

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