On ‘Would Want to Be in My Wildlife’

Carol Watts

[#] Watch Alice Notley read 'Would Want to Be in My Wildlife'

This is the opening poem from the collection Mysteries of Small Houses. What hooked me in to it right away was the uncertainty of mood in the title, some play of the conditional or diffused air of subjunctivity in its would want to be. The subjunctive is always somehow open and raw, it’s like the verso of the future perfect, will have been. Would want to be if I could, if things were possible or otherwise, or if I had a choice. I think we are often at the mercy of subjunctives – their combination of wish-fulfilment and deferral – though they also name the place where life is imagined against the grain. Here there is determination in that wanting, which made me think on a first reading that the movement of this poem is retrospective. I later learned from Alice it was written last in the sequence, so it carries the weight of the journey the poems go on in that collection, the gesture of an opening wager in the light of all that follows. Would want to be in my wildlife – if that wildlife is understood as the beginning, some original state, where it is possible to be somehow freely, or come close to truth – the condition of what the poem arrives at as ‘judiciousness’. This is a poem about what it is to step up to language for a woman poet, from the outset. It gives that self permission to walk up the steps – at the same time as not being a self who can fully inhabit that house, and is somehow relearning physically what it is to return. As if this is some primal moment for her, weighing the cost of it and its givenness. To write as a woman, and to begin with holding the pen wrong. There’s recognition of a labour to recognise which I found arresting, and still movingly almost impossible to voice. That’s what makes her poetry so keen for me – it allows you to come to - even as it is so distinctively present as its own voicing.

I am interested in the ways that poems hail you, call you out, both as a reader and in the process of writing. Needing to get the pitch right, the kinds of acoustic accommodation that hearing that demand requires (a kind of tuning in), the disturbance it reveals. For me this poem is about that interpellative demand and the inevitable misrecognition it entails, which is nonetheless the testing of poetry itself. There’s disjuncture from the first line, which is partly temporal, having to do with affect set in play by something like free indirect speech:

       hold pen improperly against 4th finger not 3rd like when I was six why won’t I
hold it right
       if I’m even younger four I walk more solemnly walking’s relatively new but
talking’s even more natural and I can see you really while we talk

The poem confounds a separation between commenting later self and a rememory of a child’s perspective here, so that as with other of her works the status of the voice, who is speaking and where from, to whom, becomes indeterminate. This makes the voicing of these poems dynamic, social, even as it marks a private intensity of experience. To get this voice ‘right’ is to hold the pen wrong, to remember inhabiting words as ‘a sense in motion’ from the outset, alongside walking, a time when the body, the mouth, isn’t fluent: ‘I couldn’t say “oil well” right’. This state of being is not available for some later mimesis, and the poem seems to scratch off layers of anxiety about what it means to encounter it – what would make it ‘perfect’, ‘say it right’, until the poem gets to the point where it can say I am. It’s not like the beginning of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist where the child’s acquisition of language and its sounding out transmutes into another kind of bildung, to be left behind. Getting up to the steps in to the Alley House for the poet-as-a-young-girl generates a voice that holds on to its own sense of wildness ‘from before its befores’ and visits it critically back on to that later taming. It’s as if that adult separation between remembering self and early childhood is transposed into another drama in the poem: the divide between an early experience of the world, its first recognition, and a coming into later articulation in language.

The freedom of entering words as ‘a sense in motion’ is also scary:

       no          perfect’s here from ever all along and if it doesn’t say it right it’s right and I
am it from then now Alley House I am
       and get scared till I am I
       scareder and scareder
       then calm and enter where oil of I does flow
       oleanders ah touch and steps up aha oleanders oleanders and touched they make
me be here in the strange scented present
       up and if I enter I have truly to enter

Walking up the steps is a kind of divesting to the point where the voice has ‘truly to enter’. There are small and marvellous acoustic detonations going on here which slide under the return to the house, which make the body and mouth speaking somehow synchronise with the passage, slow down. It’s a poem that makes you want to form it in your mouth. Not saying ‘oil well right’ does something to your visceral consciousness of the face, the vowels and consonants mutually sabotaging, and you know what that is in the doing of it – it carries memory of formation in its physical performance. Something about play, and the frustration in a child’s articulation, and the mis-naming which potentially drags with it whole histories of exclusion, yet is a mark of how we all do mispronounce, the texture of that. Then these sounds work like a physics, so you begin to hear the vowels going on a journey from ‘oil well’ to ‘I am I’ to ‘oil of I’ and the mantra of oleanders ahs and ups. At the same time the poem shifts between a damming up of long sentences almost without a breath, so that it mis-foots your emphases, and then it is cut through with short steps and declarations, so it performs what it means to walk through and by the side of language, to the place where ‘oil of I does flow’.

The place of that ‘strange scented present’ is a now which is both immediate and no more than itself, and also ancient and cosmic where ‘the stars weren’t alive before me anyone’s from the most ancient wildness’. The intensity of this ‘I am’ is already outward, occupied by an ‘anyone’, a ‘human wildness’. If it is as small and simple as a child’s vision and touch – ‘that part’s blue floor that part’s pink floor’ – delimiting the world as it moves into it, ‘kitchen washroom bathroom back porch’ – it is also wise by virtue of its seeing and being, ‘it isn’t self-deceiving like cruelty’. ‘It doesn’t matter what happens here what matters is not to lose judiciousness’: this declaration is about justice, and also more than that, a belief in a form of originary ethical judgement that is continually inhabited. Utopian maybe. The recognition arrived at is of an inherent condition ‘anyone’ is born with, ‘which wildness has from before its befores’, and its persistence in a world of harm, ‘unbrokenup into the parts of the bad’. This is Needles, California as Blakean wild, where the child’s moving up the steps into the house is to remember being as distinct from what language later brings to bear: ‘socialization’s what makes us the same in the made-up way’. ‘I choose words, more words, to cure the tameness, not the wildness’, she writes in a later poem. She does this as a woman poet, and it’s unshirkingly brave.

I came to this poem on the day of the Birkbeck colloquium because it hooked me in, and also because other work seemed almost unbearably direct in putting itself on the line. Like that moment In the Pines: ‘I was born to be your poet. I am the woman, your poet. All that I am. / And I know one thing. No one. Is the poet. I am.’ What would it mean to find the words to say it, to step up to the relation it demands – better I felt (somehow, curiously, safer) just to hear, and read. This poem quickly routed me to the same place despite my holding off. It reminds me, as her writing does, of what it is in poetry that ‘would want to be’. Of why a poet writes, what is uncompromising and free in that wanting. It makes me want to step up.

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

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