Alice Notley, Part 2

Notley’s Disobedience and the disobedient reader

After a discussion with Jena Osman on how a poet’s modes of writing can shift it seems a little less mysterious to me how a poem or a poet can appear on the one hand so distant and hermetic and then suddenly completely open and engaging. It sometimes seems that I am the only poet who has these difficulties–either that or as I stated in my last post, people/readers/poets are just not able to admit their own difficulties and the need for growth. Easier to say this or that poem or poet is bad, not playing fair, doing something nonsensical. Revealing of course, an unwillingness to let oneself sit in the discomfort of not having fit a text into its appropriate slot.

As we were talking I kept thinking how the reader had to be a kind of locksmith, sitting in his or her bed at night, or at a table, hunched over a coffee, listening to the tumbling of ideas, willing one’s own thoughts or interpretations to achieve a click of meaning… Are great works of art a refraction immediately, or subtly recognizable? How archaic to consider “great works of art,” how naive. Or is it?

Osman is one of the most intelligent poets writing today. In the tradition of Leslie Scalapino, Susan Howe, and Joan Retallack, we find her creating hybrid texts that are essay, criticism, conceptual art, and poetic. See her recent essay in Jacket, for example. There is little argument in the face of texts by the above writers, that language is a site of urgent political activism. Here is Osman:

The linguist George Lakoff has argued that we need to unpack and recontextualize the big metaphors behind political rhetorics. Phrases like “rogue state,” “friendly nation,” and “just war,” are based in narrative frames that remain static (some people are good, some are evil, taxes are bad, etc.).

The more intense the dualistic/simplistic thinking, the more important that work. Here’s Retallack: “If complexity is the source of our freedom, it is also the source of our terror.”

And more and more complex things become, which means that the right wing business maven Theodor Drucker was, not surprisingly, wrong, when he said that the skill one will need most in the future is knowledge. The ability one needs the most is the ability to think, to handle that knowledge. Fast. We are, after all, only as good as our systems can process information…how many desktops can you have open at once? At one point do ideas begin to blur? Is this part of why suddenly facts don’t mean anything? Why people like Bush and Harper can simply say, another set of facts please, those ones are inconvenient…

Disobedience is both lyric and initmate, a kind of epistolary flaneur’s account of walking and thinking the streets of Paris–a tradition itself among American poets and impossible not to want to hear Stein’s pounding on stone. But this is not Stein, no, this is thinking of a different order, and as Brian Kim Stefans points out in his review of Notley, this text represents a melding of different modes of writing and thinking, a turning point in a way for a writer who moves through clearly defined projects. So, we get from Descent of Alette to Alma, or The Dead Women, by moving through this intertidal zone where ideas meld and shift, open and close as the mind washes over them:

Love in caves are love.

It all
I mean, the universe
it had to
it is a universe of exactness.
The god we are in is exact. (4)

What is so frightening about thought?

I dream that
a bomb might injure me
because some Muslims hate me. I mean
isn’t that real possibility a dream,
wouldn’t its happening be dreamlike?

…if hatred’s a vicious phantasm,
waking reality’s a dream.

(…)Why don’t we make some new emotions?

Did dreams begin when women were first
excluded from public life?

Thinking being active, thinking being acknowledgment that this is not the end of the thought, nor the beginning, that there is little ownership. Yes, perhaps dangerous in a time of intellectual property hysteria. And there is very real danger there. If one can pull apart thinking from market. Can one?

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