back toJacket2

Jacket 18 — August 2002   |   # 18  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Libbie Rifkin reviews

Disobedience, by Alice Notley

Penguin Books, 2001, 272 pp., $18

I float alive, larger than history.
Better than history

(Disobedience, 8).

This piece is 1,700 words or about four printed pages long.

In a section of ‘Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century’ entitled ‘Louis-Philippe, or the Interior,’ Walter Benjamin describes the beginnings of an aspect of modern life that was taken for granted for most of the twentieth century. ‘Under Louis-Philippe the private citizen enters the stage of history,’ Benjamin writes, and as a result, ‘the living space becomes, for the first time, antithetical to the place of work.’ Separate from the office, indeed constituted by its repression, ‘the phantasmagorias of the interior’ spring up unbidden. For the post-revolutionary bourgeois, the ‘private environment represents the universe.’ For Benjamin, this development leads to the dawn of the detective story, and into an appreciation of one of his favorite writers. ‘His ‘philosophy of furniture,’ along with his detective novellas,’ Benjamin writes admiringly of Poe, reveal him to be ‘the first physiognomist of the interior’ (Reflections, 154-6).
      He could have been talking about himself. No one captured the elegiac urgency of objects as the Victorian interior crumbled into the modern better than the writer of ‘Unpacking My Library.’ In that essay, as in the whole of his mystical historical materialist project, Benjamin models ‘a relationship to objects which does not emphasize their functional, utilitarian value...but studies and loves them as the scene, the stage, of their fate’ (Illuminations, 60).
      He could also have been talking about Alice Notley. No one has crystallized the horror, the ennui, and the world-remaking possibility of the millennial interior with more bug-eyed accuracy and self-sacrifice. In the triumphant sweep from Descent of Alette, through Mysteries of Small Houses, and into Disobedience, she has come to face her powers full-on:

It’s a book cover encrusted with jewelry inside (again)
No pages.
It’s a collage inside of jewels, in no
Chronological order. Though the
Jewels are knobby when it’s open
They flatten when it’s closed.
It has to be fastened closed, like a diary.

Perhaps tableaux over time become this encrusted jewel affair
The single dense tableau

(Disobedience, 200).

It feels a little wrong to begin discussing so personal a work as Disobedience under the sign of another writer. Notley has said, ‘I hate the fact that whatever I say or write, someone reading or listening will try to find something out of their reading I ‘sound like’’ (‘The Poetics of Disobedience,’ Indeed her nearly 300-page epic of a voice, dream journal of a pre-menopausal expatriate, autochthonous issue of a visionary comic poet as ‘bitterness in chunks’ sounds like nothing else. But Notley is called to find ‘a holy story...that satisfies without the temporality of successive pages, the terrible linearity of all these successive books’ with a conviction that, in its rhyme with Benjamin writing under threat of Fascism, reveals something quite dark about our current state of emergency (The Scarlet Cabinet, vi).

Alice Notley, Disobedience, cover detail

Alice Notley, Disobedience, cover detail

      Disobedience is broken into five headed and dated sections which are themselves subdivided into smaller pieces bearing talky titles like ‘Where Is the Babylonian Meter with Its Lovely Caesura?’ and ‘Meet Me at La Chapelle for Some More Salami.’ Despite the datelines, the work is more microcosmic than journalistic—building by increments into ‘the single dense tableaux.’ Notley interrupts the continuous narrative of Alette and the deep autobiographical reflection of Mysteries in favor of an energized present, a knobby topography whose ‘coordinates’ are ‘quotidian life and / my life forgotten from sleep or / the unconscious’ (4). The scene of this fusion is both waking Paris from July 30, 1995-August 28, 1996 and the fantasy world of caves that are themselves a combination of Alette’s subterranean metropolis and the partly-dreamed terrain of the town of Needles, California, where Notley spent her childhood.
      Laced through this landscape, an episodic chase pits a ‘Chandleresque’ detective—variously named Will, I, Hardwood, Hardshroud, Mitch-ham (after Robert Mitchum), etc.—against a female principle—variously named Soul, I, Soulgirl, dark doll, etc. This ‘story,’ and it only is one in caught fragments and staged bits of dialogue, dissolves four-fifths of the way through the book. Throughout, it gives more color than narrative drive: noir’s silvered shadows and the Technicolor carnival that Notley calls ‘The Emotion’—a blow-up of normative gender roles in which the poet wears ‘long blue lowcut 50s evening dress’ to a poetry reading and plays at being ‘Jane Russell / that arch-brunette, in Foxfire’ (139). This world, where ‘‘Naked’ / consists of a flesh colored garment. / Like the flesh-colored bathing suits movie actresses / wore for nude scenes in the 50’s,’ is a big-screen version of the repressive social order, and as such it prompts both disobedience and desire (81). ‘Society is / a huge / cohesive / emotion,’ Notley writes, ‘not sure whether one attempts life outside it.../ becomes involved in changing it, or both variously’ (210).
      One of Disobedience’s great virtues as a political poem is the honesty with which it portrays the dissident’s struggle, the pleasure of playing within the specular economy’s rules, and the real sense of loss that comes when they’re broken: ‘I go about / just detached from The Emotion—am not / in Your story. When I remember. It’s a physical / sense of detachment—a sac no / longer adhering to a flesh wall’ (216). Notley’s dips into gendered social dynamics serve her poem, and not only by fueling her rage. The cat and mouse game of Will and Soul makes moments of liberation legible by framing them dialogically. As the work progresses, Hardwood the detective morphs into a sympathetic male interlocutor, and also into ‘You,’ the object of the work’s wildest shifts in feeling. ‘Follow the dark doll, free the ghosts, suffer dissolution / of a culture in yourself, and find You,’ at one extreme, becomes ‘This is not the Whitman Intersection / ...I   am  absolutely  not  You’ at the other (46, 82). Disobedience’s broad range of address—charged, alternately, with identification and abjection—strengthens the voice at its center. If the reclaimed ‘I’ of Mysteries of Small Houses emerges, history-bearing, out of that work’s autobiographical accumulations, the voice of Disobedience —despite the poem’s length—is powerfully simple, no less individual for being born anew in each confrontational moment.
      The scene of the argument, those ever-present caves, also provides the work with a consistent source of imagery. The poet returns to the caves to ‘find out what’s suppressed,’ convinced that there’s ‘evidence left in them / ... what’s lost / to the presumably awakened world’ (7). But she worries that such a project is ‘specious’ from the outset, perhaps because she mined the cave trope so fully in The Descent of Alette. In Disobedience, the caves are already covered in writing—the letter ‘E’ comes to stand for what’s most common in language—and as such they’re (oddly enough for caves) too purely surface to offer any lasting answers.
      To find them, she must climb out of the storied depths and chart an even more mysterious geography—the everyday interior of her own four walls. As a collage of dreams, Disobedience covers vast amounts of fantastical ground, but in waking life, it stays close to home, and in the final section, the poet makes peace with her environment by opening new vistas within it. Granted, that environment is estranged to begin with. The book opens at the other end of an exilic journey from New York to Paris. ‘The first sentence (of my poem) must be ‘I left it.’’ Notley writes on page 2. The first sentences are actually: ‘moved here for no reason. don’t seem to be anywhere.’ And in some sense, having made that initial break, Disobedience could take place anywhere; what matters is that she has chosen to be there.
      The poet of Disobedience most definitely isn’t in St. Mark’s Place social stew she recalled in ‘101’:  

      They keep coming in I won’t enumerate but they’re all there at all
           of the ages and stages we
     Were it’s too crowded isn’t it or not you love it whoever but I’m
           pushed far inside
     This apartment wasn’t me really it was everyone else it was the
           outer world

(Mysteries 113)

The voice rushing as if to get a word in edgewise in Mysteries, itself a departure from Alette’s story-making meter, gives way to Disobedience’s airier, less beholden pace:

Otherwise, the non story continues...

The air in the lines between sections enclosing,
Among other things,
motions from room to room (269)

Disobedience breathes easier as a result of these ‘space[s] between official places,’ rendered graphic by the long dashes that break the sections into even smaller units, and figurative—in the final fifth of the book especially—through the image of the room the poet discovers in her wall. It’s a homely place, an unlikely utopia, but it’s all she needs: ‘It’s empty, old / No one moves in, worn linoleum. / Sit down. / I don’t need a better room right now’ (274).  Having found this ‘interstitial room,’ writerly crutches like ‘image’ and ‘story’ can drop away, leaving only ‘washed desert light’ and all the time in the world.
      Of course the room isn’t really empty, it’s full of the long modern history of alternate interiors: Dickinson’s and Woolf’s, Stein’s and H.D.’s; and though it was won as a woman’s sanctuary, Joyce’s space-carving ‘silence, exile, and cunning’ echoes here as well. ‘I’ve taken some / care that this poem not be a nice place,’ Notley writes in the penultimate section, whose title is ‘The One Thousand Arms of Poking and Pinching Love’ and whose goal, presumably, is to keep them out (290). Daring to be unattractive, choosing solitude, stopping, Disobedience clears a ground as holy as it is idiosyncratic. It’s an extraordinary work, and Alice Notley is a necessary poet.

Special thanks to Rachel Blau DuPlessis for pointing me to several of Alice Notley’s essays and critical pieces, and for helping me really read the work.

Works cited

Benjamin, Walter. ‘Unpacking My Library,’ Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. (New York: Schocken Books, 1968).

Benjamin, Walter. ‘Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century,’ Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms and Autobiographical Writings. Ed Peter Demetz. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. (New York: Schocken Books, 1978).

Notley, Alice. Mysteries of Small Houses. (New York: Penguin Books, 1998).

Notley, Alice and Douglas Oliver. The Scarlet Cabinet. (New York: Scarlet Edition, 1992).

Libbie Rifkin runs the poetry program at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, and is helping the Library of Congress develop special collections in 20th century American poetry.

Jacket 18 — August 2002  Contents page
Select other issues of the magazine from the | Jacket catalog | read about Jacket |
Other links: | top | homepage | bookstores | literary links | internet design |
Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that this material is copyright. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose

This material is copyright © Libbie Rifkin and Jacket magazine 2002
The URL address of this page is