Monday, July 25, 2005

A poem by Alice Notley and some thoughts

I came across this poem several months ago when one of my students showed it to me. Not only was I overwhelmed by its beauty and startling disaster, I was breathless with a sense of understanding that I don't often encounter in experimental poetry (which is actually why I like a lot it, but that's beside the point, I suppose. . .). Right now, I am focusing my concentration on issues of subjectivity as represented by the "I" in experimental women's poetry (some with feminist motives, but not all) and this poem strikes me in a way that many other's fail me:

Dear Dark Continent
by Alice Notley

Dear Dark Continent:

The quickening of
the palpable coffin
fear so then the frantic
doing of everything experience is thought of

but I've ostensibly chosen
my, a, family
so early! so early! (as is done always
as it would seem always) I'm a two
now three irrevocably
I'm wife I'm mother I'm
myself and him and I'm myself and him and him

But isn't it only I in the real
whole long universe? Alone to be
in the whole long universe?

But I and this he (and he) makes ghosts of
I and all the hes there would be, won't be

because by now I am he, we are I, I am we.

We are not the completion of myself.

Not the completion of myself, but myself!
through the whole long universe.

This poem actually TRACKS the division of subjectivity of the speaker in a way that I have yet to see in other poems- it acknowledges the existence yet simultaneous erasure of existence of the singular "I" in the context of parenthood. Yes, the veil is lifted; maybe this is why I relate so very much to this poem and it shakes me so interiorly- I feel the division- the split- the bifurcation- the cleaving- the mitosis- the fracturing- of my "self" on a daily basis. In the Lacanian sense, I am constantly in service of the other, yet Lacan could never understand what it truly means to be devoted, if only for a little time, to the complete creation and care of another living being because he has never carried a baby for 9 months and given birth, only to have a small mouth attached to your breast literally sucking the life out of you for another six months (or some unnamed variable of time). The giving of birth is a forced evacuation of the self- a forced evacuation of the voice- and it takes months (maybe years? I know I'm not there yet!) to relocate a self inside, a voice with which you can speak with ANY authority.

Is it possible that this is why women are so comfortable in the place of divided subjectivity. . .we are always already serving someone in the sense that we have (or at least were born with) ovaries and a uterus and the biological capability to produce another person who you will serve for the rest of your life? Is it possible that we are comfortable eschewing the lyric "I" because many of us have no concept of what it means to speak from one voice, one persona, one single stream of certainty and conviction because there is no such thing in our reality?

I feel like experimental poetry that questions mainstream notions of authority through restructuring of language and subjectivity is a powerful tool. In reading the introduction of Lyric Interventions by Linda Kinnehan, I am struck by her polarization of poets Adrianne Rich and Rae Armantrout- Rich on the side of presenting feminist messages in clear though discursive narratives with a centrally located speaker, Armantrout on the other side arguing for a revision of the lyric structure, which as the langpo movement argues, is another way women are kept down by "the man". While I understand Rich's argument, it seems like she is underestimating the capability of women to understand a complex subject, which I think is a mistake. Take Gloria Anzuldua's essay “La Conciencia de la Mestiza: Towards a New Consciousness” for example in which she literally spells out the mestiza double consciousness, but all the while in very clear yet poetic language. Poets like Theresa Cha, who was Korean American, and Haryette Mullen, who is African American, also represent this double consciousness (or triple, or quadruple, or. . .) through a complicated speaker who questions herself and the structures of language within which she operates.

My advisor and I are still in search of the answer to the question "What makes women's writing inherently different from men's writing?" This may be part of the answer. I hate to be sexist and say that a man cannot create something that I can create because he never gave birth but I feel like there is something true to that statement. That I had fully sustained another living being for over a year, in-utero and out, makes me someone who knows how to serve the reader, to offer myself to another in a way that only a mother can, to have something taken away from me that only a mother has had taken away, left with a pile of mush that is constantly doing 10 things at the same time and trying to please 8 people while juggling grapefruits and milking a cow. Or maybe there is no answer and I am being essentialist and sexist. But I know that I often cannot locate myself inside of myself, that if someone put a gun to my head and said "write a poem with an authoritative lyric 'I'" that I would have to come up with a big steaming pile of crap that was purely fabricated out of what I thought they wanted me to write, not out of something that felt real and accurate to me like the multiple-subject "I" that I mostly write out of, " because by now I am he, we are I, I am we" and there is no other way to speak out of "I" but out of "WE".


Tony said...

Well you know what Camille Paglia says...

poetzie said...

hmm, I try not to.

Scott Glassman said...

Alice Notley's got a poem in Amy King's "Coconut" Issue 1 that I like a lot.