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'Our violent times': reading notes

- Elizabeth James

from Constellation: Alice Notley

[On 10 May 2008 Alice Notley came to the Birkbeck Poetics Centre for a symposium shaped around her voice, which aimed to celebrate her extraordinary writing and generate its own creative ‘work’ of discussion in response. She read throughout, alongside short ten-minute talks by a small group of participants – poets and poet-critics – each of whom had chosen one poem or a short part of her work to explore. The remit was open, so what unrolled throughout the day was a record of engagement with the duration of her reading, including personal responses and kinds of negotiation, reflections on practice, questions of interpretation.

Constellation: Alice Notley is both a record of that exchange, revised for a new format, and a wider communal collaboration. It brings together the participants from the day with a more extensive network of connections and voices. It includes essays and poems, notes and reflections, and video footage from the day, with links for other material available. It is curated in and across three spaces online – the Birkbeck Centre for Poetics, “Intercapillary Space”, and Openned – by Carol Watts, Edmund Hardy, Steve Willey and Alex Davies. It is a celebration of the work of a major poet, whose writing offers a powerfully attentive engagement with our times.

Presented here is Elizabeth James' talk from the symposium.]

'Our violent times': reading notes

'Our violent times' from In the Pines (New York: Penguin, 2007), p. 102.

There is a prose piece by Alice Notley from 1980 in the form of a letter written by someone presumed to be a version of herself, to an 'Adviser', worrying -- humorously -- how to take a verbal threat by her husband:

should I let talk of batting me on the head simply pass by ... my husband has never batted me on the head or come remotely close to doing so ... it's all about usage of words ... & he has always in the past been excessively careful with words, we both read L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine. 1

Is violence performed only in language a 'problem' of any importance? especially compared to the immediate physical facts that "the heat's off it's about twenty-five degrees [Fahrenheit] outside", and her son is sick. " .... it's cold, man."


Violence is an abstraction that comes alive in situations. The bad root, or fearful outcome, of so many predicaments; otherwise adopted as part of the solution.

Revolution = Our violent (anag.)

Known when seen, in bruises or broken windows (etc etc ...); but the relation of a sign to a violence is as often indirect or questionable. It also occurs, as we know, invisibly, incipiently, officially and (arguably) completely unrecognised in forms of mildness and decency, where the most averse might stand accused as the most acquiescent (as see Slavoj Žižek's critique of tolerance, in Violence (2008). 2


The most noticeable feature of 'Our violent times' is its undecidable pronouns. Here is an incomplete account.

1. "We"/"our": in a formulation typical of reminiscence, these pronouns at least seem personal to the poet (or the poem's persona). I (the reader) am outside them, at this opening stage.

1ii. Are "these ones" really 'these times (or even 'these violent times') as the grammar suggests? it would be an uncommon substitution.
To me the phrase carries a notion of people, those "now" fresh to the turbulence we experienced in "our ... times": the new, present generation, these sons, perhaps (the volume In The Pines is dedicated to 'my sons and their friends').

2. "more": more violence? and if so, is it just violence again, or more violent violence than before?
Or is it something else we have more of, by contrast, now: more wealth and welfare possibly? thus associating (past) violence with privation (as in the scenario in 'Dec 5, 1980').

2ii. "it": this sentence could be read in two different ways as confirming the impression of a more prosperous present, when "no one's [up] against it", or else that no-one opposes our having "more", even if it implies that we have more than others do (and not just more than we ourselves once had).
Thirdly it might be read as "no one's against [violence]", perhaps in the "movies, books" of the next line: violence is uncensured in today's cultural media.
At the Study Day, Alice Notley read this word, it, with a strong emphasis, that left me doubting.
Visually, tiny "it" has fallen off its line, as if ostracised (I think of the child pushed out of a tower block window, reported some months ago in the English press), contradicting the bland statement it is meant to be part of.

3. "this": I can't infer the point, but only read the line (with the following two) as implying that "violence" is largely disavowed in any of its specific manifestations, including the "stories" by which people represent their lives to themselves.

5. "[the story / of] how we get by": this time the first person plural seems generic: as, we all ... thus by extension also potentially a collective (even national?) narrative. At this stage it can include me (the reader).

6. "her": the third person reinforces the wider perspective, even while the line half-invokes the old feminist recognition of politics in the personal. The line though also might be suggesting that what "no one" is "against" has lost its force.
The next line reprises 2i but leaves it open: there is a ragged hole in the stanza where the referent seems to have dropped out, to slide over the end of its last line, and away off the page ...
Meanwhile "Everyone's / cold": in a rather intellectual sense it seems to me (by contrast with the visceral chill of 1980), "around within an exterior mind" ...

10-11. "if you could be prior ... / ... we were used to you": at the Study Day, Alice Notley cut through my attempts to cope with this slew to the second person -- she said, vehemently, "the reader is you-ing me" (as if one had ventured, "You have a blue guitar" ...). Whoever it may be applied to (and I reserve my right to potential alternatives), it is desired that they be "prior, in some ways ... before now blew you / away" (my emphasis). Someone wishes to negate someone else's cataclysm (whether it were actually fatal, or transformative, or separating). Žižek says something (arguable but) à propos: "the highest form of violence is the imposition of [a presupposed 'normal'] standard with reference to which some events appear as 'violent'" (p. 55).

12ii-13. "I // the one I know"
Throughout the poem words slide around (deliberately) vaguely, as "times" seems to become "ones" which falls apart into "no one's"; "too" as definite intensifier falls into a weak echo with "it would be good, too ..."; "we" as subject changes position twice. At this point however, as if out of the double stress in "violent times", and in defiance of the suffocation just offered, the "I" defines itself, toeing the end of a short ledge, diving down to the next stanza to land as a particular "one".


The poem doesn't end in this singular affirmation though, but goes on to "leave again" in the idiom of poetic image and cadence (in contrast to the alternate colloquial slackness and disjunctive twists of preceding lines). "Forgetting forms", a finely ambiguous phrase, draws attention to the form of this poem (like others in the book a sonnet -- the titular squence 'In the Pines' is itself in 14 parts), and thus also to the distinct constriction of its width: half the lines have been forced to break in two, a Procrustean imposition. 3 A membrane (memory-brain?) may be worn, torn or blown to shreds: the remnants of its violent engagements constitute the form of self that survives in its own continuing story.


The violence we read about goes down. To trace some kinds I've known, I'd have to violate telling; because violence doesn't always proceed directly from body to body. It flows from the heart to as far as the heart can't see. You will never believe you've done it, done something to me. 4


Slavoj Žižek argues that language, far from being the medium in which reason and reconciliation can surmount violence, is rather "the ultimate resort of every specifically human violence" (p. 57), where every Other is both symbolically constructed as fair game, and obfuscated beyond knowing. This is not to say that (for instance) jokey threats as a way of letting off steam between consenting adults are intolerable (or even unnecessary), but it would account for the seriousness of Alice Notley's frequent returns (anxious, angry or melancholy) to problems of violence, coercion and language.


Elizabeth James
May/September 2008



1 'Dec 5, 1980', from Waltzing Matilda, 1981, anthologised in Mary Margaret Sloan, ed. Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing By Women (Jersey City, NJ: Talisman House, 1998), p. 196-7

2 Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (London: Profile Books, 2008).

3 In the volume, the effect is very clear by contrast with 'LaDonna' on the facing page (another poem with violence in it), the lines of which are all natural end-stopped phrases.

4 Alice Notley, 'The Black Trailor', [1], In The Pines, p. 65.



Constellation: Alice Notley

"Intercapillary Space"
essays and poems, notes and reflections, curated by Carol Watts & Edmund Hardy.

a video record of Alice Notley’s Birkbeck reading
(filmed by Stephen Willey, page design and blog design by Alex Davies & Stephen Willey, special thanks to Adrian Tribe at Birkbeck).

New work by Alice Notley
Ten poems from Negativity's Kiss.




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