Bitchy Aesthetics (Part 1): Notley's Disobedience

by on Jul.24, 2011

What are bitchy aesthetics?  How can we think about artistic expression tonally and formally through the etymology of the word “bitch”?  As a reclamation and queering of identity since the late 60’s, does self-avowed bitchiness break through received ideas about art as well as gender?  This bitch says yes.  I see two quotes from pop culture, in particular, as endorsements of bitchiness that bridge, expand, and intensify the political struggles of feminism and queerness in interesting ways.  This first post approaches Alice Notley’s Disobedience via Judy Parfitt’s famous line, as delivered to Kathy Bates, in the film adaptation of Dolores Claiborne:

“Sometimes, Dolores, sometimes you have to be a high-riding bitch to survive.  Sometimes, being a bitch is all a woman has to hang onto.”

Notley’s Disobedience is at once hilarious, serious, and instructive in its surliness.  Each poem is divided by lines into short sections–a form that isolates rejoinders to consumerist heterosexist society and literary culture.  Notable lines include “Would you tell the goddamned folksingers and rappers to shut up PLEASE!!,” “Let’s have a page of Good Writing here./(Lack of interest.),” “The Pocahontas Doll the Little Whore,” “Prozac:  everyone takes it and reads prose/or less often, writes it, including most poets./Maintaining the prose-money life You’re addicted to.”  Instead of maintaining the critical distance of the indeterminate lyric, Notley often addresses us directly in the capitalized second person.  She bristles and jabs at the reader:  “Though my rule for this poem/is honesty, my other rule is Fuck You.”

Through an equivocation of bitchiness and survival anticipated in its very title, Disobedience takes the quote in Dolores Claiborne as its M.O.  Positioned during the crises of globalization that preceded a 9/11 and a global recession, Notley’s “I” emerges by restlessly and relentlessly dismantling preconceived dreams of poetry, community, and sociality.  By foregoing prescription in favor of caustic observation, the poet’s antagonism still only leaves room for a world we cannot imagine economically, socially, or sexually.  A horizon that both the liberalism and conservatism of the moment fail to predict, much less construct, is traced as a placeholder in the text:  “A new kind of mother.  Holding me.  Quietly, this is important.”

Writing at a time when the poetic fragment often limited itself to self-reflexive meditation on language, Notley instead saturates her words with razor intelligence and attitude.  She splices her poems into ferocious mirror-shards that assume and refract victimhood alongside culpability.  In a total reversal of the dead girl trope that also recalls the murder of a sexually abusive father/husband in Dolores Claiborne, the speaker even admits to participating in a “hit” in which she kills “the Mafia don, the old man,” leaving him “and a boy from a TV show […] dead, shot up, blood streaming.”

The clincher:  “Everybody admires me for my participation in this hit.”  If Notley embellishes appreciation for such poetic justice, it is perhaps because her book knowingly creates space for unexpected acts of disobedience.  By totally disorienting the figure of the bitch, others heed her gendered call to arms…

8 comments for this entry:
  1. adam strauss

    Briefly talking with Notely was interesting because she is (well, was: how she is now is not something I can know) calm, polite, really rather proper–in other words a major disconnect between some of her poems and the woman I chatted with. tho she did express appalledness at an anthology from the 90s using dated, corrected versions of E. D.; but then agreed–or rather stated my case seems plausible–when I offered that when a writer is that great such meddling may not be as huge a deal as with some other writers and then cited how it seems that Celan is always wonderful regardless of the translation–Joris is really catty towards Mchugh/Popov but, well, those poems seem rather terrific to me. It’d be cool if people would do with Dickinson what they do with W S plays–aka each text has editors!

  2. Sarah Fox

    I feel that Notley’s [and my own, & perhaps other outerwavers] unshakable feminism is perfectly summarized in her lines: “”Thought my rule for this poem / is honesty, my other rule is Fuck You.” Yeah, fuck you. FUCK YOU, e.g.

  3. Lucas de Lima

    Adam, I’m jealous you got to meet the high priestess of poetry (as CA Conrad has called her). One thing I didn’t mention in this post is Notley’s mysticism, which in Disobedience is suggested by the mentions of the cave. She also posits a “cosmic I” at some point. That seems important to me… a cosmic, rather than easily locatable “I” that is culturally legible.

    Sarah, that line is truly inspiring/encouraging. So is this from Notley’s essay on the poetics of disobedience:

    I discovered I couldn’t go along, with the government or governments, with radicals and certainly not with conservatives or centrists, with radical poetics and certainly not with other poetics, with other women’s feminisms, with any fucking thing at all; belonging to any of it was not only an infringement on my liberty but a veil over clear thinking.

  4. Sarah Fox

    Thus is she my mystic disobedient compass. The cave is also important to Alette, a clearly-posited “cosmic I,” and–in terms of influence–to all human art & consciousness. More on caves & influence from me soon, I hope…

    More from thePoetics of Disobedience essay:

    “For a long time I’ve seen my job [as a poet] as bound up with the necessity of noncompliance with pressures, dictates, atmospheres of, variously, poetic factions, society at large, my own past practices as well. For a long time—well in fact since the beginning, since I learned how to be a poet…though learning itself meant a kind of obedience, so like most words the Dis word, the Dis form, cannot be worshipped either—and that would be an obedience anyway. I’ve spoken…of how it seemed one had to disobey the past and the practices of literary males in order to talk about what was going on most literarily around one, the pregnant body, and babies for example. There were no babies in poetry then. How could that have been? What are we leaving out now? Usually what’s exactly in front of the eyes ears nose and mouth, in front of the mind, but it seems as if one must disobey everyone else in order to see at all.”

    One can’t help but think of, among others, Julian Assange, especially as he represents himself and his vision in this interview: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/232

  5. adam strauss

    “I discovered I couldn’t go along, with the government or governments, with radicals and certainly not with conservatives or centrists, with radical poetics and certainly not with other poetics, with other women’s feminisms, with any fucking thing at all; belonging to any of it was not only an infringement on my liberty but a veil over clear thinking”

    For me the above lines seem steeped in the notion of individual genius, of godliness, of absolutely no sense that if one is socialized at-all one is entrenched in discourses; well maybe rather it displays awareness but rejects, and I am suspicious of this: I think it’s good to work within the world not try and transcend it (well for now I think this: I feel differently at other times) because that, I’d argue, is a position of maximal privilege–which is a mode I am not totally on board with. As may be clear, I both find Notely’s writing very interesting and very frustrating. Maybe the only thing I don’t dispute is that her work matters even if I don’t always feel it works.

  6. Lucas de Lima

    I think Notley’s writing is very much against the notion of individual genius. To me her cosmic “I” involves a kind of self-shattering, or going into the self so far that its spatiotemporal limits collapse, e.g.: “Alma, or the dead women.” She doesn’t buy the idea of language exhausting everything–that’s one of the lines of thinking Disobedience fervently rejects–so for her divergence is not only possible but necessary. Rather than easily arrive at some epiphanic moment of transcendence, her poetry struggles with this necessity… The Descent of Alette, for example, is a violent reconfiguration and wresting of language from power structures.

    Basically I think of Notley, along with someone such as Hiromi Ito, as a poet-shaman invested not in privilege but rather terrifying access or reach.

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  8. Sarah Fox

    “The first sentence (of my poem) must be ‘I left it.'”