Disobedience by Alice NotleyAlice Notley
Penguin ($18)

by Dawn Michelle Baude

Alice Notley's latest book, Disobedience, is a feisty, irreverent volume that gives the finger to many of the received ideas and unexamined assumptions inscribed in dominant culture. More discursive in many ways than other of Notley's recent books, including the Pulitzer nominee, Mysteries of Small Houses (1998) and the epic Descent of Alette (1996), the poems in Disobedience are organized in five sections of chronological units, beginning on July 30, 1995, and running through August 28 of the following year.

Within the sections, black lines stride across the page, segmenting the poems into sequential units of journal entries, lyrics, narratives, dramatic monologues, rants, philosophical meditations, and various, hybrid forms. Unlike other devices that Notley has invented to open her work to new measures—such as innovative use of parentheses, ellipses, and dashes—the lines on the page in Disobedience are less prosodic than visual. Cumulatively, they become almost strident, as if by some strange act of collaboration, they could bar the political, social and artistic injustice that the poems protest.

Although Notley has never been one to pull her punches, she has perhaps never been so outspoken as she is here. The "disobedience" is, in part, saying what you think instead of what you're supposed to say. Describing "life as the shape of the ways I've been fucked / by prevailing thought & practice," Notley announces a political campaign to redeem the "suppressed," what I take to be the life force that is censured within and stymied without.

The topical, objectified world—in this case, France at fin-de-siecle, with its strikes, its political imbroglios, its precious culture, its 'local color'—is apt to be on the receiving end of her mordant, even vitriolic commentary, as are Republican senators, the affluent, the greedy and other power-mongering "you's," but the real target of the politic campaign for the suppressed is individual psychology. In Disobedience, Notley takes on sexuality, the soul and the 'source' of poetry, as well as the vagaries of identity, art-making and death.

The principle subversive strategy in the book is to rupture the façade of daily life by encouraging, even forcing, an exchange between the "conscious," and "the various / levels of unconsciousness: dreams, and then / below that / is that grailish?" The poet charts these largely unexplored reaches of interiority by writing in a sustained hypnogogic state; by training herself to wake up and transcribe dreams; and by writing with the unsocialized left hand. "Hypnotize self into a fantasy world / a world of caves," she writes, "(Yes, I do this, I can)."

Followers of Notley's work will recognize the caves, the owl, and the 'guides,' as well as other of the poet's symbols, from her previous books ("Descend descend descend—I do that in all my poems"). What makes Disobedience very different is the seemingly direct insight it gives into the poet's thinking processes. It's a great read, even for readers unfamiliar with Notley's work. "To change the world, as I always say, / change the forms in our dreams."

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002