Alice Notley: Sheets of Time in Contemporary Lyric Practice

by Chris Tysh


I don’t fuck much with the past
but I fuck plenty with the future

–Patti Smith [1]

●  “One day, I awoke” “& found myself on”  “a subway” (3)

●  Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita[2]

mi ritrovai per una selva obsura

for the straight way was lost

●  A sea of stories[3]: in the endless night I ride below the ground, the Dutchman’s curse, doomed to sail the oceans of dead souls[4], forever.

●  Because I couldn’t stop for Death[5]

●  Listen!  My name’s Alette.  Alouette, gentille alouette, the songbird in the dark sky.

►  Citational time for this century of ghosts.

●  Dante + Carroll + Dickinson + Wittig = Notley

●  She’s already told us she was Dr. Williams’ heiress.

●  What is citational time?

●  Intertextuality

●  It is first a braid, a weave, a desire to abolish the ring of power.

●  Gold, emerald, lapis, polished stones, crushed evidence, “cases full of jewels” (6)

●  “he owns all things,”  “doesn’t he?” (25)

●  Citational time is non-chronological.  A conveyance, a moving track that allows the poet to echo past songs while developing her own measure, “musical intention,” her own way to inhabit time, to stress both bridge and what lies below, lost at the bottom of the ditch; something she draws out like a tattered card in the rubble.

●  That means to open up time’s abyss, as Henri Bergson calls it. It is a game the mind plays, this passing through recollection, memory, shredded time-images, repressed by the censor at the gate.  “I’m not allowed’  “to remember if I was”  “the little baby”  “the little boy”  “Was I the cub”  “for an instant?”  “or was I”  “already”  “a soldier…” (15)

●  The tyranny of the always-already.  The temporal progression in its mimetic form, i.e. the illusory rendering of empirical reality, is hampered here as time is out of joint.  The Vietnam vet’s sheets of time were always already stained with the blood of history he is born into, enters as if a river.  Is it possible “ In that station” “grow white flowers” “large blossoms” “that are faces” “with eyes closed”…”Soldiers go there” “Call to” “the victim-flowers” (15)

●  We should not confuse it with some totalizing notion of timelessness; some vague miasmic oozing which leaks through the earth and which makes us parrot the sacrosanct pieties of the doxa: It was always like this, “awash with blood” (27).  We are in history: both “the present which passes and goes to its death and the past which is preserved and retains seeds of life” (92), as Deleuze explains the process of co-existing sheets of time in Cinema 2: The Time-Image. The canceled babyhood of the soldier, his lost innocence was always already lodged on the same strata of belonging to the murderous history of his world.  Viet Nam, Latin America, Iraq, Afghanistan. Chechnya, Bosnia, Gaza… Take your pick!

●  “’I killed for him,” “I was a soldier’” (7)

●  Just as auteurist cinema reacts to what Deleuze calls “the crisis of the action-image”(103), lyric practice of the twenty-first century embodied by Notley, Sikelianos, BlauDuPlessis and Welish, to name a few, reacts to the dominion of mimesis and the personal by problematizing the customary divisions between past, present and future. By now we are quite familiar with the various tropes of undermining referentiality and the attendant truth functions it may engender.  But how could the sensation of time be part of that destabilizing process when it is the very embodiment of what constitutes the text’s purchase on reality?

drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.

immediately evokes a particular conversation that took place in an empirical reality and its recall by a nameless narrator in the present.  The past of the recalled dialogue doesn’t quite yet merge with the present of its telling to shape a crystal-image, although the complex lineation already trips up the factitious rendering of what goes on in “I Know a Man.”[6]  The point remains that time and its various disciplinary conventions of tense agreements go a long way toward crediting the representation of the real or its approximation.

●  When time is wrenched from its chronological nature and proffers its sheets of time in a commingling of pasts and presents, we face a circuit, which animates not so much

the implacable march of events as explorations of knowing, dreaming and being in and of this world.  Speaking about Orson Welles’ films, Deleuze has this to say: “As soon as we reach the sheets of past, it is as if we were carried away by the undulations of a great wave, time gets out of joint, and we enter into temporality as a state of permanent crisis” (112).

●  The question then is not so much how to account for time and its dynamics within a lyric text, but how to interrogate its fractures and ruins and free up the temporal structure toward other dimensions, other regimes: becoming, transformation, dream or hallucination.

  “Mechanical time:” the “False continuum” (4)

●  Mathematical time, Bergson [7] instructs us, is measurable, divisible, each round slice falling on the butcher’s gleaming counter. As Alette is caught in a movement of “her mechanical contrivance” (4), what is queried is the linkage of mechanical time to patriarchal culture.  The “false continuum” instantiates the phantasmatic regime of progress, succession, and inheritance. The Tyrant’s clockwork operations mask the veil of phallocratic ideology and occult women’s unequal terms, their cleavages & double binds; their oppression and invisibility.

●  In Book Two of Alette’s Descent, the narrator enters the rhizomatic network of subterranean caves wherein she encounters not a carny fire-eater but a female scroll-swallower. : “She had shoulder-length dark hair,” “wore a full-“ “skirted cotton dress,” “beige—“ I’m a scroll-“ “swallower,” “she said to me,” … “ “& hold it,” keep it in my throat—“The holy scrolls are called scriptures.  “’What scriptures are they?’” “I asked her” “’Past, Present, “& Future—“ (49).

●  Later on, Alette undergoes a strange fission whereby she divides into “three of me” (60).  A bearded little professor tells her “You are your” “Past, Present,” “ & Future” (60)

“Time’s secret name—“ “is Oneness” (60). Although Alette, a postmodern, feminist Inferno, follows a diegetic arc from the subway of dead souls (3) to the collective emerging of possibility“— “whatever,” “whoever,” … ”Came to light” “that morning” (148), it would be a mistake to put this epic under the aegis of the old classical unities of time.  I (we) was oppressed by the Tyrant; I take action (I kill the motherfucker); I/ we shall live.  This triumphant and sequential reading does not entirely account for the various cuts, simultaneities, disturbances and stoppages that give Notley’s text an uncanny chronic structure, both of this world and out of sync; in dream and real time all at once.

►  Crystal time: Dream, Becoming & Transformation

To shape the reign of exclusions, Notley puts us face to face with quarantine trains where junkies travel among “Shit & spittle” “dropped food” and “dirty matter” (17).  This social heterogeneity commands the present tense, which is to be read not as eternal but rather internal, in its “double movement of making presents pass… but also of preserving all the past, dropping it into an obscure depth,” as Deleuze points out in his discussion of the cinematic time-image (87).  In other words, the crystal is never closed off nor done.  It must be treated as formation and growth. “Something” “is still alive in there” “has power” (17).

●  One of the fundamental operations of non-chronological time in Alette is constituted by the various processes of becoming-animal. Early on, in Book One, the speaker witnesses the transformation of a subway stripper: “one of the ones who”  “strip for coins” “pass quickly” “the cup” (11) into a crowned eagle, “a raptor” “herself—“

The cyborgian model of femininity as subversive response to patriarchy is well documented and the poem ushers in the obligatory Discipline & Punish: “A cop came” “Her wings were clipped,” “talons cut” (11).

●  If “the principle of indescernibility”[8] characterizes the crystal and its “continual exchange” between the actual and the virtual image, then it follows that Notley’s riotous scene devoted to a pantomime of women’s work “without objects” “without machines” “carry[ing] invisible files” “invisible papers” “Hold[ing] up airy” phone receivers” (19) links up both the mirror-image of women’s devalued, silent, invisible labor and constructs an actual image, albeit on the side of parody as social critique.

  The construction of crystal time passes through the refrain, the ritornello (92)[9] as Deleuze dubs it, that little sentence which repeated with variation bats at your ear, insistent like a blade teasing the contour of your cheek.  “When I was” “the train”  “when I was”  “the train”” (36);  “ I fell asleep” “I awoke” (37); “the train’s form will” “will also lose form” (41).

  “A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath.  He walks and halts to his song.  Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best as he can.”[10]  Thus begins D & G’s plateau on the refrain.  The soothing, sheltering aspect of the ritornello lies both in repetition and becoming which were curled up in the poet’s playful punning on lose form and transform (the train’s form).  The song links up with lines of flight away from the chaos and dark forces of hellish chronos.  “I was becoming—“ “I became—“ “a shadow, literal shadow” (39). The launching forth, whether to further decomposition or hastening of the future, marks a raising and falling like shutters or our “eyes “still bright” “And then our eyes too” “became shaded” (41).  The refrain’s crystal implicates the temporal nature of transformation.

●  The ancients tell us that thinking needs time [11].  Within this logic, Alette functions as a site for thinking, analyzing and critiquing the present nature of our reality.  What startles is that it is through hallucinatory presences, dreams and visions that she achieves the most trenchant and politicized reading of our times.  With cinematic accuracy, Notley freezes a frame so we can see in slow motion the Tyrant leaping across the rats’ mouths (135) and then Alette in her owl incarnation, flying behind him.  Just as Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog is “all the more alive for no longer passing through a recollection-image,” according to Deleuze (122), so is Notley’s sharp deconstruction of patriarchal culture, via her oneiric metamorphoses.

●  Towards the end of Book Three, just minutes away from writing the final scene of the Tyrant’s death, Notley endows Alette with the power to articulate the glaring truth about her mortal enemy.  The tyrant’s heart is a pastiche of others, in sync with his status as colonizer, owner, fetishist who “robs us” “of transcendence” (133) and enslaves us in his “house of insults” (136).

●  The more pressed we are to come to the light of freedom, the more we remember that we are always in history. “There is no first, then,” only always” “They were the company” “of existence” “Co-angels “Co-spirits” The unborn” the dead—“ (93).  We draw out the sheets, which unfold a new kind of co-existence, a continuity, a communication in this visionary poetics of time.


This essay was originally presented as a talk at the Advancing Feminist Poetics and Activism (ADFEMPO) conference organized by Belladonna in 2009 at CUNY Graduate Center, as part of a panel organized and moderated by Emily Beall. It is reprinted here with the permission and blessing of Chris Tysh and Emily Beall.





[1] Patti Smith. “Babelogue.” Easter.  Arista 1978.

[2] Dante.  The Inferno. Trans. Robert and Jean Hollander. New York: Anchor Books, 2002, 2.

[3] Rushdie, Salman.  Haroun and the Sea of Stories. New York: Puffin, 1993

[4] Gogol, Nicolai.  Dead Souls. New York: The Modern Library, 1936

[5] Dickinson, Emily.  The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson.  New York: Little, Brown and Co., 1961, 350.

[6] Robert Creeley.  The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley: 1945-1975. Berkeley: California Up, 1982, 132.

[7] Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics, (New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 1946) qt in Alex Scott.  “Henri Bergson’s The Creative Mind

[8] “The indiscernibility of the real and the imaginary, or of the present and the past, of the actual and the virtual… is the objective characteristic of certain existing images which are by nature double” (69).

[9] “Félix Guattari was right to define the crystal of time as being “ a ritornello’ par excellence” (92).

[10] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.  A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.  Trans. Brian Massumi.  Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1987, 311.

[11] Speaking of Plato, “Dans l’urgence, on ne peut pas penser.” Pierre Bourdieu. Sur la Télévision.  Paris:  Raisons d’Agir, 1996, 30.




Works Cited

Bergson, Henri. The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics. New York:

Kensington Publishing Corp., 1946 qt in Alex Scott.  “Henri Bergson’s The Creative Mind

Bourdieu, Pierre.  Sur la Télévision.  Paris: Raisons d’Agir, 1996.

Creeley, Robert.  The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley: 1945-1975. Berkeley: California UP, 1982.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1989.

Dante.  The Inferno. Trans. Robert and Jean Hollander. New York: Anchor Books, 2002.

Dickinson. Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson.  New York: Little & Brown, 1961.

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi.  Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1987.

Gogol, Nicolai.  Dead Souls. Trans. Constance Garnett.  New York: The Modern Library, 1936.

Notley, Alice.  The Descent of Alette.  New York: Penguin, 1992.

Rushdie, Salman.  Haroun and the Sea of Stories. New York: Puffin, 1993.

Patti Smith. “Babelogue.” Easter.  Arista, 1978.



Chris Tysh has been on the faculty of the English department at Wayne State University, Detroit since 1989, where she teaches creative writing and women’s studies. She has authored several poetry collections and completed a full screenplay based on a novel of Georges Bataille.  Her books include Secrets of Elegance, Porn?, Coat of Arms,  In the Name, Continuity Girl and Cleavage. Recently, her play, Night Scales, A Fable for Klara K, was produced at the Wayne State University Studio Theatre under the direction of Aku Kadogo. She has given numerous readings, both here and abroad. She is a recipient of a 2003 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a 2010 Kresge Artist Fellowship.

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