Thursday, March 8, 2012

Chat Review: I Was There For Your Somniloquy, Kelli Anne Noftle (Omnidawn 2012)

(r): O, R. "I designated a lexicon for our time together, but forgot the lingo" (42).  Maybe you remember?

R: No matter. "It is inevitable what language will do" (35).  What does language do, dear (r), in Kelli Anne Noftle's forthcoming I Was There For Your Somniloquy?

(r): I think it asks, among other things, what you've pointed out--whether what language does, is, in fact, inevitable.

R: As inevitable as slug love?

(r): Yes, let us speak of slugs. Noftle writes quite a lot of poems about them. But the ultimate effect (it seems to me) is to place a question mark, rather than a period, on her statements about inevitability. That is, her poems, while they examine questions of instinct, of things we can't help--love, sex, sleep--often seem to take these matters as mere conditions for the things you can choose, the places where you have no instinct to guide you. 

For example: "They do it because they have to. Call it survival, but one of the worms must lose, inevitable/pregnant hiss of disappointment" (18).  The italicized "They do it because they have to" seems to me to point out some basic instability, a limitation of the "because they have to" model of behavior. Noftle is obviously engaging with Darwinian paradigms here but it seems like she's interested in the margins, the places where these paradigms begin to fail us.

R: Take, then, Seatbelts Off, which I read as a rewriting of Richard Siken's Scheherazade.
(In an interview with Omnidawn's Rusty Morrison, Noftle cites Siken's Crush--another prize-winning first poetry manuscript--as a favorite, which gives some context for comparison.)

(r): I believe you.  I can see a lot of parallels, now that you point out the resemblance.

R: Both Seatbelts Off & Scheherazade are brief, long-line anti-love lyrics that end with a statement of unromantic inevitability.

(r): Although, in a way, Noftle's declaration seems to me more extremely unromantic...

R: Exactly.  Noftle transmutes Siken's final line--"Tell me we'll never get used to it."--to the much blunter "Do what you're going to."  In the interplay between Noftle and Siken, I think we can begin to see how Noftle, in this first book, carves her place in the landscape of contemporary poetry (and, in special, the landscape of prize-winning first books).

In He Drinks His Merlot from a Flower Vase, for example, the lines "Blessed are thou/amongst cat hair and linoleum" (43) puts a nauseating spin on Ilya Kaminsky's Dancing in Odessa.

(r): Do you mean satirical or ill-judged?

R: I mean satirical, to be sure!

(r): Oh good. That's how I see it too.

R: The cat hair and linoleum are nauseating, that is.

(r): True story.  You're latching on, I think, to a larger tendency in Noftle's work.
That is, a preoccupation with swerves, inversions, hairpin turns & reverses.  This isn't an overtly allusive collection but it is carrying on a subtle, intricate conversation with a number of other contemporary sources.

R: Precisely.

(r): It's as if (appropriately enough, given Noftle's absorption with sleep) we're listening in on one half of a conversation.  Intelligible but, at the same time, shuttered.

R: I couldn't have said it better.

(r): As, well, a somniloquy--a dream monologue might be.

R: Right. Take a Photograph of Us Here dreams of Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red: "Because green and white, covered in red//Can produce yellow, orange, or brown because///theory became dogma because" (49).

(r): Formally, it seems to echo Carson as well.  Those anaphoric lines, separated by a great deal of air.

R” What We Make evokes a dream memory of Bhanu Kapil's The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers: "Or scrambling an egg. You don't like the runny part, do you? He would ask me, spreading his hands over my plate so that I couldn't see the mess he wanted. No, you can have it. I always gave him my breakfast" (53).

Parts for the Whole talks back to Robert Lowell: "That was our anniversary in a junkyard./Picking apart some car like a turkey dinner" (44).

& the meta-poetic imaginary line between the lineated poems and prosaic explanations in part one (the section devoted to slugs in love) takes a page out of Jack Spicer's Homage to Creeley/Explanatory Notes in The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether.

(r): I would also add Rae Armantrout (who, incidentally, chose Noftle's volume for publication) to the mix.  I see the resonance not only in Noftle's use of the swerve but also what might be described as a modified version of Armantrout's poetics of suspicion.

One thing to note about Noftle's relationship to sleep is that she seems, almost always, to be observing it from the outside.  Even in poems like Ars Poetica, in which she cites Jung's theories about the collective unconscious ("I can never be/alone (52)), the poem "recalls/the dream in second person." This is, at once, a statement about dream logic (in which one can observe oneself as an external body) & a statement about what it's like to be, in a sense, exiled from the self. "Why do I wake sobbing?" she writes in the same poem. And "Take the looking-/glass out of the house and you've got/room for empathy" (52).

Noftle also seems to recall to us what a private endeavor sleep is, how little (or perhaps how much) you can discern from watching someone else asleep.
It is a hermetic practice!

"Sleep with me" begins the poem called Hypnagogic is a Sound (64).

R:  Can I talk about my reading practice if I promise not to mention cooking or baking anything?

(r): You may. (Though I don't mind a little kitchen analogy once every so often.)

R: Ok! I read Noftle's book right after finishing Heidi Julavits’ new novel about warring psychics, The Vanishers. A major thematic premise of the book is the question of where the self leaves off and the other begins.  Additionally, many of the psychic regressions in the novel take place while someone is sleeping.

(r): Fortuitous!

R: So, I was a bit preoccupied with certain themes when I began to read Noftle's poems, but even so there was an uncanny resonance between Julavits' discussion of paranormal experience and Noftle's treatment of sleep--for Noftle, sleep exists (as do, perhaps, some of the other preconditions for existence with which we opened our discussion) as a normal paranormal experience.

(r): I love "normal paranormal."

R: For me, this idea of the normal paranormal is where Noftle's poems come closest to those of Rae Armantrout.  Take, for example, this passage from Armantrout's Birth Order, from Versed: “You're it//It is (you are)/an error//with an arsenal/of disguises,//with a system/of incorporation/built in" (60).

(r): Yes. And the example you've chosen gestures, too, at the Armantroutian suspicion we mentioned earlier.  The idea that no face is merely its face value.

"The lights get left/on most nights," writes Noftle, "so I drape a dress over my eyes" (59).
This collection is profoundly interested in exploring what may be covered, what may be uncovered--normal paranormal as the naturalization of mystery.

R: Normal Paranormal is the new normal, dear (r).

(r): Yes, a sort of inverse uncanny, which surely bears further thought.

I wonder if we can, before we sign off, look at I Follow You All Through the House with My Ears?

R: Followed.

(r): Great. For it is this poem that yields the line that titles Noftle's collection.

R: As well as the line about linguistic inevitability with which we began our chat.

(r): So an important touchstone for several reasons.  "Piece the profanity of sleep talk/into its patchwork sense--" (34).  A poem that narrates, in little vignettes, what it's like to watch a sleepwalker--a somnabulist--"I Follow You" expresses something both of the normal paranormal & of the profound isolation of sleep. Though Noftle (as we've pointed out) invites us in ("Sleep with me."), she seems to tell us that sleep is, ultimately, something everyone has to do alone, that sleeping together is impossibly difficult work. Sometimes, perhaps, the best you can do is to extend empathy to solitude: "I was afraid/to wake you standing/at the refrigerator pouring/milk into the litter box" (34). It is a hard thing to maintain just this level of distance--not to come close enough to disturb the reverie, not to go so far away that you cannot help if the incomprehensible becomes incomprehensibly dangerous. In the end, maybe the achievement and maintenance of this distance is the goal of Noftle's poems. You may say: "I was there for your somniloquy" (34). Though I did not understand, I listened. You may give & receive warnings: "Do not repeat this, what I'm about to say--" (35) but you must acknowledge distance, agency, space, the frictions of mystery.

R: Perhaps that is the knowledge, after all, that Noftle's poetry works to produce--an acknowledgement.

I confess I found the volume's title cumbersome until this moment. I thought "somniloquy" was the high-value word, but perhaps what really matters is that "I was there for you."

(r): Yes, it's a funny portmanteau--somnolent soliloquy. I think you're right. The operative phrase really is "I was there."

R: A volume in answer to the question, "Where are you?/I can't imagine anywhere" (51). A volume perhaps well suited to collaborative reading.

(Photo Credit: David Doubilet)