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‘Being Reflected Upon’ Review: When Rejecting Tradition Goes Too Far

2 Stars

Cover of "Being Reflected Upon" by Alice Notley.
Cover of "Being Reflected Upon" by Alice Notley. By Courtesy of Penguin Random House
By Thomas A. Ferro, Crimson Staff Writer

In Alice Notley’s new collection of poetry, “Being Reflected Upon,” the author reflects on herself and observes her own life from an outsider’s perspective. Disrupting the readers’ perceptions of time, emotion, and place, Notley’s new collection can be added to her extensive anthology of over 30 published works.

In “Being Reflected Upon,” Notley, an Arizonan by birth, reflects on her life abroad. Currently living in France, she lives a refined, almost Hemmingway-like existence: Parisian references stud nearly every poem in this collection. Yet, there is a nostalgic sadness to these references, as Notley also includes many subtle allusions to her past of desert flowers and the natural world of Arizona. This juxtaposition of cultures and perspectives — as the Arizonan perspective exists only in subtleties — is not one to be ignored, as it fuels Notley’s life as an artist and poet living abroad. This distance gives Notley a unique ability to examine her life from afar.

“Being Reflected Upon” creates a unique sense of distance in each poem, and its technical construction is undermined by a failed attempt at the avant garde. The poems are riddled with forced caesuras, an unnecessary abundance of French words, and a lack of punctuation that — while giving the text an abrupt quality — blurs words and ideas together. While this blurring gives the work an ethereal essence, it does preclude readers from investing themselves into the poetry.

By eliminating a sense of structure, Notley imposes a sense of pretentiousness in her writing. Her poems can be difficult to read, as she attempts to differentiate her writing at all costs. This devotion to the untraditional, while steadfast, separates Notley from her readers, preventing a genuine reader-writer connection from developing.

In Notley’s unconventionality, brief memories, sudden reminders, and random digressions occasionally disrupt sentences in a way that dilutes the message of the poem. This effect can be quite grating to readers who are trying to understand the text. While this attempted style transforms the work from a conventional structure to a more comprehensive expression of thought, it doesn’t entirely succeed, and the technique ultimately slows readers down, inserts confusion, and prevents a natural immersion into the work.

Breaking from the norm is usually a pleasant surprise for readers and is integral to the avant-garde movement, this novelty can feel forced, unnatural, and awkward, as Notley’s poems often do.

Despite Notley’s overambitious commitment to disrupting tradition, there are moments in “Being Reflected Upon” that do justice to her renown as a writer and poet. In her poem, “Betrayal,” Notley writes, “Because I was upset at your death mine eyes did break / not into tears but figments colored particles castle bat- / tlements they call them swim before me collapse.”

This is just one of the many sophisticated images and abstract reflections in this collection that captivate readers with fantastical expressions of one’s inner self.

While Notley primarily focuses on her life in Paris, she seems to be inadvertently drawn to the quiet of the natural world, or at least glimpses of nature in a city setting. In her poem, “Everywhere,” Notley writes, “I walked a path around and orange flowers / to remember the Romans were here way before the wall / of Philippe Auguste.” Moments like these give Notley’s writing a sense of grounding and a foundation that roots the sentences into their setting.

Fascinated by the fine line between life and death, the looming possibility of disaster, and the nature of place, Notley reveals both an obsession with time and a sad acceptance of the natural world. Notley is very much in the mode of reflection — as the title suggests — and, in looking back on her life, she comes to terms with humanity’s relationship with the greater forces of the universe. In “Polluted,” Notley writes, “but the sun doesn’t care about us,” demonstrating that this acceptance harbors a sense of sadness in its depths, a universal message in its emotional weight.

“Being Reflected Upon” doesn’t hesitate to include difficult subjects, grappling with illness and the unknown, and Notley demonstrates various moments of exquisite textual construction. However, despite the work’s positive features, “Being Reflected Upon” comes across as pretentious in its pursuit of the avant-garde, losing substance and depth.

—Staff writer Thomas A. Ferro can be reached at thomas.ferro@thecrimson.com.

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