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Essay

Aislinn Hunter on Esta Spalding's "ii. Notorious"

(How Poems Work, August 2004)
What first struck me about “Notorious” was its sense of investigation. Here, Esta Spalding opens up a fissure in a life and dives into it. On the surface this is a poem about change, about death and resurrection, about how we inhabit ourselves. The form reflects this–the swathes of white space between stanzas are fissures in their own right and the unfinished nature of the ideas therein (lines or stanzas that end on words like “entered” “refusal” “stopped” and “find”) sends us into the crevasse while also creating a kind of poetic tension–fitting for a poem that references Hitchcock’s film _Notorious_….

What first struck me about “Notorious” was its sense of investigation. Here, Esta Spalding opens up a fissure in a life and dives into it. On the surface this is a poem about change, about death and resurrection, about how we inhabit ourselves. The form reflects this—the swathes of white space between stanzas are fissures in their own right and the unfinished nature of the ideas therein (lines or stanzas that end on words like “entered” “refusal” “stopped” and “find”) sends us into the crevasse while also creating a kind of poetic tension—fitting for a poem that references Hitchcock’s film Notorious.

What first struck me about “Notorious” was its sense of investigation. Here, Esta Spalding opens up a fissure in a life and dives into it. On the surface this is a poem about change, about death and resurrection, about how we inhabit ourselves. The form reflects this—the swathes of white space between stanzas are fissures in their own right and the unfinished nature of the ideas therein (lines or stanzas that end on words like “entered” “refusal” “stopped” and “find”) sends us into the crevasse while also creating a kind of poetic tension—fitting for a poem that references Hitchcock’s film Notorious.

There are a number of imaginative leaps in this poem, most obviously the one that takes us into Hitchcock’s film—a leap that works because “the staircase” embodies one of the poem’s central metaphors (the idea of descent and ascendance) but also because the specificity of the leap—’Alicia’ and the moment of her escapee—taps into a truth of the psyche: the idea that we are, at some basic level, a hodge podge of impulses, gained experiences and stimuli. This poem convinces us that it’s possible that in the moment preceeding our death we might remember or see anything; in this case a movie interrupted by the sight of a physician snapping his glove. Time and experience are not delineated in that moment—or really anywhere in this poem. The lack of conventional punctuation reinforces that kind of hazy consciousness: acts and ideas are joined intrinsically by ampersand or forced up against each other without an end-stop reprieve.

“Notorious” (the poem, and, come to think of it, the film) is about “change” which is why this poem is filled with dichotomies and contradictions. Here the body dies so the heart can go free, there’s “torpor” and love, the contained heart and the lover who “enters… in every chamber”; there is a tone of emotional remove but also of the confessional. In fact “Notorious” starts off as reportage: “What they say of me is true”. The narrator relays cold facts: “I had been dead one hundred & twenty-two / minutes” and “with exacting / steel he cleaved my chest.” But we are also given parenthetical honesty: “(For a long time I’d dreamt my heart into a fish…)” and later, in another contradiction, the opposite of science—luck.

The poem’s epiphany is of course the escape—literal, metaphorical. An escape reflected in the poem’s diction. Look at all those hard consonants in the beginning, words like “sanctity” “jar” “torpor” and “exacting”. Only toward the end of the poem does the language become “soft” or slightly Romantic in its connotations—the body a “ruined castle” the escape “bliss” the bliss “golden-finned.” This is one of the ways we intuit the change that has occurred—the repetition of “escaped” gives us the fact of it but we feel it because of the swimming sound of “golden-finned”—those gorgeous “n” sounds that swim off the page with no end-stop in sight.