Sunday, October 15, 2006

Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems 1970-2005, Alice Notley


The world, all that live & all that occur
Within it, being the one organism
A monstrous life-death living not-dying
Caving-in upthrusting all over it-
Self like pits & mountains forever thing―
I was despairing one
Grey day a week ago
Cold, we having fought he
Having thrown on the floor say 3 large books
The way the Weather Angel was throwing
Just a handful or 2 of hard, tight rain
Out that morning: so thinking
About that organism, I disappeared
Into it ― And I brought him, who is you,
A placatory copy
Of the biography of, as it turned
Out, poor Vivien Leigh.
Today, the weather exactly similar
And I again different, my tiny
Lights in a December tree and
Fingers happily black touching the pearl sky
A man crosses Avenue A
Customarily not thinking about the Universe


A lot has happened for second generation New York school poet Alice Notley over the past two years, from the publication of her late husband's The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan (Berkeley CA: The University of California Press, 2005) [see my review of such here], edited by Notley, and their two children together (also poets), Anselm Berrigan and Edmund Berrigan, to her book of essays, Coming After, Essays on Poetry (Ann Arbor MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2005), and the publication of her own nearly four hundred page Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems 1970-2005 (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2006). Over the years, Notley has published over thirty collections, including For Frank O'Hara's Birthday (1976), When I Was Alive (1980), How Spring Comes (1981), Margaret & Dusty (1985), The Descent of Alette (1996) and Iphigenia (2002), as well as a previous selected poems, the straightforward-titled Selected Poems of Alice Notley (1993). Starting with a page-length author's note, I'm disappointed the collection doesn’t include a larger introduction to place her work in a context; I know it's been said before that the New York poets, second generation especially, were famous for not writing on themselves or each other, but it would be good for any reader of Alice Notley to have a kind of entry point. It is interesting, though, that she worked opposite to how she and her sons choose to build Berrigan's own Collected Books, writing:
My publishing history is awkward and untidy, though colorful and even beautiful. A number of smallish books and chapbooks came out in the early years which didn’t find their way into subsequent, dignified "collections." I found, when I began to edit this selection, that organizing the texts according to my "books," and interspersing previously unpublished poems, would entail an apparatus of titles and title-pages making for a choppy reading experience.

On the other hand, I've explored sequential and long poems since I first began writing: as chapbook-length and book-length entity, as epic poem, and as quasi-autobiography. Increasingly, the long and/or serial form has become how I write. Such works cannot be represented without overall titles.

Thus, when I decided to present Grave of Light in chronological order, I dismantled previous collections to present poems by the year in which they were written, but kept poems from sequences together since they were written at the same time. Unpublished poems also appear chronologically. The larger headings in Grave of Light are meant to designate sequences or long poems. The years printed at the bottoms of poems or extracts from sequences are the years of composition not of first publication. The book now tells its own story.
The first time I'd heard of Alice Notley was in 2001, when I was reading at the University of Maine in Orono; they were still talking about her reading there two weeks earlier from her collection Disobedience (New York NY: Penguin, 2001), which later won the international contingent of the Griffin Poetry Prize, the same year Christian Bök won the Canadian prize for his Eunoia (2001). At Ken Norris' insistence, I picked it up as soon as I got home. Starting with her later work, it gave me as a reader a difficult place to enter; how does one enter such a dense and deliberately askew work? As critic Jed Rasula writes of Notley's Disobedience in his "Experiment as a Claim of the Book: Twenty Different Fruits on One Different Tree" in his Syncopations: the stress of innovation in recent American poetry (Tuscaloosa Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 2004):
Disobedience by Alice Notley (2001). As Notley enthuses in "Homer's Art," "What a service to poetry it might be to steal story away from the novel & give it back to rhythm & sound, give it back to the line" (402). That's just what she managed to do in the long poem The Descent of Alette (1996), with its oneiric heraldry and unique application of quotation marks as prosodic cues. The venturesome sense of theft Notley claims for story is more audaciously pursued in Disobedience, which establishes a precarious reciprocity between the continuum of a dream life and the cultural displacement of the author's relocation to Paris. The mediumistic labor of culling dreams is exercised here on a scale to rival Yeats' séances. Notley deftly enfolds her oneiric prima materia in an idiom dispensing with all traces of reportage; the dreams here assume the dimensionality of historical events, numinous provocations endured in a spirit of whimsical desperation. The casual daybook notational style sustains a multilateral ventilation, so that memory, fantasy, imagist observation, political rage, and psychological disarray easily cohabit the same space, and the amor fati one associates with dreams leaks out into the circumambient medium of the real world, with all its desperations and elations intact.
The joy of going through any writer's work is finding that entry point that makes the rest of it come into focus—over a decade ago, it was Toronto poet David W. McFadden's The Art of Darkness (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1984) that made everything of his suddenly make sense to me (it remains one of his strongest collections). Going through the selected poems of Alice Notley, it has to be the poems in her selected from Mysteries of Small Houses (New York NY: Penguin, 1998), which was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In some of the strongest pieces I've read in a very long time, these pieces reference herself as a widow, and conversations with the late Ted Berrigan, including the line "How many of you sexist feminists think I'm only part of him / part of him?" (p 243). The poems from this particular collection show an interesting process of re-affirming one's own identity through not only the mess of loss itself, and what that means, but existing at all.


Sings in the gullies
To all you go without is added more as the years
Youth's face health certain friends then more and
so to get poorer
life's arrow ― tapers thinner sharper

She always sang there to purify
not the desert always pure
but me of my corrupt furor
So losing more further along in this dream of
firstrate firmament fireworks ―
consigned to roam above brown dirt occasional
maxilla, and be shaped badly ―
twisted internally: join her truly

She's I

She should be

the shape of a life is impoverishment ― what
can that mean
except that loss is both beauty and knowledge ―
has no face no eyes for
seasons of future delivery ― rake the dirt
like Mrs. Miller used to
down at the corner had a desert yard and raked her dirt.

Beginning in poverty as a baby there is nothing
for one but another's food and warmth
should there ever be more
than a sort of leaning against and trust a food for
another from out of one ― that would be
poverty ― we're taught not to count on
anyone, to be rich,
youthful, empowered
but now I seem to know that the same of a self is poverty
that the pronoun I means such and that starting so
poorly, I can live


There is certainly much to go through in the works of Alice Notley, and like any good selected, it gives a sense of her work as a whole, and often as teaser into a larger project (as well a number of unpublished and/or uncollected pieces in-between her published collections); this book makes me want to pick up further of her collections, just to see where else she has gone. Writing of some of her later work in the epic in her essay "The 'Feminine' Epic" in Coming After, Essays on Poetry, specifically her book-length poem The Descent of Alette, Notley writes:
I began to move towards the epic first out of a sense of the twentieth-century "Big Poem." I'd become interested in Olson again, mostly in terms of his geologic-mythological connection. The earth has a past, and present, formed in rupture by godlike forces. And his presentation of pieces, beauty of fragmentary past, and present, as reflected in the look and feel of Maximus. But I started to be intrigued by the possibility of telling a continuous story, not in the manner of Olson, Pound, Williams, but more in the manner of Dante or Homer. Because it seemed so difficult; and I already knew how to negotiate pieces. So many people in this century seem to.
It was the discovery of this measure that made writing The Descent of Alette possible—that and finding a way for a woman to act, to commit actions, enact a story, that suited the genre of epic. With regard to the measure part, I don’t think you can write a real epic (as opposed to the twentieth-century Big Poem) without some, even a lot of, regularity of line. I wanted something regular, but also catchy—not some prosy long-line spinoff of the what-had-come-before; I'm afraid I wanted something all my own. As I worked on the first part of Alette, the line of the previous two poems evolved into something I could depend on, not think about, have to invent
while I was inventing the story. I needed more freedom to tell the story than a
constantly changing metrics would allow me. Thus I arrived at, and stuck with, a
four-line stanza, each line of which consists usually of three to four phrases:

"A man" "in a suit" "in the first car the" "front car of the train—"
"This older" "distinguished man" "asked me to" "ride with him"
"join him" "I declined &" "moved back" "far back, I" "joined a
car" "that contained" "women &" "girl children" "women in skirts"

"girls in dresses"
I find it interesting, too, the poet as the widow of another poet and the mother of two more, and how the works of the four writers interrelate, if at all. In "Cubism, the Blues, Visions: A Conversation," conducted between Alice Notley and her son, the poet Edmund Berrigan (Fence magazine, Volume 6, No. 2, fall/winter 2003-2004), Notley begins:
Alice Notley: Why do you write poems?

Edmund Berrigan: My immediate reaction to this question is that I don’t know, which I am sort of proud of. Which is to say that I've accepted writing as part of my life now, something that will always be there. My writing has always been a place for me to explore inarticulable ideas. The words are symbols or images, and whatever happens happens around them, as I look at them or hear them. The variety of ways to use those symbols, including extracting an actual representation of something, or
distilling vocal trends, or taking both and misusing them, offers up many possible informations. The music that I hear from poems is (mostly) inaudible (though not conceptual), and the possibility from that resonates with everything else that occurs in my life, while I choose to accept it as such. After wandering down that road a bit, the "Why?" question disappears or turns into "How?"

So I'll ask, how does history affect your responsibilities as a poet? Do you feel responsible to poetic traditions, or to the current political/social/intellectual climates, or to your own immediate individual concerns? Something else?

AN: My first responsibility is to that mostly inaudible music you speak of. I listen for it and listen to what it tells me. Sometimes it sounds like me but at its most interesting it seems to go beyond my sound so far (that is, at any point). It is not responsible to poetic traditions or to history or to current political/intellectual climates, etc.; it is, however, responsible to, or embodying of, something like justice and something like love. It therefore talks to present situations and present people. It loves and despises poetic traditions, which it exists partly because of.
One thing I found particularly interesting was this poem, "The Ten Best Issues of Comic Books," making me wonder what her current list might be. The best part of this list, knowing I have almost every issue. This is obviously a writer engaged with the world on an impressive level, working classical references beside references to Marvel Comics, leaving the artificial boundaries between high and low art completely alone; one could easily spend months going through this collection, always picking up something new. Still, It makes me wonder, what does she think of what they've done to the X-Men since? What does she think of Josh Whedon's run? What does she think of the current Marvel Comics Civil War?


1. X-Men #141 & #142

2. Defenders #125

3. Phoenix: The Untold Story

4. What if…? #31

5. New Mutants #1

6. New Mutants #2

7. Micronauts #58

8. Marvel Universe #5

9. New Mutants #14

10. Secret Wars #1

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