Monday, April 19, 2010

Reason and Other Women, Alice Notley

because i chose reason i aged so on trains where all women must choose, all the passengers women and the engineers men what a flat landscape with leaves and light though i had two choices in an organization to join the women, and we all play with time, join the women who secretly travel within our limited chronology in order to kill (but their victims dont really die) losing consciousness temporarily to kill, who travel in time back and forth within our limited sociology and politics our limited understanding (decades) in order to kill for their side (but its said their victims dont really die) or make my choice to be myself and age rapidly secretly in place, in one sole weekend have aged enough to be secretly 81 years old the advantages of doing this arent stated when my companion on the first train says to the little girl near us ‘would you believe that shes 81 years old?’ i haven’t chosen action, have i chosen wisely choosing to age secretly without killing people who dont really die or should i (“The City Is Somewhere in the Center of the Church”)
From Griffin Prize-winner (for her 2001 collection, Disobedience) Alice Notley comes the expansive Reason and Other Women (Tucson AZ: Chax Press, 2010), working its way through the whole of reason as not just a concept, but a character, writing out story and marrative. I’ve always been impressed with Notley’s use of language and just how much text she manages to use, in poems big, long and expansive. Notley is very much a poet of sentences, sweeping movements and rhythms, and must almost be read aloud to get the full measure. As she writes near the end of her two-page preface:
My individual poems unintentionally came to resemble mosaics, with a lightlike flickeringness across words which could seem cast into pieces or flowing in shapes. Each poem is based on the number six, which I have read was the most serious number for the Byzantines, being composed of two times three. Each of my stanzas had to contain a number of lines that was a multiple or factor of six: this includes the number one, and thus there is an occasional non-stanzaic monolith.
There is the question of genre. Is this a poem, a collection of stories, or a representation of a psyche (using the word to mean both soul and the self as those two entities overlap or diverge)? All of those. Is it poetry or prose? It is of course poetry, which is much more a matter of sound and compression than of white space and line breaks. I am, as I’ve often said, trying to steal story back from prose to poetry, but I’m trying [to] steal more than that. I want to steal back the sense that any subject and any written undertaking is as suitable to poetry as it is to prose. The first writings seem to have been business accounts, and that is not a genre; everything thereafter was at first written in poetry. And why not?
With this, Notley describes her collection broken up into parts, of prose and poems, of poetic prose with line breaks and lines, moving through icon, fragment and spirituality. Notley’s are poems that write the story of the poem of the story as a spread, each piece adding in, and moving further out, as an accumulation of sentences. In Reason and Other Women, Notley very much shows herself as a poet of sentences, of accumulated sentences, writing a flow of certainty, despite adding extra words, extra cadences, to deliberately trip. Is this Notley making sure you’re awake, and paying attention? Perhaps she worries the reader might get caught up in the flow, hypnotized by the lyrical cadence that she has to add in a speedbump or two.
these old walls are pure because i’m so real
leftover sloughing guards the structure in the atrium
and the skull the talkative bird dome
who says that such sloughing’s periodic, but now am bone boniest bare.

so how enter the cathedral past that live snake in the door? (“Entering the Building”)
In the preface to the collection, Notley talks about how the collection is influenced by Byzantium churches and art, running threads very central to this collection back through her earlier work, as well as religion, dreams, houses, icons and epics, including Byzantine Parables (1998) or the previously-unpublished sections of her most recent selected, Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems 1970-2005 (2006)[see my review of such here], her in-progress “Benediction,” writing: “I was supposed to stay interested in the testimony of the great mystics as of the great / poets but I only care about my own now. It seems to me that I am in that deep state at  the same time as when I am angry or sad for example it doesnt preclude affect it contains / it.” It’s as though the poems that make up Reason and Other Women achieve a particular kind of focus for earlier ideas, skirting the line between the mythic/sacred and the personal, such a touchstone through four decades of publishing.
the figure of reason appears to me. what is she
in connection with the formlessness of the mind, what is she
in the mind. and not governed by will
and doesnt just come because willed
and isnt learned. (“The Body Is in the Soul”)

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