Monday, April 22, 2024

Alice Notley, Being Reflected Upon


Teach them how to love       why should anyone care
Why should anyone anything


I told her ‘I’m frightened’      it was 2:40 a.m.
so we took a walk in the dark this was a dream
when I was little I would wake up scared too
in the next dream no one signed up for my class at Naropa
I am 71 years old teach them how to love
would you take that class what would I say
it has to do with … no filters
why would there be is there anything
Love’s the only thing I can find what is it it
is the holding together I can’t locate a different
thing why do you call it that       No Christian I
heard them singing Jesu meines Lebens Leben
a year ago the soprano wore a green taffeta dress
luxury of love sensations not ready-made
in that Protestant church near the Louvre
the pleasure of a thing is love of it the luxe
caring for others or all else is that to be?
so if you in your poem combine that with a modicum
of dross why dross I like the word
I think you should write a poem about tiny atoms of the
self I said no I didn’t wicked loving lies
I have nothing to tell anymore I’ve been on the Cross
a lot lately in an effort to keep space and time con-
nected where I am which might be everywhere
I don’t want you to fall apart I love you
what shall we do

Having published multiple book-length epics over the past decade-plus (although I see through her “Also by Alice Notley” list at the offset that I’m clearly behind on even her recent collections), I’m intrigued by the structural counterpoint of American poet Alice Notley’s latest, Being Reflected Upon (Penguin Poets, 2024), a collection subtitled “(a memoir of 17 years, 2000-2017).” As her opening “Preface” offers:

I was trying to find out if anything had happened between 2000 and 2017, it was 2017 and I had just finished treatment for my first breast cancer. Did the fact of the cancer have any significance? and something must have happened at some point during those years. I had been sitting in Paris alone since Doug Oliver died in April of the big millennial year—what had been going on? An expanse of timelessness. But importantly it wasn’t a chronology, it was actual time, one thing all together. Incidents I remembered emerged on top of those of previous “times”—it was stacked time; friends and relations died and I grieved having know them for so “long,” I would get seriously ill, or someone would, was that it, and there was the newsworthy, and I wrote a lot of books. It doesn’t matter when except inside the one thought of it. I became more obvious to myself, I discovered I was an unabashed location of unreported events of the Spirit, or Timelessness, the real name of Consciousness. I tried to let as many people as possible into my mind. I changed the past the present and future by blending them. I became the one who held things together as they, the things, kept their motions going, being reflected upon me.

Set in a kind of conversational lyric, Notley’s narratives work a strong storytelling impulse across fragmented threads, one that thrives on weaving, meandering and asides while still managing to maintain a book-length through-line. Her reflections blend memories, observations and dream-sequences. “what memory are you trying to recover,” she writes, as part of the poem “What is a Thing,” “not re-upholster [.]” Composed akin to a memoir-in-pieces, the flow of her gestures employ a rush and a push, offering a first-person lyric flow that speaks to and through itself. The opening of the poem “POEM,” for example, that reads: “It doesn’t matter if a poem is clear or not / hard or not       It’s basic and ongoing creation / of the universe in terms of its particles as I speak / it the poem       If you’re reading it you hear me too [.]” Notley has long been a poet utilizing the book as her unit of composition, but it is curious to see the shift of her working that same structure through the accumulation of individual, self-contained poems, a structure that harkens back to a far earlier works in her publishing history (a particular favourite of mine is her 1985 title Margaret & Dusty, for example, a book that used to be housed at the Ottawa Public Library, now disappeared from their catalogue). The epic, one might suppose, of small moments, individual pages.

The poems across Being Reflected Upon write in a kind of stream-of-consciousness manner, writing on her late husband, Doug Oliver, or of Ted Berrigan; of encountering Jimi Hendrix, or of a sequence of dreams, threading through her observations with as much weight as events that occurred during wakefulness. In this same direction, there’s even the occasional abstract around thinking and thought that reminds of Canadian poet Pearl Pirie, the opening of Notley’s “Everywhere” that exists in a curious parallel: “That my mind didn’t belong to my head as con- / tainer as if it could be so localized / but was everywhere or anywhere obviously [.]” In certain ways, Notley’s reflections both reflect on her recollections, her stories, but on the nature itself of recollection; how stories happen and are told, and retold; how stories and observances are relayed, and how these stories connect and even wrap around each other. “though your consciousness is somehow the judge already,” she writes, as part of the poem “Before the Cognitive Organization of Matter,” “things I’ve said for the last seven years events of my / life the earth is so used      and nothing can be new but / the Mojave had remained primal you could get lost in / a few square miles of it, know what I mean? / And die of exposure why not I had a friend (not Greg) who did / had accidentally shot and killed someone and in guilt / went out in summer away from town to sit // in full lotus position until he died they found him that / way my brother told me [.]” The poems here are fascinating for their layers around thinking and structure, with a richness quickly felt but allowing time, and rereading, to further and fully absorb. And of course, Notley does know how to tell a good, if occasionally indirect, story. Or, as the poem “What is ‘Conscious’” ends:

Let it all happen collapse and fly out of your-
selves the only sticking together’s of the mole-
cules of soul to tell each other we ex-

ist that’s all the universe is vanity

1 comment:

Michael Turner said...

That's a nice AN poem you published, rob. Thank you. Alice growing older and the wisdom that accrues.