Wednesday, December 13, 2006

There is a wonderful, fascinating, even funny moment in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers when Alice Notley, in the midst of her profile, says,

I don’t have a poetics. I think that’s bullshit… I change my style all the time. I change the forms I use. The whole thing is in flux. I think that poetics is an industry.

Very clever to actually claim, as she does, one possible poetics right in the middle of that denial, and to do so in such succinct fashion.

There are of course hundreds, perhaps thousands, of poets whose process fits Notley’s depiction of a shapeless, unformed, perpetually haphazard oeuvre to a T, and there’s no particular reason to read any of them, bereft as they are of those dimensions in their work. So this is not, it is essential to note, an accurate characterization of Notley’s own actual poetics. What then is it?

Tone-wise, Notley’s claim reminds me of one of the poems or sections from Waltzing Matilda, a work I’ve always thought of as Notley’s breakthrough book, in the sense that no dunderhead from that point forward could ever again think of her simply as the bright young writing student who married Ted Berrigan. What I like about this poem, first of all, is how it opens with a sense of irritation, not so distant from “I think that’s bullshit”:



Here’s another scenario: He says

What we don’t need in America is peace & harmony

What we need is strife & revolution

But what he doesn’t realize is you need whatever peace &

Harmony you can get because most of your life is

Strife & revolution. What if he did distort the facts a

Little he didn’t distort them too much but he had a

90 thousand dollar house & that ended it with us

Right there. But him, when he’s confused

He says I’m confused & asks the advice of

A penniless bum poet, a poet whose poems he doesn’t

Really like, & whatever boy he’s sleeping with. That’s

Sense. Well we can settle down for at least a half hour now.

Are you in a position to sell ten? Go call Johnny.

I like society again, I think it’s all like in Charles Dickens

I’d been thinking too long it was like a Christopher

Isherwood book. Now I know I don’t have to save

The queers from the rich people just myself from the rich people. Poetry

Is totally bad for the brain. When I talk that way I can’t

Stand myself. I have hysteria. What the hell’s gonna

Happen tomorrow or any other day? I’m afraid I

Just blew my chances at the Nobel Prize. I won one

Of the prizes I give out. Do you think he

Still has fun? He has fun going for walks, say

On the way to the Ear Inn. He sees a girl’s dress

Fall off her & a dog run away with it in his mouth. You know

The kind of thing he sees, then he has fun.


Did you say?

                  I think most

Electrical appliances can be repaired via nipple,

Christmas tinsel & same old angel. You can’t

Do yourself right by yourself. No white

Shall ever see the tears of a Menominee. It was a full

Moon at 5 PM & pendant in the sky which wasn’t

Dark over the park, the same park where in

My dream of this morning the Martians landed.

A silver cylindrical aircraft that I knew was the

Martians because it could lower & raise itself

Absolutely vertically, so I ran into Marion who was rushing

Along looking happy Wait I said there’s the Martians

& I ran over by the bandshell & grabbed the kids

But then the spaceship really landed the Martians

Landed. Then I woke up. It was a good dream

Because it was the next day. The Martians had landed. I

Got up & ate a bialy & made myself a pot of coffee.

At one level, this poem demonstrates exactly the poetics Notley spells out in the Poets & Writers profile some 26 years later. The poem shifts topics right in the middle – it could seem aimless, or it could seem like the kind of diptych painting we used to see coming from someone like David Salle, in which one section of the frame has this brutal portrait of a poetry acquaintance, not particularly disguised (& remember, in 1980, $90,000 bought more than a crack house in a Midwestern ghetto), which segues into a narrative depiction of a dream. The transition between the “panels” of the poem, from “Well we can settle down…” through “Menominee,” takes up fully 21 of its 45 lines – nearly half. It’s fascinating to watch Notley attempt to negotiate that terrain. In one sense, that is the passage here that is closest to the writing of Berrigan pere, a poet concerned far more with notating immanence than Notley has ever been.¹ How do you negotiate that space in which writing continues, tho there is nothing to write? Notley in this poem twists uncomfortably this way & that – “I have hysteria” is not so far from on target – before getting (you can sense her relief) to her Martians.

2006 will be remembered as the Year of Alice Notley, what with her two major collections in one season – Alma, of The Dead Women, a new long poem – or series, which is how I read it, from Granary Press, and the dazzling Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems, 1970-2005 from Wesleyan, bringing together material from most if not all of her more than 30 books.

Over time, Notley has emerged as a much more narrative poet – SPD’s website calls Alma a “poem/novel,” a term right out of Leviticus to my ear, tho there’s a truth to the way in which any of Notley’s mature works – my favorite remains Mysteries of Small Houses – invariably engages multiple genres, multiple forms, trying it often feels like to fathom out their boundaries, as tho she were inhabiting always two ghosts at once. Elsewhere in her profile, Notley says that before she went off to college (first Barnard, then Iowa City),

I grew up in this very small town in the Mojave Desert, and I thought people were only prose writers…. When I was eighteen or nineteen, I began very painfully writing my first stories, and I thought I would be, in the words of a T-shirt that someone once gave Larry McMurtry, a Minor Regional Novelist.

There is nothing minor about Alice Notley – and between Manhattan, England & Paris – she has obliterated most senses of the regional about her poetry as well. But there is, in all of her work, a deep loneliness – even when she’s living in the social whirlwind on St. Marks Place & raising small children – that is at the core of the “I” in her poems, whether in the autobiography of Small Houses or a consciously “regional” piece like “Species,” from Alma:

i have the eyes of a cactus and i have the roots of a crow

i have more pollen than anyone

i have the nose of an athel tree, i have the senses you can sense

i have the pollen of a black-chinned hummingbird

you can smell me in the rain

i have the pollen of a cottontail rabbit

i have the pollen of the busted iron chassis

i am talking to you in the rain i have the tongue of a desert willow flower

i have the nose of a tree i have the petals of a coyote i have the pollen of a snake

i have the petals of a coyote, i have the pollen of a jackrabbit

i fell apart i don’t have your parts and i never have to care any more

i have the pollen of a rattlesnake, i am all made out of dirt

you pluck me or throw a rock at me i fell apart i don’t car

i’m gravel that can hear you warbling

i fell apart, and so everything i am extends and you can smell me after the rain

i have the cream undersides of a person, i have the yellow throat of a person

i have all the words of tamarisk

i gave everything away all the parts you wanted me to have

i have the mind-extending-far of the rain

i have the mind-extending-far of a busted iron chassis

i don’t have who you said, i don’t feel what you said

i don’t have anything they said before, not who they said it was i don’t have that

Alice Notley has come a long, long way in her three dozen years as a poet, taking great care with every step, becoming somebody completely unlike either of her husbands, or for that matter anyone else at all. She may choose to deny that what she does constitutes a poetics, but that denial, it seems to me, is not just a part of that poetics (as surely it is), it’s also part of the conscious loneliness that makes Alice Notley’s work instantly unmistakable, regardless of the forms it may take.


¹ Which is why it has always made sense to group Berrigan with other poets of similar disposition, not just Phil Whalen & Anselm Hollo, but also Larry Eigner, who in more ways than either would have ever admitted was quite kin to Ted, whose sense of space on the page is perhaps the closest to Berrigan & who shares a very similar sense of being close to house-bound to the one that haunts Berrigan’s late work.