Tuesday, March 25, 2008

God on the Pages: Alice Notley's Poems

[photo by Lynne Saville]

Paris was five days behind her and three days ahead of her.

Alice Notley stood at the podium in the old-fashioned meetinghouse in Vermont on a cold winter night, a slight and wiry woman in black, with plans for a "traditional" three-part reading: from her amazing ALMA, OR THE DEAD WOMEN (much more than a response to 9/11), then from unpublished new work, and finally from her very current collection IN THE PINES.

But first she read aloud, in response to an audience request, "Little Egypt": a poem she wrote 32 years ago and that's included in the generous hardcover collected poems that Wesleyan brought out under the title GRAVE OF LIGHT. She gripped each word in her teeth and threw it outward, words clattering forth, frame of muscle and bone racked with each sound.

Crisp and strong, she swept quickly into reading "from this impossible book," ALMA, OR THE DEAD WOMEN, written in 2002-2003. "There's a character in it named Alma who is God, and she's a junkie," Notley announced before sweeping into "Oath": it cascades to the ending, "by every equal height we attained swearing by the tenants of our two souls."

She followed with "Against Their Death Wish," then another that evoked the owls that beat through so much of her writing, so many of her dreams. New York was her city for years, and now it's Paris, and the two are as different as can be, but the love she wraps them in is the same love. And when her poems moved her Monday night into speaking of loving the city, she choked with emotion.


... the real body is within the seen body,
essential star that never dissolves. ...
I have the spirit of my poetry.

When Notley offered her fresh unpublished work, she grappled with an introduction to it: "This is a sequence, I guess it's a sequence, called 'Above the Leaders,' and I guess it's about living in Paris." Then she braided time, light, and the rumble of the city, expecially its trains and the people who step in and out of the stations with her. "A man followed me this morning" on the train. She addresses Walt Whitman and "That little creep, Rimbaud." And she interrupts the scenes with poetics, with philosophy, with decisive pronouncements: "Any grief is stupid there's still so much theorizing to do between beats." She invoked aging, taking care, and neglect, spinning one after another into the air in a paean to "the goddess of difficult beginnings."

I love you brother
I am finally taller than our nation.
The poetic line is more rigorous than philosophy, I said.

Vampires ... who want to bring their mother
back to life... fear of being made to pray to
a god I despise. ... I've spent my whole life
healing -- fear of not being able to heal
anybody but myself...
People allow themselves to be ruled -- but not
to be healed.

When Notley set the last page aside, she proclaimed, "Thank you Walt Whitman. Have you every thought about Whitman in Paris? Maybe you know what I was doing."

Then she surged into her newest collection in print, IN THE PINES. If you're accustomed to Notley's noted style of stringing together artlessly random directions (until suddenly you realize they all add up to a declaration of independence), then the new collection will knock you sideways with its fresh approach. It's titled for the Leadbelly song "In the pines, in the pines, Where the sun never shines"). She wrote it while "doing the cure" for hepatitis C. "This title poem is all about pronouns and genes -- and healing."

I'm going to find you a soul,
I'm going to find you a soul,
this is the oldest song.

(I may have the line breaks wrong, because I only have my notes; every single one of the 10 copies of IN THE PINES that we brought to the reading went into readers's hands before the evening was done. People grabbed the hardcover collections, too. But we came home with the sweet rare early work, to place in our poetry room.)

Notley follows the silver of the train lines, the red thread of the "folkloric cure," the mysterious visits of jaguars and owls, of silver and turquoise, finding the "promised line," the "promised land." And it may have been Notley or it may have been my ears that evening, but I heard conversations with her mother and grandmother, and I heard her say in a voice of childlike determination, "Who needs angels? If they speak, I'm not going to listen."

Most of all, threaded into each surge of words was Notley's declaration of herself as The Poet -- and of her mother's gift of that certainty to her.

It was a good night to listen, in Johnson, Vermont, a few days away from Paris.

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