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Ian Davidson reviews
Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems 1970–2005
by Alice Notley

Alice Notley, 2006
364pp. Wesleyan University Press.
GBP£16.00. 0819567728. HB.

This review is about 5 printed pages long.

Creative disobedience

In the Author’s Note to Grave of Light, Alice Notley mentions both The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara and The Selected Poems of William Carlos Williams as ‘Unconscious models for the construction of Grave of Light’. I’m therefore on pretty familiar ground. I begin by feeling confident that I’ll like the poems. I also know that Alice Notley is associated with the ‘Second Generation’ New York Poets, and was married to Ted Berrigan and then the British poet Douglas Oliver. I studied at Essex in the 1970s and 80s where both Berrigan and Oliver taught or studied at different times, so I once more feel on familiar ground. There might even be references to people or places I know. I saw Notley read with Oliver at Cambridge in the mid 90s, it had been a hard weekend in the rarefied eastern air and I’m not sure my ears were working very well but I’m pretty sure she read from ‘Desert Poems’, which have a publication date of 1995. So I have a history of association with Notley’s work that gives me a set of expectations.

I also have certain expectations about ‘collected’ or ‘selected works’. I think I’ve always seen them as less ‘authentic’ than the original publications of which they’re constructed, as somehow secondary and after the fact, in comparison to the tauter, leaner and more contemporary chapbooks. I understood that they had certain functions, providing a cheap way of getting a lot of work, or for the sake of completeness to fill in the gaps, but for me these big publications were more historical documents when compared to the hot off the press chapbooks and pamphlets.

Yet reading the Grave of Light my expectations of Notley’s work were exceeded and my lukewarm feelings towards large collections of poetry challenged. The book provides a new performance space for these poems, where they perform within their own historical trajectory rather than more comparatively with other contemporary publications. And that historical trajectory provides a sense of the curve of a personal and social life, as well as shifts and changes in the form of the poems. They get lifted out of the moment of time in which they were first published, and all the connections that go with that, and reinserted within the temporal flow of a poet’s work and life. Any relationship with work by historical precedents, Williams or O’Hara for example, also become secondary, the connections fading as the collection takes on its own life. As a consequence the work began to resonate with itself, developing thematic connections across time that I had previously neglected, and demonstrating Notley’s ongoing and continuing interest in exploring poetic forms.

The earliest poems in Grave of Light date from 1970, when Notley was in her mid 20s. It sounds condescending to say they are charming, but they are. Yet they are far more than that as well. The material is domestic, the perspective is of the neighbourhood and the immediate family. In an interview with Edward Foster, talking about her life with Ted Berrigan she says ‘I was the person who had the babies, and then we came to New York and lived inside this little tiny space, and sometimes Ted worked and sometimes he didn’t, and I hung around and wrote poems, and we were always surrounded by these babies, who grew up.’ (Foster 2000, p. 70).

She writes about being drunk, taking pills and living in temporary accommodation in poems with titles such as ‘I hope I’m not here next year’ (GoL. 4). She worries about herself, her relationship to the space around her and her own identity within that space. In a letter / poem addressed to ‘Dear Dark Continent’ she says ‘I’m, a family / so early … I’m a two / now three irrevocably’ (GoL. 8). Later in the poem she reflects more directly on her own identity within the family and her combination of the fear and the desire of losing herself; ‘I’m wife I’m mother I’m / myself and him’. The apparently limited frame of reference did not signify a limited perspective; in ‘The Poetics of Disobedience’ written in 1998 she refers to the way she had to ‘disobey the past and practices of literary males in order to talk about what was going on … around one, the pregnant body, and babies for example.’ In these early poems she is working with the materials readily available to her, and beginning to work with the concerns that will be explored in the rest of her poetic life in a variety of poetic forms.

In some ways the trajectory of the poems in Grave of Light can be read as Notley’s movement from this private domestic space in the early work to her broader relationship to public space in later poems such as ‘Descent of Alette’. In the last poem in the book, ‘Songs and Stories of Ghouls’ she repeats the phrase ‘The city I founded I will found again’ (GoL. 339) and I am reminded of Charles Olson’s extended punning on the word ‘found’ and ‘founded’, in his account of the origins of Gloucester in ‘Letter 10’ of The Maximus Poems.

Yet Notley also describes a relationship between the history of public space and inequalities of gender, the way ‘The history of Carthage has been related by numerous ancient men but the Tyrian princess Dido founder of the city cannot be mentioned except in relation to her tragic passion for Aeneas’ (GoL. 339). An earlier poem from 1978 describes the difficulties of taking her place in public space. She describes her visit to the park with her children, a movement out from the domestic space, through the eyes of a man who watches her. He describes her as ‘the skinny white mother’, his interest sexual as he fantasises about her and wonders whether ‘her right nipple just puckered closed in / & up against that cool little breeze’ (GoL. 78).

Notley is not just interested in inhabiting public spaces, but also those literary forms and the spaces they produce which seem exclusively male. From the late 1980s she engages with writing a ‘feminine epic’, an interest she shares with other poets such as Anne Waldman in Iovis and Lisa Robertson in Debbie. Her motivations are diverse, and arise in part from her own experience as a woman and her understanding of the ways in which her voice was silenced by social circumstances, and her own position, both domestic and cultural, in a world of avant garde poetry which failed to accord much place to women.

Notley’s own life also has a tragic scope. It is punctuated by death. Her father, she relates in the interview with Foster, ‘died kind of young’ (Foster 2000, p. 67). Her first husband, Ted Berrigan died at 49 in 1983, her brother, who had served in Vietnam, died young of a drug overdose and her second husband, Doug Oliver, died in 2000 aged 63. In ‘The “Feminine” Epic’ essay from her book of essays, Coming After, she also talks about the death of her stepdaughter, Kate Berrigan in a traffic accident. By her own account it is when writing her response to her brother’s death, in the poem ‘White Phosphorous’, that she ‘began to grapple with the idea of a female or feminist epic … an epic by a woman or from a woman’s vantage’. The motivation in part sprang from her understanding that while women were ‘used, mangled, by the forces which produce epic … we had no say in the matter’ (CA. 172).

I’m beginning to think that if there is an epic quality in much of Notley’s work it should not be located in the individual books or poems, and that when Notley talks about ‘The Descent of Alette’ as epic, and ‘Beginning with a Stain’ and ‘White Phosphorous’ as forerunners of that poem, she is only telling half the story. This is not to deny any claims for ‘epic’ that poem might have, but to suggest that from reading Grave of Light it as if Notley’s total poetic production is itself epic, if epic is a lengthy narration of the life of an heroic figure. The poetry can be read as one poem, in the same way that Ann Waldman’s Iovis is one poem. Her early work in its extended sequences, diary and letter forms, and making the apparently inconsequential trivia of the domestic the material for those early poems, are all part of building up the epic qualities of the specifically feminine life which go to make up the poetry.

It is also a process of finding her voice. This is not in the sense of finding one way of saying things that is essentially hers, and then writing all subsequent poetry through that voice, but in the relationship between her own voice and public space and the process of giving herself permission to speak within those spaces. Her rejection of a passive role is exemplified by her use of quotation marks in ‘White Phosphorous’ and ‘Descent of Alette’. She moves from a period in the 70s and 80s where she thought of herself as ‘not of much interest and possibly somewhat voiceless’ (Disobedience) to a situation where everything she says is worth quoting. The language becomes material, taking up its place in public space, and taking its place in history, with each phrase marked out and distinct. From the early, apparently casual diary like sequences, with their use of speech rhythms to develop a flow of events, she has now developed a measure which can carry the epic qualities of the life, which ‘begins in pieces and ends whole’ (Disobedience).

My account of a Grave of Light is beginning to make it sound like a journey of self-discovery, which in some ways it is. Although maybe it is really my journey of discovery as a reader, as the Grave of Light helped me to understand the ways in which the different parts of her work connected. Notley’s essays and interviews make it easier to chart that journey. Her marriages to two significant and, in some quarters, well known and influential poets, also mean that her life was, in part, played out in public. I not only know about Notley through Notley, we also know through significant others. I also have a greater understanding of what Notley is talking about when she addresses a poem to Ted Berrigan. I not only know who is sending it, but something of who is getting it.

Yet I wouldn’t want a reader of this review to think that the personal nature of the poetry, or rather my response to it on a more personal level, means that Notley is any less interested in form and structure or the more extended possibilities of literary experimentation. She uses extended sequences, episodic narrative structures, diary forms and letter forms. In her early poems she uses material from everyday experience and language. Her work is never predictable, but often goes in unexpected directions as she experiments with new forms. For Notley ‘Prosody’s a decision you keep having to make’ (CA. 132); the form of the poem emerging from the process of writing, yet also linked to the material and cultural conditions in which the poem is produced. As a young woman she felt she ‘probably didn’t have much to say on my own, in terms of “saying something”‘ (CA. 148). I’ll come back to those inverted commas, but the forms of her earlier poems do suggest a hesitancy of direct address. Her use of the diary and letter form in earlier poems such as ‘Your Dailiness’ (GoL. 18) and ‘Dear Dark Continent’ (GoL. 8), provide her with frameworks within which she can function. They are both intimate, suggesting that these are not poems written for publication but thoughts that have been stumbled upon, and distancing, in that they provide a structure within which she can operate. Another long early sequence is entitled ‘Incidentals in the day world’, the title apologising for the unimportance of the subject matter.

Yet, of course, her subject matter is as important as life and death, and often is life and death. It is about sustaining the material world within which more abstract speculations can occur. In the longer poems from the late seventies (‘The prophet’ (GoL. 94), ‘Waltzing Matilda’ (GoL. 116)) she begins to develop spaces in which she plays an equal role. It seems too easy a biographical reading to say that she begins to feel more confident in producing her own space rather than describing her limited role in the places of others. There is, however, a shift in tone, and a greater breadth to the range of reference. They still recount daily events but do so from a position of greater authority. Notley claims that the use of quotation marks in Alette is related to the development of poetic ‘measure’, a way of dividing the line into ‘feet’ or phrases (CA. 173-4) in order to provide a regularity of form in which she could write an epic.

The quotation marks are also used to indicate that something is ‘said’; that a portion of written language needs to be linked to a speaker. In literary critical terms they often indicate language that validates an assertion, a piece of direct evidence that supports an idea. These two linked usages, which indicate an utterance linked to an individual, and the idea of a statement that provides validation or evidence, simultaneously describe an empowered poetic voice, one that does not insert itself quietly into the world of others, but one that constructs its own worlds. If, as Olson said, open field poetry is not simply a way of writing but a stance towards the world, then Notley’s stance has changed in the development of new poetic forms.

In these later poems Notley is working towards the development of a ‘woman’s voice’ that is suitable for ‘the large public poem’ and one that can ‘encompass our true story existing on conscious and unconscious levels’ (CA. 180). In the work from Alma or The Dead Women from 2006 she uses a prose line and the syntax of the sentence (although drops the use of capitals at their beginning) to bring together personal and international politics in a world composed of material drawn from the conscious world and the world of dreams. The style of ‘Radical Feminist’ is speech driven narrative: ‘she cries in her sleep because the numbers of dead women, and of dead men have been added to, but to take action is for patriots adherents of a father, sure i piss on flags she mutters piss on them all altogether … ’ (GoL. 317). Another poem, ‘Beloved Earth Restrain Them’ is written in a style that goes from speech driven narrative to religious chant. Others appear to use a more conventional poetic line, and one that, in its lack of capitals and use of blank space in the line as a kind of rhythmic punctuation, looks very similar to that of O’Hara’s work from the 1960s.

These long poems take a lot of reading. While the narrative sections are compulsive, the blocks of language often seem to fill every corner of the page, giving few easy ways in. This is brave poetry and Notley is, self consciously, making grand claims for the poetry. While in the military sphere she prefers action to inaction, in the poetic she is taking her future in her own hands. She is not only writing an epic, but writing an epic about a woman writing an epic, a worthy subject in itself.

Yet sometimes in these larger works the sharpness and the wit gets lost, not because it isn’t there but because there is so much other stuff in there too. The short lines and self contained sections of a sequence such as ‘Postcards’, permit a quicker process of engagement with her ‘voice’, although the poem is written in a collection of assumed voices, than some of the later more self conscious epic work. The shorter fragmented lyricism of the poems from Mysteries of Small Houses, where Notley reworks past experiences, have a vulnerable beauty and almost tangible form which sometimes gets lost in the larger structures.

On the other hand there is no denying the affective power of a recent poem like ‘Ballad’ (GoL. 330-1), where Notley intertwines human detail and political commentary in a series of alternating paragraphs. The fragility of human life, described in a series of dream like encounters with loved ones, is set against the brutal violence of state terrorism. It’s a poem you can only finish reading in tears, tears of anger for Cheyney ‘in his black glasses and among organised gangs’, and tears of sorrow for the narrator in whose owl eyes ‘i keep something of you. i do. is that what they are for, for keeping you there, when everything was gone. when every little war was done. when I still had legs and eyes and wings. In the haunted future.’

Works cited

Foster, Edward. Poetry and Poetics in a New Millenium. New Jersey: Talisman, 2000.
Notley, Alice. Coming After. Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, c2005
Notley, Alice. The Poetics of Disobedience.