Alice Notley’s Ghosts

Grave of Light
, Alice Notley
[364pp, $29.95, Wesleyan]

Reading a big, substantial selection of any writer's work is a daunting prospect. Usually, the writer settles down to a style by about the third collection so after a while, you know what to expect. Alice Notley, however, seems to be constantly exploring the edges of what it's possible for a poem to do. So here we have everything from extensive 'poem-novel' experiments, political invectives, to New York Poetry School list-poems like 'The Ten Best Issues of Comic Books' which could as easily have been written by Ted Berrigan or Ron Padgett.

Mentioning Ted Berrigan brings me to the most impressive thing about this collection: its orchestration of voices, especially the voices of her father, of her first and second husbands Ted Berrigan and Douglas Oliver, and of her children. If at times, this collection seems haunted by the ghosts of the dead, this is not surprising; she has had to deal with the deaths of both her husbands and her father. But there is never any sentimentality here, and she approaches the subject of love and grief in a wide variety of ways. It's the subject of 'Amer
--and Desnos' as much as it of the poems recalling life with Ted Berrigan in Mysteries of Small Houses:

     'I dream,' says dead desert Desnos,
     'When Kennedy sends the first Green Berets
     Into Vietnam, 'sixty-two,
     White moon stains a lake, watery flower
     You're young, Amer
¾, you say
     "This view is corny"'
     'It's the sixties,' Amer
¾ says, 'I want a city
     Soon it's the eighties, the city's ruined
     Which poem am I, am I ruined?
     The rents so high, animals sleeping
     Outside at night, drugged and dirty'…

Personal grief mixes with political grief, with a breadth of reference that is often startling in its twists and turns. Throughout this book, there's a sense of melancholy, and even when she gets angry as in one or two poems about the Vietnam poem, she doesn't shout, or pin the blame on anyone.

It's not often one finds oneself reading a selection of poems from cover to cover with the eagerness of a good novel; and then you come to the end and slow down, because you don't want to finish it. Most poetry selections have their tedious passages, poems you don't reach the end of because they tail off, or damp squibs. Grave of Light, however, keeps up the energy levels throughout Early triumphs include the diary poem, 'January', which mixes in the voices of her own children and the her own life as a mother in a totally fresh way. There's no straining for message, and no coyness, in her celebration of domestic life: in fact, it seems to me to be that she's found the solution to the problem of being patronised as 'merely a domestic woman poet.' Don't over-dramatise or symbolise it: present it in as open a way as possible.

Her poetic sympathies, I believe, are with the New York School; though she has gone far beyond them into poems that border on Language School, Beat, Surrealist and other isms of the poetry world. What she learnt from is the ability to be serious without pomposity: something the Beats, for instance, are sometimes guilty of. Though she employs a whole battery of experimental techniques to brilliant effect in such poems 'The Descent of Allette' or the prose poems of 'Reason and Other Women', she's not essentially a demonstrative poet. Her quiet has a woman in it, to misquote Frank O'Hara, and she convinces by accumulation of images, by the way her language coils into your consciousness, and by careful attention to the things of the word.

I can't say I've enjoyed a book this year half as much as this. Sad, funny, thought-provoking, always on the move, this is an exceptional book. She's difficult to quote from, because her best poems accumulate slowly. However, here is a short extract from one of her most celebrated sequences, 'Mysteries of Small Houses':

     It's dark down the rue Caulaincourt
     where I don't want to be in a red skirt
     when we first at Au Pierre de la Butte
     five years ago this wasn't my city
     it was us unmoored I'm walking with you
     it's raining we're wet down the hill down some steps

     towards the bridge over Montmatre Cemetery
     over history dead great men  unlike me
     I've always wanted to be a
     dead great man though not exactly dead but
     I'll never make it
     partly because not a man
     partly because this is no world for greats..

The sense of a mind thinking as it goes along, following not so much an argument as a river of perceptions, memory, wisdom, is just one of the many Alice Notley's on offer in this collection.

        © Steven Waling 2006