Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
I first came across Alice Notley’s “The Anthology” by accident. I was searching the Poetry Foundation’s website for another poem and I saw a link to “The Anthology” in a sidebar. I opened the link in another tab without actually reading the poem, because I wanted to save it for when I had a few quiet moments to sit with it. And then I kept that tab open for, oh, I’d say about two weeks.
It is not that I wasn’t eager to read the poem—I was! But I didn’t want to rush into it. And then one thing followed another, and by the time I did have time to read the poem I had begun to feel bad for having not read it for so long, and I put it off again. And so it was that I didn’t read “The Anthology” until I was preparing a small packet of poems to send to the students in my Introduction to Writing Poetry class. I had allowed reading the poem to become kind of a chore, and so, ironically, wasn’t really in the right frame of mind to read the poem when I finally did. Still, I saw something I liked. I thought it would be, at the very least, easy to talk about, not that I felt I understood it (which hasn’t ever stopped me from talking about things before). So I added it to the packet.
When it came time to talk about the poem with my class, I still didn’t really understand it, but I had noticed a few things. I had become a little fixated upon the ending:
I see the alley house at night dark I’m tryingto be pure again, but I want all the tones.When you’re dead you can have them . . . thickmarine dark from the fencelike oleanders and a mooncalling to white boards. Enter. Lie down inyour own bed, in the room where Momma found a scorpion.
Mostly it was the scorpion that hooked me—probably because I’m scared of arachnids. My students and I talked about the tones a bit, but a lot of them seemed to get hung up on the scorpion, too. And as we talked back and forth, slowly it emerged that the poem seemed to us to be about life in an amateur surveillance state—which is what the United States has become. All of us in the United States—or at least, it seems like all of us, but I imagine there have to be a dozen or so, maybe a hundred, maybe a few hundred, people scattered about the country who have escaped this—are subject to being filmed at any moment. We eagerly police each other—not just in the moment, but for posterity. For the most part, I think, this is a good thing. Sometimes, it seems to me that my black life matters only because cell phones matter. But I also think we fear each other a little, or at the very least dread each other, in a way we didn’t twenty years ago. Which, you know, fine! Twenty years ago was gross! But still . . .
Anyway, that’s what my students and I talked about when we talked about the scorpion (that had been) in the room at the end of the poem. If Momma already found the scorpion, then the scorpion must be gone. And yet, trying to go to sleep in the room in the aftermath of the discovery, I, at least, wouldn’t be able to help feeling the scorpion may be crawling upon me in my sleep. The scorpion is the invisible presence, the important possibility, in the room. It is the thing I don’t see, watching me, that determines, to an extent, my actions, even though I don’t see it.
As my students and I talked about the ending of the poem, everything that had come before it began to make a new kind of sense, and a poem that had initially struck us all as somewhat opaque—albeit compelling, although I don’t think we could have articulated why we felt compelled by the poem—began to seem not only clear, but urgently so. And necessary. We began to feel the scorpions in our pockets.
Shane McCrae is the author of Mule, Blood, and Forgiveness Forgiveness (forthcoming from Factory Hollow Press), and his poems have appeared in The Best American Poetry, The American Poetry Review, Fence, Pleiades, LIT and elsewhere. He has received a Whiting Writer’s Award and a fellowship from the NEA, and teaches at Oberlin College and in the brief-residency MFA program at Spalding University.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
How would I know / when I’m empty and quiet like breath?
Historian Gerald Horne has developed a grand theory of U.S. history as a series of devastating backlashes to progress—right down to the present day.
Reflecting on three monumental works of modernism—James Joyce’s Ulysses, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus—a hundred years on.