Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems, 1970–2005
Wesleyan University Press, $29.95 (cloth)
Alice Notley has freed herself from any single notion of what poetry should be so that she can go ahead and write what poetry can be. That she has done so anew in each of over 20 books published since 1975 attests to the potency of both her poetic gift and her ambitions for poetry itself, namely “to disobey the past and the practices of literary males in order to talk about what [is] going on.” And now, out of an oeuvre famous for profligate heterogeneity, Notley has assembled both a new, coherent book out of 30 years of work and a testament to her promise that “I will never not make a sound . . . I will ride this voice as I change, as always am.”
Thus, Grave of Light serves as a record of what Notley calls “the necessity of noncompliance” in that the poems, especially from 1987 onward, bear traces (fragmentation, fractiousness) that testify to the poet’s political and personal struggle, the grain of each voice roughened as much against external forces as internal conflict:
You will always be in others’ arms
the horror of society
is its friendship, most certainly
In order to help or love you must be like.
Flies’ asses. What’s that French expression?
A fucker of flies up the ass: a stickler for detail.
(“Help Me Corpus Sagrada,” 1996)
But if Notley’s later poems rage against sociopolitical forces that would restrict our freedoms, they are, especially in the earlier poems of friendship, domestic love, and motherhood, as often sweet and more often ecstatic, caught up in the pleasurable confusions of self in relation to others, as in the conflations of mother and child:
I’ll look up “love” in the dictionary. They’re beautiful.
Bodily they’re incomprehensible. I can’t tell if they’re
me or not. They think I’m their facility. We’re all about
as comprehensible as the crocuses. In myself I’m like a
color except not in the sense of a particular one. That’s
impossible. That’s under what I keep trying out. . . . Some
of it is pretty and useful, like when I say to them
“Now will I take you for a walk in the snow to the store”
and prettily and usefully we go. Mommy, the lovely
With their implicit dualism these excerpts typify Notley’s career-long vision of the self’s relationship to society: because it’s the arena of war, economic injustice, institutionalized patriarchy, and illusory freedoms, society antagonizes, alienates, and atomizes her speakers. Domestic life, on the other hand, provides privacy, safety, and leisure in which imagination can move, weaving itself, “pretty and useful,” among the voices of children, lovers, friends, pop culture, and literary texts.
“Waltzing Matilda” (1981), a hilariously baroque and crucial long sequence in verse and prose, neatly characterizes this dualism:
. . . trying to tell the truth is boring when there are only two possible truths to tell: A) that your life is subject to the manipulations of the rich & powerful & acquisitive & the interferences of the mannersless & suspicious & judgmental & desperate; B) that you are this minute catching yourself at aging, loving, baby-sitting, being vain, washing the dishes, being complex, etc. Now I suppose you’re asking why B) is boring. It isn’t except when you can’t tell it because there is too much of A) going on in your life.
But even as Grave of Light records the constancy of this and other aspects of Notley’s poetics (her sassy humor, her devotion to demotic speech), it also underscores the radical developments in her aesthetics and politics.
In Songs for the Unborn Second Baby (1974), an early feminist consciousness takes shape through a formal and thematic dialogue with the poetry of William Carlos Williams, then deepens into a complex voice of motherhood, encompassing her children’s and husband’s speech in the masterful long poems of How Spring Comes (1981). This expanded subject position finally dilates wide enough to accommodate transnational and transhistorical patterns of oppression, articulated in the explicitly anti-war, anti-capitalist, and anti-patriarchal “White Phosphorous” (1988) and the feminine mythopoetic epic The Descent of Alette (1990). These shifts in political and personal consciousness mirror an aesthetic progression: from a witty, wistful early apprenticeship to the collage-like parataxis of O’Hara and Berrigan (c. 1971–1974) through a mastery of lineation, speech-driven lyricality, and tonal precision precipitated by her dialogue with Williams (c. 1974–1986) to her current role as mythic feminist visionary and political provocateur, “tough as mean as Akhmatova / as durable as her last tooth” (c. 1987–present).
But if Notley’s natural bent for disobedience combines with wide reading, restless formal curiosity, and political conscience to imbue her work with diverse intellectual colors and literary textures, it is her life that provides the material fabric from which the poems cut their shapes. “Is / Your life a continuous attempt to burst out of and yet construct your story?” asks “The Prophet,” articulating another aspect of Notley’s gift: her poems anatomize conflicts particular to her life and therefore authentic even as they flaunt how constructed, how stylized that feeling of authenticity is. Notley articulates the experience of a shaping sensibility as vividly as the shape of experience itself. Thus Grave of Light adds a third, and thickest, strand—the autobiographical—to those of political and aesthetic development, forming a tight, bright braid that leads the reader through a life, from childhood in Needles, California
I was brought up in a small town in the Mohave Desert.
The boys wouldn’t touch me who was dying to be touched
because I was too quote
smart . . .
(“After Tsang Chih,” 1977)
to a writer’s desk at the University of Iowa, where she earned an MFA in 1969
Shit it was an orange crate
(“I Hope I’m Not Here Next Year,” 1970)
through young mother- and author-hood in New York City
. . . I make chow. I contemplate
semi-colons. I despair as a mother. I scream at that
kid I’m gonna crack open your big walnut if you don’t
go to sleep. Theories of grace, that it implies no
surprise no shock . . .
(“How Spring Comes,” 1976)
and the death of her first husband, the poet Ted Berrigan, and widowhood in the East Village
. . . Honey, I think that to
say is in
light. Or whoever. We will
replace you. We will never re-
place You. But
in like a dream the floor is no
to me . . .
(“At Night the States,” 1985)
to expatriate life in Paris with her second husband, the British poet Douglas Oliver, whose death in 2000 inflects later works
I whirl in the hole of images, the dead mixed in as they should, and I awake as I should. And I stood in front of the hospital again where my love had died, but the pain can be felt anywhere, and coursing through words. We will command it to enter these words, a frightening potential . . .
If this tripartite anatomizing of Notley’s work suggests too discrete a separation between her aesthetics, politics, and biography, the poems themselves disrupt such distinctions. Indeed, part of what makes Grave of Light so satisfying is that it ultimately exposes the impossibility and even the undesirability of the separation of life and art, of what we call soul and its articulation as voice. As Notley has written of the poet Joanne Kyger, “her voice is the voice of that ‘search’ or ‘state’: not vatic not academic nor showing-off, it is ordinary or actual life finding itself, which shouldn’t be boring and in her poems never is.”
This characterization can be applied to Notley’s own work, but only up to a point: its most pronounced and signature development is from its earlier ethos of “pupils dilated fully black in full achievement of / gut-feeling” to a decidedly mythic, almost vatic character in the mid-1980s. This dramatic shift isn’t artificially willed but effected by tragic events in her family life, namely the deaths of her stepdaughter, Kate Berrigan, and of her brother, a Vietnam vet suffering post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction. In the wake of his death, “I began to grapple,” she wrote in 1995,
with the idea of a female or feminist epic—but not calling it that in my mind, rather, an epic by a woman or from a woman’s vantage. Suddenly I, and more than myself, my sister-in-law and my mother, were being used, mangled, by the forces which produce epic, and we had no say in the matter, never had, and worse had no story ourselves. We hadn’t acted. We hadn’t gone to war. We certainly hadn’t been “at court” (in the regal sense), weren’t involved in governmental power structures, didn’t have voices which participated in public political discussion. We got to suffer, but without a trajectory. We didn’t even get to behave badly, or hurt anyone as a consequence (that would have been a story).
The poem that marks this pivot between Notley’s early and later modes is Beginning with a Stain (1987), a remarkable long sequence that is, in part, an elegy for Kate Berrigan. While this was not the first period of mourning Notley had written through (both her father and Ted Berrigan occasioned elegiac work), here for the first time her work ties the elegiac task to a mythic, cosmological one: recording “the beginning of the universe, the beginning of a living after someone loved has died.” If, as with the “two possible truths” of “Waltzing Matilda,” Notley had tended to see the sociopolitical realm as separate from and antagonistic to the domestic, her brother’s death cleaved these spheres by bringing the aftereffects of the Vietnam War squarely into the family. Beginning with a Stain marries political anger with familial love, thus expanding Notley’s scope beyond the purely personal while retaining the intimacy of the domestic, as in its opening invocation:
. . . speak with me of the stain that is our love, that
invents the world, that is
our purest one. Help me to stain, I say my words with all us
(I love you I know you are there)
the song of one breath.
Outside where cars & cycles
I’m not afraid to begin again, with & from you.
And it is in the final sections of “Beginning with a Stain” that Notley first introduces the use of quotation marks as prosodic measure, a technique she will perfect in her preeminent feminine epic, The Descent of Alette, after testing it in the beautiful and uncompromising elegy for her brother, “White Phosphorus” (1988):
. . . “we want our love mingled” “with yours” “no place in
history” “only in love” “remove us from history,” “All of us sacri-
ficed” “all for a thought” “They played with our souls.” “Used our
souls to fight, be their willfulness” “willfulness” “we were made their
willfulness,” “nothing but that—” “And you too, you yielded, one
way or another” “to their will.” “They” “who are
the subject” “of all history” “& of poems”
From this point on Notley’s writing alternates between epic’s public mode and more private lyric modes even while blurring the distinction between them.
Where a first-wave feminist might have meant “The personal is political” in reference to her private experiences and personal well-being, Notley has pushed her definition of the personal into an unconscious realm of Jungian proportions, utilizing dreams, archetypes, and visionary reportage as a means to psychological and political insight. In many of the book-length poems that follow the ’80s—The Descent of Alette, Disobedience (1996) and Alma, or the Dead Women (2003)—Notley’s personae continue to see postmodern society as a Manichaean dystopia presided over by malignant patriarchal forces such as the Tyrant of Alette and the current Bush administration: “i bind Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld, and their tongues and words and deeds . . . Beloved Earth restrain them, make them powerless and useless.” Her violent, comic, and bitter visions set mythic action against an immediately recognizable historical context, such as in Alette’s underworld subway system (“‘One day I awoke’ ‘& found myself on’ ‘a subway, endlessly’”) or the colonial displacements of the Cherokee in Alma (“on the Trail of Tears due to the discovery of gold”).
* * *
“Everything must change and very soon,” Notley charges, and in her essay “Women in Poetry” she argues that poetry enacts change only if it records an original apprehension of “our knowing of what is,” not just “the surface and texture and play of being” but also how we’re “born to know we are each being, born to be aware in the heart of being.” Notley’s beliefs are unusual in our postmodern times: there is indeed essential truth, a “first world” very much alive despite the patriarchal “glassed-in bubble that contains all the master controls”:
. . . Your thousands-of-years-old self
isn’t recognizably in your possession; you
don’t know who you are. This is the story, now—
city of October warmth, our
myth is that we don’t have one—
(“Beginning with a Stain”)
Aimed at change, Notley’s poems point the mythic into the future. “The poem we can’t find,” she writes, “is a whole new earth, how will it be made?” Because the search for each poem invents a whole new world view, Notley inextricably links formal invention to shedding all received versions of what it means to be. “Let thyself become undeceived,” she writes in “The Prophet,” “through the beauty and strangeness of / the physical world.” The inexhaustible reach and ceaseless invention of Notley’s vision make Grave of Light a thrilling testament to her greatest poetic gift: an unwavering faith in poetry’s power to change the real. “It is almost possible to believe,” she writes, “that if you look at it really see it be it for yourself / You will be free.”