Sunday, April 26, 2009

Poem: Alice Notley

Alice NotleyI was late in hipping to Alice Notley (1945-), whose name I used to hear bandied about for years in Boston and New York; it wasn't until I wandered into the St. Marks' Bookshop (still there, thank the gods) and purchased a copy of the Exact Change Yearbook, No. 1, 1995 (one of my favorite book purchases ever), that I finally came into contact with her work. In addition to the text, the book included the then-newly fashionable CD (I know, how 1990s!), which featured audioclips of poets ranging from Kamau Brathwaite (soon to be one of my teachers) to John Ashbery and Robert Creeley (each reading one of my favorites of their respective poems), to Mei-Mei Berssenbruegge and Bernadette Mayer, to Alice Notley. (Thanks to PennSound, you can hear all of these clips here.) That really was my first exposure to her writing. You know how it is; you finally hear poet read or see one of her poems somewhere, and then you start finding them in a variety of lit journals and checking out her books. (It wasn't until even later, when Chris S. schooled me that her late husband was poet Ted Berrigan, meaning that poets Anselm and Edmund Berrigan are her sons.) She's authored, coauthored or edited around three dozen chapbooks, books and readers since 1971, at one point producing almost a book a year in the 1980s. Oh the prodigious ones! One of her most recent books is the collection In the Pines (Penguin, 2007). If her early work was very much identifiably of the second-generation New York School variety and reflected her exciting youth and longtime life on the Lower East Side, I'd say the newer work is freer, still full of sharp images and incident, sometimes incantatory rhythms and sometimes very abrupt ones, but falling into no set school or style, though in conversation with many. Here's a poem from the end of this newer collection that I like reading aloud. It's called "To the Poem," and it reminds me of Xavier Villaurrutia's poem, "Poesía," so very different in many ways but whose spirit speaks directly to Notley's lines here. Enjoy.


I need some light in my right shoulder.
My hand remembers you, writing.
I ask, what's been going on? I
have to write it down. Next to a tamed
Cerberus is where we are.

This is my body, they say: but no man
knows my name; the powerful
homicide lieutenant, or any character type
will continue to gun down someone's
potent trees. I've lost fact of who to notify.
Is this that?

Even in the fallow, there's no one to implore,
'See for me.' It's my eye--and with back to wall
it's still mine. I don't even hear the voices
in which I could fall down, just to be rescued by man.

Copyright © Alice Notley, from In the Pines, New York: Penguin, 2007. All rights reserved.

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