Alice Notley's Coming After

5 3/8 x 8. 192 pgs. (2005)
The University of Michigan Press
Cloth 978-0-472-09859-0 $57.50
Paper 978-0-472-06859-3 $19.95

Reviewed by Melissa Flores-Bórquez and Edmund Hardy


For a poem to be lifelike is for it to be "weird, patterned, tender", Alice Notley asserts in a piece on 'Elmslie's Routine Disruption'. The patterns are intonation patterns. Notley's great faith is in poetry which lives:

Why are some poets' poems so much more alive than other poets' poems? Because the poet/person her/himself is always right there in the lines forever, at the time of the writing – there was no wall between the poet's inmost self and the poem.

This, for Notley, is the origin of all these distinctive, signature styles of writing – Wherever does a style come from? It isn't a style it's a person. A poem is a memento vivere and when/if it dies (perhaps temporarily) it has "become art" (O'Hara's 'In Memory of My Feelings').

So, right there in the lines, Notley provides close readings of each poet she discusses, interspersed with statements which take the widest (or most essential) view of the work possible. The rush from up-close eye to audacious body-of-work concision can be an exhilarating flourish, or it can fall flat, and, I found, the latter occurred only once. The later pieces in this book of essays, reviews and talks (including a talk-memoir of Steve Carey) go on to draw several close readings of different poets together to present concise statements on a particular topic.

Notley's close reading is not about explication so much as finding the way in which lines think with music – finding that way is also to try and keep the poems alive so they don't freeze, for writer and reader alike:

When Edwin Denby says something as simple as:

New York dark in August, seaward
Creeping breeze, building to building

he lets the scale of vowels – o-a-u-e-i – erect a city in a seabreeze, delineating separate buildings, as he refers incidentally to Faulkner and de Kooning.

This is the kind of thing that gets me excited enough to re-read and newly read Denby again and buy an edition of his dance criticism. From the same essay, 'American Poetic Music at the Moment', Notley writes about these Leslie Scalapino lines from Defoe

Some people slip ahead on the ground.

they're on their knees. slip ahead.
this is after.

Now a great deal of what I hear in the Scalapino lines is rhythmical, or metrical, something done by the phrase "slip ahead" and its repetition, and by the use of two long lines and a short line together. I also hear the liquidity of the lines, they slide (slip) out of the mouth/mind without stoppage except for the periods, an effect of choice of consonants.

What does a poet sound like? That liquidity might not be what you hear – "slip ahead" does slip, but "they're on their knees" seems to be a precarious slowness – but to read what Notley's ears are picking up is also to have one's own ears perked and primed, the better to think with.

The opening essay on Frank O'Hara considers his work as political poetry; an essay on Ron Padgett considers him as a visionary; the structural time in Anne Waldman's Iovis is considered... In the closing essay, 'The Feminine "Epic"', Notley discusses the process of coming to write The Descent of Alette – Notley's comparison with the Sumerian epic The Descent of Inanna is illuminating in that Inanna "doesn't 'act'", and this technique of mythic story is what makes Notley's epic "feminine" – "Well I don't act. I don't even believe in acting, at least not very much."

The title's "coming after" refers to the second generation of NY Sch. poets, focused on in this book (after the unfreezing of O'Hara), and also to coming after "an irrecoverable point of damage". This coming after may be beginning again, to find a poem which is a speech in that "first voice", the "first voice ever to say a human poem of this world." To find a beginning is to find a potential spring of parity:

What might be another kind of poetry? Whole other poetry springing from nowhere, as at the beginning of the world, in the hands of women? Or perhaps even more desirably, as at the beginning of the world, invented equally by women and men together. Not, as now, already made out of men. Do you follow me? I'm saying, there may be nothing of women in the way any poem looks now, in what its form is – the entire soil, all layers and most nutrients, are for all practical purposes male. What would it be like to make a female poetry? Is that possible?


[#] Reviews of Coming After at The Constant Critic by
Jordan Davis and Joyelle McSweeney

[#] "Intercapillary Space"
review of Alice Notley's From The Beginning.

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