Poet of Prophecy: Our Anti-Saint Alice Notley

Claudia Keelan

No American poet has charted the demise of our empire as aptly as Alice Notley in the last 20 years. From her vantage point in France, Notley has sketched with unerring accuracy the pitfalls of a national character. While intellectuals and the general public cheered the fall of the Berlin Wall, Notley was producing the seminal works of her life in rapid succession: in Close to Me and Closer…(The Language of Heaven) and Desamere, The Descent of Alette, and the 2001 Disobedience, Notley examines the terrain of decline, psychological and physical, of the American psyche. She is, indeed, our Aeneas, carrying our fathers upon her back, and she has restored the epic to its valorous role. Like all heroes, her protagonists—Alette, Amere and the authorial “I”-- set out to vanquish corrupt power and they succeed—as the poems succeed--via disruption and acceptance of indeterminacy. All father figures, her nemesis’s-- a mild, business man tyrant in The Descent of Alette; a guidance counselor in The Language of Heaven; and a seedy detective Harwood in Disobedience-- function as social intermediaries intent upon purging our hero’s righteous anger in order to bring her back to the “realm of human complacency…”(The Language of Heaven). But, thankfully for us, she won’t come back, she refuses mediation and her anger burns fiercely in its pursuit of justice.

Anyone gets tired of carrying fathers…
“This poem needs your love.”
An American might say that
How disgusting
Love an American: “they just love us.”
Get some Housing Projects; listen to Rap in them;
turn rightwing electing a maskface in a nice suit;
explode some nuclear bombs.
Americans come to Paris to find out they’re Americans
how interesting for them; I mean us
tired of carrying, carrying that weight
around my neck, who the fuck is this man?
depicted as the weight of your life, can
he be the brunt the cruelty
of that? Yes I carry him, carry him…

(“Just Under Skin of Left Leg”, Disobedience)
Carry him she does, as do all Americans, in houses we will never own, with money we can’t see or hold in our hands, sick and tired and uninsured in the hospitals. He is, literally, the “weight of (y)our life…” and his cruelty is our nation’s infrastructure. But, you gotta respect yr daddy so whatever you do, whatever you say, please, not with anger, not with that, it’s so unpleasant, SO embarrassing:

Marguerite Yournecar said
she wouldn’t be in a book of women
of women’s writings because
only women would read it, and
they already knew they were angry—
anger, she said, is one, one person
a little personal sputter.
But that’s that kind of anger, Marguerite—
                     what about
an anger like Dante’s, a whole leaden sky
a church-charged orthodox anger,
creating, in Amer-lingo, a norm for the Great?
That’s not so bad, to damn in perpetuity,
if you’re Great?

(“Just Under the Skin of the Left Leg”)
That leaden sky is broadcasting from CNN today. A country steeped from its inception in notions of reform, the America of the 20th century replaced its preachers with psychiatrists, its civic institutions with support groups, its “self” for “health.” WH Auden said “the table is mine because I scrub it.” Wallace Stevens wrote “money is a kind of poetry,” and if you believe that you’ve lost not only the table but the poetry too.

The weight around my neck must die

(“Just Under the Skin of the Left Leg”)
“Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down…”(“Canto 81,” Ezra Pound). The truth in Alice Notley’s poetry is the truth of my country. Obedient and cowardly, we have given our lives away to our father’s monetary hallucinations and now we will pay. But what is truly ours, what cannot be taken away, is what goes on living without “meaning,” that administrator, in one small breath and then another, in the poetry of this immediate present:

I don’t want to create any meaning;
I want to kill it…
You made meaning; I’m
trying to make life stand still,
long enough so I can exist.
I, truly, am speaking

(“Just Under the Skin of Left Leg”)

Constellation: Alice Notley
[#] Birkbeck Centre for Poetics
[#] Openned Video Constellation of Readings
[#] Return to “Intercapillary Space” Notley Contents page

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