Alice Notley’s From the Beginning: To a poem's unreason

Edmund Hardy

[#] Watch Alice Notley reading 5 pages of From the Beginning

(From the Beginning is a 28 page poem published as a pamphlet by The Owl Press, 2005)

Pain could be thought of as a limit to speech which doesn’t belong to written words but is reflected in them. The large spaces in this almost square publication “stand for pain”. From the Beginning is a work of grief and a search for continuance through the juxtaposition of points seen and remembered, “The top plane is unsteady it breaks in pieces and falls into the second plane a sea.” The different tracks of the writing across the white space present a transport and a dissolution.

He it is I must think of and I do starting over. He sits up in the bed across the two-room apartment wearing a dark halo because I need to be free of the death. I need to be free or I will not continue and knowing this well from experience though I love him.
See him home, instructs a voice in bold. One temporal strand of the writing is the carrying of a red swatch to the last page (where composition is dated June-July 2000), a cloth which absorbs, like a soul. It’s an explicitly Shamanic series, time as a play on articulate and inarticulate forms which traverse disordering through a graphed ritual, a kind of fire-walking (“the colour of pain is/burning”) towards a curative conjunction, “I walk across the pain on the page”. The white space is, in the poem’s vocabulary, an abstraction, because “everything hurts but it doesn’t hurt me it hurts the forfeiture which is my flesh and the more fleshly parts of my mind”.


The fire walking is multiple as there are different kinds of flame here: burning out the will; burning through to the truth, a testing of the world; a glow of red, a colour as a category of thought – and there’s a slippage or glissement between these, an equivocalness which opens another sliding field in the poem between what could be characterised as the kinetic and the dynamic, the former a need to “keep going” through absorption; the latter a freedom as a status to be but also always-already achieved. These slippages of definition act to set up a polished blur, a mirroring within the text for different planes or visions: the room of the waking self, and the self's waking dreams. It’s a process of the implicit visionary in poetry, or how a poem can create or at least get closer to partly directing its own unconscious terrain.


The more fleshly parts of my mind – perhaps the vocal tract and the words it forms, felt to be made forfeit by death, or forfeited only while the world is “a charnel”? Or always forfeit as a condition?
’I love you forever,’ I said to him during his dying; the terror of saying that a corridor.
Is the terror at an equation between irreversibility and recurrence? Death transfers characteristics (“it wasn’t you though it was you who couldn’t walk”) and it flows out, curls, a chaos of memory. “his black hair youth is there in his death”: the establishment of multi-temporal rhythms in a poem produces something linear but full of spaces, a pattern of marked rivers which cross and sort each other –
the abstraction in the center of me is shown on the page as a pale oblong just a line sketched in why is there always a river behind? It rives us so beautiful.
– achieving here a liturgy of affection which wants to search for the beginning because it’s only from there that new substances can fill the shapes, from there that the limit of language can be changed, a search which both generates and partly freezes language’s own unreason, seen to craze and ramify under the poem’s pressure.


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

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