'Radical Feminist' from Alma, or The Dead Women

Ralph Hawkins

“and Alma singing like a loon
Her dancing toenails in her eyes
Her pa was dead on the River Gaboon”
Frank O’Hara[1]

Narcosis and Dreams

There are many questions to ask about Alma, or The Dead Women[2] (now on referred to as Alma). Although the poem (and I refer to Alma as one poem) has many specific, identifiable locations, both contemporary and historic, its actual co-ordinates are indeterminate or only determinate if we think dream has a location or indeed offers up real locations.

A reader’s first question may well be as to where we are and to what we are witnessing within Alma? This question applies not only to where we are in time and space, but also the questions posed by Alma as to where we are as human beings – and as to what defines countries, nations, communities, individuals, selves and genders. Where and what indeed are the dead beings who inhabit Alma, if a being can be dead? Are they transient souls? Dead (like many words in Alma) has variant meanings, for indeed the dead of the poem do have voices, they speak – but this may well be ironic because in life they have no voice.

The where we are of Alma can never fully be realised other than to say that the poem is for the most part located in being dislocated. It exists in the condition of dream. And variant conditions of being inhabit the textures and interweaving of this poem.

The owl flits through this poem and seems symbolic of another age and another order. Let us say that other ages and other orders are at once features of Alma. Owls were seen as harbingers of death and Lillith, a Mesopotamian woman demon, who doesn’t feature in the poem, screeches like an owl as do many of the dead women in the poem. Alma also means soul or essence.

The owl is no stranger to Notley’s poetry and has appeared previously. The presence of the owl indicates that Notley’s work has always been concerned with recurrent themes, motifs and subject matters. Dream, ghosts, death and the female body have constantly made their appearance. These subject matters have also metamorphosed throughout their written time – they have always been in a stage (or state) of becoming, never complete as subjects of written preoccupation.

'Radical Feminist'[3] has Alma shooting up into her head arms thighs and feet. She has shot up previously and will shoot up throughout Alma. She shoots up because it provides her with an alternative reality, another way of seeing, another way of talking and another way of being. The pain killing qualities of opiates are called upon as an aid to the relief of forgetting, each place requires a drug so she can forget / it. Later the writing of a poem may help her to forget, she squirms, she wants to go write a poem and forget the deaths of thousands. Alma can’t forget neither can the pain be removed.

Narcotics have been used in various cultures, especially in ritual, to induce visions and heightened states of perception. They give Alma access to the ancient medical geometry of drug[4]. Drugs and dreams are maybe disharmonious sisters but could be said to be related through their geometry. If Alma uses drugs then the poet uses dreams. Their geometries coincide. Both can be pathways of clarity, being associated with revelation, insight, prediction and premonition. Both can be pathways of obfuscation, being associated with disorientation, dislocation and nightmare. Apparently the Delphic oracle was stoned most of the time; her pronouncements, like dreams, a matter of interpretation.

Utilising these geometries, Notley’s poem spews out voices, chants, curses and indictments against a great sickness. This sickness impregnates the body / text of Alma / Alma.

Alma doesn’t contain any poems which can be read separately from the main body of Alma. 'Radical Feminism' can only be read, like all other separate poems, as part of the interrelated whole of a long poem. Yet Alma appears as an incomplete and disembodied work. It could be said to be the work of disembodiment. Both its form and content are composed of the broken and interrupted, related to the geologies and geometries of drug and dream. The ostensive solidity of the look of the work – its shape(s) and layout, works its way through an anarchy of disruption, eruption and irruption. This solidity, apparent as slabs of prose and prose like verse, is a complex prosodic of insistent rhythmic pulses, (written) speaking patterns and varied repetition.

Within this complex, notions of voice are crucial to Notley’s poetic. 'Radical Feminism', from its title, might provide the notion of giving a voice to an individual or gender and thematically this is obviously an element in play. Neither does it include the notion of the poet having a voice. It is more to do with the overall integrity and authenticity with all the components of the made poem. Notley writes, “The voice of the poem isn’t interested in the poet at all. The voice of the poem is interested in the articulation and outcome of the group of words it’s generating.”[5]

If Alma is a long poem then it too is only part of what is an ever growing on-going long poem, the delineations of which, as yet, aren’t fully formed. Alma like Disobedience is autobiographical (family, husbands, sons and lived present life). It involves the ‘daily commentary and daily involvement in politics (by virtue of one’s being oneself),’ but it also includes ‘fictional narrative, with characters, and fantasy and dream.’[6] Notley sees Disobedience as an outgrowth of her earlier work. Alma is a further chapter of the same project.

'Radical Feminist' is composed of three sections, three geological type strata and these strata are full of striations – nodes, cells and dendrites, on/off switches, connections, disconnections, firings and misfiring going back and forth through the body of Alma, back and forth through the story of the poem, and back and forth through mythological and historical time. Rupture and splits are contained within the past and the present – and these ruptures and splits are part of the imaginative undertakings of both the form and the content. The final rupture of life itself being that of death. But for this poem it’s death which speaks in both its live and death forms and supposedly from its indeterminate state.

The number of voices (speakers) in 'Radical Feminist' points not only to the layering and inter-layering of this poem but to the choral or orchestral effect of the whole. Here we have voices playing off voices, voices countering voices. The poem, like Alma, is at once polyphonic and polysemous,
           how will we dead women avenge ourselves now when there will be nothing but vengeance transpiring. oh these distractions says one. we intend that you keep on the subject says another. keeping on the subject is part of our vengeance. i am touched by men’s love says the third but it isn’t a world. men died too someone says. they can take care of themselves someone else says but don’t let one come near me again
Notley is interested in the rhythmical patterns established by syllables and words and lines. The line unit of Radical Feminist is long and sometimes exceeds the horizontal width of the page. Multiple lines run over and on, segmented by a character’s voice. The on rush of phrases, their alternate sense and internal disputation give little time for pause. Different and differing voices interrupt each others’ sentences and thought. The multiple voices are ‘singing, dialogic, quarrelling voices’.[7] These lines are filled with the unexpectedness and disturbances of life. Death is the final disturbance to the life of the living.

The prosodic arrangements of voice reflect the underlying subject matters. The real has become deterritorialised through the co-ordinates of drug and dream. Part of this multiple orchestration is that women have no voice, this applies to having been denied a voice and also having no vehicle with which to speak. They have been and are, as Notley says, without trajectory. “We 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 without trajectory.”[8] Trying to create a feminist trajectory is part of Alma’s story. The poem is stating that there has to be a story based on this very predicament – part of the struggle for Alma/Alma is in establishing such a trajectory, the discovery and use of the voice of the poem with which to form and articulate a story which exists but remains buried.

'Radical Feminist' has three positive left hand margin indentations, three tectonic like shifts, splits or ruptures in process of reforming and combining. Each section deals with aspects of men, the megalomanias of a man, men, as individuals and as a patriarchy which rules over war, literature and emotion. Alma is constantly being told what to care about – they all beg me to care to care. For the poet this is a misuse of care – this is exploitative care, care about abstractions, the nation, the flag, patriotism, caring as at any historical time makes warriors appear. The nature of caring is a motif within Alma, questioning what we should care for. Alma has many manifestations and changing natures within the poem – as we shall see she is the ultimate (fictional) manifestation. She is at times an owl, at times an owl and a woman, at times a woman (she may indeed be all women). Alma as part owl is forced into self questioning about care, especially with regard to her young – her owlets, when she motheringly feeds them raw kills. This notion of care, when aligned with humanity, is not to be a selfish, isolated, individuated or tribal care. It has to be a care in the interest of an all, an all which embodies plant and animal life and the human and not in the interest of a nature (men) which endeavours to dominate Nature. The question remains, how do we define what is human.

In the middle section Notley writes,
                                                       the poem is a Chinese poem perhaps of the 13th century, translated into English badly, sometimes it becomes a poem by a known man, of course it’s a poem by a man because it’s old. a dead man asks me to read it so he can appreciate it
How or where can a dead man ask the poet to read the poem? This is very confusing. At once it’s a Chinese poem and then a poem by a known man. We know it’s a poem by a known man, not through his name but by the fact that the poem is old. Old poems, mythopoetic poems were written by men.

We further become disorientated when she continues
                                 we are lying on the grass promontory overlooking the meeting of two rivers and out of one arises a black coach drawn by many black horses with red plumes on their heads, they are in the poem too
Although this appears to be somewhere close to where two rivers meet it is it is indeed a number of different locations and times at once.

The overlooking can be read in a number of ways. It applies to the we on the grass promontory. It applies to the subject, the dreamer of the dream, who is overlooking, witnessing the dream. And it applies to the overlooking author, who, like the dream is putting a number of discordant elements into the poem’s whole. Further confusions arise from the coach being in a place which is also in the Chinese poem and both locations are in the dream of the dreamer. However, horses bedecked so, seem to be out of place in a 13th century Chinese poem. But then it is a dream and a poem within a poem within Alma. The words red and black convey an overload of signification within 'Radical Feminist' and within the body of Alma.

Trying to locate the happenings and the spacio-temporal co-ordinates of the poem may lead us into familiar but misleading poetic territories simply because we misidentify an already occupied terrain. Terrains occupied and constructed by male poets. Dante’s purgatory as a location for the dead and lost souls came to mind. But Alma contains no journey and secures no territory neither does there seem any likelihood of redemption. Dante is not our guide because he is a man-poet and he is an heir in line of antiquity.

If Alma can be read as trying to establish a feminist’s poetic then it must include its own voice, as defined by Notley, and its own subject matters and concerns in order to define it as a poem by a woman. She has written with regard to male dominion,
What a poem is, how it is good—what it looks and sounds like overall, the kinds of subjects it’s concerned with—all of this since when? since shortly after known history began, has, worldwide, been addressed by men with some input from women. A poem, looked at this way, is “male”, most ways of composing and setting down lines of poetry, of grouping them into poems on the page, seem “male”—the choices to be made are largely from among male solutions to male-generated formal problems.[9]
If there are infernal regions then this hell of Alma is the contemporary conditions of Earth which the composition of Alma covers, July 2001 to March 2003. The date of composition is one way of exposing the poem’s innards. If there is to be a purgation in Alma it is to be of the named men of the poem. It is to be of, the male leaders’ faces—oh the shit of it, the tastelessness of it and their reactions, / their psychotic mugs. It not only could include a purgation of the named men but also of their works, in this instance, globalization and international capitalism, the effects of which result in malignant disease. The poet sees this Western, male tradition as one that primarily shapes our contemporary world.

The operative notion in Alma is that we have to go beyond, bypass or ‘burrow’ away from the shaping of the present world by male forces. Being a dead woman may be a way of making oneself dead to male impulses, deeds and thoughts. Real care may involve a negativity of sorts, don’t let one come near me in the name of care. i want a chance to care for myself, / perhaps i finally have that being a dead woman.

One source of poetic myth behind Alma lies in Mesopotamia, the birthplace of Gilgamesh, Enuma Elis and Inanna’s Descent into the Underworld and birthplace too of cuneiform writing. The land between two rivers provides with its myths an idea of the nebulous underworld. This underworld can be read as a transition point between dream and not dream, of real and the irreal. The written forms of these myths may well also influence the solidity of the text’s appearance, these ancient works being written on rectangular clay tablets – the historical bodies of which are fragmentary, scattered, missing and illegible. Taken further their broken forms, their part-like nature, connect figuratively with the assemblage of dream. To understand dream the dreamer (when not dreaming) has to translate or interpret the dream – here the post-dreamer is translating images. The dreamer of the dream, the witness and participant, is also trying to interpret the dream but with a dream consciousness, ‘ordinary’ consciousness is in abeyance. The voices of Alma are the dream presences of the writer.

The poem’s integration of an ancient geometry is revealed in the inclusion of oracular and shamanistic communication in the original worlds and myths of gods and deities. There was a sense of communality in existence. The nature of that world was a cosmology which included not only gods and man, but plants, animals and a knowledge of the dead and unknown. As Brian Kim Stefans has pointed out when talking of Disobedience, ‘the human subject is drowning in a welter of information, social pressures, bad politics, and perhaps a lack of communication with an inner self – a spiritual continuity of sorts, not just with the past but the present’[10]. The ruptures of our present world are seen to be influenced by the democratic spread of global economic and technological forces and the aggressive spread and imposition of democracy through war. The wails and articulations of the bodiless voices in Alma draw attention to what makes them dead; loneliness, solitude, isolation, helplessness, rejection, emotional and physical pain and loss. Talking of The Descent of Alette, Notley says, “I mean that my poem comes out of what I know that’s communal knowledge and that I’ve suffered privately”.[11]

The below surface provided by the ancient medical geometry of drug and dream, deliberately disobeys rational reasoning procedures, in turn constructing in its place a non, anti or broken narrative (the notions of what comprises a story are cross-examined within Alma). Alma is also concerned with voicing conditions or states of being – these are evoked through an ontology of consciousness which includes (i) a narcotic consciousness, (ii) a dream consciousness, (iii) a conscious consciousness (including memory which is the self’s narrative) and (iv) an overall inclusive consciousness of the act called writing consciousness

The narrative structures of the poem are (i) autobiographical (the communal of Alma references Notley’s past, her family in Needles, Arizona, the Mohave desert, its geology, animals and plants, her husbands and sons, (ii) fictional (invented), (iii) historical, both the narrative of history and the narrative of myth, and (iv) the cumulative broken narratives of the present.

This surface is at once ectoplasmic and amniotic, peopled by the living and the dead, the transitional and the unborn. Alma is, among one of her many manifestations or avatars, the dead woman who speaks – but there are many dead women who speak. But there are also the actual dead of Radical Feminist who also inhabit Alma’s dream zones.
                                                         she cries in her sleep because the
numbers of dead women, and of dead men have been added to
The woman and men who talk throughout Alma are many and at times their identities seem interchangeable. In 'Radical Feminist' we have an i, Alma, the hippy, Sonny, Myra/Mira and a number of nameless, ghost-like speakers. Within the whole there are many more speakers, their names tantalizingly suggesting further significance, Luz, Carmen (a man who sings), Moira, Cherokee and the Spy are a few examples.

These displaced voices, without trajectory, are given a presence through the metaphorical geometry of drug. In a sense they are geomantic. Drug and dream conjure up fresh landscapes. Later in Alma a geomatriarchy is envisioned as an alternative to a present geopatriarchy. Going beyond the rational world requires a drug so she can forget it and dream the true again. The nightmare is reversed. The true is a place of communication between likeminded voices away from the real untrue. The real untrue is propagated by the alternative undead voices of the named men. These are world leaders, heads of Governments, whose words, deeds and actions amount to the control of power and the power of control over the lives and deaths of the unnamed and innocent. To dream can also be to wish.

The multiple cross-pollinating layering of Alma is concerned with deterritorialising a patriarchy which dictates politics, poetry, narratives and myth. The poem is fuelled by disembodied voices. Disembodiment is thematic throughout. Women have been culturally disembodied – historically (and presently) they have been seen not to exist (patriarchy hiding them away, tending hearth, home and husband – unless, of course the women were whores and then they would be on view). In Alma the formless women of the dream refer to their gender parts, breasts and vagina as though they are separate from their being. As we shall see Alma when appearing as the owl woman is doubly marked by what symbolises her both as woman and owl. The actions of men literally and arbitrarily disembody women. Literal disembodiments occur through war and conflict.

The question of women’s vengeance is posed in 'Radical Feminist' (and throughout Alma)
       how will we dead women avenge ourselves now when there will be nothing
but vengeance transpiring
The vengeance transpiring of 'Radical Feminism' is the territorialising actions of the war in Afghanistan, the then upcoming conflict in Iraq, a war directly in response to the end of the first section’s real seismic shift, the first sizeable American sacrifice and the ever on-going Palestinian Israeli conflict. The question of how will we dead women avenge ourselves now is obviously not to be answered in these terms. Part of the answer is keeping on the subject is part of our vengeance.

Fragmentation is part of Alma’s/Alma’s changing body. It is also part of the composition of the characters names. The materiality of a word (its body) being its written image (icon) and the sounds of its letters. Not only can Alma’s appearance change but so too can her name. Characters, through their altered names, can become another. The letters of their names also point towards a commonality, a relationship between and of selves. These selves, perhaps schizophrenic, point the overarching sickness of the times.
       i don’t like Myra’s name, i will change it to Ryma, no i see Mary in that, i’ll change it to Mira
Breaking up, assembling, disassembling and reassembling words is part of the semantic sound access to the voice of the poem. If the long poem belongs to men then so too does the chosen content, its underlying messages and the composition of its sentence – its syntax. These then are open to legitimate disruption.

Changing Myra’s name to Ryma is rejected not because it corresponds comically with rhyme but rather within the tumble of letters the recombined Mary appears (of course Mary was already present in Myra) – the only thing to do is to alter the vowel image by changing the y to i to make Mira. Later on Notley adds an o to Mira to make her into the dipthonged Moira. Earlier there is Mara. Letter juggling and their individual sounds play a large part in Notley’s overall prosody. Is the name Mary rejected because of its theological connotations? The Virgin Mother doesn’t seem to be an apt female companion through these mystifying terrains. On the other hand Sonny seems to suggests the Son of God? However the manifestations of God, the ultimate patriarch, seem to be castigated within the poem. These voices have no fixed identities, being in search of identity their identities are interchangeable – all the dead voices are manifestations of pain.

Perhaps what we are reading is an anti or alternate ‘feminine’ cosmology, a geomatriarchy. In the poem 'Alma’s Forehead'[12] Alma is referred to as god, Alma never eats and / never loses weight. that’s because she’s god. Perhaps it is the written overvoice which adds, i like god as a dead woman and significantly she has a third eye.

The dead women are akin to the reincarnations of Eastern cosmologies, trapped in nebulous time zones – even the timelessness of eternity, can all be aspects of the woman god Alma. Alma can be Mira, as Mira is Moira, as Moira is Mara. Here too lies another reason why Mira can’t be Mary.

As an adjunct these part (fragmented) revelations of the one – Alma / Alma made of the many, are also manifestations or aspects of the ‘feminine’ or of woman.

The network of letter play runs throughout Alma. The Al of Alma is to be found in the poet’s name Alice and in Almanac – within the poem we find an Alta and an Anna. Add an r to Alta and we have altar – Alta in the poem is referred to as the mother of god. Anna perhaps derives from Inanna, Inanna being the Sumerian goddess of sexual love, fertility and war. Inanna used to roam the streets looking for young men to have sex with. In The Coming War, Anna is streetwalking today because a lot of guys wanna fuck.[13]

Al is also present in Sonny, his ghost presence[14]. In 'Radical Feminist' Sonny wants to go out to kill, he wants / to join up again. Further, he demonstrates to his momma how properly to use a knife, he has just / bought a great big stabbing knife, he learned how to stab in the army. Notley’s brother Al served as a sniper in Vietnam. Notley has called attention to this letter play and letter reference with regard to the letter e in her own name Alice Elizabeth Notley.[15] The tumble of letters and their recombining in new sequences is aligned with the disembodiment of Alma. Within this there is a suggestion that these broken disembodied words / letters scream.

Are these broken words connected to the terrain of dream. Meaning cannot be secured. One character can morph into another, their ectoplasmic voice membranes meld anew. Words are open to plunder and corruption. Dreams likewise are not stable. In a way dreams are authorless. What appears to be something, an owl, may well be something other, a woman. The creative dynamic of dream, its geometry, is one of ultimate freedom and ultimate terror. Life may not contain ultimate freedoms or utopias but it certainly contains terrors. Dreams can go anywhere, do anything, transmogrify, break off, reform, repeat, jump and fade.

The written word fragments of speech become the screaming and crying of Alma. The human scream is equated with the owl’s shriek. Within Alma, owl and human sounds blur,
   its cry laments the age when people and animals lived together. hu hu [16]
Syllabic outpourings fight for alternative articulation,
   Carmen enters and first emits from hole in head pure sound: oh ah oh ah
ay ay ay ay [17]

owl, know that i am dead        Alma: delete, delete the curse hu hu       change delete and doleful i am always lost     in [18]
Seeing words in words (seeing the animal in human), seeing Mary in Ryma, can be read as not believing in what you are seeing or witnessing. In 'Radical Feminist', the mouth of that god drips red as the good cant is spoken. The god worshiped here is the god of wealth and increase. Throughout Alma the variant meaning of words (and actions) are interrogated. The morality of vengeance and its resultant devastating executive actions rupture the body and thought of Alma,
                                                            you who lead of course, you who
act for others, you who bathe in the blood of the rightness of taking action
If both the material form and content of early Sumerian writing influence Alma then there is as yet another aspect to consider. Cuneiform writing is created by incising, by making marks, cuts, impressions into unhardened clay. The written word’s elemental conveyance is its image. Before writing, proto-writing and pre-writing, were the image laden hieroglyph and the petroglyph. Alma could well be said to be a form of ekphrasis, a reading of the dreamer’s images, the poem is articulating the picture / image world of dreams – the here poet as seer, shaman, oracle, translating from one form to another.

The written marks of Alma lead us into the multiple meanings of marking. Alma has her own double mark, the owl face vulva. One is marked by one’s sex. The X of sex is a mark in itself which proliferates significance within Alma, the extremes of which are the kiss of love and the kiss of death. There are not only the defining marks of the body but marks made upon the body, the cuneiform-like incisions. Alma’s X defines a hole in her forehead which she shoots up into. It is also the location of her god-like third eye. The third eye conjoins us once more to the landscapes of insight, precognition, visions and dreams.

There are not only natural holes, there are physical and psychic holes. These holes are wounds. The healed wounds are scars. There are wounds and scars upon individuals, peoples and the Earth. Some of these wounds (and deaths, death being the final mark, to X someone) being caused through war and torture, some by the accidents of life and some through illness. These wounds represent physical invasion of another person, whether surgical or criminal or military[19]. Thought which entails wounding, perhaps the thinking of hegemony, is equated with disease – a metaphoric cancer. Globalization and international capitalism creates victims who ultimately needed to die for the megalomanias of a man, men, their works / together a tumour the size of this planet.

'Radical Feminism' questions the genealogy of nationhood unequivocally bound up as it is with notions of warriors, leaders, patriotism, flags (fathers, the flags of our fathers, God the father). To defend or aggrandise these beliefs one must be willing to care and caring here means to die for something other. Alma is filled and fuelled by dead women who have always been the victims of something other.

'Radical Feminist' is the first poem in the book written after 9/11.


1 Frank O’Hara, p.8, Alma, Lunch Poems, City Lights Books 1964
2 Alice Notley, Alma, Or The Dead Women, Granary Books, NYC 2006
3 ibid., p.43
4 ibid., p13
5 Alice Notley, p.154, Coming After, 'Voice and Poetry', The University of Michigan Press 2005
6 Brian Kim Stefans, Interviews Alice Notley, Jacket 15 2001
7 ibid., p.173, The “Feminine” Epic
8 ibid., p.172
9 op.cit. p.167, Coming After, 'Women and Poetry'
10 op.cit., Brian Kim Stefans
11 p.47, Alma, Or The Dead Women
12 ibid., pp.15-18
13 op. cit., p.171, The “Feminine” Epic
14 The identity of the owl in Alma is an area I’ve touched little on. The cover of the book is a picture of a handsome barn owl. The owl (mainly featured) in Alma is a burrowing owl. In 'White Phosphorus', pp., 190-198,(Grave of Light, Wesleyan University Press 2006) a great grey owl is mentioned, along with Al being a “snowy owl”.
15 op.cit., Brian Kim Stefans
16 p.102, Alma, Or The Dead Women
17 ibid., p.106
18 ibid.,p.108
19 ibid.,p105

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

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