and if it’s its it’s true: Some thoughts on ‘Alma, or The Dead Women’ by Alice Notley

Tim Allen

. . .is it the skeleton’s voice or mine? and if it’s its it’s true I will surely see its soul in the future of death and if it’s mine it’s the same. . .

If you try to isolate poetry from any other human activity it becomes easier to assimilate. Contradiction? Of course, this is poetry we’re talking about – but by establishing a gap between world and poem it becomes possible to deal with what the poem is doing – the world produced by the art of the poem might not be clear, or even whole, but it becomes something you can walk through, the obstacles and tangles of the world rendered as vision, dream, language. On the other hand if you treat poetry as an integral activity, at one with the mess of the world, it becomes impossible to recognise, and focus fails. Not such a contradiction, perhaps?

These thoughts are among many that swim back and forth in my brain’s goldfish bowl after reading Alice Notley’s Alma, or The Dead Women. The very existence of this poem – the book is a single poem - in the same world as other things (the Olympics, war in Georgia, summer TV repeats, going for a caravan holiday, offering to write a review of a poetry book when it’s something I’ve been unable to do for over three years) seems quite implausible on one level – surely stuff like this cannot be part of the normal world? Its existence in the same world as the more normal poetry I’ve been reading recently (normal as in normal and normal as in normal avant garde etc), from a clutch of current Brit and American magazines, speaks of a tear in the cultural fabric, a hint that not everybody is going down the same road. This is why this great negative scream of a book is so enthralling, gives so much hope through its terrors. The fact that Alice Notley is American (even though within Alma she makes it clear she wishes she was not) tends to place her work within a recognisable history of radical poetry, and yet what she does (if not how she does it) is so different to anything else coming out of that country at the moment that the contrast between the two is blinding. The seamless bland postmodernity and almost neo-spiritually inclined academy verse that has made so much current American poetry (both mainstream and innovative) so dull and unreadable, is challenged here by a poetry so raw, so expressive, so emotively spinal, so downright out of it yet so obviously right in there, in the world, that it becomes, if you want to deal with it, a poetry you need to distance from normal poetry as much as you distance that normal poetry from the world. Alma, or the Dead Women is different, something that any review should state for starters - if not then anything said on the matter would appear as a piddling triviality beside this precarious colossus.

Does a reader need to know anything about Alice Notley’s previous poetry, poetics or personal history to help them swallow, let alone digest, this book? The easy answer is NO! The immediate power of the narrative (which is what it first feels like), the tangible pain that exhausts the reader after only a few paragraphs in, hits direct. By the end of the book a reader with no previous knowledge of Notley might well ask, ‘Who is this person? Who is this individual that can write like this?’ but I don’t think that at such a point they would be asking ‘what?’ or ‘why?’ as the stories told here (strange and ruptured as they are) and the voices that tell them (even stranger – a multiplicity of schizophrenic ghosts) are almost certainly recognisable as the other, the forgotten, the marginalised, the dead, all coalescing into an Everywoman of mythical proportions, speaking in a world which renders such expression as inaudible and meaningless. Yes, anyone can feel, anyone can react in their privacy, but anyone who dares to express? Ah, there’s the difference, there’s the writer, propelled by an awful coincidence of personal grief with national (international) moral crisis into an extreme mesh of feeling and reaction that needs outlet in an epically framed field of expression that itself is extreme and uncompromising.

The harder answer to the question of whether knowledge of Notley’s other works would help in a reading of Alma is, however, YES. An experience of Notley’s poetry, or at least an experience of reading other late New York School poets, might well help in preventing Alma being read simply as a hard-boiled novel gone weird then seriously awry. Related to this I can even see how someone unfamiliar with modern poetry might read this book as the tract of an unfolding mental illness – there is indeed a case for saying there exists a parallel between the way Alma develops, particularly in its obsessive repetition and relocation of motifs and identities in a horizonless world, and the writings of mediums and the insane. Conversely, reading Alma as a fiction, as the controlled framing of a tale of psychosis, would not stretch credulity too far – there are a lot of weird novels out there. American literature has no lack of realism and violence either, we know only too well there are aspects of the culture that revel in the frisson provided by crime, drugs etc, hence the first 30 pages of Alma could be read in the same way I first remember reading Burroughs. However, the shock value (if value is the appropriate word?) of having, by line 5, your first person junkie character having ‘to shoot up, straight into my forehead’, far from leading to the familiar and inevitable stock of squalid scenes and cast leads instead, if you are paying attention, with the needle into that head itself, with the drug, into an ongoing dream. At base Alice Notley takes as, or makes, her discovered hallucination in the mind of her Alma, the field of a poem. My contention is that it takes a fairly experienced poetry reader to see that, to see that this twist is not novelty, not fiction, but real – not documentary realism either but a kind of ultra psychological realism. The wonder is that this is achieved with such apparent artlessness, ‘I was trying to have a nervous breakdown because I was having one…’ And Alma is ‘toying with the idea of a geometry that is a geomatriarchy, what is that?’ It is these simple shifts in sense, these small disruptions, that whatever else they are doing in relation to the layers of meaning that build up within the work as a whole entity, hook the text into close attention of the particular, producing the experience of a naming of nameless things, what we call poetry.

It is ironic that it is this relatively quiet syntactical methodology that provides the humming engine for such a long and complex poem, let alone one with such heat, one with such a strong imperative behind it. The reality of Alma, the reality of its need to be written, is overpowering – poetry like this is testament to the fact that when we are cornered and we have no choice but to turn and face whatever has cornered us, we make choices. Another contradiction? Of course, this is poetry, strange stuff at any level, let alone on the level that Notley takes it, and here she takes it from the corner of despair where it crouches, far out into epical time and mythical space, to compete with the impossible. But does it compete? Above I called Alma uncompromising, but it is as uncompromising with the notion of poetry as it is with anything else – there is definitely nothing ideal about this poem, either as idea or in its execution. At times it leaves poetry as an art dragging behind, unable to catch up with the urgency to slash language onto the page, to kick out, to voice nemesis. You could even say it is flawed (which indeed, some reviews have said) but I don’t see how, in its hurt, in its raw nerve relation to emotional reality, it could be other than flawed in the everyday sense. Language here is not just stretched, it is tortured into complicity. Every new image, every mutation of identity, every re-entrance of a character or motif for the thousandth time, has a desperation about it. The affect is cumulative: the reader is propelled along at pace but at the same time the effort required is emotionally exhausting. Because this constant use of energy must have a similar draining on the writer herself, a consistency of quality is hard to maintain through every individual chapter. (I don’t really know what to call the sections, the individually titled prose poems that, within six larger parts, structure the work.) Therefore thin passages occur and the repetition of tone or another rearrangement of her anger becomes tiresome on occasion – but read on we do. Something ties us to the poem even at these low points, it is as though these have to be navigated in order to discover the next surprise, the next explosion of meaning produced, as before, by some syntactical twist that suddenly re-routes you into the river of energy. I found the dips occurring most often in the middle sections of the book, maybe at that problematical point for all writers of long, long poems where the poet is undecided about concluding the project or forging ahead. This of course forges ahead, it has to, it has to exhaust its possibilities for redemption, at least, yes, the least it has to do is that.

The above does make me wonder what an edited version of Alma would be like, or even if one would be possible. It is a big book: 344 big pages of, mostly, prose. I wonder how differently the poem would have developed if 9/11 had not occurred. At that point Notley had just completed poem 23, The Invisible Organ Presence. The fact that, spookily, that poem ends with the precognitive ‘… if I led an army, or even owned a gun, or counselled politicians, why this is dangerous your thoughts are vicious - but what of this world that is, now, a single violent gesture? The floor keeps moving - ’ sends a shiver down the spine – the poet as Rimbaud’s seer comes to mind. Then tagged on brackets at the end inform us that a few hours later the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon happened. Notley does not of course need to tell us about the import of this, but its noting is vital with regards to the poem itself, and nakedly and instinctively she recognises this – from that point on the poem is undoubtedly sent somewhere it would not otherwise have gone. It is not a tangential shift however – what happens is that the shock and ramifications of 9/11 give a concrete quality to the more abstract anger of the previous pages, the event has externalised what was internal. I think it is fairly safe to say she had already been writing in a state of sorrow, grieving and confusion (following the death of her partner, the poet Douglas Oliver) in which she found both her personal history and her thoughts on the condition of being female in a patriarchal world blurring out of focus into a problem that only poetry could solve (salve) (nothing new for Notley) when this terrible public event occurs. Within the space of a few hours her self-knowledge becomes politicised, her personal conflict becomes universalised and she sees with a blinding clarity who and what is to blame. If only such knowledge could provide consolation? It does not, instead it hurls the poet into hell.

The fact that the next poem, the first post 9/11 poem, is called Radical Feminist and that the first lines are, ‘Alma speaks of the arrogance of countries, by shooting up into the world-map on her head arms thighs and feet…’ had me laughing out loud, a hollow laugh nonetheless. I was thinking something like, ‘Oh my God, what are we in for now?’ and ‘How is she going to handle this?’ The visible evidence of another 300 pages was there but I had no idea how such a thing could be accomplished. This stark situation needs to be considered by those who have expressed negative reactions to Alma. When you think of all the crap that has been written in response to 9/11, the searing quality and importance of Alma is all the more astonishing. The rest of the poetic avant garde (apologies for even calling them that these days) have been as unsuccessful as anyone else in dealing with it – and such a thing is perfectly understandable. Of course it is wrong to categorise Alma as being a response to 9/11, and I’m not. The poem was begun before that date and seems to have been completed before the invasion of Iraq, even though that looked unavoidable at the time. What the main body of the poem does coincide with is the invasion of Afghanistan.

Over the past few years I have found it very difficult reviewing, (Edmund Hardy, the co-editor of this site, used the phrase ‘reviewed-out’ to describe my predicament after reading and reviewing so much for Terrible Work) yet I really wanted to review Alma because I love Alice Notley’s work and in Britain she has neither the profile nor attention she deserves from her astonishing output over the past decade. I was fascinated by her The Descent of Alette (Penguin: 1996), to my mind one of the few true poetic gems written in recent years. The Americans take note of her, even give her prizes, after all she is one of theirs despite the fact she has lived in Europe for a number of years, but reading through some of the stateside reviews of Alma it is clear that the extreme hatred (I don’t know what else to call it) and absolute contempt that Notley has for Bush and the neo-cons puzzles and even embarrasses more staid critics of the regime – they don’t know how to read this poem because they don’t share the same rage. So what would the political right make of their naming in Alma? For example I’d be interested to know what Marjorie Perloff currently thinks about Alma, which politically has such an opposite take to that espoused by Perloff and certain others from the US literary/critical establishment (avant or not) in the wake of 9/11 who, even if not exactly flag wavers, still hum and ha. Notley’s reaction to what has happened regarding Iraq and Afghanistan is visceral, her disgust with the things her country appears to stand for goes deep. I cannot recall reading anything with an inner-space so intense and hyper, which is also so dependant upon the goings on out here in the globally topical. Such ambition is rare, such passion is too. I don’t think I could have chosen a worse book to get me back into reviewing mode – it’s a book that leaves me breathless, speechless.

Therefore it is convenient that Ralph Hawkins has written a wonderfully coherent article about Alma (Narcosis and Dreams) that manages to dig into the textual details and extract a multiplicity of possible interpretations, particularly those related to myth and symbolism. I’m really interested in his dissection of the naming anomaly in the poem too, the way the names of the cast of Alma (and Alma herself) lexically transform. And it is no coincidence that Hawkins chooses Radical Feminist, the first post 9/11 poem, as I noted above, on which to focus, as the relationship between Notley and radical feminism is so important and a possible reading of the book as a radical feminist tract is unavoidable. One of the first things I noted down when beginning this review was that Notley’s concern here was with, ‘the fissure in human affairs between the male psyche orientated towards confrontation and war (death in life) and the female psyche orientated towards harmony and peace (life in death).’ Some male reviews have made much of this simplistic binary, negatively of course. Considering the fact that this is such a huge part of Alma it might seem slightly amiss of me, but I prefer to bracket it, accept this radical feminist take on the human condition as a given, or as it is ‘given’ in the sense of experience to the poet called Alice Notley – accept it and move on into the poem. I for one am not going to argue with the stage as she has set out – I feel I have no right to, as the rich seams of despair she mines here are far in excess of any petty objections about ‘being unfair to men’. Personally I would surmise that both sexes are (almost) equally culpable for what has happened regarding the war on terror etc., just as there is (almost) an equality between its detractors, but such an opinion is irrelevant, trivial and meaningless compared with both the actual state of the world itself and the power of this poem. What matters is the action of this male war psyche, whether espoused by either sex. That Notley tends to see what has happened in terms of gendered psyche is as genuine as my seeing it in terms of national psyche, indeed, there is a close relationship: America’s sense of itself as ‘defender of the free world’ is itself a male conception, just as capitalism and imperialism are. And anyway, current affairs are only the tale end of a history of this sort of thing and Alma, in this respect, is as timeless as it is placeless. The dead women inhabit this timeless place and placeless time. Alice Notley has them speak and it rings super-true.

I’ve read rather a lot of poetry books in my time but this is one up there with the select few. Alma, or The Dead Women is not a flawed masterpiece, it is a masterpiece because it is flawed. Contradiction? Of course, this is poetry.

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

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