Notes on Alice Notley's 'Desert For All Of Music To Take Place'

Lynne Hjelmgaard

[#] Watch Alice Notley reading 'Desert For All Of Music To Take Place'

(a few thoughts)

(part one)

This poem is grounded in place, (her hometown of Needles, California) but takes off from there, to capture us in an almost time capsule. We are participants in the place but soon learn of a space away from it, where we become part of the overall music. We watch the desert float by, are privy to its people, plants, colors, sounds and air.

We join her in an empty Church, in the air above the desert, return back to earth at Arrowhead Junction and with the Mohave men & women used to each other getting fat.
Am I just an occupant?
I dwell in air. I take up air, I hold possession of my air
We discover her on the inside looking out: her view of cars, gas stations, gas station attendants, her wit, wisdom and coming of age. She uses a known figure in town, Renowned for his filth of person to show us a side of herself.
When I grow up to be him
I’ll feel a little funny.

Trucks & trains go east in 4am sounds & river air
Also therein cars of wildness go apart from me
He has green eyes
The movies give full love
Comparable to nothing else ever to be
And I know that
The daily-ness of her speech and thought patterns builds the poem. Her particular usage of syntax, language, memory, line break and stanza break, truth telling, dream and the unconscious, creates the distinct music, gives the poem air, lets us breathe in the desert.
Everyone drives off.
The library’s upstairs from
The jail guys flirt through the bars of
With a fat dusty girl.
The poem expresses a longing, a curiosity, a love for her home but also a love that is universal in its understanding. It moves on to question existence, is existential.
I love the landscape because I love these guys
& also the movies. This big
Desert landscape flowering guys movies feeling
Is love, every one & kind at once.

An aching for something to be true that won’t quite come through
To being an ultimate holding or knowing
Of a mountain or a gas station or a love moment

& how can the surface of silence, the sky, be a color----blue?
& how can all the secrets be in something that’s a color?
Her identity moves freely in and out of descriptions of the local inhabitants, together with her feelings, realizations of love.
I’m not one of the 15 towheaded Walters kids meant
For their kind of trouble, nor
One of the 2 Wheeler kids meant for their

But I know I’ll always be this me now
& it’s almost always air
A poem written almost thirty years ago already reveals her broad understanding and insight into an invisible world that co-exists with Needles, where she exists, in air. The universe as a larger picture, her stream-of-consciousness style, unique voice, music and poetics present a poem that is all encompassing, vast and wise, limitless as the desert.
They’re not love, & there’s no love, except
There’s a big, big shape like a feeling
You can hold it up in your two hands, practically
And present it to the sky

(part two)

During our discussion, also about the other poems, I became more aware of how music is an integral part of Alice’s poetry, how it is, in a concrete way, composed in an organic process, that seems to emerge out of the work itself. How in the beginning of a poem still in its rough form, “mistakes” can be worked into the composition, if not as a beginning then as a catalyst to bring out the essence of the work, and that they can sometimes end up as a part of the whole. “You won’t write well always through it.” “The shaking keeps you steady.” “Witnessing a process that can fail.”

I approach this poem as a writer who also writes about place, to whom language in poetry is mostly about capturing the music of a place- by description of its people, physical and mental landscapes, goings-on, dream, specific slang and/or overheard dialog, memory, imaginings, spontaneous thought, influences of other poems, (poets) and writers, events at the time, its music, art and songs. The list goes on... I am learning, and re-learning during the process and hopefully in movement. My own body language can also become a part of the poem. “One purpose of language is probably to sing where you go, to name the landscape so you can make it exist and thus get from place to place (to create it)”

The title 'Desert For All of Music to Take Place', introduces us to Alice’s distinct music, which continues throughout the poem, as she writes in Coming After about Frank O’Hara’s poem, “Music”, ‘the ear can’t anticipate it, that’s to say its music and phrasing are unique, don’t fit any patterns you know-----“.

I think this is one of the key traits of Alice’s poetry.

There was a question of who the ‘he’ is with different colored eyes throughout the poem- the 'he' turns out to be different people that really exist.
His eyes are blue
He’s the guy who calls up every day just to
Tell you it’s raining
And this is just that- there was a guy who did this.
He has brown eyes with light coming through, his sorrow center
This is her father.

There is the short line, one of my favorites, (there are many), because I feel it introduces us to Alice’s wit, compassion and wisdom, early on. In a simple way it captures so much with so little, when she speaks of the known figure in town, renowned for his filth of person:
When I grow up to be him
I’ll feel a little funny.

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


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