The Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize recognizes the most outstanding book of poetry published in the United States in the previous year and carries a stipend of $25,000. The judges for this year’s award were David Baker, Mark McMorris and Marie Ponsot.
Once, as World War II ended, Alice Notley was born in Arizona (1945); she grew up in Needles, California. Once, she came to New York City and was a Barnard girl (1967). Once, she got an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (1969). Once, in the bracing vicinity of St. Mark’s Place, she married Ted Berrigan (1971); she and their two sons survived his death (1983). Once, she married a good British poet, Douglas Oliver, and moved to Paris (1992); she survived his death in 2000. All along, she encountered her world, wrote her poems and won prizes for them. Some of those prizes: the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for poetry, the International Griffin Prize, the American Academy of Arts and Letters award for literature, the Shelley Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America.
Of course, these biographical details can’t describe or even imply the body of her work, luminous, in Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems 1970-2005. Nor can I describe it fully. But I urgently want to evoke something of how I see that beautiful array. Let me try, so long as I remember how she says, “God if only/I was a package but I’m not.”
I relate the way she works to what Charles Olson calls “composition by field”–but with this difference: her field is her consciousness. Plainly, all poems always come from the mind of the poet; Notley has extensive and identifying access to her own. Her memory and thought exuberantly welcome her life experience. Her imagination is agile, unafraid, populous and swift at envisioning connections. It is not naïve. She allows us to hear and overhear her as she writes her self speaking the poem: “empty,” she says, “except for myself who observes me/both lovingly and detachedly…. I’ll make a poem for you which holds locked up a living voice–/the key’s on your own tongue.”
Her mental geography is the widening languaged expanse of what she knows. Its borders are open on all sides to experience. She is memorious. She summons memory and it appears, more and less entangled and enriched, fluent and fluid as the air we breathe. We access her dailiness of embraces, encounters, pizza, stairwells, bars, red shirts. We access snatches of her broad reading of comics, poets, classics, newspapers and politics. She moves us loosely, readily, through the spaces of her languaged world.
The tense and tension of her mental action is the progressive, the phenomenological present. In the flow of that present, we come upon islands and are grounded by vivid events where people emerge trailing their stories, their characterizing conversation. She’s got us where she wants us. She welcomes us with poignant phrases that strike us so we take them in. (What she bids us imagine puts us in the present tense of her mental action.)
Her constant subject is truly subjective; her themes and motifs and what she makes of them are all her own. The fluent openness is that of consciousness itself, reflective as it speeds ahead, an arena of air that precipitates forms like the celestial beings and airy presences in Chinese frescos, soft-lit or back-lit, in a long oceanic swelling and subsiding rhythm, large and slow.
“I” is her natural governing pronoun, though the other pronouns are plentiful enough. It’s the out-looking and unsentimental “I” of conversation, not of display or dominance. It takes responsibility for the profusion and the excursions of these remarkable poems. And it takes us along for the ride. For instance:
the tawdry bar’s over there; I want to win this poem, don’t I
a poem can’t be won by a person, I can’t come out of this one
clean I’m too mean; though there’s
the cleaners there, and even the sneakers store, four
I’m telling the truth. I’m going to tell it
anyone’s: that never being what anyone thought
I never cared what anyone thought
as long as I could go home, and resume my work–am I
back in the door? Oh Ted’s here, kids asleep, dark window dreams
oh airshaft dark window I often mistake for
the panelike sails of a clipper ship taking us home.
Yes, this “I” is talking to herself and to me and to everyone else in the room of her text. What is rare and attractive about it, I think, is that it is not aimed at charming us or confessing to us or manipulating us. It has things to tell us, and its very modesty gives it an authority of its own. It is an “I” that allows the felt life of her mind to become ours. So her self at work, imagining it into language, is at the center as observer. And it’s just her plain (extraordinary) self, not pumped up or aggrandized or intent on insinuating her best profile into the picture.
She never enforces the unreal prissy distinctions between low and high culture. Verse and converse–her diction is profoundly mixed. Slang, mythic exaltation, iconic figures are equally at home in her ruminating conversation. One section of the Songs and Stories of the Ghouls is about Carthage sown with salt; another evokes a “deer-headed antlered woman in black against black lace,” and between them is this lyric:
I stand here in whose eyes
the name of the light is audience
burning into my forehead
waitresses’ voices along the spine
if what was once light
what are you doing to me?
who was I broken for
was it worth it to be?
If I’m a shade
what once will occur
it must be for the song I wore
hear what they all said to you
a gesture or tone: someone lies
in the international tongue
betraying you again and again
or the many
whose thoughts I stand here before
Because there’s no light, what an
was made of the science
like what happened to me
performing here in a mad scene
and never mad
I hadn’t seen clearly until I enacted her
Notley is a natural as she plays, very deftly, many of the games of discontinuous writing. They readily evoke the streaming of consciousness, with its valuable lurches and interruptions. Such plays have evolved, as we know, here and there for the last hundred years or so and by now provide a baseline from which Notley freely chooses. From Gerard de Nerval through Dorothy Richardson and Dada (“Eye…framed by pincers not eyelashes”) to Oulipo (and the athletic letter E), writers and readers have enlarged their willingness to collaborate in making meaning. Notley, eager for all possible gestures of freedom, is able to try these plays on as if to see how they fit, without really breaking her own stride. They are, for her, not programmatic tricks but usable representations of her inner world.
She is a moving speaker; her voice is the voice of the text as a breath of fresh air, awash with movement, the currents of keeping going. Connection of bits of data is not direct. But it is present, like the white stones of Hansel and Gretel gleaming in the forest dark. She’s centered by a voice heard and overheard, an inner counsel she always follows, “don’t think/you’re a poet write a poem for chrissakes.”