Friday, 6 September 2019

Taylor / Weatherly


I've not been posting much actual writing here for a while, but some things that I've been working on for a while have appeared elsewhere. Firstly, a piece on Cecil Taylor's poetry (which draws a little from the blogposts I did here after Taylor's passing last here) has now been published as part of Chicago Review's enormous and invaluable new feature on the Chicago Black Arts Movement. I haven't got my copy of the print version yet, but a good portion of the pieces are up online, including my short essay and a playlist of Taylor's poetry. (You'll have to scroll way down the page to get there, but do stop off at the other pieces, by Harmony Holiday, Haki Madhubuti, Thulani Davis, et al.) I'll also be presenting on Taylor's poetry, again, at the Taylor conference happening at CUNY in October. Hugely excited about this latter, especially having missed the Open Plan exhibition at the Whitney a few years ago, and to see what this "opening field of question" will yield.

Secondly, a project that's been something like four years in the making, A Short History of Tom Weatherly. This is a feature on the late and very neglected Tom Weatherly, blues poet par excellence, which collects most of his published (and some previously unpublished) writings and sets it alongside essays and reminiscences by others, up on Jacket 2. Here's J2’s write-up:

David Grundy has curated this feature on the poetry of African American poet Thomas Elias Weatherly and the intersections of his Alabama heritage, Christian and later Jewish religion, Black identity, and personal politics. This collection seeks to celebrate Weatherly as a skilled blues poet who wrote outside of “secure ideological or formal categories,” instead drawing from the complexity of his identity to build a unique poetics. “A short history of Tom Weatherly” compiles Weatherly’s poetry and other writings (both published and unpublished); reviews and essays by Grundy, Burt Kimmelman, Ken Bluford, and others; as well as photographs, obituaries, manuscripts, and recordings.

With grateful thanks to Julia Block and Kenna O’Rourke for their help with proofreading, editing and design; Regina Nicholson for granting permission to print Tom Weatherly’s work; and to the contributors: Samuel Amico, John Ashbery (RIP), Marilyn Kaggen, Ken Bluford, Victor Bockris, Akua Lezli Hope, Burt Kimmelman, Chris Martin, Aldon Nielsen, Eugene Richie, Evelyn Hoard Roberts (RIP), Janet Rosen, Jerome Rothenberg, Aram Saroyan, MG Stephens, and Rosanne Wasserman (with Lauri Scheyer’s contribution on its way!).

Both these pieces in memory of the poets they celebrate: Cecil Taylor (2018) and Tom Weatherly (2014).

(On other fronts, a review of the new Stephen Jonas reader, Arcana, should be out in the next Tripwire and I'm also working on reviews of Dread Poetry and Freeedom, David Austin's much-needed monograph on Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Beautiful Aliens, the forthcoming Steve Abbott reader expertly edited by Jamie Townsend.)

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

SPLINTER Issue 6 -- Out Now



Pleased to announce that the sixth issue of SPLINTER magazine is out now...70 pages of poems from the following:

Ulli Freer, Callie Gardner, Dominic Hale, Randall Horton, Nathaniel Mackey, Erín Moure (translations of Andrés Ajens and Chus Pato), Cedar Sigo, Cassandra Troyan, Jamie Townsend and César Vallejo (translated and with glosses by William Rowe and Helen Dimos). 

Plus the usual news section.

You can get it over at https://splintermag.blogspot.com

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

New from MATERIALS: Books, Readings, Launches

=======================================
ANNE BOYER – MONEY CITY SICK AS FUCK
Available for Pre-Order
=======================================



















Very pleased to announce that Anne Boyer’s Money City Sick as Fuck is available for pre-order. Selected from a sequence of 100 poems written on a long day in the summer of 2013, Money City imagines writing a poem "in a confederacy of exception [...] called 'wages for tenderness and nothing else'". Situated between Pompeii and Olympus, at "Texaco in ruins" or the amusement park, in a bar called Lethe, at &the saddest prom in history, taking "every odd route", these poems passionately survey and survive the streets and jails of the modern-day polis,"sunbathing in Atlantis", oracles IRL.

The peak consequence —
             this port
                        of pleasure —
                                  we will
                                or will not
                                  realize —

Reserve your copy at http://material-s.blogspot.com/

Also: MATERIALS Reading Series. Charlotte Thiessen, Marty Hiatt and Joel Scott will read at SET, 27A Dalston Lane, London E8 3DF, on Monday 27th May. Further details at: https://www.facebook.com/events/2271144293103838/

And: Double book launch for two new books from Bloomsbury's Critical Poetic series, A Black Arts Poetry Machine and Lyric Pedagogy and Marxist-Feminism at May Day Rooms, Fleet Street, London, on Saturday 11th May, 7pm. David Grundy and Sam Solomon will provide a brief overview of the books and will share discoveries for their research. The presentations will be followed by an open discussion. See: https://maydayrooms.org/whats-on/

Monday, 22 April 2019

Brandon Brown - The Four Seasons (Wonder, 2018)



Picked up from Brandon Brown himself in the Bay Area last summer, a month or so before his UK tour and wondrous readings in London and at the Sussex Poetry Festival, The Four Seasons is a book I've been living with for some time now. First things first, it's a lovely-looking edition (perfect bound, large-pocket sized) published by small (but perfectly formed) press Wonder – or, as the web address proclaims, Shit Wonder. And the particular brand of humour in that phrase, a kind of wide-open irony which manages to avoid either fatalistic bathos or recuperated sublime slipping in through the back-door, characterises the tone of the book as a whole. Written back in 2015-2016,  its title provides easy clue to its main thematic preoccupation: the organisation of daily lives into the broader temporal frame of seasons, which are "arbitrary in practice if not in legislation" (12). Not subscribing to the annual division from January to December, the book instead moves, in a manner arbitrary/not-arbitrary, from May Day to May Day: what Brown calls "my idiotic poetry calendar" (38). At one point, he calls seasons myths to live by (133); their balance between recurrence and passing, happiness and mourning giving the book its bittersweet airs.

The Four Seasons is a daybook, journal, diary, or sectional long-form piece of prose that doesn’t at first glance appear to be a ‘poem’ per se. It has the virtues of the more digressive and personal nature of the non-academic essay (and in that sense could be placed in a tradition of say, Romanticism – the period that perhaps most influences Brown, poetically, in terms of his reading). It can also be charmingly silly, rolling along on endearing stoner vibes (sample: "One day I got so stoned I thought I invented the word 'wow' "). But, on top of this, it's shot through with an understatedly meticulous attention to the roll and flow of language off the tongue -- which is ‘poetic’ insofar as it is vernacular and musical, conversational and artificial, citational and specific to the moment, sliding between the speaking and the written voice, a chatty and dialogic monologue, the result of a practice that nonetheless retains a keen sense of overall structure, and above all, timing.

When Brown reads the text out loud -- as he did at the Sussex Poetry Festival and for the Splinter Reading series in Lewisham during the heatwave last summer -- he leaves stand-up comedy pauses, extended beyond expected limits, looks around, starts again as if the lines he'd just read were improvised, that he'd just thought of them. (And after all, that balance between spontaneity and rehearsed routine is the drama of stand-up per se.) That movement mimics but is not equivalent to how it feels to track the work's pacing as you read. There’s this thing Brown does, particular in the first section, of alternating paragraphs, where one theme is held in suspension while another is introduced and then the other one is returned to, overlapping, interweaving, like balls moving through the air in the hands of skilled juggler. Is that too easy a metaphor? What I'm trying to talk about are the spaces / pauses between anecdotes / paragraphs, as observation succeeds observation, the original observation coming back in a few pages later, the thread picked up again. It’s very musical. Not pop song. Sonata form? Or canon? Or fugue? Recapitulation, modulation, development, repeating phrases cycling through a musical improvisation, or the variations on a theme: and weirdly, in terms of structure if not spirit, closer to jazz or sonata form than to the pop songs that drench Brown’s work (most notably the previous book-length Top 40, which cycles through the top 40 songs in the pop charts at one time as social index, record of the work routine and its opposites, what live alongside it).

The overall framing of seasonal order reversed, starts with summer through to spring: in Brown’s calendar, the connection to labour that the seasons encapsulate is central, with worker’s holidays present as respite but also with mendacious overlay, public festivities as at once repositories of social exclusion and nationalistic violence and of the carnivaleseque, the jubilee, the warmth of community.
The seasons for Brown are also ways of reckoning with mortality. The discourse here is not spiritual per se, though Brown uses the traditional framework of the voyage to the land of the dead in the book’s most extended and moving narrative passage, taking up much of the Winter section. Nonetheless, it is to do with those things that are the frequent terrain of spiritual / religious practices: memorialisation, mourning, and the reckoning with death and change: the relation to artistic peers, celebrity idols, and deceased friends, marked in rituals or temporal observances that are at once highly personal and collectively ritualistic. The journey to the land of the dead, which starts off destabilising-jokey, a kind of sideways stoner-slip into alternative mental realms on the way to the supermarket, and ends surprisingly moving, as Brown encounters deceased friends, poets, from Peter Culley to David Bowie. And throughout the book, a meditation on what it means for seasonal division to be the way we parcel up our lives – quoting David Brazil on the etymology of seasons, thinking about time and motion and space, what happens to the body placed in seasons, in the world.

Another recurring tic: "[insert author name] has a line like". There's a recurring joke, or trope, about a line of poetry that Brown might only have half-remembered, but won't go to the book and check-- "[insert author name] has a line like..." This is, of course, not laziness but a deliberate flipping round of our usual approach to citation / allusion, drawing attention to the way lines reverberate in memory and the way we, sometimes, make them something else, is important to the way the book works. This reaches its crescendo in the section where Brown tries to transcribe the entirety of Keat's 'Ode to Autumn' off the top of his head, leaving in the transcription with incorrectly- and partially-remembered lines, the morphed lines and the gaps of less memorable sections creating some strange new hybrid. Textual authority is (temporarily) subordinated to the practice of reading and remembering as intimate, personal, yet with a gesture towards common/communality that is central to the book's ethics.

This is what the seasons are for Brown, what they allow him to do: to index the personal relation to sweat and smell, the sweet leaking of flowers or the harsh bite of winter to index how those individual observations are shaped by and relate to literary figurations, and how these are all interwoven into the social fabric of the every day. In that sense, Autumn is Keats. And now, the seasons are Brandon Brown, forest fires or unexpected snow or early spring, wherever you are, whatever the climate.

Thursday, 28 February 2019

SPLINTER Issue 5



Just a brief announcement that issue No. 5 of SPLINTER magazine is out for the last day of February -- 68 pages of poems from the following poets: Quenton Baker, Elana Chavez, Iris Colomb, D.I., Ian Heames, Lisa Jeschke, Mendoza / MacPherson / Hardy, Montenegro Fisher, Reitha Pattison, Jèssica Pujol Duran, Verity Spott, Catherine Wagner, Emilia Weber. Plus news, reviews and pictures...(The mag includes my review of Quenton Baker's excellent This Glittering Republic.)

Available for £3 (UK), £4 (Europe) or £6 (Rest of World), from: http://splintermag.blogspot.com/


Thursday, 7 February 2019

A Black Arts Poetry Machine



















My book, A Black Arts Poetry Machine: Amiri Baraka and the Umbra Poets is out today from Bloomsbury today -- with many thanks to series editor Daniel Katz, and to the readers and peer reviewers who helped shape it into being. Here's the blurb:
“A vital hub of poetry readings, performance, publications and radical politics in 1960s New York, the Umbra Workshop was a cornerstone of the African American avant-garde. Bringing together new archival research and detailed close readings of poetry, A Black Arts Poetry Machine is a groundbreaking study of this important but neglected group of poets. David Grundy explores the work of such poets as Amiri Baraka, Lorenzo Thomas and Calvin Hernton and how their innovative poetic forms engaged with radical political responses to state violence and urban insurrection. Through this examination, the book highlights the continuing relevance of the work of the Umbra Workshop today and is essential reading for anyone interested in 20th-century American poetry.”
I guess that needs some background...The Umbra Poets Workshop was formed in the early 1960s in the atmosphere of artistic and political radicalism that saw African-American protestors disrupt the business-as-usual order of the UN building in New York in protest at the murder of Patrice Lumumba. One of the participating groups, the On Guard Committee for Freedom -- a political organisation -- essentially then coalesced into a more artistically-focused group, the Umbra Workshop. The group held regular meetings at Tom Dent's flat, in which they would get together to discuss each other's in-progress work, and were an active presence in the New York poetry scene of the time. Consisting of a fluctuating, but always large, membership, they aimed to form a publication, workshop and reading environment at a time when the poetry scenes around them were almost exclusively white. The group also started a magazine, of which two issues were produced during its most active period, with further issues appearing at periodic intervals later on, after the group had officially disbanded.





Copies of the magazine are rarer than hen's teeth these days -- there was talk of an Umbra reader coming out from CUNY's Lost and Found programme, but I haven't seen or heard any news of that for a while. Let's hope that something happens! But Umbra was always more than just a magazine. Calvin Hernton described the explosive impact Umbra Poets would make at readings within the predominantly white New York poetry scene of the time: sometimes appearing eight-to-ten at a time, they appeared, in his words, like "a dynamic, well-rehearsed black arts poetry machine". So while Baraka has often been essentially credited with 'founding' the Black Arts Movement, establishing the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in Harlem after Malcolm X's death in 1965 -- an enterprise in which members of Umbra were involved -- Umbra should be understood as laying the ground -- and, perhaps, offering examples of roads not taken. Umbra are sometimes credited in histories of the period as precursors, but their work is almost never considered in depth. Hence this book! (I'm also played to say that another book, by Jean-Phillipe Marcoux, is in the works -- watch this space...)

Of course, the Black Arts Movement challenged easy divisions between the political and the aesthetic, and politics was also key to Umbra. The book's first chapter discusses the 1961 UN protest and the emergence of Umbra, along the way offering readings of poems that emerged from the protest and its environment by Ishmael Reed, Raymond R. Patterson, Askia Toure, Ray Durem and Lorenzo Thomas. Here's one of them:















I use this chapter to argue that, at this point in time, tradition of African-American internationalism was already in existence -- involving Baraka, to be sure, but alongside many other now-forgotten figures, not least the Umbra poets. Umbra itself was short-lived, but it set in motion a number of hugely important careers -- to list them partially, beginning with perhaps the most famous, that of Ishmael Reed, but also of Lorenzo Thomas -- later on, a Black Arts scholar, and throughout, for my money, one of the most unjustifiably-neglected poets in America of the second-half of the Twentieth Century (though thankfully a collected poems is forthcoming -- this is a bit of a boom-time for Umbra, it seems!); and of Tom Dent, 'New Orleans Griot' (likewise, an invaluable Dent Reader came out last year -- edited by Dent's friend and comrade Kalamu ya Salaam, you can get it here); of David Henderson, maybe best known as the first biographer of Jimi Hendrix, collaborator with Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman and others, poet of what he calls the 'third eye/world' of diasporic culture in America; of Calvin C. Hernton, author of the controversial Sex and Racism in America, attendee of R.D. Laing's Kingsley Hall and meetings of the Caribbean Artists Movement, novelist and poet; of N.H. Pritchard, whose experimental concrete poetry has recently been addressed by Fred Moten and in Anthony Reed's Freedom Time; Lloyd Addison, perhaps the most experimental of the Umbra poets, author of prodiguous, often self-published output, allusive, punning and singular; Askia Toure (then Rolland Snellings), today one of the eminent grises of the Black Arts Movement; Rashidah Ismaili, whose Autobiography of the Lower East Side has been getting some recent praise, and who should (as is the case with all these writers) be far better-known; Steve Cannon, still an active figure in New York artistic scenes; did I mention that Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor were also involved?! -- and all that's just the half of it...

Within a single book, I wasn't able to write on every member of the workshop, so, after the ensemble first chapter on the Lumumba Protest, each subsequent chapter focuses on one principal writer. Though Amiri Baraka was never a member of the workshop, he knew a number of the Umbra poets and invited them to perform in the Black Arts Repertory Theatre / School. (Here's Clayton Riley's review of the event for Liberator, alongside some images from the feature on 'five young afro-american poets' in French left magazine Revolution, which sets Baraka alongside Umbra poets Lorenzo Thomas and Joe Johnson, as well as A.B. Spellman and a very young Sonia Sanchez.)



While Baraka's Black Arts work is too often taken in isolation, as if suddenly it emerged in an explosion of provocative militancy, setting it against the backdrop of Umbra helps us -- I hope! -- read it anew. So the book's second chapter turns to Baraka's response to urban insurrection and stereotypes of African-American militancy in the iconic mid-60s poems 'Black Dada Nihilismus', 'Black Art' and 'Black People!'.

Guerilla: Free Newspaper of the Streets, Vol.2, No.1, 1968. Broadside edited by Allen Van Newkirk of the group Black Mask.

The third chapter concentrates on David Henderson's poetry, charting the complexities of New York racial politics at the time -- as he writes, 'Harlem to Lower East Side, space of a nation' -- and in particular the 1964 Harlem Rebellion, from which emerged his poem 'Keep on Pushing'. We then get Calvin C. Hernton's writings on riots, in poetry and in an incendiary essay 'Dynamite Growing Out of their Skulls!', published in Baraka's and Larry Neal's anthology Black Fire; and another Hernton chapter, on his poem 'Medicine Man', read for its complex and tortured address to the American South.




Next up, a chapter on Tom Dent, which touches on his work with The Free Southern Theatre, who courageously toured the South, eventually settling in New Orleans, and thence his own poetry emerging from the city -- notably, the long poem 'Return to English Turn'. Finally, there's a chapter on Lorenzo Thomas's poem 'The Bathers', one of the great poems of the Black Arts Movement, and its (re)writing of the 1963 protests in Birmingham, Alabama. (I also touch here on Ishmael Reed's amazing early prose-poem 'The Ghost in Birmingham' -- subsequently the first item in his collected poems, it appeared in the magazine Liberator in the early 60s and is as good an indication as any of just how the good the writing coming out of Umbra could be.)




Anyhow...There's still so much more to be done on Umbra, and on this moment in African-American writing: let's hope that this is just the tip of the iceberg!

Thursday, 27 December 2018

Alice Notley Reading: King’s Place, London, June 2018

[Offered at the year's end, as one of its highlights.]



June 2018, Alice Notley reading at King’s Place, just down the road from King’s Cross station, glass and sculptures in the redevelopment haze rearing more and more every year – in the evening of the eventual summer heat, at the summer launch for the then-current (summer) issue of Poetry London, which has a black-and-white watercolour portrait of Notley’s floating head on the cover and includes a couple of recent Notley’s poems, one a sort of self-reflection on the composition of her epic Alma, or the Dead Women, and its relation to 9/11, which somehow manages to do self-reflexivity without ego (the poem’s called ‘Creating the Memory Collage’, and is available online here), the other a ‘Jimi Hendrix Anecdote’ from the 1960s, of which more below.

Notley’s set might have been twenty minutes, could have been two hours, time stopped even as the temporal rollercoaster in the shifting vortex of the last poem she read accelerated and decelerated with intense attention to rhythm, pacing, timing, all of that – the minutiae of their shifts within an intense sense of overall architecture, of knowing what and when to say but with an openness to exhilarating destabilisation at almost every turn, as a fundamental aspect of poetic method. (I’d say the reading was probably around twenty minutes by clock time.) Notley, the final reader, stepped on stage, hesitant up the stairs, stood at the lectern, said that if she did an intro, she wouldn’t stop talking and would use up her slot, is the microphone working, there’s a self-conscious but genuine and funny play with the conventions of the either overly-assertive or falsely self-deprecating mode of certain poetry self-intros, but when she reads, she’s possessed of such total assurance, she reads without looking at us, no placation, total devotion to poetry – as she writes somewhere, “poetry is my only value”, and while poetry isn’t exactly transcendental here, it almost is, for what it can say and do in relation to and in defiance of the mendacities of ‘the world’, of which it is very much a part.

I guess part of the problem in writing about this, conveying the experience, is that Notley invariably says it better than anyone else, whether in interviews, or, most often, in the quotably declarative statements that pepper her voluminous output (and especially voluminous recently, perhaps since her move from the United States to Paris, a prodigious outflowing that totally blows away the usual characterisations of what ‘late style’ is or the convention of resting on your laurels – she earns more and more laurels with each book.) Yeah, she’s a big deal, and it was surprising that there wasn’t more buzz around this, though the event was pretty well attended, and it was especially beautiful to see her interacting with Denise Riley after the reading. So she read three poems, a clearly carefully-planned set, no hesitation or on-the-spot decisions about order, but choreographed precisely. First, the afore-mentioned ‘Jimi Hendrix Anecdote’, more ‘New York School’ in style than the other work – the inevitable tag that comes up and which Notley herself has sought to evade, but which her own placement, along with Ted Berrigan, at the centre of a locus of poets in that city at a particular time, still conjures up (she spoke at a New York School conference in Birmingham a few weeks after the Poetry London reading, for example). The poem sees a lot of names dropped (in an in-joke about that kind of name-dropping); it’s about going to a Free Timothy Leary benefit in New York 1969 and seeing Hendrix perform shortly before his death. Maybe we can in part understand this poem as in line with and as a joke about the New York School and Notley’s placing with New York bohemian / literary scenes. O’Hara and others might write, often, about mythological figures or famous literary figures or about celebrities and celebrity iconography / identification (James Dean, Billie Holiday, et al), they’re probably most famous for writing about people you, the reader who isn’t a part of their friendship circle, don’t know, connected by first name at the bar or the party or on the phone: people who are only retrospectively famous as part of the canonisation that that way of writing about the coterie to some extent jokingly anticipates. But Notley’s poem is about someone who, even at the time, would have been familiar to everyone. So this is about the recuperation of that coterie style and we all know those people are famous now so it’s a kind of in-joke about in-jokes. And then again, isn’t Notley’s thing the rejection of ‘school’ altogether? – The creation of alternative ensembles which might encompass real poets, publications, ties of friendship and love – let’s avoid the word ‘networks’ here – as well as ensembles that only exist in poems (as in the dead women in Alma)? In this poem, a play within, or adjacent to, a style that gets named as a school, in any case – or just the form of the anecdote, if you like, owned by no one but its teller.

Beyond the ‘New York School’ then, the poem is called ‘Jimi Hendrix Anecdote’, and the twist is that there’s no real anecdote, just that she had a bad trip and felt there was a white thread inside her that needed to be clung to or she’d be annihilated – would that be possible, she muses later in recollecting how she recollected this incident to her sons and friends on her 60th birthday – and Hendrix looked at her in the crowd and seemed to be the only one who’d understood – he performed solo and died a few months later – ultimately the poem concluding “there is no anecdote”, ending with a parody of the narrative structure the anecdote assumes, the final lines “this thing that happened this is this thing that happened”. So the poem is clever, it’s about the anecdote structure in itself and like lots of her recent shorter poems that aren’t part of larger sequences or book projects, has this kind of digressive storytelling thing, often about the dead, and often concerned with dreams (her Lorenzo Thomas poems or the other poem in Poetry London, about 9/11 and the composition of Alma) – so in that sense the anecdote has something here to do with recall, with memorialising the dead as if they were still with us – the anecdote tends to be something told about the live person, but then it also has a structural role in posthumous tributes, documentaries and the like (think the talking heads in a Hendrix documentary, say). It’s about life and mourning and holding on to a thread against annihilation in a way that movingly belies the jokiness of its (non)anecdotal structure, and in that sense anticipates what Notley would do to a more extended extent in the last poem she read.

That was the warmup, anyway, then an earnest we the people poem from the 2006 collection Certain Magical Acts, revisiting her earlier “I the people” and more insistently meditating on what that collective pronoun might mean, its inclusions and exclusions, with the we both a cry for togetherness and an acknowledgment not forced, of what the pronoun we actually does in terms of identity as reinforcing exclusion – and here it’s a kind of planetary eco consciousness too, with plant and animal life – it was read with true seriousness and intent –

And then – but then! – the third poem (‘Malorum Sanatio’ – her own Latin coinage meaning “the healing of evil”), which is from a recent Canadian chapbook, Undo, published by Rob McLennan's Above/Ground Press with an A5 card cover but with the pages huge and expanding out beyond that cover (in that sense maybe reflecting its title). She prefaced the reading of this poem by saying, ‘this is going to be hard to read so I’m going to count to ten first’. Then she launched in, and it was amazing, like six voices at once[*], modulating tone and inflection within the space of phrases, words, lines, sometimes dialogues between characters, sometimes within one character, it’s got a humour but you never quite laugh, it’s never quite a joke, and a deep deep seriousness and personal integrity – lost in the words when she reads, authoritative and with audience in palm of hand but never playing to them – that trance state she says she writes in. Or as she puts it in an (even-more) recent poem: "Syntax of / The instantaneous I’m trying to write three or four flashes per line". (The Speak Angel Series, Book VI: Other Side of Fabric, published by The Equalizer, 2018))



So she read with skill and clearly prepared and rehearsed and she knows how to read it backwards (and sometimes it does feel like it’s being read from, or in fact is written from all angles at once, backwards and forwards and sidewise in slantwise purposeful linear motion, around the insistent motif of healing, but an aggressive healing, ending movingly with Notley positing this healing as a healing of the loss of loved ones (as ever in the recent work, Ted and Doug and Kate and her brother and father behind all this), the suffering of women, the exclusions and deprivations and depredations perpetuated on planet and people (a narrative of her as the traveller going to a different planet and aggressively pursuing this purpose of healing and not being understood), and if there’s a spirituality it’s that sometimes the dead do seem to still speak and to be with us, no cosmology, no goddess (that interview with CA Conrad where she goes “fuck Hecate!"), she reads this last poem fast, so many ideas and she just keeps going and going, but not in a way that feels exhausting or like coasting as it can do with some extra-prolific writers / musicians, but really just she has this mountain of ideas, like what Elvin Jones (if I'm remembering correctly) says about John Coltrane, that it was like he was sitting on a mountain of ideas and they would just flake off every few seconds. In a recent interview Notley says “I'm trying to destroy the line, or make the words and thoughts in it as simultaneous as possible, or make all the parts of the poem be simultaneous, yet still be voiced.” That makes sense when you hear her read, totally.

A few days later, looking back at the text of the poem, the setting seems to be a different planet – or maybe a different version of earth. Notley uses the ghost of the sci-fi framework the way sci-fi’s always been useful for, not only as vehicle for imagination but as a way to gain different perspective on the fundamental alien-ness of fucked-up structures on earth. Alien beings are speaking to the narrator, or speaking through them (Spicer’s Martians?):

we have a different year on Jupiter
These transgressions in their authentic beauty digress

The poem is partly concerned it seems with both the healing from toxic masculinity by those gendered female or non-normative at its expense and the healing of toxic masculinity from against itself – continuing the theme of Alma;, and of what we could say was the care work of women having to heal men, registered with sarcasm in the opening stanza:

I want to know if I’m healing
Him oh so talented dead man illiterate unlettered I say
In the dark club playing his unlettered guitar

The character / speaker in the poem knows they have to heal this figure but not how. We seem to have a meditation on how masculine framings of artistic genius are created, disentangling them from the ‘pasted’ and ‘pressed’ letters of their pasts:

I’m supposed to know why in order to heal you or him am I
Let’s not concentrate on what it means dead guys with
Past to be unpasted pressed over with letters who can
Read them

Later the speaker asks:

have I healed you yet I’ll continue to try
On the street corner behind broken ice whatever planet

They are not sure

If it’s a feeling I have to heal or if it’s a disease

These are affective boundaries, albeit ones which have real material effects. Language is key here – Notley again:

don’t
Come in here a voice said but I have brought back every dimen-
Sion that I am mentioning till I find the one in the pun you are
No one gets out of here unhealed

no one gets
Out of here unhealed battered by grief

Playing on terms of violence, aggression, destruction – Jim Morrison’s ‘no one gets out of here alive’ becomes ‘no one gets out of here unhealed’ – the language of masculinity is itself distorted, appropriated, reclaimed, as words break across lines (‘pla/net’) in dizzying shards and fragments, crystal-clear, rock-hard. The healing is a healing but also a living through of grief – if we read the grammar that way, so that to be healed (the converse of unhealed) is also to be battered by grief. The negative is reclaimed as the space of that which heals:

I claim everything as my abyss in order to heal you

This is a negative framing of what is also utopian and enormous, as we’ll see below, a project of huge memory of all that’s ever been spoken or thought. Language, as the historical residue of that, even in its particular, in the language associated with dominant imperial and patriarchal paradigms, is still this healing ground, for its also where toxic masculinity and imperial domination is reinforced and enacted. But forgiveness is a part of this healing, and the healing language sought is also associated with the mother’s lullaby, or more accurately, the song beyond the individual mother or gendered individual or even individual per se but of any song:

I don’t care what you did or have I search for the one lang-
Uage to heal in which infants recognize when anyone sings

The poem at once seems to manifest a character-speaker who is not sure of their purpose, or at least, of how to accomplish it, of whether the desire and necessity to heal comes from their self or some other collective or even cosmic agency – but at the same time, matching the disruptive, anarchic formal assurance, an absolute self-belief of the insistently-reiterated I that is Notley and her life, but is no lyric pose no decentred subject subjected -- yes inscripted, violently written on by language but with the mobilising captures of that language to speak individually of collective import, that the spiritual discourse of the work may be sci-fi may be fantasy, that the zone of the spirits of the dead and ensembles of dead women or excluded is physical and not physical, that

if I’m telling
A myth or truth only a point of origination you can’t break
Me

Here, the poet as leader, a role both wished for and wished for, turns on the pun on a word where sonic association itself dismembers and remembers the harm done in a language inflected and mobilised for patriarchal purpose:

I’m
Healing you leading you and healing almost the same word
Breaking open with something vulnerable to know
To memorize a motion a structure I am healing you
Inside the whiteness of your eyes

And in the final stanza that healing reaches a climax of personal and collective healing, every syllable of final line earned as it comes to resounding, concluding, unquiet clarion-calling rest. The desire to remember literally everything, to fall away in order to remember all words ever spoken, is utopian and impossible and enormous, it fits with alma’s project of remembering, to write a history adequate, but not commensurate or complicit with, the project of human life understood in terms of its violence, exclusions and framing definitions – perhaps too, beyond them.

All of us call come here and be healed of displeasure
Healed of extreme distress of disease imbalance and fit-
Fulness healed of every mark that hasn’t a source in your
Spirit healed of ruptures between substances these words
Are pure without cynical precedent or calculation
I obtain for you the blessing of others we heal and holding are you
Falling away so you can remember all words ever spo-
Ken in any language remember thoughts all thoughts
For you can in one instant be healed knowing everything
Remembering everyone and finally remembering who you are