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:

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

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:

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