Afterwords, Commentary

Afterword // The Being Beyond Terror: Alice Notley for Seattle Arts & Lectures

by Jay Aquinas Thompson | Associate Editor

Alice Notley came to read for Seattle Arts & Lectures on a warm, rainy spring evening. Notley, whose forty-five-year career has included much charged, visionary poetry and only intermittent mainstream literary attention, drew a smallish crowd to the auditorium below the old McCaw Opera House. A few hundred people came to sip wine, leaf through their new books (the beloved Open Books, the event’s vendor, sold tablefuls of Notley’s titles), and catch a little of Notley’s light. Notley’s opening act was Emrys Foster, a teen poet and student in SAL’s Writers in the Schools program: “How should I breathe?” went one of their poem’s many questions. “Sit in the sand and listen to the sea.” SAL’s organizers also showed a short film honoring Elliott Bay Books and Open Books, recipients of SAL’s 2016 Prowda Awards.

After these openings, Notley crept carefully up to the mic. She read entirely from her newest book, Certain Magical Acts (“I have to make sure it’s good”), her paperback dog-eared and stuffed with page markers of ripped-up paper. She opened with Acts’s second poem, “Two of Swords,” named for the Tarot card showing a woman blindfolded, bearing two crossed swords under a twilight sky. The card, my seer friends tell me, often suggests balance, indecision, and cerebration. But perhaps Notley just liked the image itself, for its suggestion of dangerous power and inner escape: “If I drop both swords and rip off the blindfold,” she wrote, “I still can’t / leave, for I can’t leave this world except internally.”

This inner escape is key to Notley’s poetry. It isn’t a slide into fancy, but an inner triumph over political falsehood, received social reality, and the “cartoon creatures” of external appearance. Her poems give the sense of being channeled rather than composed, but Notley read without the placid blankness of a medium. Her voice was a high thin rush, her body tense around her book. Pulling her little markers out from a dozen excerpts of her long sequence “Voices,” Notley muttered, “I never know which one I meant to read,” but she proceeded to pour dynamic energy into every dream-echo and mighty violent presence that speaks in the sequence.

I want to be a star blown in
the wind from the river, one of a thousand empty things on its breath. What’s left

of a sister life could be display, iridescence, wham! Not your idea
of an old building on a rundown street—I wanna be a peacock! [34]

At that line, the audience laughed—the social chuckle of recognition that tends to punctuate poetry readings when someone reads something daring—but Notley didn’t look up. She remained in the grip of her voices:

rather just kill. Join the ghost dancers later at the ossified bridge to trip

over crushed skulls across the river whose origin’s emotion—fake
panaceas of warbling values, religious nuttiness, con art—to partake,
finally, of livid equality, death. [32-33]

If these quotations feel overly intense, it’s because the fickle, visceral, often ghostly quality of Notley’s poems make them tough to excerpt. Her work is best experienced in long immersions, or, as at this reading, in intense out-loud rushes. In her essay “Thinking in Poetry,” Notley wrote that “the ‘I’ I most prefer sits serenely and somewhat numinously behind my personality, behind a sort of window, watching the chaotic and distressing events of the world.” This “I” is amoral, prehuman, often genderless but enraged by thousands of years of women’s subjection, diminishment, and exclusion.

Notley has also written that as a woman poet, she had no sense of “coming after,” no lineage or tradition she could trust or identify with. For Notley, the epistemology of poetry’s canon is rooted so deeply in women’s oppression that she, as a woman, had to begin entirely on her own, without any clear model for her self-creation. Another of the “Voices” declares:

Women are not allowed truth,
not allowed speaking roles, not allowed to be precise. They say
in a rhythm of lying, I’m almost equal now, children,
embrace me. When my death comes I’ll have nearly been the one. [57]

Notley’s sense of self-creation may be one source of her own bravado towards her work. When she was asked in the Q&A after the reading about her 1996 epic poem The Descent of Alette, she said that creating an epic was just another means of artistic survival. “I wanted to know that I could do anything I wanted to. I had to make the entire history of literature exist in me to do anything at all.”

After reading another long piece—“Found Work (Lost Lace),” a hushed, insular, anxious sequence written in the voice of a manuscript—Notley closed with the central poem of Acts, a long spell called “Blinding, the White Horse in Front of Me.” In “Blinding,” a healer performs a ritual of renewal and cleansing for a patient whose initial terror gives way to a renewed potency and joy. The poem, Notley explained during the Q&A, came after a visit to her mother back home in Needles, California: at eighty-eight, her mother had broken her hip but recovered completely as few elders can. “Blinding,” Notley said, was written in the days after her visit, coming “up from the floor of my apartment” as if communicated directly to her by an unseen presence.

“Blinding” was overpowering, an undeniable experience of language’s ability not just to describe but to enact, cleanse, and alter. The voice of the healer, like many of Notley’s voices, spoke beyond time and without a clear symbolic referent.

I am the being
that deflects change, for change is boring and haunted,
the same gestures in shifting colors. You know
all the colors. Stop, just stop. Nothing suffices but
timelessness. You terrify me, you say. I am the being
beyond terror, beyond extinction; details flow off me. Here
it rains a mechanical grey vapor, if that’s what
you want. I am the being containing no organs, nerves,
or other definition. I am the being who isn’t speaking,
the one who doesn’t speak a language, the one
who has no charms or amulets, the one who can’t
be bought: you have me so you can’t have me.
I’m the being in which the universe is outside harmony,
outside symmetry and consequence. Outside protection.
You have not passed beyond fear; you’re shaking.
I have to help everyone; I have to leave, the patient says.
You’ll never leave me now. You’re mine. Be as I say. [103-104]

The healer is mighty and impersonally cruel; their violence is one of breaking inner walls and expectations down. And their ritual succeeds: by the end of the poem, it is the patient who has picked up the poem’s ecstatic refrain.

…I am the being that is more than
what we do to ourselves. I am the being that is larger
than the subjugation of women, that thousands-of-
years-old moment. I am the being that has never
lived on earth. I am the being whose tears are
weather. I am the being that has always been. [110]

By the end of the poem, the audience was holding its breath and Notley was in tears. Notley’s quest to make the whole self into a work of art—self-defining, self-shaping, amoral and free—recalls Stevens, or maybe even Nietzsche. But the insatiability of Notley’s poetic voice, and its disdain for intellectualism, mean that her readers feel the immediate thrill of this freedom more than (as in Stevens) its abstract beauty. We too celebrate the frightening potency of self-creation. And Notley, at seventy-one, is possessed of a self-assurance that makes it seem like she could keep writing forever. During the Q&A, Christine Deavel, former co-owner of Open Books, read a question from the audience: “How do you keep ego out of your work?” “I don’t know,” Notley said with a smile. Then she shrugged: “I don’t care.”