Book review: Alice Notley’s “Reason and Other Women”

Like last week’s Rosselli piece, this essay originally appeared in Pleiades 31:2, the newest issue of a terrific magazine. Enjoy! Leave a comment!

Notley, Alice. Reason and Other Women. Chax Press: Michigan, 2010.

Alice Notley is contemporary American poetry’s anti-celebrity celebrity. Eloquent, formally diverse, and vehemently un-modish, Notley takes seriously poetry’s commitment to tell the truth with “new and honest words,” and has no patience for contemporary American poetry’s received forms of homily, performance, or satire. A veteran of the Second New York School poetry community, her work is unsentimental about avant-gardes and downright contemptuous of mainstream artistic success. Her older poem “1992” lists NAFTA and the CIA alongside the Academy of American Poets and the Pulitzer, writing “who wants [poetry] in a world / where all art’s patently successful / ratified by treaty and packaged by conglomerate” (Notley Grave of Light 252). She’s fond of quoting, instead, Frank O’Hara: “The chair of poetry must remain empty, for poetry does not collaborate with society, but with life!”

The volatile energy of Notley’s poetry—even if you can’t follow her, you believe her—has a backwards shadow in a career-long overproduction. Certain of her formal ideas have spun out entire books: avant-garde theory looks distrustfully at the written “I,” so she produces a first-person verse memoir, Mysteries of Small Houses. Or Notley’s identification of a political problem demands a response: the limited body of the female epic leads to her mighty Descent of Alette. Or, in her 2010 collection Reason and Other Women, the conceit of the mind as a Byzantine church fosters a huge book (191 pages) of entering the sanctum, addressing the dead, and creating through mosaiced materials.

Reason takes its own process as subject but, paradoxically, it rarely speaks of writing. The problem with words, in Reason, is that they are of the future and past, and the book’s farther-and-farther leads inward, not forward: “there is no next in this church” (55), Notley writes. Instead, the poet’s referent arts (gifts?) are mind-reading, dream, and mosaic. The past here is nothing but a story, and stories are bodies: figured, animate, present things.

going out years of words old to continue in the path of my nonfortune in this vast

continuum this infinite untimed experience the eddying river where what waters

where who knows. who knows where the earth is, what is lit mind

and the figures there (32)

In Reason, Notley takes mind-to-mind communication and mosaic as far as a book made of words can, into plain deep-psyche blurt and irregular structures of units-not-images. No reader will doubt Notley’s commitment to her mode of expression here, between titles as simple-minded as “The Scary Old Building” and passages of such singing seeming-heedless sublimity:


fascinting fascinating light of non doom, no doom

mood nair thedniw, come come, hop to in, in the kitc kitchen of breaking cant break it

the good these piece not really a broke al at all, know gla what do the dead say,

mouths frozen throats vibrant they say in the field, near those houses at the border,

in the light of the game where no ones playing, that struggles are becoming nothing, as

we die into a ring around the black sea full

of fish like us (30-31)

But such moments are more than balanced by many weirdly draggy passages in a similar manner, improvisational without vitality:

i said a low that is a car why say low instead of car a car rental low rental service and then pushin my babe toward the narrow and who would aid there but i get my own door i find my own door to door im not sure exactly but its dimensions or definition… (133)

The book is nervy, exemplifying Notley’s career-long commitment to expanding the poetic into new material, without always paying off. Speaking of nerves: Notley writes in Reason’s preface that, by slowly reading “word by word” the work at hand, “you [the reader] can enter a plane above society’s killing demands and live in ‘mind,’ at least temporarily” (7). The tone of such an introduction—could you imagine, say, Sharon Olds introducing her work in the same way?—gives the reader an idea what to expect from Reason.

The book, with its long prose-y lines and pileup of character archetypes, takes on the quality of a loose narrative. The closest Reason comes to the epiphanic lyric is in the middle of Part I, with two consecutive shorter (by this book’s standards) poems, “The Body Is in the Soul” and “The Figure of Reason.” The former, its title inverting the scientific-rational commonplace, drags the speaker to a torn edge in herself. There, the female figure of Reason, Notley writes, “casts a light” (44), while a male Chaos sings of images “when he fucks” (44). In “The Figure of Reason,” Notley’s speaker cries out:

reason speak to me what sort are you who are

in the corridors of my body

a light in which to know or discover, the city

a city but why, because it keeps calling on the horizon….

only reason is intelligent, only reason loves deeply, only reason can deal with notions

of purity and impurity, cementing them into the shapes of the world (46)

Seen through these lines, Reason’s formal choices make a physical sense: the language’s occasional violence, the material’s broken edges, take us to a place where (mosaic-style) one piece is roughly fitted to another. The titular Reason isn’t a shorthand for rationalism, but the animating female presence of concrete making. Only disjunctions unify: this statement is political, not just aesthetic.

Taken as a whole, Reason is daunting, exhausting, profound, and not quite worth it—a frustrating, deeply-felt attempt to reimagine old interior journeys in a new manner of expression. In Reason, Notley has chosen interruption, overspill, and self-half-revision over the poetry of perfected symmetries, the works of “men rich in images” (45). But she doesn’t want to kill traditional Orphic eloquence; the book’s commitment to joining-together is anti-Maenadic. Notley seeks wholeness. (And she’s still looking: as of press time, Notley has published two more collections of poetry, Culture of One and Songs and Stories of the Ghouls, since Reason.)

In her essay “Thinking in Poetry,” Notley once 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.” There’s a lot of chaos and distress in Reason, but there’s also companionship (if there’s one thing Notley’s imaginative works teach us, it’s that privacy isn’t empty; figures appear, lunge, and flicker out like shadows even in the inner sanctum of her imagination) and bright light.

Leave a comment

Filed under poetry

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s