[Fonograf Editions; 2022]
At the Town Hall which concluded 2014’s Alette in Oakland, a weekend-long celebration of the life and work of Alice Notley, the poet shocked many members of the gathering when she asserted that she didn’t believe in the Big Bang.
I want us to change the way we view—you know, like the idea that the universe began with an enormous painful explosion. I think that’s wrong, and we have to change. This is our myth, the scientific myth that the universe began in violence. If we say the universe began in violence, then we are going to be violent. This is a projection we are putting on the whole thing. This explosion, this Big Bang—it’s stupid.
These statements weren’t just Notley being provocative, speaking her mind, or refusing to repeat “what everybody knows”—though the author of Disobedience certainly has no problem with any of those things. More importantly, her words pointed to the root of her concern with origins, the stories we tell about them, and the possibility of healing through speaking another narrative or myth.
Notley’s earliest work is marked by a concern with the quotidian and allegiance to the American plain-speech tradition championed by William Carlos Williams (the subject of her 1980 critical talk, Dr. Williams’ Heiresses). But in part because of her lifelong concern with questions of voice, visionary transcriptions emerge as early as 1976’s Alice Ordered Me To Be Made, whose title poem was written “[near] my father dying in hospital / April 1975.” 1981’s “Jack Would Speak Through The Imperfect Medium of Alice” marks another turning point, as the poet utters a first-person monologue in the persona of Jack Kerouac (by then dead for over a decade). These fusions of everyday diction with uncanny vision heralded the poet’s developing “sound of plain angel.”
Scholars of Notley’s work describe 1996’s The Descent of Alette, a narrative poem which follows its eponymous heroine in an underworld journey through the subways in pursuit of a figure called the Tyrant, as a major breakthrough. In private correspondence, the poet concurs: “Alette obviously represents a decisive turn in my work. The deaths of others I experienced in the 80s made everything different, particularly that of my brother.” Her brother, a sniper in the Vietnam war, as well as her late father, entered her writing in works such as 1995’s Close to me and Closer . . . (The Language of Heaven) and Désamère. About the intimacy between voice, prosody, and the dead in that book, Notley wrote in her preface: “The overall form of each work is unique and is a consequence largely of the requirements of a voice: in each there is a dead man’s voice whose urgency and liberative qualities exact a line and a structure.” This body of writing signaled the increasingly central role of the world of the dead in Notley’s remarkable and prolific late-career productions.
Indeed, the poet Jane Gregory has described Notley’s post-Alette work as akin to William Blake’s prophetic books, and the comparison is not an idle one. Volumes such as Alma, or the Dead Women (2006) and Songs and Stories of the Ghouls (2011) invite the reader into complex mythographies peopled by what Homer called “the tribes of the dead,” while marked by the violence of contemporary war and social disintegration. As the subtitle of Alma suggests, the poet’s work is also always concerned with the impact of injustice and cruelty on women and children—a core component of the project for a “‘feminine’ epic” that Notley develops in a text of that title collected in Coming After, her first volume of essays (a second is forthcoming from The Song Cave). There she writes:
Yet I want to write that large public poem. I want to discover a woman’s voice that can encompass our true story existing on conscious and unconscious levels, in the literal present, witnessing more than one culture.
Enter The Speak Angel Series.
Published this year by Fonograf Editions alongside a collection of reissues entitled Early Works, this volume continues, and perhaps culminates, the visionary-epic line of Notley’s work. Written from 2013 to 2015 and then revised until 2020, The Speak Angel Series unfolds over six sections and six hundred plus pages. Sitting down to read it feels like tackling Pound’s Cantos, Benjamin’s Arcades Project, or Hildegard of Bingen’s Scivias.
That last comparison may be the closest because, like Hildegard’s book, The Speak Angel Series is a report of visions and voices, and an account of the conditions for universal salvation. Unlike the medieval Catholic nun, Notley does not center the Christian story, but announces herself as “the poet/orator/savior/crucified.” In this way, she stands kin to Dante, who narrates his voyage into the other world in the first person and never breaks the illusion that anything he’s telling us is true. (In the words of the eminent twentieth-century scholar Charles Singleton, “The fiction of the [Divine] Comedy is that it is not a fiction.”). Similarly, the apparent fiction of The Speak Angel Series is that it is not a fiction: “And the dead have often called out to me. I am telling the truth/this is not just literary.” Or, as restated later in the poem, “I repeat this is not a fiction you are undergoing change and certainly need it as you/know.”
Our initial orientation to the work comes in the form of a preface in which the poet outlines the six sections of The Speak Angel Series and provides some information about the narrative of the poem and how the work was composed. Part one, The House Gone, “becomes a journey in which I begin to lead everyone and -thing (people and mountains, quasars and whoever) to newness.” Part two, Opera, presents the host the poet has been leading “[standing] at the edge of a void, conversing.” Healing Matter, the third section, depicts “the protagonist, who is myself” descending into an abyss from the escarpment of ice on which the assembly has gathered. To Paste On incorporates events current to the composition of the poem, including the war in Syria, and Out of Order “is itself a deliberate collage” in the sense that the poet describes her procedure of keeping a non-chronological notebook and then cutting and pasting the results. Finally, The Poem, which closes the book, narrates a culminating battle as well as the attack of different malevolent forces. Like Healing Matter, The Poem takes up some of the metrical features that Notley developed in The Descent of Alette, though without the quotation marks that were such a striking feature of that earlier work. The overarching work of the narrator, the poet, and the poem, diversely restated across many pages, is nothing less than “[to] heal being.”
This bare summary can only begin to give a sense of the overwhelming world of conversation and event that The Speak Angel Series contains, as well as the formidable technique deployed by a master poet. The House Gone is characterized by long lines, often with medial caesurae of sense, intercut with lyric passages and what Notley calls “inset poems.” The effect of metrical strobe recalls the movement between the iambic pentameter of speech and the lyric odes of choral song in Greek tragedy, letting us know we are in multiple worlds at once. The opening line declares right off the power of poetic speech to make the world: “Our words are what is they say what we make.” This verse also presents one of the characteristics of The House Gone: unpunctuated lines often include distinct phrases without any cues as to how they’re distinguished, other than the words themselves. It’s a testament to Notley’s facility with this kind of poetry, now developed over decades, that I was reading for pages before I realized there were no commas or periods. The exceptional economy and grace of Notley’s placement of each word, which facilitates reading despite the lack of punctuation, reminded me of the poet Lew Welch’s encomium in How I Read Gertrude Stein: “Nobody ever did it as purely as Gertrude Stein, because everybody gets the story in the way somehow or other, or gets themselves in the way. She really went word, word, word, word, word, word. You know how musicians talk about Mozart? Well, that is the way Stein is as a writer in my mind.”
The terrain of the poem is swiftly defined by the throngs of the departed who speak to the narrator: “I came home there was no one there but myself and the dead.” But we are also in the presence of archaic myths, such as the Greek sacrifice of Iphigenia that preceded the Trojan War (“[they] got in their boats having sacri-/Ficed a woman”), which intimate the important and complex way in which old stories, from Greek legends to Christian scripture, will figure into the narration of Notley’s epic. A recurrent motif later in the poem sums it up: “pledge to use old signs.”
One of the oldest signs, a song essential to Notley’s own, is the Theogony of the eighth-century Greek poet Hesiod, which recounts the emergence of the world from primal chaos and the birth of the pantheon of gods. In correspondence, Notley reports: “I only ever read the beginning,” from which we learn that
In truth at first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundation of all the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth, and Eros, fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them.
“FIRST WAS CHAOS,” Notley’s poem reiterates (or translates). Its narrator is not shy about asserting that “I’m writing the theogony.” Her version, however, combines the Hellenic creation myths with the devastation of an unjust world hurtling toward its terminal judgment. She combines the voice of Hesiod with that of another Greek author, St. John the Divine, when she declares, “On Patmos I had reTREated to A CAVE”—the traditional location of the composition of the Bible’s final vision. But, she continues, “instead of writing Revelation I would L E A D Y O U.” The Speak Angel Series is a new theogony; but it’s also a new apocalypse.
The second section, Opera, continues to develop the identity established between the narrator and the author: “”I Alice Notley your leader am seeking POWER,” and “I Alice Notley a SOUL now want. P O W E R in-/STEAD of a self.” (As we learn later on, “[all] we are is power We need lucidity”). The lines of this section dramatically diverge from those of The House Gone on account of their irregular capitalization and spacing, typographical practices reminiscent of the books of Hannah Weiner, or of John Wieners’s Behind the State Capitol, or Cincinnati Pike. As with the calligrams of her recent collection For The Ride, these typographical irregularities are not mere gimmicks but indispensable elements of Notley’s prosody, as well as the poem’s disruption of many settled norms, including of writing itself. Opera also expands the chorus of dead voices to include the poet Allen Ginsberg, whose work is repeatedly cited (including the laugh-line rewrite, “[the] best minds of my generation are/ROCKS”). It centers the creative role of artmaking in the poem’s project of universal repair: “We’ll paste our dead thoughts/ON this abyss.” The poem furthers its vision of something like an army of phantom artists, making their contributions to “the inSURgent colLAGE” — what the following section, Healing Matter, describes as “this our practical collage our epic of us.”
Healing Matter also introduces one of the most provocative presences of the book, that of Michael Brown, the young man murdered in Ferguson, Missouri, by police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014. Notley tells us in her preface that “[two-thirds] of the way through someone tells the protagonist (me) that he has been killed,” and thereafter Brown becomes “a recurring presence,” one of the most frequently mentioned of the newly dead who enter into the compositional space of the poem (indicated in an endnote as “Jan 2013–2015”). In an American context, Brown’s presence as a poetic voice in the work of a white poet, speaking lines like “Alice care for me,” is doubtless challenging and potentially incendiary. It recalls the controversy around Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance, “The Body of Michael Brown,” at Brown University in March 2015. We’re more or less dared to take umbrage and simultaneously asked to consider why we might think we ought to: “Michael Brown continues to talk to me You think you own him? No one’s / an ownable image.”
Throughout The Speak Angel Series, Brown becomes the principal figure in a host of the recently dead—casualties of the Syrian war, Ebola victims, and even “a female jihadist” partly responsible for the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris. In the final pages of Notley’s poem we read this instruction: “I exhort people not to name // Michael unless you love him.”
Insight into the special work of the dead continues in To Paste On, where the deceased proclaim, “[only] we dead can create And out of the shattered/Letters.” The ruined world is their collage material, and indeed among the principal verbs enacted by the narrator, in addition to leading, healing, and speaking, are gluing and pasting—as in, “[the] abyss is chaos and itself and myself are we pasting our images all over it again” and “I have glued this instant on the abyss I have led it and glued it.” The aim appears to be “to make a no time The col-/ Laged time of superimposed thought,” a task which the narrator/Alice continues to insist on her crucial role as “savior/leader,” guiding the dead from “sadness to revelation and re-creation.” In fact, she prepares the way for Out of Order‘s theology of crucifixion through an allusion to the words of Christ in the Gospel: “Follow me I say I will make you pasters-on of souls.”
In The Speak Angel Series‘s fifth section, Notley’s narrator takes on the heart of the Christian narrative, the death of Christ on the cross. We’ve already been informed that “I am told I will be crucified once more,” but in Out of Order, the narrator insists that the capital punishment in question “isn’t I say Christ’s it’s I who have lived and writ-/ten in poverty for you the language of gracefulness.” The word itself, with all the resonances of two millennia of cultural fixation on this central and emblematic death, plays through the poems, from “the original crucifixion being/the intersection of soul and matter” to the narrator proclaimed as “the crucified poet of the universal poem.” Reading these lines, I couldn’t help but recall the last letters of Friedrich Nietzsche, each signed “The Crucified,” like that of January 4, 1889 to Peter Gast, proclaiming a vision in which “the world is transfigured and all the heavens are joyous.” Speaking with the dead, proclaiming visions, and prophetically asserting one’s death on a cross: all these remain risky business in a society prone to stigmatize any discourse outside of a tightly circumscribed realm labeled “reason” as certainly eccentric, and quite possibly mad. The Speak Angel Series is here, among other things, to explode those sorts of presuppositions.
The book’s final section, simply entitled The Poem, is divided into four quarters that follow the divisions of The Descent of Alette. “Other Side of Fabric” continues developing the series’s larger theological assertions: “There is no god except all of us dead as we’ve always secretly known”, while “You Forgot To Think” is taken up with the malicious actions of enemies. “Can you,” she asks, “nego- tiate with/People who won’t ac- knowledge their malicious desires”? The voice of Allen Ginsberg, a frequent companion through the book, declares that “[the] primitive ag- gression against you by peers was foreseen”—perhaps a preparation for the third quarter, “The Battle,” “[somewhere] inside folded-up space in an opaque zone.” Part of our spiritual armor in this war, it turns out, is unplugging: “[get] rid of your devices and listen/Listen to the voices in your head They are the dead.”
The section’s final quarter, “The Other Side of the Angel,” concludes the epic with gnomic reminders about the work of poetry in the world. As we prepare to depart, shaken and changed by the imaginal world of The Speak Angel Series, we’re warned not to “[be] like others pretend- ing that poetry ever lives in the academy/It lives on the kill- ing floor It lives in the saturation of/Soul in pain until soul snaps really snaps.” The poem’s closing words are a challenge of communion and communication to those of us who have joined the narrator for her cosmic journey: “What do you remember Read my mind Read my mind.”
The Speak Angel Series is a major masterpiece from one of the greatest living English-language poets. It teaches you to read it, and if you can persist through its difficulties, it will change you. I’ve barely been able to touch on the many local beauties of the poem, but this review is long enough. Go get the book. They’ll be reading it long after we’re gone.
David Brazil is a poet, translator, and novelist. His books include figurae (The Last Books, 2022), Mnemosyne (Erotoplasty, 2021), Holy Ghost (City Lights, 2017), antisocial patience (Roof, 2015), and The Ordinary (Compline, 2013). profane hours, a volume of his selected translations, is forthcoming in 2023 from Free Poetry. He lives in California.
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