In the first few lines of her book, Certain Magical Acts, Alice Notley gives us an instruction, or perhaps a warning: her poems aren’t going to be pithy Writer’s Almanac confessional-type poems, because
….that’s just autobiographical,
who cares? I want to live here, where nothing coheres.
looking forward to whatever it turns out it’s about
For why Notley might not care about so-called autobiographical poetry, she offers a clue later in the same poem:
….I’ve always been
a poet, that’s all, no sex or race, no age or face
Notley is done, or wants to be done, with poems that classify her into a category (woman poet, white poet, old poet, attractive/unattractive poet) and instead concentrate either on perhaps being a human poet (with a poetry that speaks for everyone) or on language itself (with a poetry that perhaps ‘speaks’ for no one, but which turns the speaking, the making meaning, back on the reader.)
Notley used to be more of an autobiographical poet. My favorite book of her’s is ____, poems about her late husband (and also famous poet) Ted Berrigan. After that, her poetry shifted, and has continued to shift. Whereas some poets find a certain style and voice and become known for it, Notley seems to want to keep trying the new: new ways of presenting her language, even if her voice stays somewhat the same throughout. That’s the good news. The bad news is her poetry “where nothing coheres” can be hard to read. Not just subject-wise, but…even format…such as using…ellipses in prose…poems to…create line…breaks but….which end up seeming…almost insulting to…the reader….and/or sounding…like William Shatner….
That more experimental formatting used in earlier books like Disobedience and Culture of One is mostly gone from Certain Magical Acts. Instead, Notley offers us, in the largest ‘poem’ of the book, other “Voices”: a collage of smaller title-less poems that could stand on their own, in what could be the inner or outer monologues of people in some kind of C/community. The poems have a twinge of traditional formality in that they’re sonnets, not in the sense that they’re in iambic pentameter (they’re mostly not) nor fourteen lines (many are, some sixteen) but instead and most importantly (and in a definite nod to her late husband’s redefining of what sonnets can be or do) contain the ‘turns’ at around line eight that build, at their best, to a resolution (or anti-resolution). One of the best:
Did anyone ever ask, ask this voice, what is it you want?
No one ever asked me—Or me—what it was I wanted here
on this earth or in this mind that we share as a big community.
The leader asks by shouting words: if we shout back we agree,
that’s called demagoguery. I’d like to be asked what I want here.
What is it that you want? I want to know things and to love.
I want this economic and political structure to collapse soon.
That will be so painful for us. As painful as mourning is?
I want to know why my loves had to die. Who cares for money? fools.
We invented money when we could have invented the gift.
I want to wear a hibiscus. I don’t want to be a decent
person of the middle classes. Don’t want to be prosperous—
Don’t want to live in a house with a lot of rooms and solar panels.
I don’t want anything at all. I have no wish. Not to work.
I don’t want to see his perishable face printed on every surface.
I want sunlight, clear air, and silence. I want brains and a thought.
There is more than one voice here, though surely the main one is in fact Notley. Not all of the poems in the “Voices” section are as clear as this one, but the fact that this is Notley—autobiographical as much as I can tell (or want to tell)—is why it’s one of my favorites. This is a poem that avoids markers like race and age, though it does seem to speak a little to women’s experiences in the world at the end: “I want brains and a thought” implies that the speaker doesn’t want to be judged on her looks, as women can be in this world.
Still, by the ‘turn’, this poem is an indictment of the ‘System’: capitalism and class, which is surely a poem that speaks for many, beyond race and sex and age. In fact, Notley verges on getting another label, one that she doesn’t outright deny back in that first poem, “I Couldn’t Sleep In My Dream”: political poet.
There are plenty of poems in Certain Magical Acts that lean towards the ‘nothing coheres’ variety, which at their best seem like fragments of larger texts, which as readers we can’t help but want to fill in the gaps and make sense of them. But Notley does not seem that interested in making sense, or not a whole sense. For example, poem from another collage-section, “Found Work (Lost Lace)”:
That man’s butterfly over his dead
d called me back from hell. I don’t
care where I
d am, this one-thing
d is the dirtiest thing
love’s the dirtiest thing in the world
dumping my works on the street to
d have me
rooms and that’s a future
d then along tops of cliffs impersonating
mass movement of creatures a line
d that’s you. Are you prepared to lose everything
d and be one with
d a migratory wound
now that there’s only one
The middle lines are the obvious stand-outs, maybe because they make sense compared to the other fragments before and after: Or, that is, maybe you just love the line “love’s the dirtiest thing in the world” or not. There’s no nothing to back that claim up, but at the very least you, or I, get a sense that this is Notley speaking, Notley rising through the babble to speak for those of us for whom, as the J. Geils Band sang, “Love Stinks.”
More problematic is that last word. Coming from nowhere, it seems to have no relation to the rest of this poem or the longer collage/section. I have to say, you just shouldn’t throw words like genocide around in a poem to some kind of ‘cool’ visual/audio effect, not when there’s real genocide happening in the world, not unless you’re going to speak to that, to get political, which Notley’s not here.
There’s plenty of nothing cohering in Certain Magical Acts, if that’s your taste. But I found myself seeking out the nuggets of Notley: points where I’m fairly certain it’s her speaking, plainly, which is usually in conversation with some other voice, an imaginary one, or just herself. I like that, in the same way I like podcast interviews: If one person just pontificates, then the poem or speech can begin to verge on preachy or pompous or just complain-y-y. But in response to a question, from a sympathetic interrogator, it can be an opportunity to be human, to be in dialogue (even if with oneself) and the larger C/community to which we all belong.
I like that aiming big—I just like to hear about it in language that isn’t difficult to read or puzzle out. I’m ok with “looking forward to whatever it turns out it’s about,” but I like “it” to be about something, and when I see/hear the voices of (I almost said real) people, including especially Notley, I’m in. When she leaves the poems so obscure as to not be about anything, then I’m out, though I know (or suspect) that she’d be ok with we readers finding our own meaning, finding out what a poem is about for us.
I just see too many places in Certain Magical Acts where Notley (or one of her voices) really does have something to say. That’s why I read poetry, I guess, is to see what other people have to say. I agree that readers bring some meaning to a text, but I do look to poets to make some sense of things, of the world. Notley doesn’t want to be totally presumptuous about that role, assume it, but I’m willing to listen when she does.