In The Job, his book of interviews with Daniel Odier, William Burroughs maintains:
When people speak of clarity in writing they generally mean plot, continuity, beginning middle and end, adherence to a ‘logical’ sequence. But things don’t happen in logical sequence and people don’t think in logical sequence. Any writer who hopes to approximate what actually occurs in the mind and body of his characters cannot confine himself to such an arbitrary structure as ‘logical’ sequence. […] I think it is possible to create multilevel events and characters that a reader could comprehend with his entire organic being. (35)
Alice Notley’s For the Ride vividly manifests a poetic reality where if there is any sense of “clarity” it only arrives along the lines described by Burroughs. She describes envisioning the poem as projecting “a room of walls which come alive with images and words…like a mind? In a beginning that’s first an ending” (xi) onto the space of the page. The dispatch thus transmitted chronicles the goings-on of a quixotic set of characters on a quest of (re)discovery. These assorted figures who are identified by monikers such as “One”, “ones”, “Qui”, “Wideset”, “Shaker”, “France”, and “Parts” traverse a post-apocalyptic scenario “to save Words from their demise” as if “all of language were lost” (xi).
The record of their journey radically veers away from ordinary expectations of poetry. Notley explores the interplay between language and communication, depicting how a poem might function if our experience of understanding each other and the world around us arrived in fragmented chunks of perception but partially understood: “Every thing’s a muted, worn color coming to life again. Look! / The colors suddenly burn into non-eyes of the ones who are words…” (45) Her book asks more than it answers:
Welcome, poetic refugees! Those no longer organic…
Think back till now if one’s thinking, well thinking’s all that there is—
blessed and morbid, right? what a lens. I, oneself, hang puppetlike,
painted clutter trying to talk. One hears that ones’re inventing (52)
Searching out what kind of poetry arrives upon the page when the language skills of those transmitting it are incomplete and unformed.
The resulting book-length poem arrives spread across eighteen “chapter[s]” (xi) comprised of various subsections as excerpts are frequently presented from out an “Anthology of poetry” (xi) the travelers have with them, along with other individual poems.
Lyric from Nowhere
The death word or message swims in one’s wild cells,
those that refuse to be docile, grave, giving in
to the system. Oh death wanted one to depart
for the night its other hand, conglomerate
of words cohering. Love loves or hates that.
One had always wanted to be in love how stupid.
Managing no more the stores of orderly auto parts,
words, what was one saying? A shambles of
different sized stones, melting in one’s head. (13)
These shorter verses stand apart from, yet relate to, the ongoing “narrative” of the central text. In addition, there are several “glyphs” (xi) composed of letters arranged to form images of this and that figure from out the group or associated object, such as the Ark which they apparently move on and off of. Operating as a kind of concrete poetry, the letters in these pictographs are on occasion “readable”. On one page, for instance, the letters “this is a hand for form’s sake” (44) are visually arranged vertically in such manner as to depict the right hand of a humanoid form.
In so far as there is a discernible cast of characters engaged on a journey the poem arguably falls under the category of epic, calling to mind Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger. That, however, is about as far as it goes in terms of comparison. When looked back upon, after confronting Notley’s embedded guerre jaunt into post-apocalyptic primal roots of language-use, Dorn’s cartoonish noir treatment of The Western motif reads more like a drugstore paperback. There’s nothing like Dorn’s utilization of familiar cultural references which he cannily usurps in order indict the hypocrisy behind the American West past and present to be found in Notley’s poem. Such reassuring footholds for orientation have been discarded.
Over the years Notley has consistently pushed her writing into unknown territory, advancing from book to book, peering ever further into the beyond. Unsurprisingly there are past echoes foreshadowing For the Ride. For instance, at the close of City Of (2005) the speaker finds herself in a group, noting how “several of us” listened together to “the dead poet read / a poem which ended with sun-up / Another dead poet sat across the room / listening: but we were all the same one / singing”. Not only is this group of poets identified as “one” (“One”/“ones”) joined together by the shared act of song (i.e., a poem) but also City Of is itself a kind of tale about a poet on a journey with other poets. And the city-as-motif appears throughout For the Ride: “this city, city an enorm empty canopic jar. Black Mouth” (85); “the lost city no one was ever in / made of words” (35); “O city / abandoned” (35); “Maybe ones don’t understand this city, says the One” (38); “City to come, gone” (52); “La cité des Morts closes round” (60); “call it City of Nothing, says the One” (73). For the Ride is still “the same one / singing” in that room with the “Dead Poet[s]” the form of the poem has just advanced further along.
Notley acknowledges, “This poem goes pretty far, and terrifies me, but it should be read for pleasure.” (xi) Many readers however will find the poet’s encouragement to find “pleasure” from reading this challengingly divergent work of no use in their actually achieving that goal. Yet for dedicated readers of Notley (as well as those truly invested in experiencing experimental works of art) it is the very puzzling nature of the work that will in fact prove enticing. These readers will be quite up “for the ride” her title teasingly invites. After all, she also says this poem “terrifies” her. She has written into “the void” Clarice Lispector describes in A Breath of Life:
In order to write I must place myself in the void. In this void is where I exist intuitively. But it’s a terribly dangerous void: it’s where I wring out blood. I’m a writer who fears the snare of words: the words I say hide others – Which? maybe I’ll say them. Writing is a stone cast down a deep well. (5)
What reader of Notley will not be drawn irresistibly as ever into following her with this latest work in the hope of attempting decipher the results?