Memorious contributing editor Hadara Bar-Nadav on Alice Notley:
What Else Can Language Do: Reading Alice Notley
I have been reading Alice Notley’s poetry for nearly twenty years. I read her first, and then I read her husband, Ted Berrigan, and not the other way around. As a teenager, I hung out at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, and the myth of their presence was still palpable (though he was dead and she lived in Paris). In her writing, in his writing, they created a myth. They called to each other, to their old apartment on St. Mark’s Place, to death, and somehow to me. Notley’s poems were vast, intellectually far-reaching, yet remarkably personal. Her poems balanced human warmth with otherworldliness—the voracious mind going beyond the usual confines of language and thought. Since finding her collection How Spring Comes (1981) in my local library in high school, I’ve been looking to her again and again to see what else language can do.
From her I have learned about syntactic rupture and the fluidity of voice. About the energetic thrust of the long line and the swaying weight of the long poem. About balancing innovation with generosity. About honoring the old and the new. About trusting ghosts and listening to the dead. About how to persist.
I slept with one of Notley’s books under my pillow during a creative dry spell many years ago. I had hoped her poetry would seep into my dreamlife and help me write again. Thankfully, it did, and it still does. My favorite books tend toward her older work: Alma, or the Dead Women (2006); Mysteries of Small Houses (1998); The Descent of Alette (1996); Close to me & Closer . . . (The Language of Heaven) and Désamère (1995); her early Selected Poems (1993); and my first love, How Spring Comes. I’m currently reading her collections In the Pines (2007) and Reason and Other Women (2010). In case it isn’t already clear, Notley is incredibly prolific. She has published a collection of poetry nearly every year since the early 1970s, and has kept her readers, including me, happily busy.
Years ago I did a reading at the Cornelia Street Café with the poet Jordan Davis, in which I read a poem inspired by Notley’s work. Davis offered to make me a copy of Notley reading her book-length poem The Descent of Alette. Davis recorded the poem on both sides of several cassette tapes (this was the time before CDs and ipods). When I received the tapes in the mail, I couldn’t figure out which was first, second, or third. In the end, it didn’t matter. I played the tapes for months in my car in whatever order I happened to grab them from the glove compartment. Notley’s poem lined the inside of my car on my way to and from William Paterson College, to the grocery store, liquor store, drug store, to see a boy, a bar, a friend, etc. Notley led me into a phantasmagoric underworld of shadowy subways and heroic women-owls. Her reading was riveting. I was awed by her vision, craft, and fragile human edge. I wanted to learn from her, and listened hard.
I saw Notley read once at the DIA Art Center in New York. She was a wisp of a woman, pale and tired-looking as she walked up to the podium, a glass of white wine tottering in her hand. When she began to read she seemed to leave her body and grow large, godlike. Her poems seemed to transform her into a radiant and powerful poet-giant. When I think of Notley’s work, I think of her reading at the DIA Center, of opposing energies working together—powerful and fragile, vast and intimate, sprawling and delicate, arcane and inclusive, nostalgic and vibrantly fresh. The chord and discord of her creative work has kept me company for many years. And I’m still learning from her, still waiting to see what her poems will do next.