Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems 1970-2005

Notely, Alice. Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems 1970-2005. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

Second generation, New York School poet Alice Notely's career as a publishing poet encompasses a variety of aesthetic and content-related concerns throughout its entirety. Early on, Notley explores the first-person, autobiographical lyric in an extended (i.e. several pages) and fragmented form that is, more often than not, filled with idiosyncratic grammatical tics. For example, in the book-length poem Songs for the Unborn Second Baby, the opening section alone spans seven pages and contains lines such as: “but I had to flesh and, flesh, be fleshed and flesh again/ raised to morbid heat/ you, you kind of anagrammatic puzzle” (30). The long first line, coupled with the shorter lines, foster a staccato rhythm, while the repetitive use of the word “flesh” and the corresponding lack of end punctuation mark the excerpt with a highly specific style. “A California Girlhood” follows the New York School tradition of incorporating rules into the process of composition; in this instance, the poet inserts the name of a famous writer into each stanza. Humor, another New York School trait, manifests itself in the poem “The Prophet,” which is a series of elaborate and often absurd pieces of advice that concludes with the lines: “Do not generally/ Go about giving advice. That which is everybody's business/ is nobody's/ Business” (106). Yet, as her career progresses, Notely veers a way from forms and aesthetic mannerisms one would normally associate with the New York School. For example, her poem sequence “Waltzing Matilda” is a series of letters from “Anonymous” to an “Advisor.” But the poetic trailblazing she undertakes does not come without insecurity; within these letters, “Anonymous” expresses concern that she is “having troubles with my writing because the words aren't jostling each other glittering in a certain way & they all have referents” (121). It would seem that her worries are unfounded, though, in that the poem offers the first of many aesthetic shifts that aid in the construction of both a protean and unique voice. The book-length poem Beginning With a Stain is the first instance in which the poet creates verse completely from quoted and collaged material. For example: “'I'm' 'saying I though, I, as if'/ 'before there were bones'” (181). The line reveals a hypersensitivity to“I's” possible identities and whether or not one can consider collage a legitimate form of creation. Much of her later work investigates the prose poem, feminist issues, radical breaks with normative grammar, and overtly political poems. In “Homer's Art,” Notely writes: “Men...have tended, or tried, to be near the center of the politics of their time, court or capital. Thus, how could a woman write an epic? How could she now if she were to decide the times called for one?” (187). The answer, it would appear, comes in the form of books such as The Descent of Alette, which use the aforementioned collage techniques to tell the story of Vietnam from a woman's perspective, and Alma, or the Dead Woman, which tackles contemporary politics through classical allusions. For example: “the furies were before Apollo was. i bind Bush and Chenney and Rumsfield, and their tongues and words and deeds; if they are planning was for today let it be in vain” (318).

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