Crystal Set #19: Phoebe Light by Alice Notley

Phoebe Light by Alice Notley (Big Sky Books, 1973). 40 pages, saddle stapled, an uncommon binding method for a Big Sky publication. Cover art by Alex Katz.

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Today is the first day of Scorpio season, so it’s a good day to read any book by Alice Notley, who is a Scorpio. Phoebe Light is Notley’s second book but her first printed offset following the mimeographed 165 Meeting House Lane (“C” Press, 1971). Notley’s first four books—165 Meeting House Lane, Phoebe Light, Incidentals in the Day World, and For Frank O’Hara’s Birthday—are increasingly hard to find. It’s actually easiest to read 165 Meeting House Lane in its entirety by buying All Stars (there are copies for sale for less than $4), the 1972 anthology edited by Tom Clark, which includes Notley’s whole sonnet sequence along with long segments of work by Ted Berrigan, James Schuyler, Philip Whalen, and others. This is a considerable rare book hack since copies of 165 Meeting House Lane are always over a grand. Phoebe Light, Incidentals, and For Frank O’Hara’s Birthday all range from $100-$300. I got my copy two years ago for $50, which seems impossible now. Reading these books is important because they’re scarcely represented in Selected Poems of Alice Notley (Talisman, 1993) and Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems, 1970-2005 (Wesleyan, 2006)—”Dear Dark Continent” is the one poem from Phoebe Light that appears in either selected (it’s in both) and it was also published in Incidentals in the Day World, suggesting the value of that poem to Notley. I remember a conversation about “Dear Dark Continent” in Andrew Epstein’s New York School class, how it gave us a starting point for talking about Notley’s arrangements of self, family, and making a life in poetry, so I’m glad that poem has continued to be in circulation via Grave of Light. But the secret is that Phoebe Light is full of these incredible poems—31 in all—including ”To My Father,” “Poker Hand,” “Getting to Sleep, Chicago,” and “Creatures,” that show—not development—but the way Notley was starting to gather and amplify a sound. Phoebe Light has this stance to it, like it’s this mind that is all wit and music, with these slightly peeling edges of photographic clarity. I’ve been teaching a class on New York School coming-of-age narratives through books like Brainard’s I Remember and Notley’s Mysteries of Small Houses, and though this book doesn’t track a stark narrative movement, it does benefit from being read in the context of coming-into a life and world of thinking, especially in how these poems show the concerns that will become central throughout her books. Written in Iowa, Chicago, Bolinas, and New York—and written partly while pregnant with her and Berrigan’s first son—it’s an astounding early work that confirms the voice(s), themes, and departures that make Notley’s work so irreducible.

A range of kinds of poems are included in Phoebe Light, including “Conversation,”—a John Giorno-style two-column poem that staggers dialogue like a cassette tape constantly looping back on itself—”The Development of My Mind and Character”—a swerving faux-autobiographical prose allegory that ends “Then I became a lesbian, had a baby, killed myself, chatted much”—and “Free”—a one-line poem that reads “Inborn Tonal Memory.” Splashed across the book are the sort of musically punctuated, reverberating and quick lines that distinctly mark the colorful intricate lyricism of Notley’s work in the 1970s. The bright assortedness of a poem like “Poker Hand,” for example, feels like a textual equivalent of the collages Notley had begun making in the early ‘70s and also anticipates the condensed syllabic melodies of When I Was Alive (Vehicle Editions, 1980). The first couplet in “Poker Hand” is a wild neon flag of sounds: “Antediluvian bang in arched fur willful & exploded pussy / How brief you are how on how quick to validate tail.” Those are fun, tightly packed sounds, all leading to the wildly charming last line “Who taught you such verse & succour such pap,” which in the context of Notley’s pregnancy, scans as a line rhetorically interrogating the limited (or nonexistent) sources for a mother’s ability to write about the need for help (“succour”) and the bodily transformations of nurturing (the nipple-like “pap”). “I fear oblivion loss and destruction of works,” Notley says in a letter to Bill Berkson, the publisher of Big Sky, in response to his question about sending her more copies of Phoebe Light, “and feel like hoarding my books etc crazy pregnant lady, plus all imaginary people I’m gonna want to give them to.” There’s a sense of being unsure of an audience for her work, or a concern that as a young woman and mother, her poetry—and ability to be a poet at all being the person she was—would be marginalized. The attention to pain and vision that runs throughout the poems in Phoebe Light—concerns that are paramount across Notley’s work—reverberate with these concerns about what it means to be a woman and mother writing poems with no lineage, no line, no tradition to turn to. More than other poets, it’s actually actresses like Lauren Becall and Vivien Leigh who appear in these poems, a testament to Notley’s cultural wit in positioning these “stars” as a lineage for herself to inherit and subvert. As she writes in “Dear Dark Continent,” “but I’ve ostensibly chosen / my, a, family / so early! so early!” and what a family or lineage is—these people? this list of words?—is a central question in this book.

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“To My Father” approaches this most directly in Phoebe Light, a poem that begins by acknowledging the speaker’s failed attempts to impart the most central parts of her self and life to her father: “I’ve meant to tell you many things about my life, / & every time the moment has conquered me.” What follows is an incredible self-portrait of grief and uncertainty free of images, anecdotes, and metaphors that directly and musically undoes the genre of the confession poem (and exceeds the confessional poem). ”The centre of me / is always & eternally / a terrible pain— / a curious wild pain—a searching / beyond what the world contains, something / transfigured & infinite—I don’t find it, / I don’t think it is to be found.” I love this so much, and read it, in part, as a way to begin to describe the trajectories of Notley’s poetry and thinking in the nearly half-century since this poem was published, especially “I don’t find it, / I don’t think it is to be found,” which seems to be as much about the self as about a poetry, a style, a voice, therefore requiring, as the poem concludes, a lifetime “of gentleness & cruelty & work.” This trifecta of labor and feeling is echoed in the poem “Frozen Dance, Southampton,” which suggests a process of composing “[t]hrough mirth insight collision,” a collage-like process that binds the physical, intellectual, and emotional while embracing both “rage” and “wild despair.” Phoebe Light is full of Notley “saying / an intricacy,” as the poem “Early Works” describes, showing an already fiercely potent orchestral-like sound in her poems.

Or take the poem “Getting to Sleep, Chicago,” with its opening into a soft portrait of a winter night alone in Chicago as a young mother. Initiated by the titles of two books that Notley was likely reading—Raymond Chandler’s Trouble is My Business and C.P. Snow’s Last Things—the poem sways into sonorous lists and accumulations of seemingly ephemeral facts like “Pearls are protective secretionary bodies” that, like mother and baby, indicate a preoccupation with the nature of care between bodies. Written during Notley and Berrigan’s first stint in Chicago at their apartment at 911 W. Diversey right next to Diversey train station—”the comforting El rumble”—while Berrigan—”el marido,” her husband—”he’s away,” the poem tracks the winding down of a day and a honing of inward attention to a scene of intense care and, as the last line suggests, a kind of reciprocal worship. I love that alcohol and jewels are the image-occasions for such intimacy and care, and to read the mid-poem lists out loud is an incredible recognition of Notley’s precise, resonate ear for music—there’s a world and a life built in those lists alone.

I also love the title Phoebe Light, perhaps a reference to Phoebe MacAdams, the wife of poet Lewis MacAdams, who Notley had recently met on a visit in Bolinas. But aside from the named reference, Phoebe Light becomes to me a phrase about insistence and refusal for a poet writing into her world. What is poetry? I hear Notley asking, and responding in “Equinox Time,” “to burn fur / drown velvet.” Whatever your ideas are, Notley insists, “No, let me change your mind.” PennSound hosts a 1971 recording of Notley reading from 165 Meeting House Lane and the poems that become Phoebe Light in Bolinas with Joanne Kyger, and it’s great to be able to listen to such an early reading by Notley, who was 26 years old at the time. A poem in Phoebe Light, “We Arrived & What We Did,” also appears in Notley’s MFA thesis from Iowa, showing the gathering of her process from even earlier, in 1969, and the value of some of her earliest work as a poet (as she describes in “As Good as Anything” in Mysteries of Small Houses). And even here, Notley’s attention to trance, dreams, visions, and the voices that are available and congregating in those spaces is vivid. “Everyone else is here / waiting to be in my dream,” she writes in “Bedtime Dawn,” and though these poems are difficult to find it’s important to note how completely they are part of the dream of Notley’s lifework. It’s worth asking what else we can learn about Notley’s epic, visionary work of the last 25 years by returning to books like Phoebe Light, and it’s also worthwhile to come back to the books that have been out-of-print to see how a poetry was forming and already, full of light, insisting. “No, let me change your mind.”

 Postcard from Notley to Berkson after seeing the Alex Katz cover images for  Phoebe Light . Courtesy of the University of Connecticut Special Collections.

Postcard from Notley to Berkson after seeing the Alex Katz cover images for Phoebe Light. Courtesy of the University of Connecticut Special Collections.