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.

Vintage New York School Video

An irreplaceable part of what I understand as studying is easing into a nonlinear, felt relationship with what's at hand (and what's not), arriving at and reading the exchangeable portions of authorship and writing while also sifting into the ephemera and noise that show how that writing is a life. If not in the archive, this usually means errant searches online for recordings and photographs, a more organized look via PennSound or UbuWeb, and deep searches on rare book sites like ABAA and Abebooks. Rarely, videos of poets might emerge. These videos carry an aura. I'm always a little stunned. 

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I was thinking of how special these videos are after a friend recently circulated a video of Kenward Elmslie made available by Ron Padgett. As Padgett describes: "Maxine Groffsky rediscovered a three-minute film she made of Kenward in 1972. In the first part he is in Louisville for a production of his musical (with Claibe Richardson) The Grass Harp. In the footage with him are the poet Gerritt Henry and the fellow who was directing the Louisville presentation. In the second part Kenward is in Calais, VT, in his vegetable garden and then walking back to his house. The film concludes with a guest star appearance by his dog, Whippoorwill."

The stills to the right are from the short film. The Jerry's Restaurant sign is just great, such a surprising yet perfect intersection of New York School artistic elegance with the monumental Americana that informs the humor of writers like Elmslie, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch. The shots from Calais are gorgeous, including iconic Whippoorwill in the yard, the dog that appears in paintings by Joe Brainard and who James Schuyler describes in "The Morning of the Poem," as my friend Aaron reminded me: "Yes, that whippet is / The one I nominate for terrestrial immortality … Love, love / Is immortal. Whippoorwill, I know that.” It's great to actually see the Calais house, too, which is described so often in Padgett's memoir of Brainard, Joe.

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Below are just a few videos I've returned to often, including a selection from Larry Fagin's home movies from 1968-69, the Ed Sanders portion of "USA: Poetry" that starts with the more well-known Frank O'Hara section, a section of a Spanish documentary on the Beat Generation that includes (from 7:56-9:27) a walk-through tour of Ted Berrigan's and Alice Notley's apartment at 101 St. Marks Place, a hijacked video of a Notley lecture by Cassandra Gillig, and a 1990 reading by Elmslie at the Poetry Project. I'm always devoted to videos of readings, and there are so many incredible ones on PennSound, the SF Poetry Center Digital Archive, and scattered across YouTube. But the video recordings of these poets being themselves, not reading poems, being people, and being in places they inhabited -- those videos carry a little magic. The archive is always alive, but it's special to see it in motion, body, kitchen, paintings, pets, and all. There are too many details in the videos below to describe, too many little moments that act as artifacts. Like in the Sanders video from late 1965 we're inside Peace Eye Book Store with him, seeing the books on display (including copies of William Burroughs's Time, Philip Whalen's Every Day, and the magazine Mother with a Brainard cover), and then Sanders in front of the East Village Other newspaper offices -- it's incredible. I'm not interested in whether they're representative or accurate, performative or realistic, just that they're these particular images of this particular moment or movement. You become familiar with a red sweater or two, a mannerism, and you start to recognize the poems a little differently. I'd like to watch these videos entirely unprofessionally. I think that's what I'm advocating for. I mean, I'm watching them and studying, whatever that needs to be.

"It's not the way you're taught": from an Interview with Alice Notley

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My interview with Alice Notley, published on the occasion of the release of the vinyl LP Live in Seattle (Fonograf Editions), was recently published by the Poetry Society of America and can be read here. The interview is an edited selection from an hour and a half phone conversation between Atlanta and Paris that took place on September 16, 2017. Below are a few portions of our conversation that didn't make into the final piece. These excerpts are unedited and show more of the range of our conversation, including Notley's lifelong visual art practice, links to Chicago (where her and Berrigan lived in the early 1970s), relationship with artist George Schneeman, and what her collected poems might look like. Though not included in the published interview, these pieces are equally irreducible.

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Nick Sturm: I spend a lot of time with your early work because the things that it does are so various from the things that your work has done since The Descent of Alette. And spending time with that work has changed the way I think about these different processes of writing. Whether it’s “Endless Day,” “September’s Book,” “Jack Would Speak Through the Imperfect Medium of Alice” – they’re so funny. Your work has always been funny. Like I think of the “Postcard” poem in Waltzing Matilda that begins “Dear Fuckface” and ends “Love Bubbles” that’s so blasphemous and fun and pleasurable. What I'm asking is: I wonder if you’ve ever had an experience like this--creating effects in your poems--where it doesn’t feel as if you’re writing but more like you’re arranging?

Alice Notley: I’m not that kind of writer. Other people are, but no, I write. I write and it comes out of me. I don’t arrange things. I don’t take things from different places and stitch them together or anything like that. Ted sometimes spoke as if he did that. But I’ve never done it. I have a voice coming into me and then out of me. A lot of time it’s somebody else’s voice. Like in the “Postcard” poem they’re all my voices but in each one I’m saying well I’m this person writing to this, although it’s all the same person. Then at the end the last one is “Dear Francis” and its signed Alice and at that point I have arrived at my voice. I was asked to discuss this in a class taught by Tom Devaney last November and then he asked me if Francis was Francis Waldman, Anne’s mother, and I said, “No, it’s Frank O’Hara!” and he started crying. [laughs] I said, “You’re crying!” and he didn’t know what to say.

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Nick: These are little tangential things, but asking you about some important things that you’ve done that haven’t often been talked about. For example, your writing’s relationship to painting, your self-education in painting, going to museums, the incredible amount of visual work that you’ve made – collages, watercolors, and fans – and I was really excited to find out that you did a show at MoMA PS1 in 1980. It seemed as if you wrote the description of the show itself. You said something like, “It’s said there’s a relationship between her visual work and her poems. There is.” [Alice laughs] Which made me think it was absolutely written by you. I wonder about all of the work you’ve done making these objects.

Alice: I’m making them right now. I’m actually sitting talking to you at a table surrounded by the ones I’m in process with right now. I never stop making them but sometimes there are lapses because I haven’t finished one. But I’m always doing it. But I’ve interrupted your question.

Nick: I’m not sure there’s a question other than to let you talk about it.

Alice: My relationship to art. I’ve been very close friends with some artists, that started at the beginning as soon as I met Ted, then I met his friends. I got tremendously interested in the works that Joe Brainard and George Schneeman were doing. All of that whole art world opened up to me. But I had been interested in painting when I was in high school in Needles. I didn’t paint but I studied art history in a way. My mother ordered from the outside world a monthly book, like a set of lectures by John Canaday, that would come with these illustrations and prints and then I would look at them and read the description and try to figure out what he was talking and why he was talking about ti this way and I got very interested. When I met Ted everybody cut and pasted so I instantly started doing it and I never stopped. He and I would do it together. He would do it his way off in his corner and I would do it over in my corner. The way he did it was different from the way anyone else did it, and George Schneeman was totally fascinated by the way Ted worked with him when they collaborated. But I didn’t want to collaborate. I only wanted to collaborate with myself and that was my evil secret and it’s always been my evil secret that I that don’t want to do anything with anybody else. But I was so interested in George’s process and everybody said that he wouldn’t talk about his art. So I determined to make him talk about his art and went to see him all the time for that interview that’s also in Brilliant Corners.

Nick: And in Waltzing Matilda.

Alice: I went to ask him questions day after day and he became addicted to having me ask him questions, that was why he was willing to talk to me finally, I mean he just loved it. Then I wrote the essay kind of off-hand. Edwin [Denby] had really, really liked all of that, too. They really loved it that I had made George talk. You know, I was interested in all the people I refer to in the Art Institute essay, all of that, all those works. I was really torn up by postpartum depression and all that really healed and strengthened me, going out to the Art Institute and looking at the paintings then writing off them. All of the essays from that time are written out of a slight hysteria. They’re all written out of this desperation I felt at being depressed in that particular way. And I was always trying to declare myself well through the process of looking at this art and reading these books and writing these things, and I don’t know if that makes sense, but at a certain point I was healed. I was healed. I didn’t write those anymore and I didn’t have that tone anymore. I lost that particular tone but I was glad to because I felt better.

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Alice: Poets have their own way of being critical and scholarly but it’s not the way you’re taught. And it can’t be systematized. For poets, it comes largely out of talking to each other, I think, and a lot of it happens when you’re young. You figure things out with your peers in late night drunken conversations and those are really important.

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Nick: I wonder what it would look like to collect all of your works together. It would be this 2000-page collected poems. It’d be a suitcase-size book.

Alice: It’d be like a nineteenth century person, like Hugo or Charles Dickens or somebody.