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.

CRYSTAL SET #10: Bolinas Journal by Joe Brainard (Big Sky, 1971)

Bolinas Journal by Joe Brainard (Big Sky, 1971). Printed in a run of 300 copies, the book is 45 pages of undated journalistic entries with drawings throughout, including excerpts of a comic made will Bill Berkson with a Pop-Eye dick and Nancy vagina, versions of posters for readings given during his month in northern California, drawings of friends (a great one of Berkson), a map of Bolinas, a portrait of Joe by Philip Whalen (with “Joe knits up a careful tennis shoe white thread” written underneath), a little poem written by Ted in his hand, and handwritten introductions for Joanne Kyger and Bobbie Creeley by Joe for a reading in San Francisco (the poems read by Bobbie were her Fifteen Poems, republished by Belladonna* in 2012). The cover is a reproduction of the classic black and white Mead notebooks. It was the first book published by Berkson’s Big Sky Books.

Brainard wrote Bolinas Journal from May-July 1971 while on an extended visit to Bolinas, CA from NYC to spend time with friends, including Bill Berkson, Lewis Warsh, Philip Whalen, Joanne Kyger, Robert Creeley, Bobbie Creeley (now Bobbie Hawkins), Diane di Prima, Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley (Ted and Alice visited around the same time as Joe), Tom Clark, Lewis MacAdams, and Donald Allen. Anne Waldman and Kenward Elmslie are also mentioned (via mail and phone calls). He stayed with the Creeleys and then lived in a house shared with Whalen (one page is a drawing Joe made of two notes Whalen left him in the kitchen). I’m pretty sure Ron Padgett mentions in his memoir about Brainard, Joe, that Bolinas Journal was planned to be published all along, which makes sense. Not that the writing is premeditated, it’s the same sort of frank, self-conscious, funny, sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes totally glowing prose as I Remember, but reading Bolinas Journal as a project is interesting, and with as much as Brainard obsessed and flamed his own anxieties about “work,” Bolinas Journal is a prismatic example of pleasure-as-work, and vice versa, or what it means to produce work as an artist traveling, or what a community of artists is or does (especially since Bolinas is often referred to as the west coast hub of the New York school).

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Regardless, it’s a really good book. In a review of Brainard’s Collected WritingsMarjorie Perloff describes Bolinas Journal as “boring,” saying about his journalistic writings and interviews in general that they are “not profound” and that “there is something missing here.” About the Collected as a whole she says, “300+ pages of such material may be too much.” I wonder what Perloff means by “boring” – as in nothing happens, or that it’s tedious? She probably means trite or shallow or inconsequential, i.e. “not profound.” The tired critic’s contradictory tropes of excess, both “too much” and “something missing,” betray the hollowness behind Perloff’s aesthetic devaluing, that Brainard’s particular and astoundingly unique dismissal of genre (both in his visual art and writing) doesn’t conform to received (or even progressive?) notions of literary purpose or beauty. Overall, she seems to find little value in Brainard’s writing other than that it is occasionally “amusing.” Leaving aside the critic’s larger political-aesthetic project, it seems to me difficult to read Bolinas Journal and not be equally delighted and decimated. If anything, this book has a kind of frayed elegance. And I mean frayed in the most permissible, potentially terrifying (for the writer) way, that it exposes the effects of a strain, the strain of being openly gay in the mostly heterosexual community of Bolinas and the strain of being an artist with deep anxieties about the quality and process of his own work. Brainard picks at these strains throughout:

“Being queer isn’t an easy habit to break. And usually, I have no desire to….And I do think that being ‘queer’ is an unnecessarily limiting as being 'straight.’”; “How I can be so shy and insecure, and such a conceited ass at the same time, is beyond me.”; “As for me - I was a bit embarrassed by my New York City diaries. (So melodramatic) And I wonder about my being somewhat 'primitive,’ and knowing it. And taking advantage of it.”; “The funniest things are hard to admit. Pills. That’s a hard thing to admit. That I take them. No, that’s not hard to admit. What’s hard to admit is that I needthem. (Sometimes) Thank God I’m vain enough not to let myself get carried away tho. And I take them only for work.”

Does Brainard calling his own homosexuality a “habit” point to anything less than a crisis? And I don’t mean that in a dramatic sense of personal disaster, but that referring to being queer as a habitual burden and then immediately observing that dichotomous sexuality is socially constructed, a deft turn to say the least, is exactly that frayed elegance Perloff misses, where the crisis is the writing’s own irresolvable position. That Brainard does this so simply (I want to say “does this with a surface that is also a depth,” but a surface that never trusts the stability of itself as a surface is probably better) shows how full and charged (over-full, glamorous, exuberant) the choices are in this writing. Also, how are these not two of the best sentences you’ve ever read?

“Another thing nobody likes around here is the postmistress Rose.”

“A little girl wants a quarter. Giving her a nickel she mumbles 'mother-fucker’ and walks away.”

There’s also this brief story about Joe losing a very old and expensive baroque pearl and emerald pendant on the beach during a 4th of July party, which is accompanied by a drawing of the lost pendant on the page next to it. The baroque pearl reminded me of the recent conversation about the baroque as aesthetic sparked by Stephen Burt’s essay about the “Nearly Baroque,” where the contemporary baroque (overwrought, visceral, decadent, excessive) is founded on a kind of deficiency (Perloff’s “something missing”). Joe’s reaction to losing the “imperfect” baroque pearl is compelling, and it seems, if you wanted to, that you could lay these sentences right on top of the Perloff/Burt argument, as if Brainard’s “loss,” which he experiences in a positive way as surprisingly casual affirmation of value, is exactly where critics might respond negatively to a lack of profundity:

“Funny tho, instead of reacting to the loss, I somehow got outside of myself, waiting and watching to see how I would react. Which I didn’t. I mean - I just more or less said to myself 'Well, it’s gone.’ Let me tell you that it really was a beautiful pearl. Very valuable too. And my most favorite thing.”

There’s a lot more to say about Bolinas Journal, how it deals with friendship and gossip, how it confronts sexuality and gender (and how it may be complicit with traditional values at times), how it refuses overused tropes about the New York school, how it performs the concept of illustration, how it works as a collaborative book, and so on. Copies of the original Bolinas Journal are rare (this one is ILLed from Arizona State), but it’s worth getting Brainard’s Collected, where it’s reproduced in full, if only to see the drawings. The last line of the book is:

“My idea of how to leave a place gracefully is to 'disappear.’”