(ESSAY) “One hasn’t caught a poem” – joining Alice Notley For the Ride, by Colin Herd
In this essay, Colin Herd writes from the side of dogs and car alarms and the everyday detritus of living in these ‘soupy’ times, where language draws us endlessly towards the possibility and withholding of more knowledge, more prediction, more answers and meaning. Exploring the rich, knotty and exhilarating poetics of Alice Notley’s recent book For the Ride (Penguin, 2020), Herd takes us on a jaunt through the ‘imaginative space of non-being’, zooming through windows and many portals of a rippling language, leading us into the shapeshifting realm of love, rebellion, tyranny, repeat and willowing new forms of (un)knowing.
“mebbe we’re just birds, orphic ones means, articuli of the blank” (92)
> This is an aside before I’ve even started but in my neighbourhood dogs are barking all the freaking time right now. Maybe it’s always like this and I just don’t notice because I’m usually at work during the day, or maybe it’s that they realise that stuff is screwed and weird right now… but wow… all these dogs wildly poeticise all day all night every day/night. Plus car alarms and house alarms which are of course dog-poets too as everyone knows, attuned to bewilderment as much as the next being.
> When things are trippy and scary, why not read something that’s even more so? And in the current Covid-19 crisis, I’ve been drawn to reading those poems that demonstrate an uncanny ability to know more always, to predict, to bring things into being, to foreshadow and foretell. I’ve been reading works that disrupt and destabilise, not to provide comfort in the disruption and instabilities of the present moment but to find ways of thinking disruptedly and divergently. One of those texts, a kind of prototext for that kind of thinking, is ‘On Notbeing’, one of those great lost works of presocratic philosophy that reminds us the best things in life are partial, basically unknowable & fragmented. In what we have available of ‘On Notbeing’, the poet-critic Gorgias zones out into the following elusive statements in a shadow-text, unpicking Parmenides’ ‘On Being’:
“Nothing exists; Even if something exists, nothing can be known about it; and even if something can be known about it, knowledge about it can't be communicated to others. Even if it can be communicated, it cannot be understood.”
As Barbara Cassin puts it, these statements “knot together” being and saying – existence and language – constructing politics and society in poeisis; but it isn’t just being and saying that are linked, it’s also being and non-being. Gorgias constructs the “city as an ongoing creation of language” by thinking logically through to a point where it’s impossible to imagine any stable “being”, that isn’t artificially constructed in the soupy language through which we experience it. Gorgias is on the side of the dogs and car alarms signalling their objection to any stable objective being, the “articuli of the blank”: sheer barking poetic insistence. It’s almost time for us to clap again.
> This imaginative space of non-being, this thinking-through of what it would be like not to exist, is exactly the space that Alice Notley’s new book For the Ride takes the reader, carefully lowering us down like a figure being dropped from a great height into a game, but the game is what feels like a live unfolding Zoom transcript of ghost-Gorgias-as-babysitter-to-zoom-bombing-baby-ghost-Derridas caught in self-isolation with endless versions of themselves. And Gorgias seems to be asking how many Zoom windows it is possible to open up at once to short-circuit the tech. And how exhilarating is this poem which takes poetry to breaking point! It’s a roughshod exploration of languages rippling and ripening around the questions: what might language be like if humans don’t exist? What worlds would language create if we weren’t around to limit, define them? Is posthuman talking / narrativizing / language possible?
> The actual agon / arena for these questions in For the Ride is “the glyph of chaos with willows”:
Oh but One’s not in time, what’s One in? Chaos, beautiful chaos – But, too, One’s in glyph and it’s hard; learning a new way to go, that is, Talk? proceeding on through… oh this might be round, rounded. (1)
Notley’s poem creates spaces for us to imagine coming-to language. It’s a plant-like willowy coming-to language: “There are transversals, blurry poles—no they are lines” (1). The speaking here is plant-like in the way that Cassin reminds us Aristotle categorieses poets, those who speak nonsense: “Strage plants really, since like animals they make sounds with their mouths. Homoios phutoi, you are like a plant if you speak without meaning” (68). Notley’s text grows, abundantly. And reproduces almost magically – little branches of language falling – even upside down – and generating new growth. Notley’s is a coming-to language that might open up alternative spaces for being that don’t require us to situate ourselves and our egos in the same ways we’re accustomed to. Or, as it’s exquisitely put elsewhere: ”No way to evolve without pre-existence, assholes!”
> Oh just absorb us all with poetry like that! What else is poetry for but to swallow us up and then expel us somewhere we could never have been. This is a disorienting book, spinning the reader into all these different rooms of language, orienting us around characters – One, Wideset, France, Shaker etc – characters that are also spatial. In Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, Sara Ahmed asks “How is it possible, with all that is possible, that the same form is repeated again and again? How does the openness of the future get closed down into so little in the present?” Notley’s poem lets us glimpse “the openness of the future”:
By changing this here langue. Whut evir’s done’s now diffirint words to. (117) Yes it will come to you, is already maybe seeping into. It’s like you do and more. No vocal cords? All’s a big vocal cord. (104)
And Notley’s poetry takes new shapes: calligrams of coyotes, arks, stars, bodies. This is such shaky & jittery poetry, more beautiful than I can swallow, such ground-shaking, tremulous, trembling, aquiver poetry. This is love poetry. Of course it’s fucking love poetry!... “loving it the langue” (48) … it’s love poetry because of the love that courses through every weird-ass overflowing sentence, “Step into this poem-scene, O one!” (105) It’s a love poem because it is so seeped in pleasure and because it rattles us in the s&m cords of its vocalities.
> Gorgias and Notley are scary and chilling and thrilling because they think past kill-joy-ing and administrations of bureaucratic humanity to glyphic hauntology, logocentricity, to language, to “someghost of langue” (102). Would language exist if humans weren’t around to think they made its rules up and got to police it? Maybe it would, maybe language branches would do their willow-thing. This is a poem that you want to bathe in – by cutting it out line by line and mulching them or something and wearing it around town like a mummy in a world you don’t exist in any more.
> This feeling isn’t that unfamiliar to those who are already in love with all the things a word can do when Alice Notley’s driving. And when I say driving I mean writing the most spooky, epic, eery poetry everwritten. The poet who takes us to places like this:
Where we except for those in charge are drained from giving ourselves to each other until there’s nothing left. (In the Pines) You, dreaming about crazies, fearful of becoming one. What if your yellow enraged aspect gets activated again, screaming out your anger in a world that’s bizarre enough to have invented it. (Culture of One) I thought of words breaking open in the mouth but also as jewels of old sexless poets, of the dead dessicated except for those emeralds or topazes I still get a thrill when I say, emeralds and topazes. (Mysteries of Small Houses) No world is intact and no one cares about you. I leaned down over don’t care about, I care about you I leaned down over the world in portrayal of carefulness, answering something you couldn’t say. (Songs and Stories of the Ghouls) Anything that comes into my mouth is what I say. From where? I scream for you what you don’t dare know. Saying I’ll know it for you even though you don’t want me to (Negativity’s kiss) “shifted” “& changed” “to spell Poverty” “instead of Presence” “He didn’t need” “to ride the train” “He’d made us poor” “in an instant” “They walk by” “& make you poor” “They look at you & make you poor” “Surreptitiously I began” “to remove my” “bits of jewelry” “my earrings” (The Descent of Alette) as warriors take position thousands of them as leaves and flowers appear in their season hearts burning to break them singers without memory (Alice ordered me to be made)
Why does poetry that makes you want to ball your eyes out make you want to ball your eyes out?
> Alice Notley’s poetics always feels like what she wrote about in ‘The Poetics of Disobedience’ as “an immense act of rebellion against dominant social forces”, because her books are always so attuned to what those dominant social forces do and how they operate to delimit and reproduce the same-old same-old with all its deep political inadequacies. For the Ride feels like as well as pointing to dominant social forces also posits ways to imagine ourselves outside of them, even within the language-worlds of poems. In an interview with Shoshana Olidort in 2016 in the LA Review of Books, Alice Notley said:
“In The Descent of Alette, the tyrant is us. The tyrant is what enslaves us to our forms. The tyrant is the form of our life, the form of our politics, the form of our universities, the form of our knowledge, our thinking we know something. All of that is the tyrant. The tyrant is a liberal. The tyrant isn’t Trump. He can be part of it, but this tyrant is an extremely accomplished man who can do anything. Alette’s about the liberation of women, but it’s also about the liberation of everyone. If you keep half of humankind down, then everybody is oppressed.”
Can poetry actually be the willowlike language that grows all around and over the tyrant? Tonight (after a day of running classes and conducting meetings and participating in discussions) I joined my street clapping NHS workers. And in doing so I did the same thing that Boris Johnson is doing in Chequers. And all these weird Military-Parade like things just suddenly got started around the ritual. Police etc joined in with their gruesome show of “we got this”. I got an email from a new friend recently: “why is Britain so in love with the second world war”. This act of clapping - I should have just made car alarm noises and barking noises and so on. Or beeping noises. Or whatever noises my grandmother is making in her carehome right now where she’s not at all well. I’ll just do barking noises. Reading those statements, “the form of our politics, the form of our universities, the form of our knowledge, our thinking we can know something” basically makes me want to cry, which I know is soppy. We need to change all of these things but not in the ways that are being posited in this new Zoom Hell we’re careering towards. This by the way is also what the sophists, including Gorgias, were up to: destabilising all the certainties when we think we know things so as to suggest alternative forms of knowing and unknowing.
> Famously, Frank O’Hara poem-berated Marino Marini for not picking the rider as carefully as the horse. In this book Alice Notley suggests maybe they both got it mixed up and it’s the ride we should all be hung up on: “O ride it! Whut’s writin? Usin tentacle wavelets to scrawl these”. Maybe it’s whatever that ride is that might enable us to find willow forms of our knowledge, willow universities, willow forms of our thinking we know something. It’s not a horse we’re being asked to ride though but a ton of floating signifiers, floating poems within the poem-scene. And a harness would be a hindrance.
Cassin, Barbara, Jacques the Sophist: Lacan, Logos and Psychoanalysis (Fordham University Press, 2012)
Cassin, Barbara, Sophistical Practice: Towards a Consistent Relativism (Fordham University Press, 2014)
Dillon, John, The Greek Sophists (Penguin, 2003)
Notley, Alice, For the Ride (Penguin Poets, 2019)
Notley, Alice, Songs and Stories of the Ghouls (Wesleyan, 2011)
Notley, Alice, Negativity’s Kiss (Purh, 2014)
Notley, Alice, Alice ordered me to be made (Yellow Press, 1975)
Notley Alice, Descent of Alette (Penguin Poets, 1992)
Notley, Alice, Mysteries of Small Houses (Penguin Poets, 1998)
Notley, Alice, Culture of One (Penguin Poets, 2011)
Notley, Alice, In the Pines (Penguin Poets, 2007)
Notley, Alice, ‘The Poetics Of Disobedience’ | Poetry Foundation: <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69479/the-poetics-of-disobedience> (2010)
Olidort, Shoshana, ‘Between The Living And The Dead: An Interview With Alice Notley’ - Los Angeles Review Of Books <https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/between-the-living-and-the-dead-an-interview-with-alice-notley/> (2016)
For the Ride is out now and available to purchase via Penguin Random House.
Text: Colin Herd