The Operating System


notley-pic_smAlice Notley. Alice Notley. Alice Notley is a miracle worker. That much we know is true. I heard –from Rachel Zucker– she didn’t care where she published. See: the tightly wound ball of rage that is “As Good as Anything.” See here: “Written and judged by. Those befoibled guys / who think –you know– / the poetic moment’s a pocket in / pool; where can I publish it; what can / I do to my second or third wife now. / Nothing happens in Iowa, so / can I myself change here?”

Notley’s whole young life bled right into her poems. She didn’t hide the pain of being a young woman and an artist: she didn’t suck up the pain for the reward. She laughed at the reward. And at reward culture. And somehow she ends up being published by Penguin. Living in Paris and having wine for lunch. While her poems… Nurse sick kids. Suffer fevers. Dispense meds. Take pills and watch others take pills. Mourn. Confront America. Merge with nature and merge with the city. I’m so sick of models, but here is one life I would lead. I mean that. I don’t know Alice Notley personally. I’ve only asked her one question, when she visited Georgetown University while I was a student: did you write the book Mysteries of Small Houses in chronological orderShe didn’t – it was someone else’s decision to arrange the poems chronologically.
But she did say, to write those poems she’d first put herself into a hypnotic trance, by which she’d enter her childhood house, which would act as a portal to other houses she’d lived in – thus allowing her to write about various times in her life, based on setting, with great immediacy. She says more on all that to CA Conrad here.
I’m moved as much by Notley’s validation of her own feelings/experiences as I am that she achieves this validation via disciplined experimentation. In InfernoEileen Myles says the New York incarnation of Alice Notley worked hard. Her work created one possible female voice, collaboratively with Anne Waldman and Bernadette Mayer, all three born in 1945. All praises! And, indeed, I feel I should emphasize the collaborative aspect of this voice – because it’s easy for women to be isolated, historically, as genius or beauty – thus taking power from the wave of liberation. If you know what I mean. I mean this cluster of women  (along with other clusters, see this gorgeous group) opened the floodgates to what is our contemporary tidal wave of exciting feminist art.
Grave of Light is an excellent selection of Notley’s work from 1970-2005 — and I have returned to it as a student, poet, and teacher. As a teacher, I give kids and adults alike her Postcards from the early 80s, “Dear Fuckface, / Everyone thinks you’re / the Goddess of Compassion…How about some bucks, / Goddess Baby? any amount / above five I’d appreciate & / continue to light at your / altar the incense I steal / from the neo-Rocky Mountain / healthfood store. I / still like you either way, / Love, / Bubbles.”
In addition to the poems, I give my students actual postcards and a time limit to write a Postcard poem from one character to another, following Notley’s enjambment as a formal guide. Enjambment can represent our faltering, impeded human thought process. As a poet, I spent a summer writing a poem everyday in the form of “At Night the States,” Notley’s poem of mourning for her first husband Ted Berrigan. I feel as though this process offered me much about the powerful combo. of repetition (method) and enjambment (disruption).
But back to the Postcard poems: Characters! Students of poetry need to learn to create characters! Need to imagine their way out of the psyche sometimes for the sake of Poetry— glutted as the poor genre is with half-ass self-expression. Notley is a master of character development by the time of Culture of One (2011), which I read looking at the ocean in Jamaica…as though it were a novel. In all my novel reading life, a voluptuous and frolicsome history, I don’t think I’ve seen characters as clearly as I saw Marie and Leroy! Notley’s “novel in poems” isn’t a novel so much as exploration of storytelling as that which a poem is capable of. And, you know what I learned from a friend who bumped into Alice Notley at Unnameable Books? I learned, Alice Notley, as I suspected, loves Faulkner.
At Night the States

At night the states
I forget them or I wish I was there
	 in that one under the
Stars. It smells like June in this night
	 so sweet like air.
I may have decided that the
	 States are not that tired
Or I have thought so. I have
	 thought that.
At night the states
And the world not that tired
	 of everyone
Maybe. Honey, I think that to
	 say is in
light. Or whoever. We will
replace You. We will never re-
	 place You. But
in like a dream the floor is no
	 longer discursive
To me it doesn't please me by
	 being the vistas out my
window, do you know what
	 Of course (not) I mean?
I have no dreams of wake-
	 fulness. In
wakefulness. And so to begin.
	 (my love.)
At night the states
talk. My initial continuing contra-
my love for you & that for me
deep down in the Purple Plant the oldest
of it is sweetest but sates no longer
	 how I
would feel. Shirt
that shirt has been in your arms
	 And I have
that shirt is how I feel
At night the states
will you continue in this as-
	 sociation of
matters, my Dearest? down
	 the street from
where the public plaque reminds
	 that of private
loving the consequential chain
	 trail is
At night the states
that it doesn't matter that I don't
	 say them, remember
them at the end of this claustro-
	 phobic the
dance, I wish I could see I wish
	 I could
dance her. At this night the states
	 say them
out there. That I am, am them
	 indefinitely so and
so wishful passive historic fated
	 and matter-
simple, matter-simple, an
	 eyeful. I wish
but I don't and little melody.
	 Sorry that these
little things don't happen any
	 more. The states
have drained their magicks
	 for I have not
seen them. Best not to tell. But
you would always remain, I
	 trust, as I will
always be alone.
At night the states
whistle. Anyone can live. I
can. I am not doing any-
	 thing doing this. I
discover I love as I figure. Wed-
I wanted to say something in
	 particular. I have been
where. I have seen it. The God
	 can. The people
do some more.
At night the states
I let go of, have let, don't
Some, and some, in Florida, doing.
	 What takes you so
long? I am still with you in that
	 part of the
park, and vice will continue, but
	 I'll have
a cleaning Maine. Who loses
	 these names
loses. I can't bring it up yet,
	 keeping my
opinions to herself. Everybody in
	 any room is a
smuggler. I walked fiery and
	 talked in the
stars of the automatic weapons
	 and partly for you
Which you. You know.
At night the states
have told it already. Have
	 told it. I
know it. But more that they
	 don't know, I
know it too.
At night the states
whom I do stand before in
	 judgment, I
think that they will find
	 me fair, not
that they care in fact nor do
	 I, right now
though indeed I am they and
	 we say
that not that I've
	 erred nor
lost my way though perhaps
	 they did (did
they) and now he is dead
	 but you
you are not. Yet I am this
	 one, lost
again? lost & found by one-
Who are you to dare sing to me?
At night the states
accompany me while I sit here
	 or drums
there are alwavs drums what for
	 so I
won't lose my way the name of
personality, say, not California
	 I am not
sad for you though I could be
	 I remember
climbing up a hill under tall
getting home. I guess we
	 got home. I was
going to say that the air was
	 fair (I was
always saying something like
	 that) but
that's not it now, and that
	 that's not it
isn't it either
At night the states
dare sing to me they who seem
any more I've not thought I
	 loved them, only
you it's you whom I love
the states are not good to me as
	 I am to them
though perhaps I am not
when I think of your being
	 so beautiful
but is that your beauty
	 or could it be
theirs I'm having such a
	 hard time remembering
any of their names
your being beautiful belongs
	 to nothing
I don't believe they should
	 praise you
but I seem to believe they
somehow let you go
At night the states
and when you go down to
witness how perfectly anything
	 in particular
sheets of thoughts what a waste
	 of sheets at
night. I remember something
	 about an
up-to-date theory of time. I
	 have my
own white rose for I have
something well but I'm not
what it is. Weathered, perhaps
	 but that's
never done. What's done is
At night the states
ride the train to Baltimore
we will try to acknowledge what was
but that's not the real mirror
	 is it? nor
is it empty, or only my eyes
Ride the car home from Washington
they are not. Ride the subway
	 home from
Pennsylvania Station. The states
	 are blind eyes
stony smooth shut in moon-
	 light. My
French is the shape of this
that means I.
At night the states
the 14 pieces. I couldn't just
walk on by. Why
aren't they beautiful enough
in a way that does not
	 beg to wring
something from a dry (wet)
Call my name
At night the states
making life, not explaining anything
but all the popular songs say call
	 my name
oh call my name, and if I call
 	 it out myself to
you, call mine out instead as our
	 poets do
will you still walk on by? I
loved you for so long. You
and on the wind they sang
	 your name to me
but you said nothing. Yet you
	 said once before
and there it is, there, but it is
	 so still.
Oh being alone I call out my
and once you did and do still in
	 a way
you do call out your name
to these states whose way is to walk
on by that's why I write too much
At night the states
whoever you love that's who you
the difference between chaos and
	 star I believe and
in that difference they believed
	 in some
funny way but that wasn't
	 what I
I believed that out of this
 	 fatigue would be
born a light, what is fatigue
there is a man whose face
	 changes continually
but I will never, something
	 I will
never with regard to it or
	 never regard
I will regard yours tomorrow
I will wear purple will I
and call my name
At night the states
you who are alive, you who are dead
when I love you alone all night and
	 that is what I do
until I could never write from your
	 being enough
I don't want that trick of making
	 it be coaxed from
the words not tonight I want it
	 coaxed from
myself but being not that. But I'd
	 feel more
comfortable about it being words
	 if it
were if that's what it were for these
	 are the
States where what words are true
	 are words
Not myself. Montana. Illinois.
Alice Notley from a “Grave of Light” 

This summer I wrote a poem almost everyday in the form of “At Night the States”:


Tonight is deadstill,

no motion to October.

Except his heaving chest

& when he rises

he talks about the shadows.

Early morn, I’m buying coffee

in my nightgown & heels

while Manuel takes eggs

out of a plastic carton

& puts them in a wicker basket.

I’d rather be a warm cliché,

than hanging around

this overpriced grocery

come Feb.

Rumdrunk in Treasure Beach

I’m inhaling the balmy night. & Tanya Stephens

brings an inhaler on stage.


my malebodied local calls her,

“U don’t think she’s hard on men

bc u can’t understand her lyrics.”

Manhouse, more of a Manshare,

I want shelter

so hard the colors mash-up

the liquor store sign turns pink.

Asthmatic song, a tuggawar

do I pray or

administer the meds.

I sucked his dick in the bathrm.

last night & then he told me

to kiss my son as he was leaving

to keep my chaps shut.

I explained to the sitter

about the meds. I gave him a puff

before I left.

Don’t worry,

the sitter has nephews & nieces

who have asthma.

Asthmatic song, fantastic song

sing it to me back in BK,

while I type

to the sound of municipal workers

outside my window,

I’m closing in

on consciousness, burning

myself on it. Then I’m

“Mommy mommy mommy.”

I grab him

by the middle, “U have to sleep,”

I scream through grit teeth.

He was born

of my will to survive

& he sucks at air like he means to.

I don’t want this to be our story

just some feelings we walk through

like a sculpture garden.

The alternative is the playground,

& I hate the parents in the sandbox

who encourage their children

to possess a toy truck.

I’ll tell u where u can shovel

ur mindful parenting workshops.

What does it mean

to be undeveloped?

Well, u cd go in any direction

like sand.

“What are you feeling?”

My son asks me all the time.

I cd feel this for no man

lover, I mean. The split between

what is good for me & loving u

& knowing too that loving u

is good for me, it must be.

Would I die for u? Do I

wish u were dead. I love u

like a raccoon.

It’s our little joke.

“My joke is a bird,” he said.

In her own words: “Montana Ray is a feminist — OMG enough already! She is also a mother and poet-translator and co-hosts the Brooklyn Ladies Text-based Salon.

2nd Annual 30/30/30 Poetry Month Series:


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