Alice Notley vividly reconstructs the mysteries, longings, and emotions of her past in this brilliant new collection of poems that charts her growth from young girl to young woman to accomplished artist. In this volume, memories of her childhood in the California desert spring to life through evocative renderings of the American landscape, circa 1950. Likewise, her coming of age as a poet in the turbulent sixties is evoked through the era's angry, creative energy. As she looks backward with the perspective that time and age allows, Notley ably captures the immediacy of youth's passion while offering her own dry-eyed interpretations of the events of a life lived close to the bone. Like the colorful collages she assembles from paper and other found materials, Notley erects structures of image and feeling to house the memories that swirl around her in the present. In their feverish, intelligent renderings of moments both precise and ephemeral, Notley's poems manage to mirror and transcend the times they evoke. Her profound tributes to the stages of her life and to the identities she has assumed—child, youth, lover, poet, wife, mother, friend, and widow—are remarkable for their insight and wisdom, and for the courage of their unblinking gaze.
In her latest collection, Notley takes a step back from the body of work she has amassed over the last three decades (The Descent of Alette; Selected Poems; etc.) to compose a kind of quasi-autobiography in verse. Casual, forthright and perceptive, it is a culminating effort. Notley, as is her style, rarely shies away from unabashed, almost Whitmanesque generalizations, and here her bravery pays off. Again and again, she asks herself what poetry in America is and was, turning moments later to provide her own answers: "...`So little/ tenderness in American poetry' as/ Robert Duncan once told mewho was he?/ Who was anyone? unstarred brightest equality." Contemporary poetry's recent past shadows Notley more closely and intimately than most: her late husband, the poet Ted Berrigan, commands a small but devoted following, and many of these poems try to make sense of his work and his early death ("Grief's not a social invention./ Grief is visible, substantial, I've literally seen it") while retaining a sense of her own trajectory ("The Subject/ of this poem is not how a woman's imagination/ may be dominated by a man's"). We follow her in a loose chronology from a West Coast childhood to New York City, first as a pre-feminism college student, then as a 1970s East Village poet in a scene full of humid friendships, wordsmithery and pill-taking, and through to Paris, where she lives today. Occasionally, Notley slips into the automatic writing-like phrases and personal myth-making that was the Achilles' Heel of the late New York School. But even these moments, with their rock 'n' roll bio shading, make for compelling reading. (June) (PW best book of 1998)