Tuesday, November 18, 2003

At last, my report on the Notley reading...I know you've all been holding your breath.

So I'm on my way over to the Alice Notley reading last Monday and I get a call from Li Bloom, who I'm supposed to meet up with. Turns out Li's fallen victim to the Chicago highway tangle, literally at a fork in the road and not knowing which way to go. (I had this horrible image of Li sitting in her car in the middle of a highway median, cars whizzing by on either side, horns sounding.) I end up talking her all the way down from the Loop to the South Side, having her make U-turns in the middle of Lake Shore Drive and who knows what else, standing in the middle of 59th St. waving my cup of coffee to flag her down. (Weird moment of standing there talking to each other on cell phones while looking at each other through her car window.)

Even as she was trying to find her way down here, Li was thoughtful enough to ask me for my whole life story and give me part of hers. (Insert "strangeness of meeting someone you only know from their blog and how you know them but don’t really know them" riff here.) She told me it was the first reading she’d been to in a long time—I sympathized, having grown up in the same suburban enclave she now inhabits. But meeting her was just delightful—all energy and enthusiasm and poetry.

Really, though, most of this came afterwards, since by the time we got into the building the reading was about to start. Eirik Steinhoff of the Chicago Review introduced Notley and praised her a number of times for being part of no school and free of dogma, which always makes me a little suspicious—a little like "fair and balanced," if you know what I mean.

But that’s no fault of Notley’s. When she took the podium I was struck by how utterly different the atmosphere of this reading was than the last time I saw her at Lone Mountain in SF—that was a huge auditorium, more or less packed, with a sort of rock-star atmosphere and a who’s-who audience that made me a little queasy. The room here in Chicago was full, too, but that meant 60 people—both more and less intimate. People were there to hear Notley, but not necessarily because they knew her.

Notley’s certainly not a ranter at the mike, but she is, in her own way, a consummate performer. Stepping up to the front, she leaned back and kind of framed the podium with her hands like a director lining up a shot, then told us that explanations of anything would be reserved for her talk the following day; right now, she said, "I’m going to perform."

Listening to her made me think a bit of the low, rich, "thrilling" voice of Daisy Buchanan in Gatsby--but while Daisy’s voice is full of "money," Notley’s seemed more to be verging on tears, as if it were being held up in the lower registers by a suppressed sob. That’s a bit dramatic, but maybe appropriate to the material Notley was reading.

Part of what made me feel a bit like an outsider at the Lone Mountain reading was, in fact, Notley’s material—she read extensively from Disobedience, whose diaristic quality, allusions, and inside jokes seemed to delight those already familiar with her and her work, but it gave me that feeling I get when reading some of the more insiderist work of the New York School—like I wasn’t being invited into the conversation, sparkling and brilliant as it was.

The quality of this reading was utterly different—at one point I leaned over to Li and said that Notley in SF had been more "upbeat," though that wasn’t quite the right word. Her reading in SF was haunted by death—her brother’s, her husband’s—but not obsessed with it; here, it was as if she were down in the grave and trying to dig her way out: "I have come from another form in the ground." She read almost entirely from new work, serious and driven by rage and grief, with titles like "They Are All Dead Today" and "Decomposition"—the last, perhaps, an apt term for a project of writing one’s way out of death.

Perhaps the sense of a project in progress is what gave the reading its feeling of unity. Like Disobedience, the new poems were often animated by dream imagery, particularly that of the "dark woman," both archetype and self-portrait. The dominant tone was less elegiac than unflinchingly and viscerally memorial, the language of a present consciousness wounded by death: "You have left a bloody corpse in my bed…No one in a small town should have a pauper’s grave…I loved someone who died…My mind isn’t safe."

Yet Notley would hardly be Notley if there weren’t some sparkle of wit in the pain—a "funereal repartee," as she put it. The "world drug, the beauty drug" may be an opiate, but it’s an irresistible and even natural one.

And the intrusions of the public world of politics and war—characteristics of Notley’s recent work that have led some to read her as a powerfully political poet—were also in evidence, though less conspicuously than in Disobedience. One poem, "Ballad," which alternated quotes from Dick Cheney with images of elegy and dream, seemed formulaic, with Cheney’s rhetoric too easy a target; more powerful were the moments when public language asserted itself deep within the personal, linked with the stasis of death: "The president comes into every part and stops it."

Afterwards I’m talking with Li and this guy comes up and introduces himself—it’s Chuck Stebelton, who’d emailed me a few weeks back to let me know about a few good Chicago reading series (which were threatening to burgeon, egads, into a "scene"). Pretty soon we’re all talking about blogging and how weird it is to meet people who you’ve only met as blogs and how can we get everybody in Chicago blogging and…well, you get the idea. Watch out for that New Prairie School.

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