Alice Notley

Penguin, 2016

Alice Notley’s latest collection of poems, Certain Magical Acts, functions in the tradition of the world-weary jeremiad. Like the Biblical prophets, the speaker in “I Couldn’t Sleep in My Dream” waits for a divine message: “I’m listening for / something else, not Death, but what she hears. // She hears me, but I can’t always hear me / saying to her, Keep me at arm’s length.” Unlike the prophets, however, Notley’s source is unclear to her, made murkier by long, rambling lines — can the prophet who never stops speaking listen for wisdom? This makes for compelling — if exhausting — reading, like the endless ticker on a 24-hour news network.

Notley turns instead to voice, fashioning a poetics not of listening or silence, but of profession. The speaker attempts — and questions — the poet’s ability to speak as one voice: “But also I am / everyone trying to be with you, because I exist, and always have.” The problem with the United States is its slogan: e pluribus unum. How can our leaders (“tricksters”) pretend they speak on behalf of many? Still, Notley advances: “I think the new language must be the inclusion / of everyone. It isn’t about technique, it’s about / inclusion.” We slip in and out of rallies: “You don’t need to attend to the trappings of the ruling idiots. / Don’t you understand them? Engraved features, no despair, chosen skulls — / the elect — stay away.” In trying to throw her voice to everyone, Notley’s becomes a wash, which, in its density, is both magnetic and daunting. The first half of the book, then, is a kind of elegy for the impossible “we” poem, even as it attempts one.

Notley turns, finally, toward examining prophecy itself. In “Blinding the White Horse in Front of Me,” the emotional epicenter, the sick poet, in a kind of hallucination, encounters a power (perhaps Death) that speaks beyond herself, beyond words: “You can’t name me any of your epithets: fierce, / prodigious, overarching, awe-inspiring, masterful. If / you name me one thing, you can’t be healed.”

Ultimately, in tackling the question of the populist voice, Notley arrives at a private consultation with Being and Nothingness. Somehow, this singular encounter speaks more to the universal than any multitudinous chorus could. In the aftermath of the presidential election, this existential confrontation with prophecy feels prescient:

One day I didn’t live
                                       anywhere I
                                                                  recognized as country…