“a severe but brilliant mother mosaic so go in”: On Alice Notley’s Reason and Other Women

Lindsay Turner

Chax Press: Tuscon, AZ, 2010. 191 pages. $21.00.

Toward the end of Alice Notley’s Reason and Other Women, the “big bang poet” is pitted against the “personal experience poet.” Like many of the New York school writers with whom she is associated, Notley has often collaged the details of her daily life with an equally vivid inner commentary. But Notley seems both to employ and to transcend an experiential poetics; in a 2009 interview with David Baker published in The Kenyon Review, she says that she is “always [ . . . ] looking for her own true version” of “what really happened in the beginning,” and in her prose she addresses the problem of the “female or feminist epic.” This book evokes the comparison between the poet of everyday existence and the poet of cosmic themes only in passing, but in the framework of Notley’s oeuvre, this collection makes the distinction irrelevant; in Reason and Other Women, Notley works through originary structure and myth—which she locates within the mind itself—with as much integrity and originality as she has ever handled the particulars of her life as a mother, lover, New Yorker, and citizen. In the poem “The Prophet” (1979) Notley writes, “don’t be afraid of your own mind, there’s an ocean there you know how to swim in” (Grave of Light, 105). Reason and Other Women, written thirty years later, plunges in fully.

Reason and Other Women, in other words, is an exercise in thinking, an immersion within the mind itself. Notley’s preoccupations and voice are unmistakable here, and certain names and places from elsewhere in her poems recur occasionally, but the frameworks of narrative and character are missing, and the outside world, the world of experience, drops largely away. Instead, Reason resists not only standard conventions of the lyric (generally these are long poems of long lines, almost prose-like in appearance) but even the structures it invents for its mapping of the mind. Notley bases her interior cosmology around the symbolism of color and number (red walls, the messenger Reason’s blue gown, a pattern of sixes derived from Byzantine tradition) and a loose topography (the mind as a church, a “crystal city”) which begin to make flickering sense as the book progresses—but still, as Notley writes in her introduction, “[t]hings are not worked out systematically, because that’s not how we think.”

The mind’s resistance to form is both the book’s thematic point and the motivation behind its compositional idiosyncrasies: in Notley’s words, “the mind its timelessness will not conform / to our puny notions of shapeliness, except automatically when we make anything.” The frequent uncorrected typos throughout the work not only emphasize the speed of thinking, but also hint at the mind’s resistance to grammar, syntax, and spelling. Pierre Joris connects Reason’s “typo-graphical stumble” to the “vitesse grand V” of surrealist automatic writing, but it seems to me that such mistakes, rather than revealing the true substance of thought, emphasize the difficulty of transcribing the mind at all. Notley’s use of the Byzantine icon is an important one: the icon is surface first and foremost, interface rather than description or representation. The typos also recall Notley’s ever-present feminism. Reason can be viscerally violent; coming from a poet who has repeatedly emphasized non-conformity, the carelessness of typographical error offers brave and innovative resistance to the care-taking historically prescribed for “female” poetics.

Typographical error in Reason also provides a key to the book’s shifting, slapdash aesthetic and, ultimately, the discoveries such an aesthetic enables. In “The Road to Damascus” the name of the city mutates into the word “damask”; here the typo transforms the place from impoverished symbol (Notley is more or less uninterested in established religion) to rich surface. “I have found editing my mind pretty hard, but I am trying to think of the reader, as ever” Notley writes; by making symbols shimmer into surfaces, Notley allows the reader a sort of respite from the project’s chaotic, cerebral sprawl. The tactic is effective: Reason and Other Women brilliantly defamiliarizes thinking. It leaves behind the exterior world but not concern for it, giving up linguistic mastery for a gilded new conceptual expanse: “inside / the air of jewelled paint and rough touch the beautiful doors dont forget the doors / which appear to be part of the walls but are suddenly recessed into a new space a / further knowing.”

Notley begins Reason and Other Women with an explanation of the book’s genesis, stating that a large part of the undertaking was inspired by her concern for deceased friends and relatives (among them, her stepdaughter Kate and Allen Ginsberg). It is tempting, then, to read Reason as the earnest attempt to pin down, via an understanding of the workings of the poet’s mind, some truth about mortality and the afterlife. Yet in the end, Reason eludes any such fixity; what the mind meets, or what the poet meets in her own mind, is less important than the thrill of the ever-opening, intricately structured expanse, the near-chaos of forms and figures, and the continual discovery that the mind—although it will not be neatly contained by any standard symbol or form—nevertheless proves an inexhaustible source of poetic material.

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