Questions of Citizenship: Alice Notley’s Songs and Stories of the Ghouls

Jenny Johnson

Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011. 208 pages. $24.95.

Songs and Stories of the GhoulsIn her recent essay, “Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work,” Edwidge Danticat questions borders between space, time, and literature. After sharing the significance of underground stagings of Greek plays and clandestine readings of Albert Camus’ Caligula under the dictatorship of Papa Doc Duvalier, Danticat asks: “Is there a border between Antigone’s desire to bury her brother and the Haitian mother in 1964 who desperately wants to take her dead son’s body out of the street to give him a proper burial, knowing that if she does this she too may die?” For Danticat, writer and reader legislate a country and “ . . . the writer bound to the reader, under diabolic, or even joyful, circumstances inevitably becomes a loyal citizen of the country of his readers.”

Interestingly, I think this “diabolic” bond between writer and reader is reversed in Alice Notley’s latest book. Instead of considering how a writer’s citizenship is expanded by the reader’s world, in Songs and Stories of the Ghouls the poet-speaker asks her reader to reconsider all prior citizenships, to question any world outside the book. In one poem, a voice taunts the reader: “Come / into the / enlarging / page if you dare.” In another poem, a voice says:

My hands don’t stick out of the page; and I don’t want to make you cry. I want to demonstrate that this—the world we live in—is imagined, and transmutable in more ways than we are used to discussing.

This book of poetry asks you (the naïve, fearful, or apathetic reader) to question your allegiances to “the world we live in,” so as to see a world that belongs to the dead, a state of ghoul anarchy, one of Notley’s elaborate making. In the final lines of this book, the poet-speaker offers: “The poem, the poem / always / my real country.”

When I first read on the jacket sleeve that Notley’s Songs and Stories of the Ghouls “purports to give power to the dead—the victims of genocide both ancient and contemporary—and presence to women,” I was wary, distrustful even, not so much of the book’s epic ambitions, which are signature Notley, but of how the poet would go about crafting such voices.

The two central archetypal voices that speak are Medea and Dido, as well as a poet-speaker, and many anonymous ghouls (urgent, restless female spirits), who correct history, talk back and through the poet, engage one another, warning (whoever will listen) sometimes in poetic stanzas, at other times in varied lengths of prose.

When Medea speaks in the first section, she says:

In one sense I survive by having been eradicated and if your culture has been razed you will understand me. The magic is always in my hands and in my crushed-out eyes whatever is deleted returns.

When I first read this passage, I struggled with the use of the word “culture,” a word that is used frequently and somewhat ambiguously throughout the text. Here Medea anticipates that the oppressed from all cultures, women in particular, will identify with a common experience of eradication. And yet, the voices in this book allude to settings as varied as ancient Carthage, “Media: western Iran and South Azerbaijan,” “the Palms Motel,” “the 24 hour Casino,” New York City, and France: diverse sites where cultural experiences of oppression, genocide, and historical erasure are critically different across time and space.

On one hand, there is a potential for a book with such scope to dismiss varied, complicated cultural experiences of “eradication” through the use of seemingly empowering universals. On the other hand, I wonder if I’m missing the point altogether by reading this book as a project that absolves itself from the significance of particular contexts. How do we speak about the lives of women that have never been placed into a legitimate context? Clearly, the poet-speaker doesn’t trust hegemonic views of history and aims to invent an alternative history through language. Consider these lines: “If you change the nature of events do you change time? Event: I sat down to talk to everyone who had ever lived.” Notley implies that she is establishing a new paradigm for these lost voices, a common space where all the dead girl-ghouls get to “talk,” a feminist site for locution that stands outside the particulars of patriarchal versions of time and history. In one poem, she refers to this radical space as the “ghoulish, timeless state,” and in another poem she uses the term “breakaway culture” to describe the “culture” of such a “state.”

Still, as a reader, I have difficulty staying within Notley’s country, when early in the book, a voice says, “I know the language of one,” then later:

I remember it as the destruction of all my time until that point. I was a people, shattered. I still carried much inscription inside me.

Is it possible as a poet to speak veritably in the voice of a collective unconscious, to speak as a “people, shattered”? Notley’s book suggests that the answer is yes, the poet can speak as a “people, shattered” but only if the reader accepts the notion of a collective spirit, if the reader believes in a kind of communal memory that crosses time, space, and culture. Within this particular book, I’m not sure I am that sort of reader.

Nonetheless, I admire a book that makes us think about what readers should and shouldn’t accept. I can’t help but respect a writer that provokes me so, one who keeps asking me: What kind of reader are you?

If you (the reader of this review) are up for such a challenge, the best way to read Songs and Stories of the Ghouls is in one delirious, concentrated stretch. In order to engage Notley’s latest work meaningfully, you must be willing to show up fully to a choir of broken, urgent testaments. This isn’t a book that you can step in and out of during a morning commute. But if you’re willing to stay in Notley’s country for a while, you have a better chance of connecting with this book. If you’re up to the task, here’s a brief guide to what you’ll encounter. This 201 page text is organized into three distinct sections: “Introducing Carthage,” “The Book of Dead,” and “Testament: 2005.”

The first section is the most operatic; every fragmented echo takes on a different form. There are stanzas in which you can discern that Dido and Medea may be speaking from the dead, sharing eradicated histories, one in which Medea did not murder her sons and one in which Dido keeps founding Carthage again and again. At times, the syntax of the voices in “Introducing Carthage” reads like broken, transliterated speech, as if many ghoulish commentators are vying to speak at once into the ear of a poet-speaker, who attempts to channel them simultaneously onto the page.

The second and strangest section in Songs and Stories of the Ghouls is “The Book of Dead,” written mostly in a breezy, present tense prose. Again, you will encounter a pastiche of voices interrupting one another, though the tone is less stable: It’s sometimes chilling, sometimes explanatory, sometimes lyrical, sometimes sardonic. At times, you feel like you’re on the set of a mockumentary tracking a poet’s psychic voyage, complete with transcripts and coroner’s reports, an odd record of her travels into a ghoulish realm. We learn that the poet is a valiant threat to the coroner because even as a corpse she keeps writing; she refuses to shut up.

In the third and final section, “Testament 2005,” situated in “Day,” a profoundly haunted speaker is relentlessly visited: “Who’s ever through? Even / if you’re dead you’re not / through. / I know because the dead / talk to me. It’s / never over, they say.” In this section, human and ghoul co-testify in the form of poems mostly titled and lineated in stanzas.

These poems are made all the more interesting given Notley’s compositional process. In a conversation with CA Conrad on “Trance, Tarot, and Poetry,” Notley said that: “In general, I think poets write from a trance state,” speaking about a kind of poetic process that she describes as “transpersonal.” I understand this to be a kind of self-transcendence, a moving beyond the personal so to allow for other voices to enter the page. The use of a channeled or destabilized “I” is evident in a poem like “Sand” where the speaker says, “Halfway through / the poem, I am another person.” In response to having her work described as stream of consciousness, Notley once said in an interview with Sophie Erskine at 3:AM Magazine: “I have several things to say in no particular order. I like big sentences full of light.” Here are a few that I found dark and dazzling:

The light between letters will become in my unlawful hand the conversant weapon so you’ll let me destroy your intentions.

She took the light and broke it as hard as she could so you couldn’t tell it. The black disks scattered deaths of details to place there all the change I had.

Notley offers an intimate meditation on the complexity of testifying on behalf of the dead. In “Another Part of Now,” the speaker says, “I have to sing my way / out of here. I’m crowded / with old corpse / Furniture. Inside me is my / country I take / everywhere.” Acknowledging the difficulty of such singing, in “Sand” the speaker says: “I have no throat for this aria.” This is a book that requests your partisanship, even as it assumes your apathy. I find it maddening to read a book that so refuses to accommodate or care for the reader, that quips: “I didn’t leave, I never leave; / you leave / who can’t stay the poem.”

But I also find it refreshing, in these times when Congress holds hearings about contraception without a woman’s voice on the panel, when Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke is called a “fame-hungry activist” by Fox News and a “slut” by Rush Limbaugh, when women are publicly disinvited from conversations about their bodies, to encounter a book so feverishly vocal about the experiences of women dead and alive.

So for all the women, in particular, longing for a “breakaway culture,” a new “country” to reside within, I’ll leave you with a few lines from “Rare Card”:

I will enter their space
later today & become enraged.
I will know exactly
how much it has cost me
to be a woman.

Here, in magic, it’s other
any word
to bring
retrieval.

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