Thursday, 8 May 2008

how spring comes

All of a sudden it seems, London trees are in full, bright leaf and candle, it's too hot, and I have a cold: aching, stuffed head, sore eyes ...

On Tuesday a strong brown package of unusually long thin proportions appeared in my work in-tray from the Harvest Book Company, Fort Washington, PA, a couple of weeks after the placing of my order on Abebooks. How Spring Comes, by Alice Notley (West Branch, Iowa: Toothpaste Press, March 1981) measures 27.6 x 16 cm. It is beautifully designed and produced, letterpress-printed on creamy, watermarked wove paper, in blue wrappers (upper and spine faded, and rather susceptible to new finger-marks and moisture spots) with a great title-page illustration by George Schneeman -- two stockings neatly draped on a coathanger -- in a second colour, pink, also used for a flower on the cover title. The anachronistic, private-press style is supported by a lengthy colophon (containing two errata, as noted on the t.p. verso, paratext upon paratext ...).

Reading this book, last night after attending a housing meeting, and this morning bunged-up and slightly feverish in bed, has at last sprung a huge pleasure in Alice Notley's work. On Saturday a group of people convened by Carol Watts at Birkbeck will spend the day reading and discussing her poems (with Alice herself present). Greatly looking forward to this, yet the preparation has felt to date a little like homework. But here I love the tight strung sparkle of the personal domestic quotidian; the energy of thought; the surprise as every poem embarks quite differently from the previous.

--bum & zoom. leaving & yet never this awful old
this dark ocean life that hardly sees comes &
flashes on the sofa sits as Ms. Missa Brevis--
to go to try to find the rail between names.
('September's Book', opening lines)

Great talent is in the ear for speech, juxtaposing different registers, pasting on idiomatic elements, running to experiments in male impersonation ("I am man who dazzles ... in the park / with glasses" ('September's Book'), 'Jack Would Speak Through the Imperfect Medium of Alice'); this also tends to position away dramatically the 'real' first person, freeing the young poet-wife-and-mother to exhibit the facts and concerns of her life in a way that doesn't seem solipsistic (where the leisured absorption in her own mind of longer, later works have initially struck me that way -- my own deficient attention likely most to blame ...).

These aspects of voice and drama relate to the Frank O'Hara influence Notley often acknowledges (e.g. here, 'A True Acount of Talking to Judy Holiday, October 13'). But many other techniques come into play: the dynamic necklace of names from fiction in 'A California Girlhood'; the litany of reversed life-narrative in 'Jack Would Speak ...'; the proverbial saws piled up in 'The Prophet', and throughout the book, a virtuosity with different types of line, from the taut and rather monumental-for-its-size 'For Willa Cather', through the very long lines of 'The Prophet', via the long-and-short work of the 6th section of 'September's Book'; this poem is on its own a whole primer of different approaches. Exhilarating, menthol.