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Alice Notley introduces herself before a reading, describes her plan for the event, “If you think you can handle it,” she laughs. The laugh tells the audience she knows some of them cannot. Her recent book, Benediction (Letter Machine, 2015), an epic written in ragged grammatical form, further concretizes her work to repossess the historically male-dominated epic poem as a feminist genre. Completed fifteen years prior to its publication, the book is driven by a poetic voice reliant on dreams as passage to states of “consciousness the second body,” to the soul, to the “Crystal City,” to a state of in-betweenness where “the figure of love” and all the dead can be reached beyond death.
The book’s unconventional capitalization and punctuation continue Notley’s invention of a new grammar, which has been most widely recognized in her use of quotation marks in The Descent of Alette (Penguin, 1996). At its most granular, Notley’s language calls to mind Leslie Scalapino’s breakdown of language into component phonemes (see ‘Can’t’ is ‘Night’, Belladonna*, 2003, for one example). Hundreds of lines that at first glance seem to be painstakingly replicated typographical errors offer a new form of intimate invitation into the state of mind of their speaker:
because i am damaging my cage so i can get out and the doctor don’t like it What are you doing to it Being bad To damage your cage is to be bad. they say. I threw a chair across the room and broke it. Because my opinions weren’t allowed.
Notley pestles grammatical conventions into dust, refusing common notions of order. For many years, she has spoken extensively about her practice of employing trance states and dreams in divining poetry; in one essay, “Dreams, Again,” published by Talisman (Issue 42, 2014), she defines poetry as telepathy, explaining, “We read each other’s minds all the time.” What makes this idea thrilling is its actual possibility – Notley has given us what we need to engage in this practice through the twin strategies of transcribing her dreams and retaining typos, errors, and false starts in those transcriptions. The text insists upon our telepathy. After some preliminary disorientation, we gain the ability to read the poet’s mind:
Someone in the gully told me my poem some poem was no good an i tol her if that was the case I wouldn have let it take up six pages in the selected extrusions from the envelop the envelop where in the desert blank in the hole near black and red will never explai except goin on with is it it isnt in the what ba ba or is t is it the lang that there the order is in for no reason / i am order and reason a new body a body
These are the final lines before Part II begins. (The book does not contain the title text “Part I,” so can a Part I be said to exist? Instead, simply, the first half of the work introduces Part II.) Later, dream-derived images like broken babies, Audrey Hepburn’s red-painted eyes, and dirt guide the reader, their repetition establishing the images as passcodes for free movement between waking life and the astral plane. And then, it works. The images become vehicles with which to navigate the horror-riddled environments of illness, where doctors and hospitals figure large. In a 2015 interview for BOMB Magazine, Notley says of Benediction:
It’s a very complex book. And it’s also a very emotional thing for me, because my husband became sick in the middle of it, and the whole second part of it goes with his illness. He died right as I finished. It’s been difficult for me to face the book, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s been sitting there for fifteen years. It’s very experimental, on the other hand, so there’s a lot of weight—it’s very heavy for me.
Even as recalled dreams accumulate, the poet resists automatically giving over her trust to an image system. In the poem “Love,” she explains:
all codes hurt there is no real code […] and yet i did it too i cant avoid it its like the hospital all the hospitals, all there are are roads hospitals and also, i know, airports. but the world is really composed of hospitals.
Fot Notley, dream images evolve and resist categorization and concrete meanings. In the second half of Benediction, the experience of visiting the beloved in hospital wards so many times robs the poet of her ability to dream, and, thus, the poet’s experiment is to recover that ability through the experience of mourning: “I sit in a meaningless doctoring office conscious and unconscious dead and alive.”
“Love” is a poem that returns to “the old dream I’ve already included twice,” plunging down to “buried images” in order to make a discovery:
at the bottom of the hole of images is the nothing of love the ultimate image is the hospital or the woman as woman as if that were at the bottom of the hole of images is love.
This poem is key to the book overall, but especially to understanding Part II. The hospital, so disgusting in its “urinous paleness,” can only be rivaled by love, which “has as a reality no image whatsoever.” Beyond the images she mourns for lies love. The next poem, “The French Word For For,” cautiously announces that “some dreams are back.”
The arrival of new dreams and movement toward “the healing, with which the benediction coincides” provides some pain relief in the final pages of the collection. The jacket copy on the book’s back cover is drawn from these last few poems, and these lines clue the reader in to how Notley might have recovered from her grief. She announces, “I bless anyone.” And from the final page of the book: “is there any difference between / trying to heal a loved one, trying to save a / doomed planet, and trying to find a key / for anyone to their conscious crystal city?”
Benediction “makes disease irrelevant” by lying beyond the reach of medical authority’s patriarchal structure, disobedient. If the poet can dispense blessings as she sees fit, her acts of benediction dwell outside the scientific power structure, just as her poetry has always opposed oppressive economic and political structures. At heart, Benediction argues for the living to direct our energy toward healing ourselves and each other; it claims this as the ultimate act of resistance.