City of by Alice Notley
Rain Taxi, 2005

Review by Alan Davies 15May07


What we don't know is what we know.

What we don't know is what we truly know.

Everything in the world points toward sexuality - invents it - and this poem (or sweet cascade of them) is a good example of that. And with that love - and the fact of the feat of living in a place to have that.

Paris (where Alice now lives) is the City of Light. It's called that - in the way a poem fetches words for (its) meaning. The city exhibits itself on the page (have I said this carefully enough).

She resolutely foregoes waste.

     "I don't believe in the universe any more."

Poetry absolves the page. Poetry that's this good does.

     I went to remembered streets when I got there.

     It was once with someone

                                              and I kept thinking

     I don't have something with me. Maybe a person

                     Has been stolen:
                                    Turn
     onto rue des Couronnes       there's a steep high park
                Contains a piece of me
                Purely
      White crocuses adhering to thawed trauma

                It's a placid
                earth of horror and
           from it
           I begin

           No nation now
           only a
           city.

I have nothing to add.

And even with that it is not enough to say that. Everything is an inspiration. Everything is as it is. Death hangs like a pallor under the city - giving it then the weight of what can lust up. Lively enough.

Alice remembers The Thrill Is Gone.

      I remember The Thrill is Gone.

But the thrill is not gone - the memory (a shared memory) - and the thrill ("The Thrill") lives on. Memory is always a postulate - and it is always true. And the form is also shared (the form of the memory) - and the form lives on (the form lives on).

Alice has a way of setting each line atop its others with a uniqueness that is rare. They dissemble. This has been done by some (in ways) but seldom with such settling grace. The lines flake. They float. Only for / in us do they (perhaps) cohere. That's why we're here.

      Try to make love in our bed

and then later down the page (is it down?) -

      Trying to make love in our bed.

- (a very different thing indeed (in deed)). It's possible to be a casualty of this kind of elocution - a learned casualty (having learned). And the sad stiff honesty of -

      That my lovers are dead.

- such that that too is a memory (memory being its own kind of reminder (a rather binding kind at times)). Language is always a reminder.

There's an equation here between the body and the city.

     I'm bringing you these blood-soaked
                                                             songs       streets or songs

Only language allows us to know who we are. True enlightenment occurs without it - but language contains the allowance (it has us in it) - and poetry is the compassionate epitome of that.

Alice does not so much write as she composes. We can feel the touch of her hand on or about middle C - and from there ranging where the energy of the emotion takes. We flow - with that we flow.

      I'm standing on a Paris street with a sack of lyrics

This is roughly equivalent to "I'm standing on a Paris street with my heart in my hand" (as a slightly genericized Piaf might have had it). But (but) -

      I'm standing on a Paris street with a sack of lyrics

      I've dipped some in blood as I had to

                    a very clear red

      I don't know who you are       I never have.

This takes us out of the realm of the rumor of truth (truth is always a rumor) - which is what description is - and into the personal gut of the matter of the personal gut. There's no getting around that one - not if you're the you / not if you're the I - and not (at all) if you're the reader (a listening feeling reader) either.

And all of this because -

     I'm bringing you these blood-soaked

                                                              songs       streets or songs

     I'm bringing you the blood-soaked ones you forgot

     You hadn't forgotten the blood

                                                      before, you kept it apart

This reminder (this memory) holds a whole relationship in the cask of its very few lines. "You hadn't forgotten" - no (you hadn't forgotten) - "you kept it apart" (you kept it apart). This you - you - you hadn't failed to do something (an inadvertent failure) - you had kept (kept (you had kept)) it apart (you had kept it apart). This kind of lesion lances language. (No to mention love.)

This is the genius of the moment / this is the genius of a momentous thing. This is the genus of the moment / this is the genus of a momentous thing.

     You aren't supposed to break free. What you become

     is owned by the curve of the universe

                                                              As if being

     knew what I was

                                 Are these real words?

     Are you there?

There's a soft gentle seeming contradiction between "What you become / is owned by the curve of the universe" and "As if being / knew what I was" but it's in that interstice that we live (abide) - (and this is how she says that).

                                                   A woman says, I don't find
     the concept of the self very interesting.

     I don't care, the fate of my hand is to sing.

Each syllable of this proves that / bears that out. We are the recipients of Alice's good graces.

It's a sort of urban irrealism (urrealism) with heart.

We have to look in this to find what's hidden (often on the "surface"). Poetry is an indication that life is like that. Time creates fragments - but fragments (equally) fragment time.

And (such that) one the poems so kindly begins -

     I remember the preferred lovable
     which means "you"

and ends -

     I remember all this for I       have nothing.       All I
                     have for you

Alice brings the poem (the book) down toward the end with a kind of contralto complexity. And us with it - not down in the sense of that kind of down feeling - but settled (and comfortably so).

From there - everything looks forward ("the child's drawings of a flower's life, / still hooked on fertility") - toward a kind of ambience. And that ambience - in some very real senses - is the poem itself - this (this) poem / and the possibility of poem as poem as well.

     We were in the parlor of a modest home with window shades
                   listening to a CD, several of us
     We heard the dead poet read
                                           a poem which ended with sun-up
     Another dead poet sat across the room
                                                     listening: but we were all the same one
     singing. We
                        have always made the sun come up.