‘Benediction’ by Alice Notley
“you broke me but im breaking dimensions”
“I was born to be part of a great destruction,” Alice Notley declares early on in Benediction, and over the course of this 256-page poem—as distinguished by the extravagance of its demolitional ambitions as by its length—she bears the prophecy out. The sheer sweep of Benediction is, in turns, exhausting and exhilarating. Every existing preconception—peddled by every imaginable Establishment—feels the heat, and from their ashes Notley conjures up a brave new metaphysics for us all.
She’s been determined not just to flout but to bulldoze arbitrary categorizations (including, but not limited to, literary genres) ever since the early ’70s, when she emerged in downtown New York; she has continued (in Paris, these past few decades) to be numbered among the advance guard for some of poetry’s most revolutionary movements, none of which earn her allegiance. “It’s necessary to maintain a state of disobedience against … everything,” she declared in a 1998 lecture, and to this dictum (and this dictum only) she’s been unswervingly obedient. In the process, she’s been prolific, publishing over thirty-five books of poems and prose to significant acclaim.
You might expect someone at this juncture in a storied career to rest a little on her laurels, but she is as restive as ever. In Benediction, we find Notley hellbent on delivering us from the tyranny of cultural convention, her hostility directed not only at our own culture—not simply at this particular “awful shore that we ha[ve] created out of our manly arrogance”—but at culture simpliciter, which more or less amounts to human civilization itself:
We’ve been “unconscious” since the beginning of recorded history, taken in by “hoaxes of naming;” tricked by our senses: “the material universe is not a fact its your choice your law / you do nothing but define the edges of this unreality;” duped by artificial constructs pawned off as substantive truths: “the diagram handed down through millennia clipboard clipboard clipboard.” Our “slavish adherence to […] the acceptance of dimensions,” says Notley, “has ruined us;” it’s high time we snapped out of it.
As much as Notley might balk at the comparison to a revered dead white man (“they knew nothing either stop kissing their dead ass”), and as much as I second the sentiment, the parallels here to Plato are too striking to ignore. Both he and Notley provide powerful illustrations of how our false systems condemn us to a state of delusion—in Plato’s case: an undergound cave, in Notley’s: a nightmarish “hole of images.” This shadowy confinement is deplorable first and foremost because it blocks us off from something eternal—which is “the light of fundamental justice” in Notley’s words (from the aforementioned lecture, touching on her then work-in-progress), and which Plato called, also, by the name of justice. Both write out of an urgently reformist utopianism, in an effort to boost us from the black hole of our previous values and assumptions into the ideal world that’s been incandescing all along (and will in perpituity)—for Plato: the realm of Forms, for Notley: a “high bare place” called the “Crystal City.” And in neither’s conception can the enlightened person remain there, luxuriating in the beauty of truth: “but you have to stay in the pain body in order to talk to others / who all and only live in their pain bodies the ones that permit others / to enslave them in / the millennia long agreement we honor / because we love so to honor agreements,” she says; while Plato concludes his Myth of the Cave with Socrates’s sad acknowledgement that the prisoners will not only mock their would-be liberator, but—“if they can get their hands on him”—kill him.
Plato never fully recovered from witnessing his social-gadfly mentor executed at the hands of the State. This traumatic event is what (he confesses in the Seventh Letter) turned him to philosophy. And here, I think, Notley might be sympathetic (never mind Plato’s banishment of the poets from his utopia, or Benediction’s declaration that “philosophy contains no tears and so is stupid”). “Poetry comes out of all the places where you break,” she stated in an interview with BOMB Magazine. And as she tells us near the book’s end, “[a]ll my wounds have created my knowledge of benediction.” Maybe the sole path to becoming an expert iconoclast—a master breaker—is having your own self masterfully broken?
The achy, at times excruciating weight of these poems derives especially from one heartbreak in particular: while she was writing the book, Notley’s husband (British poet and novelist Douglas Oliver, to whom it is dedicated) became sick; the progression of his illness is traced throughout Benediction’s second half; his death came right as the manuscript was completed. Not until fifteen years later, though, did Notley have it in her to publish the emotionally loaded book. For Notley, making it—all of it—new is truly a matter of life and death: “I’ve ripped off my face and lost blood in order to tell you this,” and (addressing her husband) “we both became / grotesque to achieve this you ill and I mentally deformed and estranged.” Only through extreme alienation and loss can one access the Crystal City: “but of course only the / dispossessed will have this knowledge, dispossessed of this world’s materials and / knowledge, dispossessed of this world’s body as diagrammed.” It’s no easy matter to up and “reject the yin and yang every / mental tyranny that has contributed to our unconsciousness over millennia despite Crystal.” You must be somehow defective to attain these heights of defection.
It is a position of profound detachment—but of just as profound fellowship, too. Once we’ve come to know the Crystal City, we see that “we are all everything together in a field of mind” and “leave gender and shallow / coupling but recognize that one is connected to anyone and all natural entities.”
The theoretical content here is perfectly reflected in an almost contortionist aesthetic; one of the countless fascinations of Benediction is getting to watch a hyper-limber mind at work (“does fate relate / to bacteria”— I can now confirm that it does). As a kid, I once saw a Chinese acrobat—a regular-looking girl about my own age—busking on the corner of two regular-looking streets, assembling graceful, confounding, laws-of-nature-defying configurations out of her regular-looking bodyparts. I’m gripped by a similar awe in contemplating the otherworldy complexes that Notley can create by joining ordinary objects in holy metaphor.
The ponderous and the petty walk hand in hand. Notley can go from oracular to dippy on a dime (a technique that also, importantly, undercuts any tendency towards the pedantry she despises): “[a]nyone can bless you and no one can curse you / there are no curses in the universe, / there is no such thing as a working curse. // Elsewhere some broth is being cooked.” Our piddling existences, too, are merged with the immortal: “no one will read this poem in several hundred years. it is cast into the air which is the one thing i have confidence in not breath air but the crystal air.” This eternal Crystal City comes to feel like something of a beacon through the pungent chaos—a recurring theme as images leap and narratives shift around the reader like dangerous sands—which is exactly its function for Notley as she navigates the pungent chaos of living a life: “I smell the hospital smelled it all night the human // odors of urine and sweat and bile but I also smelled crystal.” And it is the Crystal City that, finally, leads to the be-all and end-all of communions—that of the living with the dead: “[…] you / might not get what the crystal is, because it’s so familiar […] since it holds everything together including us. what else is there but this / transparence of connection, so how can it cease at death.”
All this may sound more than a little New Agey to you; Notley takes the resemblance, though, as yet another opportunity to escape the clutches of any group that’ll have her: “I’m stubbornly involved again in what you might call mystical conceptions,” she said in that same lecture, “but aren’t those a nono? except in icky New Age territory, yuck.” You need the grit of the curmudgeon to wrestle your way into the Crystal City. And I take this curmudgeonly spirit very seriously; it’s another of the many joys in reading Benediction—the profound “pleasure of hating.” Even “the sun is a one-eyed bitch who can’t see everything she’s too much in the middle of the burning light.” Notley rejects didactism of any kind—her own very much included: “we’re making our own definitions and may or / may not be faithful to them.” Where we are now, the Law of Non-Contradiction itself—the bossiest principle of them all—can’t hold us back.
In fact, contradiction seems to lie at the project’s very foundation (“Is this hole the origin of the sun which burns / it away?”): this is memoir of a “non / person nondream,” autobiography renouncing our very notion of personal identity, whose aim is “[b]oth to cast off the dross of self and keep it true.” And it’s poetry in revolt against language, made of words striving not to be words: “I am trying to describe the city as I hear it/ the poetry of not words but […] just a quickly/ continuous communication.” Our best stab at truth is to capture it “in some no-language,” in what Notley dubs “songu:” “We approximate it in songu the language of poetry cum/ dream the u in songu stands for the goo at the edges of a perceived thing.”
Receiving Notley’s benediction can be a heady experience. We are thumbing our nose at the world that was taught to us, rediscovering the art of playground bravado—on a cosmic scale, this time: “I know more than our universe.”
Notley, attuned to a perfect justice, has long advocated resistance as the natural response. With “manly arrogance” recently assuming forms so crude and threatening, her words take on an added immediacy. The metaphysical vision Notley shares in Benediction is the ultimate in civil disobedience, the ideal form of sticking it to the man; her gift to us is a perfect poke in the eye to Death, who is—we know only too well—the most insupportable prig of them all.