Poetry News

When the Poem Threatens to Become a Novel...

By Harriet Staff


"Satirical and feral, written at the time of Hurricane Katrina," goes the book description of Alice Notley's Negativity's Kiss (Presses Universitaires de Rouen et du Havre, 2014). Nick Sturm writes about the "book-length noir poem" for Fanzine today. "As John Ashbery once said about Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation, Negativity’s Kiss is a 'poem that is always threatening to become a novel,'” writes Sturm, "and in this case, a genre novel. Adopting all the pulpy energy of the whodunit crime novel while abandoning the sluggish prose that packages it, the poem disregards dialogue for a fluidity of voices, trades plot for a complexity of textures and motives, and, like all of Notley’s work, generates a music that breaks the song." More:

That Negativity’s Kiss embraces pulp genres shouldn’t come as a surprise, and it certainly doesn’t make this book an outlier from Notley’s other recent work. Books like Benediction and Disobedience rail against any orthodoxy of form or genre, including the vocabularies tied to those distinctions, and readers of Notley’s earlier works will recognize the vitality and humor she sources from mass entertainment, from Academy Awards ceremonies to professional boxing to Sesame Street. Bob Dylan, whose songs have been essential for Notley as well as for her first husband Ted Berrigan, also influences this book, as the opening lyrics of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”: “When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez / And it’s Eastertime too / And your gravity fails / And negativity don’t pull you through,” serve as the origin for the book’s title.

The renewal of sources like folk lyrics, comics, and genre fiction have been valuable to many of Notley’s New York School-era peers, evidenced by Berrigan’s little-known western novel Clear the Range (1977), made by crossing out and rearranging the text of a pulp cowboy novel, Lorenzo Thomas’s Dracula (1973), a poem that confronts the racist imaginary of the oft-repeated Eurocentric horror story from the perspective of the mid-1960s, and Ed Dorn’s epic Gunslinger. Jack Spicer’s posthumously published detective novel, The Tower of Babel (1994), a terrific send-up of the mid-1950s poetry community in San Francisco, links directly to Negativity’s Kiss, especially in both books’ satirical, uncompromising perspectives on the deadness of certain aesthetics, or aesthetics in general. There’s also a poets theater quality to the arrangement of voices in Negativity’s Kiss, like a hardboiled Kenward Elmslie. None of these examples are precedents for Notley’s noir poem. Rather, they show a lineage of participation with uncommon sources. It seems one of the book’s goals, if only tacitly, is to insist that if such sources don’t constitute literature, then no one needs it. Literature is all Garble anyway, at least in Negativity’s Kiss.

Read on at Fanzine. And for more on "the garble," check out our post on Notley's 2014 KCRW interview.

Originally Published: February 22nd, 2016