BY Andrew Durbin in Opinion | 06 JAN 23

Editor’s Picks: The Poetry of Alice Notley

Two new collections published by Fonograf Editions reintroduce readers to the preternatural heart of the poet

BY Andrew Durbin in Opinion | 06 JAN 23

Frieze Editor’s Picks is a fortnightly column in which a frieze editor shares their recommendations for what to watch, read and listen to.

You always remember the first time you read – or hear – a poem by Alice Notley. I was in my early 20s, sitting in a cold room in a house in Oakland late in the evening. A friend played a recording of ‘At Night the States’ (1985), from a reading Notley had given in Buffalo in 1987. Her voice spilled into the bedroom like a pearl-grey fog rolling over the Bay: ‘At night the states / I forget them or I wish I was there / in that one under the / Stars.’ I bolted upright. Notley was a name I had always heard in connection to her husband, the poet Ted Berrigan, a grandee of the New York School who still loomed large over poetry students like us, though he had been dead since the early 1980s. ‘At Night the States’ is her final elegy for him, written two years after he died; I almost always fail to describe its power when recommending it to friends. Just listen, I say. The recording lasts for 8 minutes and 55 seconds. ‘Play that again,’ I asked that night in Oakland. And again, and again.

Alice Notley, The Speak Angel Series and Early Works, book covers, 2023
Alice Notley, The Speak Angel Series and Early Works (both 2023)book covers. Courtesy: Fonograf Editions

Next month, Fonograf Editions will publish two new collections by NotleyThe Speak Angel Series and Early Works. The first of these brings together six interrelated volumes of an epic poem that follows her 1992 book The Descent of Alette. Tantalizing excerpts have appeared for some years now. Expect this lyric narrative to resemble her other experiments in long-form poetry, constructed out of some voices that are decidedly alive and others raised out of the numinous ‘beyond’. ‘Dead people talk to me,’ she told the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2016. ‘I don’t know what they are doing precisely. A lot of my recent work is trying to find out what they are doing.’ Early Works will see into print, for the first time in decades, Notley’s first four books, as well as 80 pages of previously uncollected material from the 1970s and ’80s – all essential reading.

Alice Notley, portrait
Portrait of Alice Notley, 1985. Courtesy: Getty 

If you are new to Notley’s poetry, I would suggest beginning with Grave of Light (2006), her selected works from 1970–2005. Two years ago, in those strange days of the pandemic when too many good books were released to too little attention, Steven Zultanski published a pamphlet on Notley’s poetry (Thirty-Odd Functions of Voice in the Poetry of Alice Notley, 2020) that serves as an excellent primer on how to read her. He listens closely to those voices – of the living and the dead – that inhabit her poems. ‘Notley cultivates inconsistency,’ he writes, ‘often, almost as soon as a poem takes a position, another voice within it (or the same voice from a different perspective) proposes the opposite, or changes the subject.’ In his tightly wrought essay on Notley, Zultanski is instructive and generous, the friendly guide we sometimes need to such a complex practice.

The Speak Angel Series and Early Works will be released by Fonograf Editions on 21 February 2023

Main image: Alice Notley, untitled iPad drawing, Runes and Chords (2022)

Thumbnail image: Alice Notley reads from Book Two of
The Descent of Alette (1992). Video still courtesy: The Poetry Center

Andrew Durbin is the editor-in-chief of frieze. His book The Wonderful World That Almost Was is forthcoming from FSG in 2025.