On Being Warlike


On Poetry


In the new Spring issue of The Paris Review, we published an Art of Poetry interview with Alice Notley, conducted by Hannah Zeavin. To mark the occasion, we commissioned a series of short essays that analyze Notley’s works. We hope readers will enjoy discovering, or rediscovering, these lectures, essays, and poems.


This is another useless plaque for you all including the schoolchildren my brother may have accidentally mortared.

—Alice Notley, “The Iliad and Postmodern War”


We’ve long set aside the notion of “greatness” in literary studies because it smacks of (male) cultural hoarding, an analogue to the practices that allowed and allow some men on earth—be they emperors or billionaires—to extract the resources that would have otherwise sufficed whole populaces—see: the conquest of the Americas, with its genocidal and ecocidal sequelae; see: the forced mining of rare earths by endangered child workers in Congo so that ever-newer models of iPhones might succeed each other like a procession of pale and feeble heirs.

(As for me, a poet and mother writing this essay in the Rust Belt with one window open on the latest end of the world—a February day nearly thirty degrees warmer than the historical average—I don’t want to crouch in some bolt-hole like a prepper Scrooge McDuck on a tin-can pile of greatness. I can’t afford it. Then I read some billionaire is sending the world’s first cargo of junk to the moon by private rocket. Proof of junk concept.)

And yet, there is definite and definitive greatness to Alice Notley—a capacity, a surge, a stamina and a munificence; to me, her poetry, her poetic voice, unfurls a spangled aegis over the field of battle that is human existence over the past five decades on this planet. Long may it wave. Such an image, I’m aware, contradicts the anti-masculinist, anti-patriarchal, anti-militarist thrust of Notley’s poetry and her statements about her work. The truth is, this refulgent contradiction—Notley’s staunch anti-militarism versus what for lack of a better word might be called her “warlikeness”—her indefatigability, the relentless resourcefulness of her dismantling of the masculinist structures that support war, exploitation, destruction, and harm—might be the signature of her greatness itself, the reaction fueling its flight.

We can see this central contradiction at work in Notley’s talk “The Iliad and Postmodern War,” newly published in Telling the Truth as It Comes Up: Selected Talks and Essays 1991–2018 but written in the fall of 2002, amid the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Notley reads the Iliad with the kind of exactitude of refusal that recalls to me a Greek goddess’s pinpoint rage at man and god’s casual violation of female precinct and prerogative—be it daughter, pet deer, city, or shrine. For Notley, the war-cult of her own moment and that of the Iliad are identical: “The Iliad is a sick book, the war against terrorism is our own sick poem.” She breaks with prose to pronounce a spell:

in the midst of all this
I say an internal ceremony
to kill my culture in me
as far back as I can
and including all of now as
it is currently understood.

This spell, for me, encapsulates Notley’s warlikeness. She wants to kill the war-addicted culture, a culture which is its “own sick poem.” Hers is a goddess-like impulse. But to me it is only warlike, because it is not, in the end, annihilative. Instead, its refusals and repulsions enact and require ceremonies that will themselves be the nascent impulses of new structures, new femme pluralities and possibilities.

To me, this lightbearing move, in which total refusal becomes paradoxically foundational, is Notley’s signature gesture, what she herself characterizes as Disobedience. Disobedience is an action of mind, ethics, and art borne out in her big book Disobedience, which follows a femme speaker and her would-be Virgil, a louche TV detective she calls Robert Mitcham, on a downbeat yet exhilarating journey through the City of Lights—an inversion of the subways of The Descent of Alette and a preliminary sortie, perhaps, into the fecund pluralities of the nocturnal Alma, or The Dead Women.

But for all the committed, exacting, marvelous forms this signature Disobedience has allowed Notley to discover—now infernal, now urban, now Byzantine, now earthy, now desert, now cosmic—a critical quality is its inception into and proximity to war. In this sense the –like in warlikeness might indicate poetry’s tendency to similize; that is, to draw comparisons that double the conjectural space of poetry. Of course, this notion that writing could be double like this prompts Plato to view it with suspicion, as a pharmakon—both poison and cure—and, elsewhere, to ban poets from the Republic, on account that their “false” poems might reveal the weeping of shades of warriors in the afterlife, and thus reveal the painful truth about death, heroes, and war.

In doubling the imaginative space of poetry away from the pragmatic proscriptions of the militarized Republic and revealing true grief of war, Notley is disobedient to every one of Plato’s proscriptions. The choice is deliberate, and deliberately conveyed, in her brief talk on the writing of The Descent of Alette, “The ‘Feminine’ Epic,” delivered at SUNY Albany in 1995. There she describes the inception of Alette in the “state of extreme crisis” her brother underwent upon his return from the Vietnam War. Suffering from PTSD, he became addicted to drugs, entered rehab, and underwent therapy “to give some of the guilt back to the national community, where it belonged, but still died, accidentally OD’d a week after leaving that rehab.”

The pain and loss of her brother is the instantiating event in Notley’s career, in all its rage, generosity, and dazzling range. Discourse with, and/or proximity to, this ghost allows her to assume the alter ego Désamère and ventriloquize the delicate and formidable book of that name, and then to embark upon the explicitly katabatic Descent of Alette, the pointedly “feminine” epic. Notley puts on another alter ego—this time that of Alette—and goes into cosmic battle. In her talk, Notley discusses what she characterizes as the “feminine epic”:

Suddenly I, and more than myself, my sister-in-law and my mother, were being used, mangled, by the forces that produce epic, and we had no say in the matter, never had, and worse had no story ourselves. We hadn’t acted, we hadn’t gone to war. We certainly hadn’t been “at court” (in the regal sense), we weren’t involved in governmental power structures, didn’t have voices which participated in public political discussion. We got to suffer, but without a trajectory.

In this passage we can see the immediate pluralizing that will be key to Notley’s poetics, moving forward: “I, and more than myself.” The death of her brother, Albert, and the resulting pain and guilt, is the font of the anti-militarism, anti-patriarchy, and anti-masculinism that fuels five decades of her work, but from this warlike conceptus also grows an instinct toward plurality in its ethical, political, aesthetic, and choral potential—a “feminine” trajectory toward a starry firmament of voices, forms, and possibilities. As “The ‘Feminine’ Epic” concludes, “I’m writing currently as a unified, authorial ‘I’ who Must Speak. There may not be a story next time I write Epic, there may be something more circuitous than recognized Time and Story, more winding, double-back. There will certainly be a Voice.” This is an apt description of the larger and larger reach, the flexing, cosmic intimacy of Voice that has characterized Notley’s work since.

In “The Iliad and Postmodern War,” written some eight years after Alette, Notley provides an unexpected and striking figure for her work’s antiwar warlikeness: the Greek maiden Iphigenia, who in Euripides’s Iphigenia in Aulis is sacrificed by her father, Agamemnon, to appease the gods, raise a wind, and sail to Troy after Helen. Of Iphigenia, Notley remarks,

I don’t want to be that woman. Any part of whose existence is sacrificed to war. Whose brother is made into a killer by historical tradition. Whose country slaughters foreigners. Who must always appease a stupid deity, follow the dictates of a benighted even stupid male leader. And survive. And take it, take it, take it.

Yet Notley notes that Euripides also wrote a second play, Iphigenia among the Taurians, in which Iphigenia does not die. Instead, she is switched at the critical moment with a deer, which is sacrificed to Artemis in her place. She is spirited off to a remote island, Tauris, where a shrine to Artemis has been built after the goddess’s image, her likeness, has fallen from the sky. In this double play, then, doubles literally rain from the sky: a double (still wrathlike) Artemis, a double Iphigenia, a somehow always nocturnal double location, like a dream location—as Hypnos, the god of dreaming, is, in Greek myth, the twin to Thanatos, the god of death. Into dream’s double-region we may sail in our boats or fall with our images into night, into always more night. In Euripides’s second version, Iphigenia’s Furies-hunted brother, Orestes, oars ashore with a pal, and the two men are initially mistaken for Dioscuri, the double gods Castor and Pollux. He has PTSD-like panic attack on the beach, thinking the Furies are after him again. Eventually Iphigenia and her brother are able to recognize each other, are reunited and escape—into the night, into a deeper part of the dream, that death-alternative, that twin of Thanatos: Hypnos, dream, art.

Before all this happens, however, Iphigenia is granted a dream vision which she misinterprets—a long colonnade in which one column sprouts a rush of blond hair. While Notley doesn’t mention this passage in her talk, Iphigenia’s improbable and suggestive vision of an architectural structure blossoming with golden hair brings to mind the radiant, architectonic, urban, and prismatic forms that have structured Notley’s poetic texts for the past several decades, especially Reason and Other Women. It even anticipates that unexpected icon of Disobedience with which Notley closes her definitive 1999 essay, “The Poetics of Disobedience”—that of the ideal reader:

It’s possible that the reader, or maybe the ideal reader, is a very disobedient person, a head/church/city entity her/himself full of soaring icons and the words of all the living and all the dead, who sees and listens to it all and never lets on that there’s all this beautiful almost-undifferentiation inside, everything equal and almost undemarcated in the light of fundamental justice. And poker-faced puts up with the outer forms. As I do a lot of the time but not so much when I’m writing.

The ultimate figure of Disobedience, of alternative, gold-blossoming colonnades, unfurling a dream-space away from the masculinist militarism of the waking world, is the reader. Notley assigns to the reader her Disobedience while also distributing her infinitude, her stamina, her resourcefulness, her munificence, to the mind of the reader herself. Under the aegis of Disobedience, we oar away from war, by night, through dream, then into light.


Joyelle McSweeney’s tenth book, Death Styles, is now available from Nightboat Books.