To: The Membership and Interested Parties
From: Chinee, Grand Poobah, NBBPS
Subject: Alice Notley’s Negativity’s Kiss, a noir epic
Noir implies an edge of desperation found in Thompson’s Killer or Cain’s Postman. As a subgenre of crime fiction, noir is often from the point of view of a sociopathic loser and generally tells a bleak nihilistic tale of alienation, greed, lust, jealousy — all the things that are at the root of regret and ultimately precipitate the downward slide into a self-destructive personal hell. Classic noir films tend to be atmospheric, contrasts in black and white, characters trapped in the shadows, doomed from the start (Edmund O’Brien in DOA). Noir is sometimes confused with another subgenre, detective fiction, since, according to Penzler, they both spring from the existential Continental Op stories of Dashiell Hammett (lest we forget someone else from Baltimore: Poe). Alice Notley’s gutsy noir epic is entitled Negativity’s Kiss, published by Presses Universitaires de Rouen as a quintessentially unassuming French paperback. The title itself has coincidental resonance with Spillane’s Kiss Me, Deadly though that is the extent of its resemblance. Notley’s noir poem mixes the subgenres with a unique blend of experimental cinema and psychic undercurrent. And her suite of poems is an epic in the sense that there is a heroic character interacting with other heroic/tragic and anti-heroic/dreadful types, and addresses larger allegorical implications. It is also episodic, a non-narrative style better realized as verse. As Notley explains in the back cover blurb: “. . .the poet doesn’t know how to be straight enough to just do it – tone and genre – so this is pretty crooked. Satirical and feral. . . .”
Negativity’s Kiss finds its location in the idea(l) of Paris or New York City, two places lived by the author. There is a forest (Bois de Boulogne or Central Park) where the crime takes place, The Street (as a proper noun), and the Garble (also a proper noun) to provide the atmosphere. The Garble represents the imperial media colonizing minds with its incessant spin, distortion, and information overload. It could also stand for the sorry state of literature (poetry in particular) in the US as seen from exile by a premier American poet. Needless to say, it is ever present, like smog. The Street is the street, real, dangerous (look both ways before crossing), quotidian, and where the poet feels most at home. There is also Xaos, an inventive spelling, from which everything emanates and eventually returns, a bit player but also the force of nature.
The voice of this epic is Ines, short for Inessential, a poet (you get the drift) who has a bullet hole in the middle of her forehead (like Tim Robbins in Charlie Kaufman’s Human Nature). And she narrates, whether through the hole or with her mouth, the story of her murder. Other entities populate the epic: a cop named Cop (short for Copernicus), Orphée, a washed-up folk singer potential assassin, Charlatan Gregory (Charl for short), a Rupert Murdock type media mogul, foe of Ines’ truth speak poetry who desires martyrdom for the sake of celebrity, The Agent (or ‘a gent’) who spies on Ines ostensibly for the government but also evinces a romantic attachment for the poet, Verball (the symbolism not too far from the surface here) who has videoed his murder of Harry (Harriet?) in preparation to killing Ines, CS or Current Sweetheart, an ambitious up-and-coming poet who tries to kill Ines and finally goes after Charl, and Hooded, “a failed poet. . .But he was born/ too early to market self as successful/ new poet/thinker university mode.” Each of them is an attribute, a transparent shape shifting specter projected onto a minimalist scrim of shadows and shards (think German Expressionism or Nouvelle Vague cinema). It is the poet who gives them their semblance and animation as creations interacting with Ines, a stand-in for the poet who, like a bunraku puppeteer, is visible yet unobtrusive. “I am still I the poet as I sit here/ And I know that what comes is what/ poetry speaks from. . . .”
What follows is dark, vocal, with Cassandra-like rants, raves, and rêves, lyrical critiques, perfectly controlled without sacrificing their visceral effect, cinematic in its flow and temporal course while maintaining the unpredictability of a non-narrative. Poems beginning “An open letter from every religion” and “The form of trees press forward from the formlessness” are particularly effective invectives. Scene settings are schematicized or place saving jots to be revisited or simply referencing the universal visual library of the mind that is the legacy of photography and cinema just as the succinct short hand short cuts of syntactic discontinuity is the legacy of Samuel Morse’s invention. “Should I imbed the elevator scene in anxious pseudo-realism” the poet’s rhetorical question letting slip a slyness that perfunctorily dispenses with the scene setting. As Notley would have it, Negativity’s Kiss is “violence, cops, everything one likes about the crime novel minus its robotic, skippable detail. Plus language that rocks.” Needless to say, language is Notley’s strong suite. She has an intuitive ear for the wry sardonic wit of the noir. “Vanity powders the wealthy with a fine cemetery dust.” “I’ve got a black belt of alternate reality breathing down my neck.” Throughout there is the double edged, double entendre, ambiguity and ironic dark humor of the doomed, demonized and desensitized: “I can’t get her hair out of my head.” “I’ve been shot by a blurb.”
The channeling of multiple voices at times seems primitive and transparent as a magic lantern show but also engages with a layered complexity. There is, as well, no doubting the authenticity or integrity. Or the power of Ines Geronimo who can ‘evert’ someone, meaning that with a word she can turn that person inside out, like a sock on laundry day, which is apparently a little more than just an eviscerating wit. “What is eversion everyone/ A rendering insideout of the truth of/ your longing/ to be, coincidentally, the most perfect/ and important/ imperishable flower god’s eye. . . .” This is the premise for her assassination, fear of her verbal authority similar to shamans of old. That a poet is represented as having this kind of clout in the post-modern era is brave, perhaps a little anachronistic. It is certainly exceptional and in keeping with that fine line of word magic delirium that asks, much as the Surrealists did, where does somnambulism end and waking begin. As Notley states “even a poet can be in the media spotlight, if someone tries to kill her. . . .”
Negativity’s Kiss runs 180 pages plus and contains about half as many poems or episodes or cantos, all of approximately the same length or breath or temporal pulse. They employ a discontinuity similar to film editing, splicing disparate images and jump cuts that require leaps not the running in place of the post-modern squirrel cage. It was William Carlos Williams back in the 1930’s who saw the fast cut radical segues and juxtaposition of images in movie trailers as a viable method for composing poetry. Here Notley weaves non sequitur snapshots of the psyche with a straight ahead electric charge of the nervous system and ethereal product of chemical (chimerical) exchange, and blends overlapping takes and dialogue in an ultimately eerie unity. Notley’s vision in this work is personal yet universal, and displays a general dissatisfaction, the kiss of negativity that is the epic’s title, not without justification, even anger or impatience, at a collective banality and blind ambition. Negativity’s Kiss casts a harsh unforgiving light on a noir underworld of poetry, poets, and their drama.
Anyone who has followed Notley’s poetry, beginning with early work issuing from the mimeo machine at The Poetry Project, such as Incidentals in the Day World, to the prestigious Penguin Poets series (The Descent of Alette, Mysteries of Small Houses), and further on to Reason and Other Women from Chax Press can trace an arc that goes from very good to scary good. As she reminds in an afterword statement, “I am associated by friendships and sometimes by style with the second generation New York School poets. At this point I consider myself to be an internationalist and certainly of my own poetry school.” As a poet she is tough, determined, serious, nervy, daunting, unique and at the same time vulnerable. No stranger to experimentation, certainly something she picked up from her past associations, she can be difficult, and she is always pushing the envelope. Some reviewers and critics try to frame (or dance around) her work with the current faddish academic jargon to make it palatable to a clueless inbred literati, but Notley is unpalatable, like peyote, bitter yet mind expanding. She doesn’t hide her working class élan or disdain, pulling the chain on polite propriety by liberally sprinkling her work with such Americanisms as “motherfucker,” “fuck,” “sonofabitch,” and “asshole,” words that make the Anglo bourgeois cringe. She pulls no punches and wipes her feet on politesse with a poetry that is raw and visceral. Her spines deployed in outrage, she can be prickly, a Gallic affectation by way of Needles, California. Now privy to the European view, she has sloughed off the constraints of the imperial tongue. By assimilating French she, in turn, is assimilated by the French. Another language stream is joined in consciousness. Code switching she demonstrates a growing comfort by appropriating French phrases and words, a bilingual pleasure that offers a broader range of expression, ambiguity, and meaning. An edition of Negativity’s Kiss in French is also available as Le Baiser de la négativitié. Notley’s self-consideration as an internationalist then is certainly well founded.
Poetry is some form or other of autobiography where the I is another, and to plumb the depths of that self requires an acute sensitivity to the word, written or spoken, the potential for semantic aberrations as well as a kind of resilient self-gleaning psyche. Many poets grope in the dark when it comes to how consciousness works. Notley’s peeling or slicing of nanometric instances of consciousness in a coherent glossolalia informs a poetic in which words flow freely and bare their psychic triggers. No one can accomplish what Alice Notley has without solid commitment, a particularly hard unyielding intellect, an underlying unflinching certainty, and an unwavering faith in the end result. She treads the spiral staircase of self with supernatural excellence.
Negativity’s Kiss is available through Small Press Distribution