For the Ride, Alice Notley’s recent book-length poem, appears to be a quest narrative, but appearances can be devilishly deceptive. This book, her 45th, is an odd odyssey, lacking any clear telos and moving in multiple directions. Notley frustrates any linear progress, any sense of arrival or completion, or serene feeling of accomplishment by dismantling the epic as she constructs it. The work gestures not so much to postmodern instability as to a supreme skepticism toward language and the sociopolitical landscape that shapes it and to which it responds. A chronicle of confusion and occasionally despair (yet never resignation), this volume brims with inventive intelligence, always in motion but never venturing to a set destination.
The protagonist is One, but like so many features introduced in the poem, this designation is complicated. Notley writes in the preface, “…then I, or someone, became One, on a journey to another dimension to save Words from their demise, if there were an Apocalypse…” The nature of this crisis is mired in ambiguity—is it linguistic? Aesthetic? Ethical? Environmental? Political? Cultural? The gaps in information create hives of thriving conundrums that Notley obliges the reader to navigate but not alone: “My entourage near, shadowed and tensed.”
The dimension in which One wanders is called The Glyph, a matrix that extends across empirical reality, forests of symbols and words, and existential echo chambers through which One formulates decisions about how to move — to the next line, the next question, the next horizon. The vehicle for One’s journey of discovery is an ark, which is both described with language and literally drawn with words; many sections feature figural constructions of people and animals composed of words and poems anatomically arrayed.
But this errant Word-and-Worlds Wanderer is a frantic mental traveler, mapping possible routes in this polymorphous sphere, as opposed to following any specific one. For the Ride sets up premises and then either breaks them down or questions them into obsolescence, never developing through-lines to conclusive, coherent ends. Every reckoning, every received or achieved wisdom, or provisional statement, withers into doubt or loses focus:
One’s language begins to lose clarity, or to gain, or One
abandons the concept. One expands and goes oh so suddenly—
Radio Free Ark pushes out to sea. Is it an ocean wide?
Or an image of that? What it’s, One’s fearful, near wordless.
Along this narrative journey ethical and aesthetic tensions accrue concerning the task of poetry, the expressive accuracy of poetic language, the fragility of social and linguistic constructs. Notley’s relentless interrogations of these forms is often expressed in fragmented, self-cancelling, or idiosyncratic notions, sentiments, and premises that result in a sense of bewilderment:
Ego walks vortex? I is destroyed—And who knows that? Qui does.
Can’t live without world. Carry her body away, blanketed,
remember poppies, cornflowers, lark, and the troubadour’s song
imitating flight? Oh be clear. Clarity’s complex, not fact
singular; chaos doesn’t destroy it, is it; angry now—
The ceaseless questioning and lack of closure reflects work by her contemporary Fanny Howe, who authored an essay about her own poetics and ethics titled “Bewilderment,” as well as the formally different Scottish poet W.S. Graham (for example, his “What Is the Language Using Us for?” from his 1977 volume Implements in Their Places).
There is not a stroke of cleverness, ironic knowingness, or pretentious philosophizing in For the Ride. It is series of serious encounters with uncertainty. It does not so much militate against the conventions of epic journey as morph so haphazardly that monumental forward movement is implausible. Despite discrete interludes in which One engages in battles and with animals and people, no storylines cement into prodigious actions; rather, they mostly collapse.
What the book charts the difficult, yet crucial process of finding a vehicle for expression, and the means to assess the value of words and their historical contexts. An oblique, but honest example of a particularly pressurized form of inquiry, it is also a call to consider the possibilities of word and world inquiry.
Towards the end, Notley/One/Some Other notes:
Ah, another observation: The universe is created
by giving. The ur language is the gift of who one is, that is
one gives away one’s self language. That is, one creates it, one
giving it away, taking none. Give words, saving them, away…
gave it all away, giving gone, the universe that I made,
doesn’t make sense the universe, literal utterance…
For the Ride wants us to reach for origins, ur-texts, ur-thoughts, ourselves. Alice Notley calls for an epic consideration of the ethics of language in the world (the timeliness of this is inadvertent, however; the book was published last month and “Paris, 2010” is noted at the end). While we desperately seek words to live by, the companionate uncertainty of this tour de force volume is vital company indeed.
For the Ride by Alice Notley is published by Penguin Books and is available online and from indie booksellers.