cover image Mysteries of Small Houses

Mysteries of Small Houses

Alice Notley. Penguin Books, $18 (160pp) ISBN 978-0-14-058896-5

In her latest collection, Notley takes a step back from the body of work she has amassed over the last three decades (The Descent of Alette; Selected Poems; etc.) to compose a kind of quasi-autobiography in verse. Casual, forthright and perceptive, it is a culminating effort. Notley, as is her style, rarely shies away from unabashed, almost Whitmanesque generalizations, and here her bravery pays off. Again and again, she asks herself what poetry in America is and was, turning moments later to provide her own answers: ""...`So little/ tenderness in American poetry' as/ Robert Duncan once told me--who was he?/ Who was anyone? unstarred brightest equality."" Contemporary poetry's recent past shadows Notley more closely and intimately than most: her late husband, the poet Ted Berrigan, commands a small but devoted following, and many of these poems try to make sense of his work and his early death (""Grief's not a social invention./ Grief is visible, substantial, I've literally seen it"") while retaining a sense of her own trajectory (""The Subject/ of this poem is not how a woman's imagination/ may be dominated by a man's""). We follow her in a loose chronology from a West Coast childhood to New York City, first as a pre-feminism college student, then as a 1970s East Village poet in a scene full of humid friendships, wordsmithery and pill-taking, and through to Paris, where she lives today. Occasionally, Notley slips into the automatic writing-like phrases and personal myth-making that was the Achilles' Heel of the late New York School. But even these moments, with their rock 'n' roll bio shading, make for compelling reading. (June)